Monday, 16 February 2009

Fight Club for girls

Another potential fiction / science fiction crossover: The Carhullan Army by the British writer Sarah Hall. This was one of my birthday presents from A & J, and the first that I've completed (chocolates and Halo 2 remain started, but miraculously unfinished as yet).

The novel is set in a near-future Britain in which the country's infrastructure has collapsed under unspecified economic and ecological blows. Surviving citizens are confined to the cities, population control measures are in place and people lead drab lives under an undemocratic government called the Authority. The protagonist of the novel is a young woman who breaks away from the Cumbrian city of Rith (formerly Penrith) to seek out Carhullan, a colony of women who live as outsiders in the neighbouring mountains. Known only as Sister, the woman has read of these outsiders in newspaper articles prior to the collapse, and is inspired by their tales of Carhullan's charismatic leader Jackie Nixon.

Reaching Carhullan, Sister is at first judged a potential spy, and is brutalised to test her veracity. Later, as she recovers and is slowly integrated into the community, she finds a place there among the other women attracted by its self-sufficiency and independence from the Authority. Nixon, however, remains a distant figurehead, but one who exerts near-total control over those who have joined Carhullan. The apparent death of Britain's king in a distant war convinces Nixon that the Authority intends to impose tighter control on Britain and provides a pretext for an increase in the strength of Carhullan's military faction. However, Nixon isn't just interested in defence of the colony, she intends to take the fight to the Authority, and begins to dismantle Carhullan and co-opt its residents into a well-trained army to capture nearby Rith.

The novel filters this story through the experience of Sister who, despite her initial torture at the hands of Nixon, is gradually transformed from an ordinary (if politically aware) factory worker into a hardened and willing soldier. Through the use of Courier font chapter headings, the narrative is ostensibly structured as the retrospective testimony of a prisoner of the Authority, although this seems a little unlikely given the poetic language and lack of legalese employed. As the novel approaches its climax, this structure experiences a "data loss" and a significant flashforward that wraps the novel up promptly (c.f. my criticism of a previous book).

Hall's novel has a number of strengths. Principally, it's extremely well-written, with beautiful descriptive portions, good characterisation and interesting world-building. By drip-feeding the latter, the reader is kept hanging on for more detail about the damaged world that Hall describes. In this way, the novel shares something with another recent post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Keeping some of the detail about the world's collapse unstated both adds a nice dose of mystery to the proceedings, and frees the novel somewhat from particular contemporary obsessions (although it's fairly obvious that an oil crisis and global warming are primarily to blame). That the novel portrays a singularly female venture that's both empowering yet authoritarian is also noteworthy. Hall is quite ambiguous on what the reader should draw from the story. On the one hand, the uprising against the Authority is admirable, but on the other hand, the re-purposing of Carhullan from a refuge into a uncompromising weapon is questionable.

The flashforward already alluded to is one of the novel's major failings to my mind. It incongruously shoots a rather slowly paced and detailed novel from pre- to post-conflict in a single page. It's extremely jarring given the novel's structure up to that point, and comes across as the novelist getting bored with their fictional world and wanting to just wrap it up quickly (and it's not as if it's a particularly long novel; ~200 pages). It betrays the detail that Hall put into the earlier portions, and leaves an awful lot unanswered. For example, from the brief description of the conflict, it's difficult to decide whether Nixon really was over-egging the threat from the Authority, as earlier portions of the novel imply. It's also difficult to judge what the wider consequences of the conflict are. While the novel's major theme concerning the dehumanisation of even those involved in worthy causes is decoupled from the plotline, leaving so much unanswered and doing so in a seemingly careless fashion seems a bit of a mistake.

On the subject of how even good causes can still be dehumanising, the novel is weakened to my mind by the lack of detail about the Authority. While clearly authoritarian, it seems an ineffective and only a weakly malevolent force for most of the novel. And the fact that Sister, although imprisoned, is still alive at the end (as far as we can tell) also makes it difficult to judge if the conflict was as black and white as some of the characters suggest. This leaves one with the nagging suspicion that perhaps Carhullan was the problem all along, which is almost certainly not what the author intended. More generally, since science fiction novels usually deal with circumstances removed from our own, it's sometimes difficult to draw anything from them that can be applied to our world. Particularly where the parallels between our world and that of the novel are not clearly drawn, as here. The Authority simply doesn't obviously stand-in for anything in our world at present, primarily because it's sketched so thinly.

By way of contrast, while my headline's allusion to Fight Club is a bit of a joke, that novel is much more successful at presenting the theme of dehumanisation of a good cause because the "enemy" (the corporate world) is much more clearly defined. Not, as it happens, because the author spends time describing it, but because it's familiar to us from our day-to-day lives. The reader's journey in Fight Club is that of the narrator's, from anger at "the system" through transitory empowerment to anger at "the solution". Things are possibly similar here, but ambiguity abounds. And not necessarily "good-ambiguity"; more "what-the-hell-was-that-ambiguity". As a result, I'd argue that one can draw a lot more from Fight Club than The Carhullan Army but then, as a man, perhaps I'm bound to say that!

Still, all that said, The Carhullan Army is enjoyable for its language and its world building. And, as ever, it's encouraging to see such novels breaking down the walls surrounding the science fiction ghetto.

Back in town

The ducks are back in town. As of this morning we've got a male and a female swimming in the ponds in the quad. They arrived with similar timing last year, and if that season's anything to go by, we should expect chicks by about April. And then the Malthusian tragedy can begin all over again ...

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Clone love

In my last review, I noted that, unlike my fiction diet, I routinely return to graze in the same authorial pasture when it comes to science fiction. Here we are again. This time with Alastair Reynolds and his latest novel, House of Suns.

Set in a distant future in which humanity has broadened into a multitude of subspecies distributed throughout an otherwise empty Milky Way, the only "fixed stars" in this universe are the Lines. These quasi-trading organisations are composed of clones, shatterlings, who travel the galaxy doing good works and acquiring information, before meeting up at regular periods to share their memories and compile their collected information into a "trove". Because of the size of the galaxy and the immutability of Einstein's universal speed limit, these meetings take place every 200,000 years, essentially geological intervals. This gives the Lines a view of galactic life in which non-Line civilisations rise and fall, then rise and fall again, time after time. They call this "turnover" and it is as natural a process to them as we'd judge the microscopic successions in the plankton. But despite collecting information over geological ages, even the Lines don't know everything - their biggest problem is the "disappearance" of the neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy.

Against this galactic-scale backdrop, the novel focuses on two clones of the Gentian Line, Campion and Purslane, who, contrary to the codes that govern their Line, have fallen in love and now travel the galaxy together. A clone reunion is approaching fast, and Campion and Purslane are pondering how their Line will judge their relationship. However, before they can join their fellow shatterlings, a series of chance events brings them into contact with Hesperus, a member of the "machine people", a robotic civilisation. The shatterlings rescue Hesperus from imprisonment, but his memory has been partially wiped and he can no longer recall the mission on which the machine people sent him. Delayed by this encounter, the shatterlings arrive late for their reunion, only to find the event in disarray, with the Line almost totally destroyed by some outside agent. Fleeing this genocide of their Line, Campion and Purslane retreat to the safety of Neume, a distant rendezvous point for the Gentians. Here they meet the remaining fragments of the Line and mull over the disaster that has befallen it. They are assisted by the capture of some enemy agents, members of other Lines, but why would different Lines gang up on the Gentians? And why does the destruction of the Gentian Line appear to be linked to Campion and his trove?

Much like Century Rain and Pushing Ice, House of Suns is separate from Reynolds' Revelation Space books. I've remarked previously that this frees up Reynolds nicely to do a spot of world-building, something he's really good at. However, unlike those earlier titles, Reynolds isn't as sure-footed this time round. The initial set-up of the novel's universe is done well, and the role of the Lines and the nature of the galaxy they orbit are teasingly well-introduced to the reader. The relationship between Campion and Purslane isn't well-drawn or convincing (for much of the novel, I assumed that their coolness was plot-crucial, but it was really just weak writing), but this is a science fiction novel, so I'm prepared to let characterisation slide a bit.

Things start to go more significantly awry when Campion and Purslane wash up on Neume. The pace, which had hitherto been building up nicely, is ramped right down again. A whole host of new characters, mostly unpleasant ones, are introduced, and the novel becomes a bit of a "talkie", as the shatterlings bang on about the loss of their Line. It also takes on, rather unconvincingly, the well-worn and contemporary topic of prisoner torture, as the captured enemies are (unsuccessfully, obviously) pressed for information. Unfortunately, this section of the novel drags on for a significant fraction of the book, and though it's leavened with introduction of an ancient swarm intelligence called the Spirit of the Air and some revelations about pre-human artificial intelligences, Reynolds' editor really dropped the ball here.

Then, suddenly, the novel is off again, and the protagonists depart Neume in a near-light speed dash to a distant part of the galaxy. Although this portion of the novel takes the most time as measured from a rest frame, it passes in relatively few pages and ups the plot revelation-rate somewhat. However, as I was reading this portion, I was conscious that I was running out of pages [*] and, sure enough, Reynolds employs a deus ex machina (quite literally, given the protagonist involved) to explain quite large portions of the backstory in the novel's closing pages. I'm somewhat torn here, since I found these revelations very interesting, but their sudden release in literally a handful of pages is clumsy storytelling.

On the subject of clumsy storytelling, a plotline I've not mentioned above is the shuffled backstory of the Gentian Line which follows the life of the original individual, Abigail, who cloned herself to begin it. This is a good plotline of itself, but it's told gradually in a way that makes it appear much more central to the "current events" than it actually turns out to be. It might actually have made for a good novella in isolation from this novel. Reynolds has made good use of the shorter literary forms to fill in details of his universes before.

Overall, something of a mixed experience. Great set-up and some very interesting ideas throughout the book. But hamstrung by poor pacing and rather unconvincing characterisation. Perhaps a bit of a rush-job? That said, I'll still be clamouring for his next book, his form's been reliable and even this novel does have much to like about it.

[*] This is one way in which novels lose out to films. Unless one has both noted a film's duration and is checking one's watch, it's not obvious how much time a film has left, with the result that it can remain exciting before wrapping itself up in super-quick time. With a novel, one is well aware of how much is left, and if there appears to be a lot of ground still to cover (as there was here) a creeping sense of dread starts to coagulate (at least in this reader).

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Snow smile

At APM's suggestion, I forwarded one of my snowy photographs to the Guardian ...


They've been producing an interactive country-wide map of snowy photographs sent in by their readers. Anyway, presumably to offset a deficit of photographs outside of London, they used mine ...

Guardian snow pictures

While the road sign made me smile, I doubt that many of the motorists (slowly) passing it were quite so amused.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Snowy time-lapse

While it misses the arrival of the snow, I got a pretty good time-lapse movie of the snow's (partial) retreat yesterday ...

It even includes C in a couple of its frames. Very much blink and you'll miss it.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Who needs reality ...

... when you can make time-lapse movies in virtual worlds ...

If only Niko would stand still ...

Snow in Southampton

Today we've got the best (or worst, depending upon your view) snow there's been in Southampton since I came here more than 10 years ago. Around about 4 cm was on the ground this morning, and though it's melted a bit since then, it's starting to snow quite heavily again.

Anyway, to avoid any cycling mishaps and the Woolston gridlock, I walked in to work today. It gave me a chance to snap off winter scenes on my way in. I've posted these to a set over at Flickr.


Sunday, 1 February 2009

The lives of clouds

I managed to generate this quite nice time-lapse movie of clouds over Southampton around sunset ...

I used a short period between frames this time (10 seconds), so got a much better representation of the comings and goings of clouds. I was particularly struck by the little clouds that "momentarily" appear then disappear towards the end of the movie.

Not knowing anything really about clouds, I've no idea how this happens. I understand how clouds form when warm, moist air is forced upwards by topography, but these seemed to come out of nowhere, with seemingly nothing to force their creation. And then, after popping into existence, they quickly frittered away. Presumably because they either "rained out" their water content, or were attenuated by mixing processes. It's a mystery. In this blog anyway.