Random Reading 4
David Langford

Kevin J. Anderson, Hidden Empire (2002), a huge great fat space opera which is merely book 1 in 'The Saga of Seven Suns'. The Thog's Masterclass department of Ansible admired several sentences of this, such as the classic explanation of why deep-space vessels require no fancy streamlining: 'In the vacuum of space no one could see beautiful lines or shiny hulls anyway.' Alas, I found the level of idiot-plotting quite extraordinarily tiresome. Detailed spoilers now follow.... On page 23, for no very good reason, hubristic humanity uses an alien device known as the Klikiss Torch to ignite a gas-giant planet and turn it into a small sun. Very soon afterwards, from this same gas-giant planet, 'several incredibly fast spherical objects streaked out like shotgun pellets [...] and soared off into open space.' The seasoned SF reader thinks: 'Oops.' Just to make the point clear, someone remarks to the chief hubristic scientist, 'They looked like ships to me, artificial constructions.' And is answered: 'That would be highly unlikely. After all, what sort of life form could possibly survive within the high-pressure depths of a gas-giant planet?' Plonk. End of chapter. On page 192, spherical alien ships emerge from the high-pressure depths of a gas-giant planet to destroy a human installation. This happens again and again, always in the vicinity of a gas-giant planet. On page 282, an unusually perceptive individual wonders, 'Had their test of the Klikiss Torch somehow provoked this attack? What life form could possibly exist within the high-pressure bowels of an enormous gas planet?' However, this thought continues not to occur to Earth's top politicians and generals, who remain utterly baffled by these seemingly unprovoked attacks from within gas-giant planets. Even on page 509, stark bafflement reigns: 'What could the aliens want?' And the most savvy politician of them all is still saying on page 556, '... no one knows why these aliens launched their aggression. [...] Why should this enemy choose to strike now, without warning?' Fortunately, putting readers at last out of their long misery, a knowledgeable alien of another race now proceeds to tell him. Less fortunately, the figurehead King of the Hanseatic League hasn't yet been briefed about this when a tardy emissary of the gas-giant folk finally turns up at court. Therefore, on page 564, he says in his kingly way: 'Then why do you attack us? [...] Thousands of innocent people have already died because of your aggression.' He is duly told the astonishing, unbelievable fact that gas-giant planets, including of course the one capriciously set ablaze on page 23, are inhabited. Consternation! Alarm! Enough!

M. John Harrison, Light (2002), in which the author plunges back into the space-operatic heartland from which his work has kept its distance since The Centauri Device blew genre conventions to shreds back in 1975. Plot strands set in 2400 are full of lyrically Banksian SF exuberance, weird technologies, strange and deadly cosmological features, vicious space-battles whose duration is measured in nanoseconds, and much headlong pursuit. Meanwhile in 1999, we meet Harrison's more familiar flair for grisly metaphysics, bleak urban paranoia, and grubby, sinister, perhaps futile rituals of propitiation. Like the female cyborg space-pilot of 2400, the physicist of 1999 (to be remembered centuries hence as co-father of the interstellar drive) is constantly fleeing and kills people for no very good reason. He obscurely hopes to appease the thing that follows, called the Shrander, part of whose aspect is the Welsh folklore horror already glimpsed in Harrison's Viriconium: the Mari Llywd or grey mare, a horse's beribboned skull. Somehow this resonates with the increasing quantum weirdness of our man's neglected researches. The Shrander also appears in other more or less anagrammatic guises in 2400, steering the plot to an oddly satisfying finale that brings various characters to different kinds of death, redemption and transcendence. A very tasty read, with a nice example of what John Clute calls a Slingshot Ending.

Alastair Reynolds, Redemption Ark (2002), a direct sequel to Revelation Space, in the same blockbuster hard-SF mould. I greatly enjoyed this despite what my Amazon review discreetly calls 'glitches in story logic'. Indeed the plot ties itself in almost embarrassing knots regarding further pursuit of the former book's cache of 'hell-class weapons', here a McGuffin coveted by various parties including the now far more technologically advanced Conjoiners who built them centuries earlier. Q: Why can't they just build some more? A: Er um this dangerous knowledge was deliberately deleted once the weapons had been created as a result of a message from the future warning that they would be needed for use against the resistless Inhibitors who police the entire galaxy and stamp out spacegoing intelligence wherever it is found. Q: So to deal with this vast galactic threat, just 40 weapons were built, each unique and some apparently good for one-off use only, with no backups or possibility of replacement? A: Look, it's all very complicated.... Good marks to Al Reynolds, though, for showing this ultimate kit of boys' toys as very much less than a deus ex machina solution to tangled issues. His galactic timeline now extends with impressive Baxterianity from the earliest stellar populations to paradoxical complexities of forward planning for a cataclysm still three billion years in the future. Sense-of-wonder stuff.

Bruce Rux, Hollywood vs the Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry's Participation in UFO Disinformation (1997). All right, I've only read the blurb, but I truly love this strategy for dealing with the embarrassing point that so much 'real' UFO imagery is prefigured in SF. 'After a review of ancient technologies and Roswell, Rux examines American and British TV, cinema and literature, 1947-97. He contends that the film industry particularly has worked with governments to control popular knowledge of UFOs and related phenomena, in line with the prevailing politics. Hundreds of examples, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day, Star Trek to The X Files, are shown to have contained accurate information before public disclosure, their creators to have had insider links.' I look forward to a sequel about the equally complicit SF book industry, which will finger such diabolical arch-conspirators as David G. Hartwell.

Robert Silverberg, The Longest Way Home (2002), SF in the typical late-Silverberg vein, smoothly written with a reliable flow of exotic travelogue, but not actually about very much. A 15-year-old scion of the aristocracy is stranded 10,000 miles from home on a huge planet (which for a change isn't Majipoor), since the peasants are revolting and after many centuries of placidity have risen up to slaughter the upper classes of an entire continent. Our young hero still gets a lot of help: one staunchly loyal peasant, enigmatic alien, more enigmatic aliens, independent peasant community, etc. Despite one episode of near-starvation he never seems in serious danger; this proves to be a novel not so much of adventure as of Growing Up. Late in the book the lad must grapple with mind-shattering new political concepts such as the notion that nobles like himself may not have a divine right to rule! That his family's eldest-son-inherits principle (no women need apply) may not guarantee the best possible leadership! Red-hot revolutionary stuff, you bet. If it weren't for one brief interlude of tasteful sex, I'd suspect Silverberg had meant this as a juvenile.

Lemony Snicket, 'A Series of Unfortunate Events': I merely note the remarkable fact that the British Independent on Sunday hardback bestseller list for 4 August 2002 featured all six of the Snicket books so far published here, with The Ersatz Elevator (over whose presentation of thermodynamics I prefer to draw a veil) at #1. A further Top 10 slot was occupied by Eoin Colfer's second Artemis Fowl children's fantasy, leaving just three spaces for the entirety of current adult fiction and nonfiction. Are these the End Times?

Walter Jon Williams, The Praxis (2002, volume 1 of 'Dread Empire's Fall'), in which all those Vingean and Broderickian dreams of exponential progress to a transforming Singularity are adroitly swept under the carpet by the immemorial rules or Praxis imposed throughout the known universe by the alien Dread Empire. Fundamental axiom: 'All that is important is known.' So with nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, bioengineering, immortality research, mind-machine uploading and other SF complications all forbidden on pain of planetary destruction by good old-fashioned antimatter bombs, the far future remains safely confined to the traditional template of space opera. Much hair-raising excitement ensues when at last the action gets going and a decadent interstellar navy (which hasn't seen battle in 3,400 years) is caught up in civil war over the fragments of the now leaderless empire. But the obtrusive artificiality of that forced technological stasis continues to niggle; I think one would be readier to accept it as a subgenre convention without all the apparatus of justification.