Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Invaders?

Time for another entry (and the final one to date) in John Varley's ongoing Red Thunder / Red Lightning series, Rolling Thunder. This was actually the first of the series that I received (a 2008 Christmas present), but I thought that I'd better reader the preceding novels before getting to it.

Again advancing in time by a single generation, Rolling Thunder is narrated by Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond, or Poddy for short. As her mouthful of a surname implies, she is the grand-daughter of Mannie Garcia, narrator of Red Thunder, and one of the first humans to walk on Mars. The novel begins with her stationed in a consulate office in California, screening then routinely turning down applications from "Earthies" to emigrate to her home planet, Mars. Though tensions between Earth and Mars have eased since the events of Red Lightning, the planets still regard one another suspiciously, especially since Mars now controls the "squeezer" technology that has made space accessible to humanity. However, Poddy's life is less concerned with interplanetary politics than with slaving away under Earth's gravity, far away from her family and friends on Mars.

Although officially conscripted in the Navy of the Martian Republic, Poddy's first love lies in composing popular music, and she jumps at the chance to form a "military band" to provide entertainment for the Navy bases located on the various moons of Jupiter. Poddy's first stop is Europa, where Navy scientists have spent years studying bizarre "living mountains" that grow where the moon's icy crust is thinnest. She becomes intrigued by the periodic, low frequency radio emissions that these strange crystalline organisms emit, and begins incorporating them into her compositions. As her tour takes her away from Europa and around other satellites of Jupiter, the band's reputation gradually takes off, first within the Navy bases, and then on the net. However, disaster strikes Poddy on her return to Europa where the mountains have begun to become more active. A routine journey over the surface of the moon is catastrophically curtailed when the mountains launch into space. Poddy is saved by the time-freezing "stopper" technology developed by her genius "uncle" Jubal, but remains trapped in stasis under the Europan ice for almost a decade before even her highly-connected family can finally rescue her.

This intervening period has been very kind to Poddy, whose compositions have come to dominate the music charts, and have made her very, very rich. But, by stark contrast, they have been very unkind to the Earth. After leaving Europa, the crystal mountains defied expectations by first visiting the high atmosphere of Jupiter before settling into the oceans of Earth, unable to be opposed by any weaponry that humanity could dream up. Now, for ends that no-one understands, the mountains are transforming the Earth's climate, rendering it uninhabitable for the humans still there. Through another "uncle", the former astronaut Travis Broussard, Poddy discovers that Jubal, Travis' cousin, has been brought out of "stopper" storage to try to come up with a solution for the deteriorating situation. However, he cannot find any way to tackle them, but instead uncovers a strange side-effect of the "stoppers" that Poddy has also experienced. Though ostensibly timeless, both Jubal and Poddy have dreamlike experiences that point to consignment in a "stopper" somehow exposing human minds to the perceptual continuum that the crystal mountains experience. Linking the mountains to a regular series of extinction events on the Earth, Jubal comes to understand the vastly different time-scales that they perceive the universe on. This realisation convinces Jubal that all of the efforts of humanity directed at the crystal mountains are no more than those of an insect against an elephant. Faced with such an unaware and unyielding foe, humankind and the resources that support it are destined to be squeezed to breaking point. Travis accepts Jubal's interpretation and, making use of Poddy's vast riches, plans a new future away from the perilous solar system.

Unlike the earlier two novels, this one significantly ups the science fiction content of the series. The crystal mountains and their glacially-slow perception of time certainly qualify in the "aliens" department. Similarly, the near-future and near-Earth antics of Red Thunder/Lightning are replaced with more exotic locales from the outer solar system and interstellar travel. This all stacks up in the plus column for me.

However, also unlike the earlier novels, this one has a few entries in the minus column. None of these are significant, and they really reflect my own pet peeves in books. For instance, in making Poddy a musician, Varley needs to describe her music so winds up indulging in name-checking of (I presume) artists that he likes, peppered with a few artists yet to be born. This, and other music-related flim-flam, just doesn't appeal to me, since the writing seems less about the fictional character and more about the author. Challenging for the fourth wall. I think Varley also drops the ball with his late-in-the-game romance for Poddy. While I'm certain that he didn't intend it this way, I couldn't quite overlook the notion that this might be a bit of wish-fulfilment on his part. That's an unkind reading, but I doubt I'm the only person to join those dots.

All that said, the plus column still wins out. Much as with the earlier novels, Poddy is generally a well-realised narrator, one who's fun to be around. I could have done with less (or no!) music in the novel, but as this isn't a common motif in novels, it's still interesting. I certainly appreciated the extra science fiction, although I did spend much of the novel labouring under the self-inflicted misapprehension that the crystal mountains were the Invaders of Varley's future-set Eight Worlds.

Finally, I don't know if Varley intends another novel in this series. The ending here moves things away from much that's familiar, so any successor novel will be shifted even further to the science fiction end of the spectrum. While that would appeal to my tastes for space aliens and other stars, it might also move the series too far from its realistic, near-future origins. As "juvenile" novels dealing with characters, language and events that are halfway plausible, the earlier two books serve as "gateways" to science fiction for younger readers averse to diving into fantastical futures. I guess we'll see. I'm really hoping that he turns his attention to the long-promised, and Eight Worlds-set, Irontown Blues.

In passing, I have to remark that the Invaders are among my favourite of aliens in science fiction literature. They turn up at Earth, note that we're messing up the planet for sentient organisms such as whales and dolphins that share their three dimensional view of reality, then shutdown our technology to stop us from causing any more trouble. They don't wipe humanity out, although they do end civilisation on Earth, and they leave the solar system colonies intact. And then, when humanity mobilises against them from Luna, they throw us another lifeline, singularity technology, to take us out of the solar system before they get seriously annoyed. They combine a respect for other sentient intelligences with truly alien perceptions of time and space. And, as a biologist bemoaning our entry into an environmentally calamitous Anthropocene, I'm a sucker for all that. That, and representing a reminder that our self-perception may be somewhat self-aggrandising (to say the least), makes them a memorable creation.

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