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.

Apocalypse and trams

Future Bristol
edited by Colin Harvey

This collection of short stories was compiled by a local writer (who sadly died earlier this year) to showcase science-fiction writing from in or around Bristol, so all the authors either live here or nearby or have done at some point. Though the depictions of the future are very varied, there are some common themes that say something about both Bristol and the preoccupations of the present.

I must say that in general I was more impressed by the ideas in this volume than the writing. This is mostly a taste thing. I like to have good strong characters and will happily forego storyline if the characters are written well enough. This volume conformed to that common criticism of science fiction that character comes second fiddle to ideas. I don’t actually think that’s true of the very best science fiction, but it was certainly true here. If I haven’t got to know a character, how am I going to care when crazy future apocalyptic things start happening to them?

That said, I really liked all of the ideas in these stories. I preferred the subtler futures where the city has changed and future generations have slightly different words for places and landmarks, and only vague ideas of where a name like “the Circus” or “Canesh’m” has come from. Meaningless to an outsider of course but brilliant for anyone familiar with the city.

Futures varied but tended toward the pessimistic – manmade or environmental disasters, global warming, spiralling crime – and even the more positive ideas had negative aspects. There’s the hackers who use stolen nanotechnology for the common good, only the corporations are watching their every step. There’s the urban explorers who encounter aliens in Clifton Rocks Railway. There’s the flooded city where pirates are back in full force and the police must tread carefully (possibly my favourite visually, though obviously heavily reminiscent of The Drowned World).

I think my favourite story, or at least the one that I have kept thinking about the most, was the one written by Colin Harvey himself. It’s called “Thermoclines” and is about a future when humans have evolved into winged creatures because they cannot touch the ground for fear of “the grey”. From a small community in south Wales, young Garyn is a star hunter but is tested to the limit when a rare visit from outsiders takes him on the long journey to “Brisel”, or what’s left of it. I liked that this story doesn’t try to explain everything, its hints and suggestions raising more questions than answers. It’s also one of the better examples of characterisation in the collection.

This was an interesting project and as an adopted Bristolian I loved the insider’s views of the city (and indeed disliked the more touristy moments, lingering on Clifton and the suspension bridge). I loved that multiple authors mentioned bringing back trams to the city, or found uses for the derelict Parcelforce building next to Temple Meads railway station. This definitely answered my search for stories set in Bristol, but I’m not convinced I’ve found any great new voices here.

Published 2009 by Swimming Kangaroo Books.

BristolCon11: science

There were two panels at BristolCon based around “real” science: “When did science become the bad guy?” and “Sci-fi now”. Both were interesting discussions and shared a few panel members so I thought I’d write them up together.

(Apologies by the way, for the scatty and delayed nature of this post. I wrote it weeks ago and then NaNoWriMo started and I didn’t get round to tidying it up. And now I must get back to writing that novel…)

Tim Maughan kicked us off with the declaration that science is not considered uncool itself, but understanding it is. All these shiny new TV shows about science are pretty but have little or no depth, and certainly don’t teach anything new (though, as a counterpoint, he still rates Sky at Night). Eugene Byrne suggested that this dumbing down was part of a general increased shallowness of the media. In fact, he was quite positive, comparing the 1980s general fear of science to the current feeling that science is an important tool and the great enthusiasm for technology and gadgets. He also controversially put forward the idea that raised tuition fees will be good for science, because potential students will likely lean towards more practical subjects with firmer career prospects.

Simon Breeze made the suggestion that the Internet generation couldn’t build the Internet, which I have to say I disagree with. But I could see how someone might think that – as Jonathan Wright pointed out, technology has advanced so much so quickly that you can’t just learn how things work by taking them apart. Tim Maughan added the interesting point that state schools in the UK teach computing, including HTML and basic coding, but public schools don’t go near it, staying as always behind the times but also creating an odd reverse snobbery.

But what about the cool future science we all thought we’d have by now and don’t? This discussion kept coming back to the idea that technologies are developed when we need them. And of course some things turn out different from exactly what was envisaged. Paul McAuley thought teleportation might be useful, but suggested that the long queues for the booths might make it only fractionally quicker than flying. And drones barely feature in old science fiction yet are becoming scarily real (in military use). Tim Maughan pointed out that the car that drives itself is imminent and Eugene Byrne suggested that increased age and disability in western populations will accelerate technologies like robot cars. Dev Agarwal suggested that the same might be true of investment in cybernetics – e.g. for making people walk again.

The panel all agreed, in response to an audience question, that the future science fiction of 1984 is scarily close to coming true – and we’re all willingly helping it along. From Internet security measures that save our every search term and movement on the Web, to store cards that track our purchases, to CCTV, to social media where we announce our every action, we are creating the surveillance culture that Orwell envisaged, only we’ve forgotten to be horrified by the idea.

Thought-provoking stuff.

Future possible?

More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon

I generally trust the SF Masterworks series to be of a high enough standard that I can pick any of its titles and I greatly enjoy scouring the shelves in Forbidden Planet in search of a new read. This was one of my random picks and, as usual, proved to be excellent despite my never having heard of it before.

This book centres around a small group of characters who are outsiders in various ways, a glimpse of the future of humanity, the next development beyond Homo sapiens. The story is told from various characters’ perspectives, and there are a couple of big jumps in time that have to be filled in by recall. This is something the author repeats – you are just getting to know a character well and then suddenly the story switches in time and perspective so that you’re lost again and need to piece together how this fits with the previous section.

It’s a valid reflection of the main characters’ experience. Because they are different, but take a while to understand their differences, they spend time struggling to fit in to the rest of society before discovering their place.

Their place seems to be together. As a group they can function as one sort-of superhuman, which is a very interesting idea and one that could have been explored over a lot more pages. But this book is a nice length and manages to fit in background, self-discovery, group functioning, romance, disagreements, relationships with “normal” humans and a lot more besides. I was a little discomfited by the ending, which seemed to go a bit religious experience-y.

The first character we get to know well is Lone, an adult with learning and possibly social difficulties. He is not named for a long time and his section, of drifting through the world being misunderstood/hated for no reason until he seems to find his place was very powerful. Sturgeon has done an impressive job of fully fleshing out a character who speaks only a handful of words and never truly understands what he is a part of.

I hugely enjoyed this book. SF Masterworks has yet to let me down!

First published in 1953.

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.