|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #68, September 2000|
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Recently I've been writing heaps of on-line SF/fantasy reviews for an outfit that made me sign a terrifying non-disclosure agreement. So for safety's sake I'd better refer to them by the impenetrable codename HugeSouthAmericanRiver.co.uk, and move along hastily ...
One flavour of the month that I've noticed while gobbling down tons of recent British SF for review is that, more and more, dead men and women don't stay dead. You expect this in fantasy, when authors who find themselves running out of characters can (like James Barclay in Dawnthief) make free with the Cure Irrevocably Fatal Injury and Insert New Batteries In Corpse spells. But isn't hard SF supposed to be made of sterner stuff?
Spoiler warning: stop reading here if you'd rather be amazed by developments in the novels mentioned below.
Arthur C. Clarke got in on this act in 3001, by refusing to let Frank Poole rest in peace. Fans of 2001 will remember Poole as the first unfortunate astronaut bumped off by mad computer Hal. After letting him drift in space for a thousand years, Clarke has Poole picked up, defrosted, and shown the wonders of a fourth-millennium Earth so soporific as to make being dead seem relatively exciting.
Then there's Alastair Reynolds's hefty SF epic Revelation Space, in which one character eventually saves humanity from murderous, invincible bad guys by committing suicide in spectacular fashion – detonating pinhead-sized antimatter warheads built into his own eyeballs. (Excuse me while I wince a bit.) One multi-kiloton blast later, our man is a cloud of glowing vapour. Gone forever ... except that shortly before pulling the pin, he accidentally got his body and mind recorded by an omnipotent supercomputer, and six pages later he's back again.
As usual, Iain M. Banks gets tricky in Look to Windward, a Culture novel featuring a secret genocide plot. One of the upsets is that certain people you rather thought might make it to the last page end up thoroughly and permanently dead. Meanwhile a minor character who's been killed with almost sarcastic off-handedness wakes up to find that Frank Poole's trip into the future was piffling – since Banks's chap has been on ice for almost an entire rotation of the galaxy. Call it 300,000 years. Gosh wow. And remember all the missing-believed-dead in Excession, gloriously reincarnated in another, better universe?
Stephen Baxter has also joined the resurrectionist bandwagon. His fat SF book Titan unsurprisingly features a hair-raising voyage to Saturn's moon Titan, where in an excitingly triumphant climax all the Earth astronauts die. Billions of years later, evolved native lifeforms dig up and "repair" two of them, the last man and woman of the otherwise extinct human race. Even death will not release you from a Stephen Baxter plot. More recently he's blown up the whole universe in Time, first volume of a trilogy, making us wonder just how many of the cast will be reanimated in book two. "The fiery destruction of the totality of existence itself? Just a flesh wound, old chap."
Now Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke have got together to write The Light of Other Days, which makes a determined effort to tackle every possible SF plot based on time-viewing gadgets, the end of privacy, unveiling historical mysteries, walking with dinosaurs and peeping back to life's beginnings, all in one story. Sure enough, their last best use for the time viewer is to scan the DNA and the brainwaves of everyone who has ever lived and died throughout the whole of history, so they can all be cloned and reborn. (Philip Jose Farmer did it much earlier in his 1970s "Riverworld" series.) The authors love this idea, though it must fill some readers with terror ...
On the whole, it was almost a relief when, in John Meaney's SF blockbuster Paradox, the guy who loses an arm early in the book refuses to let anyone grow him another one. So many of these lucky sods in modern SF have it too easy, returning from death, growing new limbs and all that. Let them suffer more! Some of us readers get rebellious when we compare SF characters' painless nanotechnological healing with our nasty trips to the dentist.
But I'd clean forgotten, and hope no one else remembers, that the lead character in one Langford SF novel was restored to healthy life after being butchered, finely minced and fed through a hyperspatial wormhole just 1.9 centimetres across. Oops.
David Langford says "Do as I say, not as I do."
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