2003 SFX Reviews Etc

Anne Lewis: The Ship That Fell Like a Star

(Honno Children's Fiction, 277pp, £5.99, ISBN: 1870206517)

Billed as "a gripping fantasy adventure", this is an SF novel whose construction might well put off the intended young audience. Not once but twice, Anne Lewis works to get you interested in characters who then vanish from the story.

Part one (42 pages) takes place on a space station orbiting the shrouded world Antor in some far solar system. When this seemingly boring project is shut down, our young hero and heroine eavesdrop on much secret skulduggery. Biowar arsenals! Gene-engineered "mutant" kids! Even a mad scientist, hellbent on destruction! Whatever will happen to them all?

Part two (34 pages) begins over three centuries later, and soon leaps ahead a further 50 years. One of the former protagonists' distant descendants, now an old man, is hiding from a post-coup military dictatorship. There's time for entertaining shenanigans with searching soldiers outwitted by a cute kid and robot farm machinery, before Grandfather Dak escapes to investigate the interstellar signals that have intrigued him for decades. Yes, they're from that space station ...

Part three (the rest of the book) jumps forward 50 years more for the main story, set on Antor itself. After crashlanding there, those test-tube kids have bred like flies, with two bioengineered "races" now living together in rustic harmony while the third prefers imperialism, mass abduction, and slavery.

Two harassed, much-bullied orphans find themselves on the run from a slave raid, face the traditional SF hazards of exotically deadly local monsters and traps, discover useful meaning in seeming nonsense verses they've been ritually taught, and encounter a wise old alien with his own hidden agenda.

Political sophistication now creeps in, with both human and alien races divided by prejudice, internal factionalism, negotiating problems, and the easily blurred line between peacemakers and traitors. Nicely and colourfully told, though the concerns and plot devices seem deeply familiar, while that fast-forwarding through time gives the novel a bad case of narrative hiccups.

NO CHAPS NEED APPLY

Honno Welsh Women's Press is a "community co-operative" producing books "by, and for, women of Wales". They'll sell you shares at a fiver each – but only if you're female. See www.honno.co.uk.

PS Publishing Roundup

Here's a handful of recent titles from PS Publishing....

Stephen Baxter revisits his Xeelee future history with Riding the Rock, both exhilarating and bleak as it evokes the vastest battle-front ever to exist, ringing the entire galactic core. Within, the awesome alien Xeelee go about their inscrutable business. Outside, swarming humanity makes constant, suicidal attacks, with obsessed troops digging foxholes into uncountable chunks of interstellar debris that will pass close enough to hit Xeelee installations with short-range weaponry.

Beyond the hair-raising battle scenes, Baxter has a chill vision of our regimented descendants struggling to preserve their future by methods that destroy their humanity. Meanwhile, for Xeelee series fans, the overarching irony is that we're fighting on the wrong side – a tiresome distraction from the real Xeelee war that dominates galactic history. A grim extravaganza.

Geoff Ryman's comic inferno in VAO is much closer in time. A whole generation of computer hackers are now old folks in high-tech care, still dabbling in on-line crime to pay their bills, while resenting youngsters who (as ever) treat them like lunatics or aliens. Outside, there's a wave of senile delinquency led by unknown oldie "Silhouette", whose doddering minions can subvert modern V.A.O. anticrime systems – Victim Activated Ordnance, punishing offenders with sonic and microwave blasts. The "Very Ancient Offenders" mercilessly turn VAO against their juniors, and octogenarian hero Brewster must organise his aged cronies to nail Silhouette before investigation uncovers all their own naughty secrets.

"We just all go down into the dark," Brewster broods, but in this black yet warmly human comedy the important thing is to keep fighting and having fun to the inevitable end. Inspirational for SF readers hoping for a disreputable old age.

Another SF old-timer returns in Michael Moorcock's Firing the Cathedral: Jerry Cornelius, the terminally hip assassin who began dancing in the ruins of the twentieth century back in the 1960s. His pantomime troupe of dodgy associates reappears likewise. Supposedly a response to 9/11, the novella avoids direct engagement and moves through a psychedelic slide-show of barely linked scenes that cock a snook at favourite Moorcock targets, including religion, the US military and The Lord of the Rings. Scotland, "the latest rogue state", invades England and then America. Echoing J.G. Ballard's 1968 story "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan", something very rude indeed happens to George Dubya Bush. Transience, transients, wisecracks, drugs, decadence, nihilism, a background rattle of gunfire, a daft utopian finale. You either like it or not.

Horror master Ramsey Campbell speaks in person in the fat collection Ramsey Campbell, Probably, selected from 30 years of ghoul-ridden essays. His insider viewpoint makes for lively reading. Authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard appear in a new light when described by a man who assimilated and went beyond Lovecraft's dangerous influence, and was chosen to complete Howard's unfinished Solomon Kane stories. Enjoyable personal anecdotes include a sighting of Stephen King at the World Fantasy Convention, being treated as financially suspect by a lady hotel receptionist dressed as a pumpkin.

Campbell's love of the genre doesn't stop him being wildly hilarious about awful fiction (not sparing his own early work), worse movies, and the unspeakable horrors of the literary life. He's a brave man, publicly attacking not only obvious targets like the late Mary Whitehouse's brand of censorship, but the British Board of Film Censors attitude to soft-porn spanking movies, described in knowledgable, very funny detail. Not so funny are unremitting accounts of nightmares and of life with his increasingly deranged mother – a nonfiction horror story that few writers would have the courage to share. Overall, a fine mix of erudition and skilful entertainment, at a horrific paperback price.

One Campbell aside about the classic Not at Night horror anthologies (founded 1928) brings us to their modern incarnation, edited by the prolific and reliable Stephen Jones. His first volume Keep Out the Night, subtitled "12 Stories Weird and Grim", ranges from a fairly awful 1937 Hugh B. Cave pulp shocker to strong stuff by modern horror stars like Poppy Z. Brite, Ramsey Campbell again, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Marshall Smith.

PS is an upmarket British small press which flaunts its 2001 British Fantasy Award win. Deserved, I'd say.

Lindsay Clarke: Parzival and the Stone from Heaven

(Voyager, 229pp, £6.99, ISBN: 0007109296)

It's an old, old story that Lindsay Clarke retells, an Arthurian romance from the 12th century, as expanded by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the 13th. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls these tales "taproot texts", the underlying sources of modern fantasy. Here is a root myth of the Holy Grail, as adapted into Wagner's opera Parsifal and now accessible in clear English.

Parzival, or Sir Perceval, was a kind of holy fool raised in the wilderness. Against all the odds he became a knight of King Arthur, the one (in this story) most closely linked with the Grail.

Recreating this colourful medieval vision was clearly a labour of love. Impossible feats of arms and lofty chivalric gestures are balanced by a less than knightly "love 'em and leave 'em" attitude: Parzival's father-to-be deserts his first, black wife and piebald child to seek more martial glory, and mere pages later marries the Queen of Wales.

Since Parzival is kept ignorant by his doting mother of everything from courtesy to dress sense, his own knightly career begins awkwardly, but he nevertheless covers himself with glory. Then it all goes wrong in the castle of the wounded Fisher King, where our hero sees the Grail and other marvels but – having acquired some worldly wisdom but not enough – fails to ask the question that would heal the king and his blighted land.

Further fateful booby-traps await, chickens come home to roost, and Parzival is soon an accursed exile. Sir Gawain's saga gets interwoven at this point (including an unfamiliar version of the Green Knight), and matters proceed to a mystically satisfying conclusion. Even our hero's forgotten brother has a part to play.

Though not complex, the story is full of memorable resonances thanks to later works drawing on this myth--from Parsifal to The Waste Land to Diana Wynne Jones's Hexwood. That's what makes it a taproot text.

OUR HERO GETS DOWNSIZED

Parzival was the knight who found the Grail in the original romances by Chrétien de Troyes and von Eschenbach – but later writers like Sir Thomas Malory moved him to the sidelines in favour of Sir Galahad. Tough luck, Percy ...

Hal Clement (1922-2003)

We've lost another of the grand old men from the pioneer days of modern SF. Hal Clement, whose full name was Harry Clement Stubbs, died in his sleep on 29 October – mere days after his last, typically charming, appearance at an American SF convention. He was 81.

Clement's first story "Proof" appeared in Astounding SF in June 1942, his first novel Needle in 1950, and his final novel Noise in 2003. Through his long career he stuck to the Astounding (later Analog) ideal of "hard SF", crammed with real science. For many years he was a science teacher, with degrees in astronomy, chemistry and education. His fiction shows a gift for painless presentation of tough ideas.

His most memorable novel was Mission of Gravity (1954), introducing the weird planet Mesklin, ultra-dense but distorted by its incredible rotation speed into an elongated rugby ball shape – three times Earth's gravity at the equator, nearly 700 times at the poles. When Earth loses a valuable instrument package on Mesklin, only the centipede-like natives can retrieve it from the high-g zone. But Clement's likeable alien hero Barlennan is a smart centipede with plans that go way beyond being just a native bearer ...

In long fiction or short, you could rely on Clement for ingeniously fair physics-puzzles, even if these sometimes overshadowed the sketchy characters. For many years, of course, his complex calculations of orbital transfers and thermodynamic oddities involved much slaving over a hot slide rule in the BC (Before Computers) era.

Hal Clement was a true gentleman, well loved in the SF community and honoured as professional guest of the 1991 World Convention. He received the E.E. Smith Memorial (Skylark) Award in 1997, and was acclaimed as a Grand Master by the SF Writers of America in 1999. "Uncommon Sense", his clever 1945 story of aliens with pinhole-camera eyes who "see" by smell, was eventually given a "Retro" Hugo Award in 1996. Worth waiting for.