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Science fiction

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Title: Nebula Award Stories 10
Author: Various
Year: 1975

More or less constantly, I have the feeling that I should read more science fiction short stories. Science fiction is a genre heavily based on unique and fantastic concepts, which means that it’s usually well-suited for shorter forms of fiction. When a good author comes up with a brilliant idea, he or she knows many pages it is good for and writes that many. Having an idea good for ten pages and writing a series of novels spanning thousands of pages is simply bad manners, but science fiction authors are, at least in my experience, quite good at not losing focus.

However, there is no guarantee that the ideas or the stories they write are any good. This volume collects seven short stories, novelettes and novellas, all awarded the Nebula Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America . Thinking that I have probably more in common with authors than readers, I guessed that I would like these short stories more than the Hugo Award winners I’ve read so far (1, 2); I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There are some stories in this collection that I would recommend, such as The Day Before the Revolution by Ursula K. Le Guin, and If the Stars are Gods by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford, but the majority of them are simply not very memorable at all. Some, such as Twilla by Tom Reamy actually manages to pass the obscure cloud of mediocrity and emerge into the abyss of the truly dreadful. One story in the collection, The Rest is Silence by C.L. Grant, made me feel seriously uneducated, leaning heavily on Shakespeare references that mean little to me. The short story felt like it had potential, but I haven’t read enough to appreciate it.

On average, this book is not worthwhile, so I’ll give it two snails. There are some nice pieces of writing in here (all of them mentioned above). If you for some extraordinary reason manage to get hold of this volume (it’s pretty hard to find), by all means, read those stories, but don’t bother with the rest.

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Title: Kallocain
Author: Karin Boye
Year: 1940

Having no ambition to read books in chronological order, most people invariably run across the problem of reading old books and placing them in a modern perspective, instead of the time in which they were originally published. Thus, reading Karin Boye’s Kallocain in 2009, I naturally think “Oh, yet another dystopian novel about a future oppressive state and an individual’s rebellion against the regime”, although it’s of course true that few of the classics in this field had been published at the time (with the notable exception of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which was published in 1932).

This is alright, I read and review books today, not when they were published. This might be unfair to some authors, but mostly to the poor ones. True greatness does not die. and it isn’t overshadowed by later works in the same genre. So, what is Kallocain, then? Is it great or is it overshadowed by other, more notable works by other authors such as Ray Bradbury, George Orwell or Ursula K. Le Guin?

To be honest, I can’t really make up my mind. This story about Leo Kall and how he invents a perfect truth serum called kallocain is different from the others, but it’s still quite familiar. The dystopia has nothing particular to offer that I haven’t read before, so I’m not going to spend much time focusing on that. The heavy focus on Leo’s life and work makes it a bit special, because actual resistance against the regime isn’t really a part of the plot.

The vision isn’t unique and it alone doesn’t make the book worthwhile, but what about the language, then? In general, I find Boye’s Swedish enjoyable, with some really neat words that can only be found in really old science fiction. This doesn’t destroy the vision she creates, but rather enhances it. Perhaps it makes the target seem a little bit farther away, but then again, that’s true; the totalitarian states we see today are quite different from the ones of the 1940s. I don’t mean to say that this book is irrelevant in anyway, but it is decidedly less important today than, say, 1984 or Brave New World.

By way of concluding this review, I’d like to say that I can understand those who praise Boye’s fiction. She is a skilled author and this is a solid piece of writing. Still, it’s no coincidence there are other novels with similar themes that dominate the history of science fiction (disregarding language here; writing in English would have helped). All accounted for, Kallocain is well worth reading, even almost seventy years after it was first published. Not bad.

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Title: The Einstein Intersection
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Year: 1967

It’s pretty difficult to be interested in science fiction without having heard about Samuel R. Delany, but apart from a few short stories, this is the first time I read his fiction. The Einstein Intersection was mentioned in Eric S. Rabkin’s lecture series about science fiction and was on my wish list for a long while until somebody gave it to me (my grandparents, I think). My impressions of the book are somewhat scattered, but I’ll do my best to make some sense out of them.

The Einstein Intersection is a story on at least two levels. On the surface, it’s a story about Lobey, one of the creatures who have come to inhabit Earth after mankind has gone, living in the ruins both in a literal and a figurative sense. Lobey’s sweet heart Friza, a mute and very special girl, is killed by the mysterious Kid Death, and he sets out retrieve and revenge her. On a deeper level, it’s a story about myths (especially the myth of Oedipus), but I’m not very well versed in this area and thus have some problems understanding all the references.

The foreword, written by Neil Gaiman, praises Delany to the hills, which of course also increased my own expectations. Gaiman says he has read the book three times: as a young boy, as a teenager and as an adult. I’m afraid I’m still in the teenager stage, because even though I can understand most of the obvious references, I fail to see much of the greatness Gaiman talks about in his foreword. in my opinion, this is a decent piece of fiction set in a moderately interesting setting, no more, no less. However, I do have the nagging feeling that this is due to ignorance and note because of a fault of the author’s. Perhaps I shall have to read the Einstein Intersection again later in my life, but for now, three snails will have to do.

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Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006

I usually say that competent authors writing outside their main genre are the ones most likely to write truly fascinating books. I’ve seen this happen a number of times with science fiction, i.e. mainstream or at least non-SF writers making a short foray into the future and hitting solid gold. As far as I know, The Road is the only science fiction novel Cormac McCarthy has written, although I only know him from one previous book, No Country for Old Men. Even though the post-apocalyptic setting of this novel is depressing, degenerate and dark, the workmanship is splendid and shining.

The Road tell the story of a little boy and his father (none of them named in the book), and how they struggle on their journey south, to the coast, away from the onset of winter. Most of humanity is gone, along with the majority of other life forms which formerly thrived in the world. Food is scarce and dangers abundant, not seldom from other humans, who desperately try to sustain themselves in this hell-bent future America.

McCarthy doesn’t spend much time on the greater picture, choosing instead to focus on the boy and his father, which means that the world is mostly glimpsed from what they experience as they walk along the road. This interaction is portrayed through concise dialogues (reminiscent of No Country for Old Men) and a narrative that never feels exaggerated or wasteful. They man is in a very difficult situation, how shall he encourage his son to fight on, even though he himself doubts that there really is any future for any of them? How shall he protect him from the horrors that follow in the wake of the catastrophe?  And, on top of all this, how shall he be able to go on himself, having the knowledge to despair that his son lacks?

The Road is touching in many ways, perhaps because it’s so down-to-earth and realistic, and at the same time, so horrifying. I really enjoy the author’s way of writing, especially since it’s concise and to the point, without feeling even remotely blunt. I wish more experienced writers could move into the realm of science fiction, using their expertise in language and portrayal of characters that some science fiction writers, although otherwise talented, lack, and thus create something as brilliant as Cormac McCarthy has done here. I can see no reason not to give five snails to this novel and recommend it to everybody, especially those who don’t think science fiction is for them.

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Title: Deus Irae
Author: Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny
Year: 1976

There are books you know you have to read, sometimes even without knowing very much about the book itself. When I heard that Philip K. Dick at one point had come up with an idea that he didn’t feel he knew enough about Christianity and religion to write himself, but was later contacted and offered help by Roger Zelazny, a science fiction writer I like quite a lot, I knew that Deus Irae had to be something special. Then again, there are books which superficially seem to be the best ever published, but when examined more closely turn out to be rather humdrum.

Unfortunately, Deus Irae (Latin for God of Wrath) is exactly the kind of book described above. I had hoped for a combination of Dick’s usual play with unreality and a deeply religious theme, something which in fact would be fairly close to what I’m trying to write myself (or what I would have liked to write if I had Zelazny in my address book). Instead, the book has a fairly straightforward story covering an post-apocalyptic world in which a gnosticism-like religion worshipping the man who destroyed the world flourishes. In this world, Tibor McMasters, a crippled being with legs or arms, but with cybernetic substitutes, is commissioned to paint a mural for the church dedicated to the Deus Irae, but since nobody really knows what he looks like, Tibor sets out on a pilgrimage to find him.

Most parts of this book are mediocre and not very interesting, to be frank. There are some sections which elevate themselve above the norm, such as an interlaced story relating to the God of Wrath himself, as well as the parts containing the old, and often crazy, machines and computers of the past. Sadly, these are exceptions and do not manage to make the whole project float. Strangely enough, I think the language in this novel is decidedly worse than most other Dick novels (I usually like his lanugage!), not to mention Zelazny’s. i don’t know if it’s my taste that is changing or if this book simlpy wasn’t very successful at all. Regardless of which, Deus Irae was a big disappointment and I can only give it two and a half snails.

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Title: Excession
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 1996

Since Excession is the tenth novel I read by Iain M. Banks, it should be quite clear that I like him a lot. However, he has proved unreliable in the past, sometimes producing masterworks and at other times just barely passing the average mark. This erratic behaviour doesn’t seem to be correlated to publication date at all, so reading Excession after some of the books that comes after (such as Look to Windward) doesn’t give any hint of what I might think of Excession. Still, I have thought most Culture novels worthwhile in some way, and knowing that Excession wouldn’t be bad, I picked it up.

As is the case with a lot of Banks’ novels, the story is somewhat divergent, focusing on a number of interrelated threads (some more interlaced with each other than others). The primary event that makes everything else happen is a mysterious hypersphere appearing in the galaxy. It defies a number of assumed physical laws and is deemed to be very interesting, very dangerous and possibly a lot of other things no one can even think of. It’s called an Out of Context problem, something which the Culture has no previous experience of and potentially can bring it down. The excession itself is not a very big part of the story, although a number of high-level Culture ships are very concerned with it and we do get to follow their conversations, arguments and actions regarding the entity.

Instead, the main focus is on a number of humans who are, for various reasons, drawn into the vortex spiralling around the excession (although humans and other races can be said to cause more stir than the excession itself). These threads are connected, but in a fairly weak manner, which also makes the reading a bit tedious at times. The stories themselves are not extremely interesting and only become worthwhile when put into a larger context, which happens much too late and to too small an extent.

Still, as I said in the first paragraph, Banks simply doesn’t write bad books, and even though I think this one is pretty far from being his best, it’s still good. I have said so before, but Banks combines a sense of the fantastic and the humorous, two traits which are rare in themselves, but even harder to find represented in one author.

Banks normally writes fairly complex books, often using many story lines which run parallel to one another, but which most of the time makes sense, at least towards the end or in retrospect. The problem with some books (Excession included), is that the threads are not relevant enough. If we take Look to Windward as a contrast, it’s a book containing a number of wildly different stories, but which yet still manages to feel complete and held together. This is not the case with Excession, and that’s the primary reason I’ve decided to give it just three and a half snails.

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District 9

Title: District 9
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Year: 2009

My primary reason for reading the Economist is not to find recommendations of good science-fiction films, but the fact that that is what happened this time around is probably proof that the publication is a lot more varied than the title implies. What triggered my interest was the setting, combined with the promise that at least most important parts of the film would be more intellectual than the genre’s blockbusters of recent years.

So what is the setting, then? In short, a space ship came to Earth about twenty years ago and came to a halt over Johannesburg. It made no attempts to communicate with the people of Earth, and when it was boarded using force, a suffering and dying alien race was found. They were ferried out and put into camps, saving as many as possible. Now, twenty years later, the camp is still there. It’s called District 9 and, for a moment ignoring the fact that it’s occupied by aliens, bears every kind of resemblance to most refugee camps of secondary citizens throughout human history.

The story begins as Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is assigned to lead a relocation effort of the aliens (or prawns, as they are called). In short, they are to be moved out of the way, where they don’t disturb normal citizens. As the film starts, van der Merwe is as contemptuous as everybody else about the aliens, even though he speaks their language, but he soon finds a very good reason indeed to become their friend…

In short, this film is really good. I can complain a little bit on over-emphasis on action towards the end, but apart from that, this is a very good example of what I call good science fiction. It raises questions that could have reached a few people through various campaigns, but now reaches a huge audience because of the intellegent packaging. This film is worth seeing for many reasons, including good acting, an interesting plot, nice special effects and brilliant directing. You have no good reason not to see this film!

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Title: Use of Weapons
Author: Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Don Metcalf
Year: 1990

I’ve founnd that Iain M. Banks is quite good at characters, but that his stories set in the Culture are seldom based solely on biographies (although that isn’t true for some of his non-nciece fiction novels, such as The Wasp Factory), and thus, Use of Weapons is something of an exception. The story is wholly focused on a man born and raised outside the Culture, Cheradenine Zakalwe, and on his interventions in less advanced civilisations. However, these missions for Special Circumstances (the name of the Culture’s covert ops division) aren’t what matters,  but rather  Zakalwe himself. The structure of the book is far from straight forward, with chapters running in chronological order interlaced with those running backwards in time, in which the reader as well as the Special Circumstances agent himself gradually explaining and coming to terms with who he is.

Using such a complex structure easily turns itself against the author. Is it truly motivated or is just a ploy to embellish an otherwise dull story? I wouldn’t say that it’s entirely motivated, but I must admit that Banks manages to pull off this difficult feat fairly smoothly. He has a plan and it works. That being said, the first third of the book is quite confusing, before the reader is able to sort out what is what and which stories are related.

Use of Weapons relies heavily on the main character, who is adequately interesting to make it worthwhile. However, the diverse structure of the novel makes it difficult to connect with Zakalwe and thus makes the biographical journey less effective than it could have been. An additional problem is the landscape through which this journey takes us, because much of the setting is just that, a setting for something, without merit or interesting features of its own.

All things taken together, then, is this reliance on characters able to balance the lack of interesting settings? Yes, at least partly. I have decided to give three and a half snails to Banks for this novel. He has succeeded in writing a difficult novel, but only insofar as his idea works and he manages to keep my attention all the way through.  I would say that Use of Weapons is fairly average for Mr. Banks, which means it’s pretty good.

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Online Highlights 5

It’s time for another round of Online Highlights. Since all things on the internet are found through linking or references by others (such as this post), thanks to those who, passively and actively, helped me out this time.

Card Crusher – This Japanese gentleman is, at least for the moment, my idol. In these two short video clips, he demostrates how to make people angry. Even though the conversation is in Japanese, that shouldn’t be a problem (all the information necessary is contained in the introduction). The second clip is the card crushing, although the first one is quite nice, too.

Genie Game Server – This is a server set up to run games such as Race for the Galaxy by Rio Grande Games online. It was down for a while due to legal issues, but is now up and running again. This game is pretty good and it suits me perfectly to play online. The client is all server-based and works fine with no serious bugs and an adequate interface.

Rubik’s Cube Blindfolded – This is a guide to a 3OP (3 Cycle Orientation Permutation) method of solving Rubik’s Cube blindfolded (see my post from last week about Rubik’s Cube in general, which is my latest craze). I started yesterday and I can sort of solve the cube using this method if I can watch the cube. The next step is to do it only using pen and paper for notes and the last step is to be able to memorise instead of jotting down the seuences on a paper. Give me a week or two and I’ll write something about it.

Worlds Without End – I stumbled upon this nice-looking portal for science ficiton literature more or less by accident (my review of Connie Willis’ Bellwether was automatically referred to). I haven’t had time to explore this site, but it seems to be a very good way of keeping track of what’s going on in the genre.

Toyota Robot Running – It seems I’m far from up to date when it comes to recent developments in the humanoid robot industry. This robot designed by Toyta can run at 7 km/h (and it looks rather elegant, too!) and withstand pushes. Here is another robot climbing stairs (it isn’t graceful; I almost feel sorry for the poor bugger).

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Title: Consider Phlebas
Author: Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Thomas Harte
Year: 1987

Reading the works of an author in reverse chronological order sometimes has a certain merit. For instance, I think it’s safe to say that, as time goes by, the average writer learns from his or her mistakes and develops into a more skilled craftsman. Of course, the author might also change style or develop in ways not at all interesting to a given reader, but that at least is certainly not the case with Iain Banks. On the contrary, I feel lucky to have started with fairly late books such as Look to Windward, because if I would have started with Consider Phlebas, the likelihood is that I would never have learnt that Iain M. Banks at his best is a truly brilliant author.

Consider Phlebas tells the story of the of the mercenery Horza, currently employed by the Idirians, who is at war with the Culture (which of course is the focus of many of the author’s later novels). His mission is to find and destroy a Culture Mind (i.e. the artificial intelligence that once resided in a Culture ship). The problem is that it has hidden itself on Schar’s World, which is inaccesible to both the Culture and the Idirians. On his way, he joins up with the crew of a mercenery craft and manages to use them to achieve his own goals. Of course, the Culture also has an agent sent out to stop him.

Compared to other novels, this setup doesn’t sound like much. It isn’t. But before I go into why I don’t like Consider Phlebas, I’ll try to explain that even though this is fairly mediocre space opera, Banks still manages to add his own touch. Throughout the novel can be glimpsed what only comes in later books: intriguing plots, entertaining character portraits and, most important of all, a display of a vivid and out-of-the-box imagination.

However, these are merely glimpses of the brilliance of other Culture novels, and not enough to illuminate the rest. The biggest problem is that Banks isn’t very good at space opera (compare with Lois McMaster Bujold, for instance) and that makes the mission of turning the story of Consider Phlebas interesting almost impossible. This feels like a first try where the author hasn’t yet found his style, but on the other hand, The Player of Games was published the year after, even though I don’t know how publication dates relate to actual writing here (not to mention The Wasp Factory, which was published before Consider Phlebas, but shouldn’t be counted because it’s very distant from space opera).

To end on a slightly more positive note, the author absolutely finds his style later and even though I didn’t enjoy this book, I look forward to reading any other of his novels. He is also fairly active (Matter was published last year, and the reason I don’t think it’s brilliant might be because I compare it to greater works). To sum things up, Iain Banks is a great author, but in 1987 he hadn’t yet developed his talent enough to make Consider Phlebas worthwhile.

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