1998 SFX Reviews

Steven J. Frank: The Uncertainty Principle

(Permeable Press paperback, $12.00, 238pp, ISBN 1 882633 26 1)

Lots of sf is action-adventure with hardly a trace of science. This funny, quirky story reeks with the flavour of scientific research – especially chaos-theory maths – but it's on the outer borders of sf ...

The time is now. The place is MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where gifted American teenagers discover under high pressure whether they're the brilliant, innovative technocrats of the future, or just above-average geeks.

Narrator Paul Bustamante, still grappling with the weirdness of his own brainy family (it's the Simpsons with another 50 IQ points all round) and the early joys of sex, hits on one of those big, vague mathematical ideas that could be either red-hot or just half-baked. Helped and hindered by his ageing hippy professor, he plunges into the shark-infested waters of corporate sponsorship and nearly gets chewed apart – but, in a very funny Business Presentation scene, is bailed out by a resourceful girlfriend.

Paul's project, a new wrinkle in statistical computing, looks set to spawn an all-purpose fractal software engine that will revolutionize weather forecasting. Or is it stock-market prediction? Or something else? The name of the game is serendipity, where you hit a jackpot you never even thought of ...

The Uncertainty Principle is fizzy fun, triggering heaps of wince-making memories for anyone who once slogged through a university science course. A warning for lazy readers is that skipping the eight-page "scientific paper" at the end means you'll miss the wry punchline.

Robert Silverberg: Edge of Light

Voyager paperback, £9.99, 981pp, ISBN 0 00 648038 1

If you like moody, thoughtful sf, this five-novel omnibus is great value – as agreed by the voters for sf's top awards. In order of appearance here ...

A Time of Changes (Nebula award, Hugo shortlist) is a strange life-story told by a man whose society reckons that the words 'I' and 'me' are obscene and autobiography is a crime. As the title suggests, he triggers the needed changes – at a tragic cost.

Downward to the Earth offers a spiritual odyssey whose hero unknowingly committed a serious crime against animal-like aliens in the bad old colonial days. Guilty obsession leads him to the aliens' rites of metamorphosis and rebirth. Haunting.

The Second Trip, a trad sf adventure that looks lightweight in these surroundings, hasn't previously appeared in Britain. Rehabilitated former criminal Paul Macy comes back into the world of 2011 with a brand-new personality – but underneath, his wicked old self is itching to gain control again. Add a psi-powered girlfriend and the thing almost writes itself.

Dying Inside (Hugo and Nebula shortlists) may be Silverberg's masterpiece – wittily ringing the changes on the US mainstream cliche of a Jewish hero suffering from male menopause, by making him a telepath who's losing his talent. Excellent writing.

Nightwings (Hugo award, Nebula shortlist) is a moody, twilit tale of a ruined far-future Earth where humanity is split into guilds with strange powers, awaiting a long-foretold alien invasion. Which duly comes.

All for only two quid a novel. Recommended.

David Farland: The Runelords: The Sum of All Men

Tor hardcover, $25.95, 479pp, ISBN 0 312 86653 4

Fantasyland is constantly shaken by the clash of mighty-thewed blockbuster series. Can newcomer David Farland, Champion of Earthlight, wrest the coveted Runes of Bestsellerdom from the dark lord Robert Jordan? Quite possibly.

This first volume is well enough written and offers epic sweep, much bloodstained action, and interesting characters. It's a good sign when even the blackest villain has reasonable arguments to offer, and from some angles is almost likeable.

Farland's great strength is his world's system of magic, a simple idea developed with remorseless logic. At first it sounds like a role-playing game, with people having extra "endowments" of strength, stamina, wit, etc. The nasty twist is that the extras must come from somewhere – from other living people. Runelords with many endowments depend on whole hospital wards of unfortunates whose strengths and abilities have been painfully transferred to the glorious leader.

And Runelords are the good guys, who use this immoral magic with restraint. The enemy's unstoppable assassins are charged up with seventy-plus endowments. The arch-villain himself has thousands, and wants everyone's, in order to become the legendary Sum of All Men – the ultimate power fantasy, reminiscent somehow of Bill Gates. Tragically effective plot twists follow.

The "endowment wars" alone would make a strong novel. Other, more routine sequel hooks include threatening nonhumans (the bad guy's excuse for seizing power), mysterious prophecies of doom, and a traditional Earth Magic which the hero promises to serve.

A fine fantasy debut. Worth a look.

Ken MacLeod: The Cassini Division

Orbit hardback, £15.99, 240pp, ISBN 1 85723 603 3

With his third novel, Ken McLeod is still having fun with the same weirdly skewed future history that he outlined in The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal.

It's the 24th century, and our solar system is an anarcho-socialist utopia running on free energy like a miniature version of the Iain Banks "Culture". (One of many little jokes is that all the chapter titles are from utopian sf stories, including one of Banks's.) A few funny old capitalists still practice forgotten eccentricities like "commerce" and "money" amid the remains of former London. But trouble looms ...

Cue an enormous wad of back-story from The Stone Canal, where a hyperspace wormhole to a distant solar system was constructed by the machine-driven genius of posthuman "fast-folk", and the New Mars colony was established there. Descendants of the fast-folk have lurked on Jupiter for centuries, harassing Earth with virus transmissions that make electronic computers and the Net unusable. Now fresh Jovian activity indicates a massive evolutionary spurt by those hostile-seeming superminds. What to do?

McLeod's heroine Ellen May Ngwethu (yes, she's black) belongs to the elite Cassini Division, a last-gasp space defence force waiting to deal with whatever horrors emerge from Jupiter or the wormhole. Ellen's narration is highly enjoyable, revelling in gadgets like her nanotechnological "smart-matter" clothing that not only shapeshifts at will from spacesuit to broadcasting dish to battle-dress to a variety of frilly evening gowns, but has a sense of humour too. Like – again – the Culture, it's a future most us would love to inhabit.

Personally, this reviewer is all too easily won over by utopian societies where 300-year-old sf stories by some "twisted mind" called Langford are still remembered ...

As more is revealed, the mood darkens. The Cassini Division has a trad sf doomsday weapon up its sleeve, and McLeod and Ellen get very tough-minded indeed about the morality of using it on Jupiter. Our heroine even starts to look like an antiheroine. There's also some hard thinking about the joy of the Singularity, that magic moment when computer-aided human intelligence takes off exponentially and we all become like gods. Many sf writers accept this as both inevitable and an unqualified Good Thing, but McLeod remains suspicious. As one character memorably puts it, "It's the Rapture for nerds."

The Cassini Division works itself out through booby-trapped diplomacy, a wormhole side-trip to New Mars, re-examination of a shockingly immoral plot turn from The Stone Canal, energetic clashes of space weaponry, and some final ironic triumphs and disappointments. McLeod still writes with great confidence, charm and wit. But maybe it's time for a new setting.

Iain M. Banks: Inversions

Orbit hardback, £16.99, 345pp, ISBN 1 85723 626 2

Iain Banks is a tricky fellow – whether or not he's wearing that notorious middle initial – and Inversions is another tricky book. Watch carefully as he assures you there's nothing up his sleeve (the sleeve that all those feathers keep escaping from), that this is just a simple story of warring low-tech states on a backward world with six moons ...

Two different narrators, one unidentified until near the end, take turns to tell what seem to be different stories. In the kingdom of Haspidus a young medical assistant reports on the doings of Dr Vosill, who has mysteriously become personal physician to haughty King Quience despite being a foreigner and, unthinkably, a woman. Meanwhile, in a distant land that used to be a kingdom, devoted bodyguard DeWar defends the king-slaying "Protector" from assassins. These lead characters DeWar and Vosill are obscurely linked, and the storylines come together in unexpected ways.

Naturally it's compulsive Banksian reading, with lashings of gore, squalor, poison, torture and philosophy. Both stories offer multiple murder and attempted-murder mysteries, and throw a sinister light on each other. How does a piece of nastiness described in Haspidus produce its significant symptoms in the far-off Protectorate story? Aha.

Part of the double-dealing is hinted by the title and internal artwork. Inversions contains many reflections and reversals, with themes and turns from one narrative appearing upside-down in the other. Vosill the foreigner is distrusted by everyone, and DeWar professionally distrusts everyone – with dangerous exceptions in each case. Some people's fates are mirror images of others. Fantastic fables told to kids contain literal truths, but an innocent-seeming chunk of autobiography shifts meaning thanks to one central lie.

Meanwhile, Banks the player of games is teasingly elusive about how science-fictional his setting is. Are the only sf bits the six moons and the years-past meteor strikes that smashed the old Empire and maybe opened the way for progress? In weaponry, the state of the art is muskets and crossbows ... but one character's remarkable escapes make you wonder whether there's deeper technology or hidden magic lurking.

What's going on here is really rather cheeky. First-time Banks readers will be left partly baffled even at the end. Those in the know will have been muttering certain words under their breath for the last hundred pages – and will kick themselves on noticing one such word blandly planted near the beginning, plus a telltale two-word phrase in the epilogue. Naughty, naughty Mr Banks!

Still, it's fine, thoughtful, intelligently bloody stuff. Newcomers may be puzzled, but they'll see the point when they read [CENSORED BY BUREAU OF SPOILER PREVENTION]. Recommended despite being too clever by half.

David Zindell: War in Heaven

Voyager large paperback, £11.99, 618pp, ISBN 0 00 224297 4

At last, the conclusion of Zindell's massive trilogy "A Requiem for Homo Sapiens". This is widescreen far-future sf on an even vaster scale than Peter Hamilton's "Night's Dawn". But can Zindell write an ending that justifies his galaxy-busting build-up?

He comes close. With lashings of high space opera, this saga revolves around the favourite sf theme of humans becoming gods. Several warring deities appear, "vastened" intelligences running on computer hardware extending over multiple solar systems. Meanwhile a more human-scaled religious war has tens of thousands of starships clashing in dazzling mathematical spaces while suns explode and planetary populations running into billions are wiped out. So much for the background.

In the foreground, young hero Danlo – a potential messiah closely resembling Paul Muad'Dib from Dune – is put through successive hoops of pursuit, betrayal, torture, self-betrayal, and crippling loss. At the eleventh hour, as all seems hopeless and Danlo's oldest friend/enemy unveils a universe-eating scheme that makes the menace of beings like the Silicon God look trivial ... yes, you guessed, our hero finally sees the non-electronic route to becoming superhuman (again, very Muad'Dib) and saves the cosmos.

This trad sf finale feels slightly dodgy, with too many invincible enemies just fading away. Zindell makes it work, because he really can write – though he's almost as fond of obscure words as Gene Wolfe. Danlo has suffered so many convincing horrors that you can't help cheering when he wins through. Enjoyable, unless you have vocabulary phobia.

Further idle thoughts on this book appeared elsewhere.

Harry Turtledove: A World of Difference

Hodder & Stoughton hardback, £16.99, 308pp, ISBN 0 340 71270 8

Harry Turtledove is famous for alternate-history sf, and this time ventures into Stephen Baxter territory by adding alternative astronomy. Boring old Mars is replaced by the planet Minerva – bigger, habitable and indeed inhabited. When the Viking I probe lands there in 1976, all Earth sees the transmitted picture of a terrified alien about to beat the probe to death with a stick ...

Another little historical difference is that the Soviet Union is still going strong. (Turtledove isn't the only American who's nostalgic for the old enemy.) So there's a joint US/USSR mission to Minerva, in separate ships which land just far enough apart to make alien contact in different countries – which are preparing for a low-tech war. Suddenly, both sides have very knowledgeable military advisers.

The Minervans are engagingly routine sf aliens: radially symmetric, with six arms, legs and eyestalks, and 99% human in thoughts and emotions. The Americans are of course compassionate and nice, and worry about saving the alien females who always die in childbirth (this subplot reads like one of James White's "Sector General" stories). The Soviets are infested with KGB agents, and say godawful things like, "Would it not accord well with Marxist-Leninist principles to render fraternal assistance ...?" But they're good guys at heart, really.

Can the Minervan aggressors' secret weapons, including a Kalashnikov, possibly win out against the defenders' resources of US handguns, a microlite plane, and good old American know-how? Is the Pope a Scientologist? But it's fun to read.

Peter F. Hamilton: A Second Chance at Eden

Macmillan hardback, £17.99, 431pp, ISBN 0 333 74125 0

The universe of Peter Hamilton's "Night's Dawn" trilogy is a huge sf playground with plenty of room for sidebar stories. Here are six, plus a mini-novel, linked by this future history and by the technology of "affinity". This is a quantum-telepathic gimmick which not only replaces cellphones but lets you issue commands to affinity-equipped animals, machines, even spaceships.

"Sonnie's Edge" sees this creatively misused in an sf update of bear-baiting or cock-fighting, with horrendous gene-engineered beasties battling to the death under human affinity control. The claimed reason why top fighter Sonnie and her beast Khanivore never lose seems unconvincing. Their real secret provides Hamilton's punchline, whose effective nastiness is undermined by a jarring shift of viewpoint.

The title piece is the mini-novel, set on the very first "Edenist" space habitat – an artificial paradise with its own brain, which maintains total surveillance through sensors and affinity. Theoretically it's impossible to commit a crime without being recorded and rapidly nicked. Then Eden's new security boss finds himself investigating a politically explosive public shooting, seen by everyone but with no clue as to whodunnit. Our detective is flustered by tempting red herrings, erotic distractions, and domestic quarrels ... since Pope Eleanor has denounced affinity as evil, and Mrs Detective is a Catholic. Eventually and satisfyingly, the unlikely murderer and unusual motive are identified. A neat story.

The brief "New Days Old Times" glumly predicts that the baggage humans carry to new worlds will include our ghastly heritage of racism. In "Candy Buds", a new virtual reality experience is booby-trapped in ways that provide the bad guy a suitable come-uppance. I liked the use of affinity-linked birds as spies. "Deathday" reworks the traditional sf/horror yarn in which a foolish – and rather poorly motivated – chap hunts an alien with unknown powers. Bad mistake. The expected surprise twist feels like a homage to George R.R. Martin's grisly story "Sandkings".

A more complex and humanly inconsistent hero or antihero stars in "The Lives and Loves of Tiarella Rosa", which seems to revolve around the terrorist McGuffin of pocket-sized antimatter bombs, but turns into a quite poignant love story. By cunning use of sf devices like the trilogy's zero-tau stasis field, a painful-seeming emotional triangle is rearranged to provide more happy endings than seem possible.

Lastly, "Escape Route" is nifty sf action-adventure in which an interstellar prospecting team discovers a priceless alien wreck. The resulting mix of hidden motives, double-cross plans, violence and magical technology is nicely brewed.

Despite occasional clumsy prose, it's all entertaining reading – something to fill the gap until the conclusion of "Night's Dawn" in autumn 1999.

Brian Aldiss: The Twinkling of an Eye

Little, Brown hardback, £20.00, 485pp, ISBN 0 316 64706 3

A Sunday paper once had a feature called "The Experts' Expert", in which British pundits chose the Top Person in their field. Inevitably the sf writers' choice of sf writer was Brian Aldiss, who's been publishing lively, innovative and lyrical sf since 1954. This is his autobiography.

Actually it's his second autobiography. 1990 saw the niftily titled Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith's: A Writing Life. The new book's subtitle is My Life as an Englishman, suggesting a less purely literary, more personal memoir. And personal it certainly is. Like Dickens remembering the nightmare of being a child put to work in the blacking factory, Aldiss explores those early, desperately vulnerable years when adults were monstrous figures of doom who dealt out punishment for incomprehensible crimes. It's powerful, painful, courageous stuff.

Confronting his own inner demons, Aldiss suggests how they shaped his writing. Echoes of early trauma cost him his first marriage and parted him from the kids – leading to his mournful sf classic Greybeard, set in an England with no children. The germs of other Aldiss novels are likewise revealed.

The narrative is artfully constructed, moving back and forth in time between sunlight and shadow, between wartime, childhood, school, marriage, publishing, the sf conference circuit and – in later years – a search for secret truths of early family life. This leads to a boggling double punchline, like the deep-past revelations in a Barbara Vine novel, which rearranges the burden of old guilt and exorcises those personal demons at last.

Meanwhile Aldiss is a engaging fellow, full of witty phrases and anecdotes. I liked his mangled line from The Duchess of Malfi: "Love hath ten thousand several mats for men to make their pratfalls." Also, a cynical aphorism on publishing: "I could tell my writing was improving: my sales figures kept getting worse."

One also reads autobiography for the bitchy bits, but Aldiss is genially restrained despite past provocations. He does put the boot into P.D. James for snobbishly insisting that her sf novel The Children of Men (partly a carbon copy of Greybeard) isn't nasty old sci-fi. Other offenders' names are concealed. The CD-ROM SF Encyclopedia identifies shifty publisher "Jack" – who went bust and fled to Bombay owing Aldiss £5,000 – as Phil Dunn of doomed Pierrot Publishing. My fanzine archives reveal that "the envious and egotistical chap who ... with his pet hornet wife, attacked my good name" might conceivably be Ian [You stop right there! – SFX Lawyer].

Devastating candour, unsparing self-examination, much fine writing (especially in descriptions of love and landscape), and many unexpected treats like ghosts, sex, mysticism and the lurking horror found behind closed doors at the Stalin Museum ... Aldiss has done us – and himself – proud.

Ricardo Pinto: The Chosen

Bantam hardback, £16.99, 496pp, ISBN 0593 041712

This impressive debut novel opens a trilogy called "The Stone Dance of the Chameleon". It begins in a wintry house of exile where young hero Carnelian was brought up in happy informality. Then his father gets summoned to play a political role in electing a replacement for the dying God-Emperor of the Three Lands. Carnelian must follow on a long, gruelling journey to the heart of this vaguely oriental empire.

There's no Dark Lord here, but the imperial theocracy itself is brutal and immoral. Shackles of cruel law and stifling ceremony become tighter and tighter as the travellers approach the centre of power. By comparison, the grim, ritual-ridden life of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast is a cheery picnic. Carnelian is one of the Masters, the immensely tall nobility, and learns the hard way that the strict "Law-that-must-be-obeyed" decrees that any commoner seeing a Master's unmasked face shall be blinded. Worse mutilations are commonplace.

Being a Master is no fun, despite the evocatively described splendours of the imperial court. Massive, elaborate ceremonial robes are required, with bizarre stilt-like shoes. The politics has a Byzantine complexity. Assassins lurk in the shadows. Carnelian manages to break free slightly, finding a forbidden library and then a lover. When the God-Emperor is elected (death penalty for losers and many innocent bystanders), Pinto halts with a maddening cliff-hanger ending.

One hopes, impatiently, that Carnelian will somehow wreck this vile empire and dance in the ruins. Goodness knows how ...