My eyes are just a closed-circuit camera without film in it

book of strange new thingsThe Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber

I forget whose review it was that made me seek out this book (possibly Michael Kindness on Books on the Nightstand?) but if it was you, thank you. I really loved this book and I’m not sure I would have picked it up without a push.

Despite his towering reputation, this is the first Michel Faber book I’ve read (though with this strong a start, I certainly don’t intend for it to be the last). But it wasn’t lack of previous fandom that risked putting me off so much as the fact that the central character is a vicar. And not just a vicar, but a vicar who goes off to another planet as a missionary to spread Christianity.

Now, it’s not that I hate vicars on principle. Growing up, our vicar was a genuine family friend and I’ve met many other vicars who seem like decent sorts. They effectively dedicate their lives to supporting other people, after all. And while I’m an atheist who occasionally has doubts and veers back towards agnosticism but is categorically against a lot of what organised religion does and says, I do see that it can have positive effects and do positive things sometimes. But I am really not a fan of evangelising, particularly when it goes hand-in-hand with colonialism (Chinua Achebe may have something to do with this) so this book was a risky manoeuvre for me. One that paid off.

Continue reading “My eyes are just a closed-circuit camera without film in it”

Beyond the edge of infinity

by Larry Niven

My education in the greats of science fiction continues at the behest of Tim. In this case we’d been having a conversation about hard SF, which is not something I’ve dipped into much, and I’m beginning to think that’s for the best.

It’s not that I struggled to grasp the science concepts, as I did with, say, Asimov’s The Gods Themselves. But this book had so much going on with so many different strands of ideas coming together (or not) in relatively few pages that there wasn’t really room left for those little details and little moments that develop characters and relationships between them.

The story begins with the 200th birthday of (human) Louis Wu. While celebrating his birthday in a fun, innovative manner, he is intercepted by an alien who is putting together a space voyage and wants Louis to be part of it. Louis is eternally restless (and has been taking youth drugs for most of his life so his age is not an issue, in fact his experience is vital) and the alien makes the offer very attractive with the promise of new technology for humankind.

The full crew of four are the first alien, Nessus, of the puppeteers, another alien, Speaker To Animals, of the kzin, Louis and another human, 20-year-old Teela Brown. Louis is puzzled by this last selection as Teela not only has no relevant experience but she also shows no initial curiosity for travel. But Nessus has his reasons. The puppeteers are a highly advanced, apparently cowardly species. The kzin are fearsome, aggressive creatures who have fought (and lost) a war with humankind and are now gradually learning to live peaceably as neighbours.

So much thought has gone into every detail of this book. Niven has chosen to have these aliens not be humanoid in appearance, but to share enough of humans’ basic needs (air, water, etc) to be able to exist in the same atmospheric conditions. Each species has its general characteristics, but the individuals in the story have their own quirks and exceptions. There’s a sense of fun and humour running through it all that prevents the huge ideas from feeling too serious or unwieldy.

“Louis Wu the man ached. If his body didn’t begin adjusting soon, his joints would freeze him in sitting position and he’d never move again. Furthermore, his food bricks were beginning to taste like—bricks…But Louis Wu the tourist was being royally entertained.”

The object of the mission is to investigate something the puppeteers have seen in far-off space, the Ringworld of the title. There is a lot of discussion in the early part of the book about population growth and running out of space, so it comes as no surprise that the Ringworld is a massive engineered world, essentially choosing the perfect distance from the right kind of sun and making a planet in a ring all around that orbit. It is unfathomably huge and Niven puts in some really good descriptions of the crew trying to get their heads around its size, and mostly failing.

“The Ringworld was obtrusively an artifact, a made thing. You couldn’t forget it, not for an instant; for the handle rose overhead, huge and blue and checkered, from beyond the edge of infinity. Small wonder Nessus had been unable to face it. He was too afraid—and too realistic.”

But this isn’t just a story about four people in space and giant ideas. It’s also an adventure story, a study of how strangers cope when thrown together for a long time, with arguments both petty and genuine threatening their survival as much as circumstances do. And there’s a lot more SF ideas thrown into the mix that I can’t discuss here because they come up later in the novel, sometimes in interesting plot twists that turn everything up to that point on its head.

So it’s a great novel for discussion and I can see why people revere it and refer back to it. But there were some things that annoyed me. Louis seems to be only interested in women for sex. When there is a suggestion that one of the aliens has a mate of the same gender, Louis is startled by it. I would hope a 200-year-old was not so easily shocked as that! And although Teela is in no way an insignificant character, or helpless, she is as much an idea as a person. She’s a bit one-note and, while she does develop through the novel, it’s the idea that’s being developed, not her personality.

I’m sure the ideas will stay with me but the language…not so much.

First published 1970 by Ballantine Books.
Winner of the Hugo, Locus, Ditmar and Nebula awards.

In the future there will be war

The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman

Tim has been bugging me for a year to read this so I finally gave in. I can see why it instantly became his favourite book. It’s an immensely clever look at war and humanity, with some very interesting ideas about space travel and the future.

This is one of those books that I think is brilliant but I didn’t hugely enjoy reading. I tend not to like war-set stories, particularly those that focus on the fighting and the tactics. While there was much more to this novel, there was a lot of war stuff to wade through and that meant that my overall enjoyment took a big hit. It was all, of course, necessary. The clue was in the name.

It wasn’t in any way a slog to read. The storyline is clever and the writing is accessible even for people like me without the greatest background in physics or military tactics.

I don’t want to give away too much of the storyline but it begins with the conscription of William Mandella into Earth’s army in space. Space travel is near light-speed and makes use of black-hole-like gateways so that vast distances can be covered, but the cost of this is that space travellers do not age as fast, so when the first soldiers return to Earth they are still in their 20s but decades have passed (it’s something to do with general relativity), which is reflected both in the age of their loved ones and in the great changes that have happened – socially, politically, environmentally and technologically. It’s a clever way of adding emphasis to the returning soldiers’ sense of displacement.

This is one of those rare occasions where I think the background of the author and the time of writing are relevant when honing your thoughts on the book. Haldeman is a veteran of the Vietnam War and wrote this shortly afterward. He even starts the book in a future near enough so that the officers who train Mandella are Vietnam vets themselves. This drives home the parallels between the fictional war and the real one, though they at first seem starkly different.

For instance, there’s the great changes that happened in the USA while soldiers were away in Vietnam. Hippies, free love, rock music, drugs, civil rights, feminism. These are not hugely dissimilar from the changes that Mandella struggles with. There’s the use of drugs and hypnotism to condition the troops to hate the enemy (I’ll admit here that I don’t know that much about the Vietnam War besides what I learned in A-level history many years ago but I believe there was drugging of the troops – is that right?) There’s the use of old-fashioned military tactics against a little known enemy who fights very differently.

What I liked most was the personal struggle to deal with so much unknown and so much change. By making Mandella the narrator this book keeps its focus on an individual’s reactions to news and events, however huge those events get.

The political and sociological changes to mankind as time passes are completely believable and the way that information drip feeds out to the soldiers, light-years away from Earth, is very well crafted. I did find the middle section hard-going because it paints a dark, depressing picture of the future that was all-too believable and I suppose that frightened me. But it was worth reading on. I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first.

As a depiction of mankind’s future this is a great book. Shame about the war but it’s an unlikely future that doesn’t have war in it, right?

First published as a serial in Analog magazine. First published as a novel in 1974. Revised by the author 1991.