Haiku, for no sufficiently explained reason

26 08 2016

I don’t often poem, but sometimes the inclination takes me as, indeed it did recently. Here are three haiku (scifaiku, perhaps, if you’re feeling pedantic) which unfolded themselves from the sporadic poesy-space hidden somewhere in my brain:

.

Adams, on the sheer size of it all

Space is vastly huge.
Mindbogglingly, really big.
You just won’t believe

Isaac’s Three Rules for Robots

Protect the humans;
adhere to their instructions;
take care of yourself.

.

Instructions for a journey

Put me in coldsleep.
Then thaw me in the sunlight
of some foreign star.





Book review(s): two Swedish murder mysteries

22 08 2016

Another doubled-up book review. There’s not really a connection of any kind between these two books, other than that they’re by two authors who remain influential and who were, in their respective times, at the forefront of the Swedish crime fiction scene.

Per Wahlöö (d. 1975) wrote a series of standalone crime novels, but is probably best known as the co-author (with his partner Maj Sjöwall) of the Martin Beck series of mysteries. Murder on the Thirty-First Floor (Mord på 31:a våningen, 1964, translated by Sarah Death) is one of his standalones.

MotTFFloor_300

Inspector Jensen is directed to investigate an anonymous bomb threat made against the staff of a large publishing company by, it is presumed, a disgruntled former employee. Jensen is told by his superintendent that the investigation must be discreet, thorough, and quick, and the Inspector loses no time in getting to work on the case. But everyone he questions on the matter appears to have something to hide, especially the company’s senior employees.

This book is written in a severe, spare style which threatens to date it. Another aspect that sets it apart from the other Swedish crime novels I’ve read recently is its setting: the story unfolds within a large city that is never identified, in an unnamed country, at some point within (as it was then) the near future. It is, thus, in a sense, a work of science fiction, and indeed there are parallels with some genre works: not, especially, with Asimov’s Lije Baley / R Daneel Olivaw novels (except, I suppose, in the sheer lack of ornamentation to the writing), nor with Larry Niven’s ‘Gil Hamilton’ stories, but quite strongly with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as well as with lit-dystopian works such as George Orwell’s 1984. It’s particularly redonent of the Truffaut film of Fahrenheit 451, with its twin themes of (a) societal homogenisation through vapid entertainment and (b) literature as danger.

The prose’s flatness has a distancing effect, and Jensen is so sketchily drawn as not to engage the reader’s empathy to any significant extent. Furthermore, many of the dialogues which unfold during the investigation are quite polemical, to the extent that it does become difficult, in places, to view the work as a genuine mystery story. Nonetheless, it does hang together, and it reaches its destination in good order. I suppose its impact rests, ultimately, on the extent to which the reader is prepared to countenance a future in which one print / media company has such an overwhelming grip on the dissemination of information as to exert effectively complete control over the society in which it is embedded …

mankell_toubled_man_300

If Murder on the Thirty-First Floor sketches a possible future, The Troubled Man (Den orolige mannen, 2009, translated by Laurie Thompson) details a plausible past.

Henning Mankell (d. 2015) was a prolific writer of crime fiction, children’s novels, plays and screenplays, best known for the series of crime novels featuring Kurt Wallander, a dour and somewhat reclusive detective. Like the Marxist Wahlöö, Mankell’s political beliefs were substantially towards the left, and he took a keen interest in world affairs, actively supporting numerous charities involved in Africa (especially Mozambique); he was also aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010 when it was boarded by Israeli military forces. With this personal background, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that The Troubled Man (in which Wallander seeks to solve the disappearance of his daughter Linda’s father-in-law Håkan von Enke, a retired submarine commander who played an active role, in 1982, in the attempted interception of a Soviet submarine in Swedish territorial waters) does carry something of a political flavour. But there’s such a wealth of backstory, and of character interplay, that this story of the aging detective is consistently engaging and well-realised, with episodes of genuine pathos. It’s probably not, though, the ideal book from which to start exploring the Wallander sequence, because it’s set so late in his career.

The story is a complex one, in which Mankell explores not just Håkan’s disappearance but that of Håkan’s wife Louise, as well as Wallander’s failing health, Sweden’s political and social turmoil following the (still unsolved) assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, and the geopolitical difficulties faced by a wealthy country trying to walk a line of ostensible neutrality. Von Enke’s background as a submariner is dealt with in what seems to be very credible detail, and the recurrence of what appear to be minor characters from some of the much earlier Wallander novels gives the book an ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ flavour. It’s not a quick read—it certainly takes its time to get to the source of the crime—but it holds together well and it breathes a lot of life into its characters (even the dead ones). Isn’t that what one looks for in crime fiction?





Spurious News Item number 307

16 08 2016

It’s rivetting, nailbiting, edge-of-your-seat television. But after just one day of live auditions, plans for Channel 54’s latest show, So You Think You Can Liontame, have been placed on indefinite hold.





A digressionary book review: The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

11 08 2016

I reread The Summer Book every few years. It’s not usually summer at the time.

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My first encounter with the book would have been, I think, in 1981; at the time I was looking for something with the same magic as Jansson’s Moomin novels, the last of which (Sent i november / Moominvalley in November) appeared just a year before Sommarboken / The Summer Book (published, in the original Swedish, in 1972; in English translation by Thomas Teal, in 1974). It would be incorrect to say The Summer Book has the same magic as the Moomin books. In consequence, my first reading of this book left me vaguely disappointed. And yet I felt compelled, a couple of years later, to read it again. I found myself warming to it.

summer_book_2

The Summer Book, which is set on and around the family’s island home in the gulf of Finland, centres on the relationship between Sophia, aged six*, and her paternal grandmother. Sophia is ebullient, brash, still learning to find her own limits, while her grandmother is more reflective, struggling against her developing frailness, sometimes a little cantankerous. Neither the child nor the old woman is inclined to suffer fools gladly, and the interaction between them is often flinty yet characterised by a deep, if sometimes reserved, respect. It’s an elusive, self-effacting tale that’s been pared to the bone, occurring as a sequence of short episodes which seem, at first pass, to be almost randomly arranged. There’s no readily-discernible plot arc, few supporting characters, almost nothing by way of props. It’s a quietly wonderful book.

The writing is vividly descriptive and yet simultaneously sparse. Adverbs are almost entirely eschewed, used only as seasoning, to sometimes brilliant effect. From the very first page, from the episode titled ‘The Morning Swim’:

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.
“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”

By focussing so closely on just the two characters, the book achieves an intensity quite at odds with its measured, unhurried pace. And it manages to touch deeply on its twin themes of dying and living. It’s a melancholic book, yet much too warm to be a sad book. And yet all of this—the intensity, the warmth, the depth of tone—is achieved in so subtle and understated a manner that one doesn’t notice the life in the text until after the reading. Or until after a second or a third reading. It’s a book that merits reinvestigation.

I wear out copies of this book.

There are, though, episodes that work less well. I’ve never really felt that ‘The Road’ adds anything of value to the narrative—it feels more like something Jansson has added so as to make some negative-space comment on progress, and consequently it feels out of place. And ‘Of Angleworms and Others’ feels a bit like filler; which is probably just to say that it’s significantly outshone (for me) by the chapters around it. But it may well be that removing these pieces would damage the structure, so I don’t really begrudge them their place in the book.

sommarboken_1

Boel Westin’s compendious biography of Jansson, Life, Art, Words, provides some useful background on the book’s genesis and release. As has been reasonably widely reported, the characters of Sophia and her grandmother bear considerable resemblance to Sophia Jansson and Signe Hammarsten Jansson (‘Ham’), the author’s niece and mother respectively, and other important details (Sophia’s mother’s death, the family’s summer presence on the island) also match the particulars of Jansson family life. But Tove Jansson was always at pains to point out that the book was indeed fiction, rather than biography.

Jansson was also at pains, according to Westin, to ensure that the book was seen as a work for adults, and not a continuation of her increasingly-wistful Moomin novels, the last of which she had written before The Summer Book was completed. Having blurred the lines so successfully between children’s and grown-ups’ fiction with books such as Moominland Midwinter and Moominpappa at Sea, Jansson moved, it seems to me, to disentangle those lines in her work from The Summer Book onwards: the only Moomin books that she would write after The Summer Book were a pair of large-format picture books that were very clearly aimed at a younger readership than that of, say, Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November. To that end, she was adamant, according to Westin, that The Summer Book must have nothing about it that suggested intention for a young audience, with the result that the book has very often appeared, in its various international editions (see examples above), with only the pivotal island illustrated on the cover. She resisted all efforts by publishers to persuade her to provide internal illustrations for The Summer Book … until the Germans insisted on such illustrations for the German translation of the book. So that particular translation came out with a number of Jansson illustrations not available elsewhere.

sommarboken_2

If you’re sufficiently a Jansson devotee as to wish to see these illustrations, the most straightforward course is probably to acquire the current Swedish paperback edition of the book (shown just above this paragraph): the cover, for example, is a colourised version of one of the illustrations. In style, the drawings are similar to those featured in Moominpappa at Sea: the lines carefully irregular, with much use of white space. They’re a rather beautiful addition to the story.

But these are not the only illustrations Jansson did for The Summer Book. I said at the beginning of this post that I first read The Summer Book in 1981, which is true; but I had read one of its episodes six years earlier. This episode, ‘The Cat’ featured in Puffin Annual Number One, released in 1974 by Puffin Books, a publication which appears to have predated the English-language release of Jansson’s book by a few months, and curiously the translation of ‘The Cat’ is provided in the Puffin annual by Kingsley Hart rather than Teal. The Puffin Annual version of ‘The Cat’ is illustrated by Jansson—and the illustrations are not any of those which feature in the German translation or the new Swedish paperback.

PuffinAnnualCatIllo_ToveJansson

There’s a significant difference in tone, by the way, between the Hart and the Teal translations of ‘The Cat’, as the following excerpt demonstrates. From the Hart (Puffin Annual) version:

“Cats are funny things,” said Sophia. “The more you love them the less they like you.”
“That’s very true,” said Granny. “And what can one do about it?”
“Why, go on loving!” Sophia insisted. “You just love more and more.”
Granny sighed and said nothing.

and from the Teal (The Summer Book) version:

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.

The Teal translation is distinctly the more faithful to the original Swedish of the novel—which is not, in and of itself, to say that the Hart translation is ‘incorrect’ in any way, because I do not know which form of the story Jansson supplied for the Puffin annual, nor what editorial modifications might have been imposed, post-translation, to render the story more suitable for a children’s publication. But I do very much prefer the text of the Thomas Teal translation.

It’s difficult to say, exactly, what it is about The Summer Book that so resonates with me. On first approach, it can seem like a novel-length vignette; and then one realises, while waiting steadfastly for something to happen, that it’s all happened exactly before one’s eyes. It’s a remarkably quiet book, and yet there are episodes of high drama, such as the marvellous ‘The Neighbour’; of surprising complexity, such as ‘The Visitor’; of other aspects even less straightforward to characterise, such as ‘Dead Calm’. There’s ‘The Cat’, and ‘August’. It’s all multilayered, and as warm and as cold as life itself.

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* (Note, though, that various of the episodes appear to occur during different summers, so Sophia can’t be six for all of them. What’s contained in the book, I’ve always understood, is an idealised sampling of crucial details of the summer island life, rather than a straightforward portrayal of any one particular summer.)





Just like the census, only different

9 08 2016

It’s Census Night here in Australia, and all over the nation, people are painstakingly swearing at their computers.

But I want to bring something else to your attention. The 2016 Australian SF Snapshot—which you can think of as a bit like a census, only with more questions about worldbuilding, goat-gaggers, and upcoming publications—is in full swing, and (thanks to the tireless Tsana Dolichva) I’ve been interviewed for it. You can read my interview here. (And, of course, there are lots of other interviews up there also, with more being added over the next week or so. Check them out!)





What even is this ‘hard science fiction’, anyway?

6 08 2016

This is a question I’ve been pondering over recently, in connection with my efforts to identify and review books by women writers of the stuff.

It seems as though it should be straightforward to define ‘hard SF’, but it is, in truth, a rather slippery concept. The borders of genre are always nebulous, those of subgenre even more so, and to confound matters, there’s the oxymoronic aspect of the label itself: ‘hard science’ implies logical rigour and, one would hope, veracity, while ‘fiction’ denotes that deviation from truth that makes a story a story. So hard SF is a subgenre in which, almost by definition, the intent is at war with the content. A consequence of this internal contradiction is that any two readers’ (or creators’) Venn diagrams of what is, versus what isn’t, hard SF are very likely to differ.

If decoherence did not exist, hard SF would find it necessary to invent it.

With the above provisos, I still think it’s useful to try to answer the question: what is hard SF? (Well, I believe it’s useful. Your mileage may vary.) The simplest answer is probably to say that hard SF is SF that pays close attention to established scientific principles. Which is fine, insofar as the ‘hard science’ part of the label goes. (Let’s ignore, for the moment, the quibble that ‘established scientific principles’ sometimes turn out to be unreliable.) But the ‘fiction’ term in the equation means that the author has, one hopes, somewhere along the line, made some stuff up. There’s a word for this kind of thing in the scientific community: falsification of data. (Yes, I know that’s three words. Don’t harsh my vibe, okay?) So what stops the made-up stuff from invalidating the established-scientific-principles effort?

The answer is: it depends. This is often something that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, plus it’s something that might well turn out to be different for different readers of the same text. The internalised definition that I try to work with runs something along the lines of: Just as SF diverges from fantasy in describing the (in principle) possible versus the avowedly unrealistic, so does hard SF occupy that sector of SF space in which the events portrayed, though clearly fictional, are framed in such a manner that the reader can imagine such events unfolding, as written, somewhere in our exact Universe. Thus hard SF is that subset of SF which most cleanly allows our credulity to overpower our scientifically-informed skepticism.

I probably haven’t expressed that very well. And I’ve also failed to distinguish between ‘hard SF’ and ‘mundane SF’, which is something, I think, that needs to be done. I suppose the difference is that ‘hard SF’ is something that we’re pretty sure hasn’t happened yet, but which might happen, sometime, some place, most probably in the future, ‘mundane SF’ is something that just might actually already have happened, when we weren’t looking. So Howard Waldrop’s ‘The Ugly Chickens’, which breaks no known laws of science and which posits no new scientific, technological, or social developments of any significance, would probably qualify as mundane SF; Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’, which postulates manned spaceflight to the Moon, and was written at a time before such spaceflight had been achieved, is pretty clearly hard SF. (Note that ‘The Sentinel’ is still hard SF, even though manned moon missions have been and gone: stories aren’t, in my opinion, superseded by subsequent historical events. The primary consideration is that the author has made diligent efforts to be faithful to then-current scientific understanding, and has only cautiously veered into the realm of make-believe insofar as is necessary to make of the narrative a satisfying story rather than a dry report. (Of course, based on this consideration, one could wilfully argue that many classical myths and legends, as well as the foundation documents for several long-established religions, would also need to be classified as ‘hard SF’—something that quite clearly isn’t so—but that’s always the problem with seeking to set guidelines: interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose the distinction would be that SF’s primary aspiration is generally to entertain, rather than to explain or persuade …) It’s worth noting, too, that (to my mind, at least) a hard SF story doesn’t necessarily lose that classification through being subsequently proven incorrect. A good example here would be the Larry Niven story ‘The Coldest Place’, which made recourse to accepted scientific knowledge that, between the time of its writing and the time of its publication, was shown to be erroneous (with the result that Niven asked the story’s editor, Fred Pohl, if the story—Niven’s first sale—needed to be pulled, and his paycheck cancelled). The story still works as hard SF, even if the embodied science is faulty, because the fault was not knowable to anyone at the time of writing.

Why are the boundaries of hard SF so subjective? It’s useful to trot out the Rumsfeld knowledge matrix that performed so well (statement may contain traces of sarcasm) in predicating the case for Iraq War 2. If a SF story employs only known knowns (the fact of the historical existence of the dodo, for example), then it can be fairly reliably classified as mundane SF. If it ventures into the territory of unknown knowns (say, the detailed surface conditions on the pre-Apollo-era Moon, or on Mercury), then it’s hard SF. Once it ventures into the territory of unknown unknowns (Is faster-than-light (FTL) spaceflight possible? Is time travel a thing, and how does the Universe handle paradoxes? Can we bring back the thylacine or the trilobite? Is a meaningful and indefinite extension to a human life achievable?), then it’s a judgment call, dependent as much on the reader’s extrapolated understanding of the nature of the Universe as on the writer’s. I, for example, am exceedingly skeptical about the even hypothetical achievability of time travel, and I’m sufficiently ishy on the subject of FTL that I usually seek to bravely duck the issue in my own hard SF stories. (If I set a story on Titan, I don’t need to invoke magical engineering to permit the plot line. Well, not for the transportation aspect, at any rate.) But a case can be made for FTL, even in its multitudinously handwavingly-explained-away forms (warp drive / wormholes / write your own ‘new physics’ paradigm), in a hard SF story if this prop serves to usefully place the action in an interesting and scientifically credible scenario from which some facet of the human condition can be satisfactorily explored.

There’s another layer of subjectivity, as well. How broad is the window of ‘acceptable underpinning science’? We’ve moved past, I hope, the idea that it has to be the physical sciences—physics and astrophysics, chemistry—and / or computational science, engineering or mathematics to which any true hard SF story has its ultimate recourse, though these are certainly important possible components. Biology should also, in my opinion, form an acceptable basis for some forms of hard SF, so too should anthropology, psychology, and sociology. So long as the story has some basis in existing or plausibly projected research, and shows in its internal logic a respect for the scientific method, it should be assessable as hard SF. But this position won’t meet with universal favour—the variable Venn diagram thing—and readers’ markers for which disciplines are inside the hard SF habitat, and which are outside, will almost unavoidably differ. It’s not my place to press the case too strongly. I will suggest, though, that one’s perspectives on this can be shifted by the right story. For example, before I’d read Claire Corbett’s When We Have Wings, I would have considered winged, flight-capable modified humans to be inappropriate fare for a hard SF novel, but Corbett pretty much nails it, through a well-researched and carefully-constructed exposition on the subject. Likewise the biological engineering that underpins Octavia Butler’s Dawn (and, from a different direction, C J Cherryh’s Cyteen). Hard SF, which is as much as anything a mindset paying homage, in fictional form, to the scientific method, is a richer literature if it is seen to be inclusive of diverse approaches to its subject matter than if it is too narrowly prescriptive.

It is also a richer literature if it does indeed seek to address the human condition rather than just to present variations on a theme of fictionalised problem-solving. We might well read hard SF for the gosh-wow factor it can deliver like almost no other genre, but the stories are only likely to resonate if they tell us something about us. We’re a notoriously narcissistic species, after all. I’ve enjoyed several of Greg Egan’s hard SF masterpieces (and it’s difficult to think of any other popular living SF writer whose work is more deeply informed by current physics and mathematics), but what gives his stories their ultimate kick is his skill with character portrayal. The weird physics of Schild’s Ladder could have made for a very dry novel in the hands of someone who could not give us characters to care about.

Does it, ultimately, matter whether a story is hard SF? To some people it does, and everyone’s obviously entitled to their own brainspace. I generally have a preference for hard SF, because as a reader I’m looking for something that can impress upon me its plausibility, and stories that wilfully flout scientific principles generally don’t do that for me. But a skilled writer can impart plausibility through other approaches: while I would have liked to be able to categorise Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite as hard SF, its lapses in rigour don’t damage the novel at all in my eyes, and it stands as one of the best examples of planetary SF worldbuilding that I’ve yet encountered. Analogously, I don’t care that the work of Jack McDevitt and Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, doesn’t generally make the hard-SF grade, because they are such excellent SF storytellers.

Finally, is hard SF still the male bastion it’s sometimes made out to be? My ‘XX Hard SF’ review series would argue that it’s not, but it’s undeniable that the ‘known names’ are still very predominantly male. On a recent trawl through a less-than-a-year-old reddit thread on the subject of hard SF, I encountered the names of 45 authors whose works were categorised (sometimes erroneously, in my humble opinion) as examples of hard SF. I suspect I don’t really need to tell you the gender of 44 of those authors.

Make of this what you will.





Book review: Spin State, by Chris Moriarty

3 08 2016

Chris Moriarty is an American SF writer who has worked as a horse trainer, tourism industry employee, and environmental lawyer. Spin State, her debut novel, was published in 2003, and has been followed by two sequels as well as two YA fantasy novels.

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Spin State opens with a UN-sponsored covert ops raid, led by the genetically and cybernetically enhanced Major Catherine Li, on a clandestine geneware lab at Metz. But Li has not been fully briefed on the purpose of the raid, nor has anyone else physically participating in the action; the only one among them, it seems, who has access to all of the necessary intel is Cohen, the AI riding on a virtual shunt through an implant worn by Li’s comrade-in-arms Kolodny. The raid goes awry, Kolodny is killed, and Li, censured for her mishandling of a mission for which she felt she had never been given sufficient background information, is dispatched to the mines of Compson’s World to investigate the death of Hannah Sharifi, a worlds-renowned physicist, in a catastrophic mine explosion during an unsanctioned experiment. It’s soon revealed that Sharifi’s death was not accidental, but who is responsible? And, while Li antagonises everyone from Haas, the mine director, to General Helen Nguyen, her own superior officer, what other forces are at play in the dangerous game for which Compson’s World seems to have become a crucial gamepiece?

The hard SF background on which Spin State is constructed is that the phenomenon of quantum entanglement permits a technology enabling the effectively-instantaneous translocation of a privileged few (among whose number, by virtue of her hardware and wetware enhancements, is Li herself) across interstellar distances. This technology relies on continued access to crystalline Bose-Einstein condensate, a material found to be naturally occurring only in the subsurface of the heavily-mined Compson’s World. From this background, Moriarty has engineered an intricate, intriguing, and well-realised story that owes almost as much to cyberpunk and sociological SF as it does to hard SF. Everyone here—Haas, Nguyen, Sharifi, the mine witch Bella, the dealer in antiquities Korchow, the religionist Cartwright, and especially the fey brain-the-size-of-a-planet AI Cohen—has an agenda of their own, none of these agendas coalign precisely, and it becomes clear that Li will need an agenda of her own, which may or may not be to follow the orders to which, as a soldier, it has always been her duty to submit.

Spin State reads like a hybrid of Greg Egan’s weird-physics masterwork Schild’s Ladder and Richard Morgan’s neo-cyberpunk shooter Altered Carbon, told with the attention to worldbuilding detail of Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Which is another way of saying that it conveys its deep otherworldliness with sublime exactitude, while propelling the reader from one high-stakes confrontation to the next. It’s an excellent example of recent hard SF.

(This is the ninth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)








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