Friday, 22 February 2008

A biologist writes

I first came across Barbara Kingsolver pre-blog via her 2000 novel, Prodigal Summer. The first thing to strike me was her, at times, lyrical use of prose, and her skill at capturing the colloquialisms and truncations of spoken language. She didn't need to describe where a character came from or what their background was, it was obvious from what they said and the way in which they said it. The second thing to strike me was her fluency with ecology, and with the issues where this subject butts up against humans. Prodigal Summer has three distinct strands each of which has strong ecological undertones that strengthen and enrich its narrative. This fluency isn't too much of a surprise when one discovers that Kingsolver is a former ecologist, but it's still a rarity in my experience (certainly for literary fiction; less so for science fiction, although it's usually bludgeoned in there). Anyway, for my birthday/Christmas, C bought me her earlier novel, Animal Dreams.

The narrative centre of the novel is Codi, a former trainee doctor now returning to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, after an extended absence. She is returning in part to care for her doctor father, Homero, a standoffish pillar of the local community, who his patients fear is beginning to suffer from dementia. However, Codi is also returning amidst troubles in her own life, and with ghosts from her past in Grace to exorcise. In a backdrop to events in Arizona, and communicated in the novel by way of letters, Codi's sister Hallie works in Nicaragua teaching sustainable agriculture.

As the plot strands unfurl, Codi gradually comes to find her place in Grace, somewhere she never fitted into while growing up. Acting as a teacher, she enthuses her students, ultimately leading them in a local crusade to counter the water pollution that is slowly killing the town. However, slowly slotting back into the town creates a tension for Codi, one that is bound up in past events involving her Native American, former boyfriend, Loyd, now a train driver. Years on, they are gradually spiralling together again, but Codi, still carrying a secret from the past, is applying the brakes to retain her distance.

The novel features several Hispanic and Native American themes, but weaves them in carefully, making them almost flow naturally from the narrative of Codi's gradual absorption into Grace. There are political themes too: Codi's sister, Hallie, moves to Nicaragua to teach local people more sustainable farming techniques and dies after having been captured by the Contras. Although only noted in passing, that the paymaster of the Contras is the US is remarked upon angrily. Another political theme in the novel is the town's fight against the mining interests whose polluted water will eventually force residents to abandon it. In this the novel paints a positive picture of the role of both individual and community activism. What starts as a science project for Codi expands into something much more significant.

In passing, the novel's treatment of Homero's illness is handled very convincingly. The gradual fragmentation of his mind, and the merging of his past with the present is very skillfully done. Kingsolver isn't content to merely describe how others see Homero, and instead animates his inner life in a way that is both moving and confusing at the same time. This confusion for the reader follows that of Homero himself.

While not quite as effective as Prodigal Summer, in part because of the ambition of its themes, Animal Dreams is another solid novel by Kingsolver, admirable for both its literary/lyrical flourishes, and for its command of narrative and themes. Doubtless the rest of Kingsolver's back-catalogue will find its way into the blog at some point.

P.S. I can't help but remark at the shockingly poor Photoshopping of the novel's front cover. It's clearly a landscape shot onto which the silhouettes of a station wagon and woman have been crudely plastered. One might have expected better from a professional publishing company well-versed in the carefully winning presentation of product, but I guess not.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Return of the ducks

Well, return of the duck, singular. Today is the first day that we've had a duck in the quadrangle that our office looks down into. Last year we had two mother ducks and chicks throughout the summer. Watching the chicks grow up was easily our (then) new office's best feature. We never actually saw them leave, that probably happened at a weekend or overnight, but we've been waiting their return since then. Anyway, the arrival of one seems notable enough for a mention here. At some point I'll try to snap off a picture or two for here.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Novellas, or long short stories?

In what seems like more of a marketing thing than anything else, two "novellas" of Alastair Reynolds are bundled together in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days. A rather unimaginative title for the collection given that it merely incorporates the titles of the two Revelation Space-set novellas. Anyway, they seem just like long short stories to me, but ...

The first novella, Diamond Dogs, follows a group of adventurers brought together under mysterious circumstances by an evasive renegade, Childe. He takes them to an unexplored world, devoid of any interesting features bar an artificial tower. The tower's origins are unknown and it communicates to visitors solely by setting them mathematical puzzles. If they get these correct, they are allowed to proceed further into the tower. If they get them wrong, the tower exacts a punishment. At first the puzzles are straightforward and the punishments mild, but as the team advances through and up the tower, things take a turn for the macabre. Gradually, the team is whittled down until abandoning the quest seems the only sane response, but Childe is never giving up.

This is one of those stories where you're expecting one sort of payoff (an explanation about the tower), but get quite another one (why the team has been assembled). It's not an entirely satisfying trade, and though the novella is constructed well and draws you in, ultimately it is something of a frustrating experience.

The second novella, Turquoise Days, is set on one of the worlds that harbour the so-called Pattern Jugglers, massive seaweed-like colonies that interface, and can change, minds that swim among them. These have been described in several of Reynolds' other novels, but the novella takes in a detailed journey with them. The story involves two sisters who study the Jugglers, and the visit to their world by a team of scientists from a distant colony. When this visit is first announced, several years before it actually arrives, the sisters undertake an ill-advised swim with the Jugglers. Both have swum before, but both have become infected by their contact with the Jugglers. This is often a sign that a person is of particular interest to the Jugglers, and on this occasion one of the sisters, Mina, does not return. Naqi, the other sister, does return and, though nursing grief at the loss of her sister, continues with her studies of the Jugglers, becoming involved in a project to attempt to isolate a sub-colony of the Juggler biomass. Eventually the visitors arrive, but they are not what they first appear to be and instigate chaos on the planet. Threatening the very well-being of the Jugglers, Naqi must again commune with them to attempt to contact her lost sister.

The parameters of this novella are somewhat more straightfoward, and there's no sense of disappointment in how it unfurls. It's actually quite good to finally meet the aliens that one has only heard snippets about in Reynolds novels. Well, "meet" in a special sense. The Jugglers remain mysterious, but their mode of interaction with visitors is now much clearer. I suspect that Reynolds is saving further revelations about them for later works.

Overall, while both novellas are perfectly acceptable stories, they feel like they should be part of a larger collection, and neither is satisfying enough to make this collection worthwhile. A marketing decision indeed. Still, for a primer on the Pattern Jugglers, the collection is worth reading.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Sans the "M."

The Steep Approach to Garbadale is Iain Banks' latest non-"M." novel, and another title of his to prominently feature games (c.f. The Player of Games and Complicity).

The novel follows its central protagonist, Alban McGill, from self-imposed exile in a squalid flat in Perth, back into the fold of his extended and wealthy family, the Wopulds. The family owes its wealth to a game, Empire!, created by an ancestor at the height of the British Empire. Times have changed however, and now an American corporation wishes to buys the Wopuld family out. As a nominal shareholder, but a noted family firebrand, Alban is being brought back to galvanise the family to retain ownership.

However, as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that three women in Alban's life are exerting a strong pull over him. Foremost is Sophie, his first cousin and first love. A torrid teenage affair, broken up by the family, still haunts Alban. Then there is his mother, a victim of suicide when he was still a child. Family whispers suggest there is more to this story than Alban is aware of. Finally there is Verushka, a mathematician, and his on-again-off-again, part-time lover. Constantly drawn to one another, they seem unable to commit fully to each other.

After initial scene-setting involving the Wopuld family, resolving Alban's relations to these three women becomes the dominant strand of the novel. And Banks does a good job at keeping them ticking over during the novel such that resolution for all of them only occurs at its end. There's what appears to be a bit of a twist going on there, but Banks lets perhaps too much out of the bag along the way. Most of the family revelations at the end didn't come as a surprise to this reader at least.

Overall, an engaging Iain Banks tale. Not up with his best fiction, but an improvement over his previous two titles, The Business and Dead Air. For better or for worse, however, Banks' best work still seems to be his science fiction. Of which, more in the near-future - Amazon delivered his latest there, Matter, earlier this week.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Fiction or Science fiction?

Q: When is a work of science fiction not science fiction?
A: When it's published by a respected literary novelist.

In recent years there have been a number of notable literary authors who have taken up themes usually confined to the realm of science fiction. Some authors, such as Margaret Atwood, have crossed this divide several times (most recently in the dystopian, apocalyptic novel Oryx and Crake). Others have explored traditionally science fictional themes in single novels. These have included (less successfully, to my mind) Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and (more successfully) David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Now comes Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road.

The novel follows a man and his young son as they travel across the wasted remains of the southern United States of America. An unspecified catastrophe has destroyed civilisation, killed much of humanity and appears to have mortality wounded the Earth. The resulting cooling climate forces the novel's characters to travel southwards along "the road" to reach a warmer, more equable clime. As they travel they only occasionally encounter other humans, but as the novel gradually makes clear, humanity has largely turned predatory and cannibalistic as food supplies have dwindled and order has completely failed.

The novel succeeds brilliantly in infusing a continual sense of dread into the proceedings it describes. Even when nothing happens to the protagonists, their fear is palpable. As is their complete denial of the future. Although travelling southwards to reach a warmer climate, they are only living for today. They recognise that each meal might be their last, and that the next bend in the road may conceal enemies who will kill them - if they are lucky.

Narratively, the novel sees the father and his son navigating a number of hurdles along the road. Some involve mistrustful or deadly interactions with other survivors, while others deal with the lengths to which they must go to find food and shelter. Their meetings with other survivors are counterpointed between the father's extreme distrust and the son's desire to help the unfortunates they meet. McCarthy succeeds particularly well in these sections, making the reader experience first one, then the other, and then both viewpoints.

The novel has a number of small touches that suffuse it powerfully. One is the gun that the father and son keep with them. Although they use it once in self-defence (and rob themselves of a crucial second bullet), this is not why they treasure it - instead, it's because the gun affords them the chance to kill themselves should they run afoul of some of the more savage survivors. Another touch is the sparing description of the world around them, which serves to allow the reader to conjure a perfectly bleak world in their own imagination. Leaving the cause of the disaster unstated plays a similar role [*].

In summary, The Road is a first-rate literary exploration of the post-apocalyptic world. Compared to conventional science fictional interpretations of this, for example The Postman, the writing skill employed by McCarthy is clearly of a different, higher, order of magnitude. He presents a haunting vision of a despoiled Earth, bereft of any civilising qualities and with a diminishing, doomed future. What hope there is is doled out, in meagre, sparing quantities, much like food in the novel. The creation of such an evocative, if fear-filled, future is something that conventional science fiction only occasionally attains. And if writing such a novel requires that it be re-labelled as fiction, or speculative fiction, then so be it. Much as I like (indeed, love) conventional science fiction, it's always interesting to see what a literary novelist can make of it.

[*] Wearing my scientist hat, judging from the description of a seemingly dying world, the disaster most closely resembles a nuclear winter. With constant references to the cold, it certainly doesn't appear to represent our greenhouse future, although it's possible that a natural disaster like an impact event could cause similar damage. In fact, the lack of reference to any radioactive hazards is suggestive of this, although periodically the damage described does hint at some selectively violent event. Reading between the lines, the near-total loss of faith in human qualities is strongly suggestive that, whatever the disaster was, it was self-inflicted. As an aside, nothing in the novel prevents it from being an alternative past - if it does represent the future, it's a close one.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Drug of choice

Which drugs are this week's uppers, and which are this week's downers? Following on from last night's Horizon programme on the 20 most dangerous drugs, how are 15 of them performing in the news?

Friday, 1 February 2008

Which plankton groups are in the news this week?

I found this quality application for creating popularity league tables for arbitrary lists of items. True to the name of this blog, I've tried to work out who's hot, and who's not, in the plankton world.

The "Christmas Effect"

Christmas is a time of giving. And receiving! Consequently, book-reading post-Christmas is dominated by a load of new books, often stacked up because of the pre-Christmas embargo on new purchases. Anyway, as a result, I've another Alastair Reynolds to document. Unlike my previous posting on this author, this book, Century Rain, has nothing to do with Revelation Space. It's free-standing and, like the similarly disconnected novel, Pushing Ice, it's all the better for it.

The novel begins unconventionally for a science fiction novel with a jazz-playing private detective, Floyd, who works in Paris in the late 1950s. An ex-patriot American, Floyd has been brought in by a wealthy patron to investigate the mysterious death of an unusual visitor to Paris, an ostensibly American woman with an obsession for collecting newspapers, books and music records. Originally discounted as a suicide, her death, and her suspicious behaviour, leave behind too many unanswered questions for Floyd. His efforts to resolve the mystery increasingly attract the attention of the local police, hitherto uninterested in the case, but also that of some very strange children. Before long his path crosses with that of the "sister" of the now apparently murdered visitor.

That's the first strand. The second involves a future historian, Auger, exploring the remains of Paris for valuable artifacts. The Earth has been destroyed in a holocaust driven by nanotechnology, and humanity has split into two opposing groups, the Threshers and the Slashers, the former opposing nanotech, the latter still keen to use it to recover the Earth. After devastating wars, the two groups have come to an uneasy accommodation. With their more advanced technology, the Slashers have begun to access an alien-built wormhole-like transit system that allows them to explore the galaxy. Auger, after being disgraced in an accident in Paris, is given a chance to make amends by continuing the work of a recently deceased colleague. Sent down the entrance of one of these alien portals in Phobos she emerges somewhere familiar but different.

The intersection of both of these narratives within the covers of same novel makes it obvious that they will come together at some point. When they do it's actually not quite as satisfying as one might like, but by then the novel has built up enough of a head of steam to carry it off to the end.

One particularly deleterious aspect of the latter part of the novel are a series of interminable action sections that take place in Auger's "world". The early novel is carefully paced, with its structure gradually, and skillfully, put together. The late novel contains a number of long-winded descriptions of rather uninteresting sequences involving a lot of action. Action, while working well on the screen, rarely works well on the page. It's just difficult to hold choreographed action in your head for more than a paragraph or two. Wearing my "scientific reviewers" hat, I'd have suggested that the novelist trim these action portions down, perhaps instead focusing on the reality-disjoint experienced by the detective Floyd when he discovers that his reality is not at all what it appears. The novel is also a bit thin on the reason events take a turn for action at the end - I was never entirely clear on why the Slashers were up to what they were up to.

An interesting decision made by Reynolds is not to explain, or even really explore, the reason that Floyd's world exists. The reader is given only tantalising glimpses of what the purpose of Floyd's world is, and its creators (who also appear to have built the handy portal system) are almost completely off-stage. That they are not completely off-stage may suggest that Reynolds intends to visit this fictional universe again. Although, interestingly, the motivations of the aliens who created the worlds, of which Floyd's is an example, don't appear to be a major concern of any of the novel's characters. Perhaps they've just decided that, in the seeming absence of the aliens, it's too big a mystery to tackle in their lifetimes.

Anyway, despite my misgivings about the action sequences, this is another great novel by Reynolds. What I've not remarked on so far is the style of the writing in the early sections involving Floyd. Reynolds does a great job bringing noir sensibilities to this world. Floyd seems (in a good way) to have stepped straight from a Raymond Chandler novel. This extends to the relationship that Floyd gradually forges with Auger. Reynolds also does a good job presenting a slightly different 1959 to that we've experienced. WW2 hasn't happened in this world, and the consequences are nicely and subtly drawn out (including a fleeting crossing-of-paths with, I presume, an aged Adolf Hitler).

Finally, this novel again shows that Reynolds works best in creating a new world, much like in Pushing Ice. While there are definitely ways that Reynolds could take this fictional universe forwards (more, in a way, than with Pushing Ice), it might be better if he left its possibilities tantalisingly unrealised.