Wednesday, 30 October 2002

Michael Bishop: Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (1987)

Edition: Grafton, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1129

Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas is a direct tribute to the famous science fiction author; not only does it use many themes from his work, but Dick himself is one of the major characters. The novel begins with the death of Dick and the rising of a ghostly form from his body. But this is not the world we know, but an America which won in Vietnam, and where the increasingly dictatorial Richard Nixon is approaching the end of his fourth term in office. This is an America where travel is severely restricted, black people have almost all been "repatriated" to African countries, and the remaining population live in fear of the secret policemen known as "No Knocks". Dick is an almost forgotten author, though his earliest novels are still required reading for the Vietnamese who come to the States and are "Americulturated" - indoctrinated into the American dream. Dick's later work (more like the satirical science fiction for which he is really known) was never published but circulates in photocopied samizdat form, among the remnants of the sixties counter-culture. It is to one of the owners of these dangerous manuscripts, a pet shop employee, that the ghost appears, driving him on a course which both of them hope will change this nightmare reality.

Among the themes that Bishop picks up from Dick's novels are alternative realities, external supernatural intervention, a blue collar central character (rather than the middle class scientists/engineers of the genre before him), the importance of the desire to care for animals (as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and the triumph of American popular culture. Although rather uneven (in this reality, there is a lunar base, and the chapters set there fail to grasp the reader), it must be one of the best homages to another author ever written. Bishop even re-uses something of Dick's style.

To choose this way to memorialise one of the greatest of all science fiction writers - one who (eventually) massively raised the literary profile of the genre - seems entirely appropriate, and this is perhaps the best indicator of how successful Bishop has been in this novel. Genre fiction, like popular culture generally, has a tendency to forget most of its past, and so reminders of just how good some of the earlier masters were serve an admirable purpose.

Saturday, 26 October 2002

Alastair Reynolds: Redemption Ark (2002)

Edition: Gollancz, 2002
Review number: 1128

Redemption Ark is far more closely linked to Reynold's first novel, Revelation Space than is his second, even though all three are set in the same vision of the future. The actions of Sylveste in that novel have awakened an ancient horror in the galaxy; he has unknowingly made the signal that calls it to action. This is a culture of machines, which has the purpose of keeping intelligent life in check to guard against a future catastrophe. This is the reason that human explorers have found the galaxy full of the archaeological remains of extinct alien cultures, but none surviving. Sylveste has for the first time used a technology proving the existence of a new race of intelligent beings with an interstellar cultures, and this has made the Inhibitors swing into action once again.

There are others who notice the use of these tools, for they are doomsday weapons so fearful that not only have they never been used, but the technology used to create them was deliberately forgotten. They were made by the Conjoiners, a faction of humanity which has used mechanical aids to brain function to create a hive mind; and they want them back.

Being the third novel set in this universe, Redemption Ark lacks the "wow factor" experienced in reading the first two. It settles down a bit more to character, and in doing so reveals more definitely that Reynolds is from the same school as Iain Banks' Culture novels. There is more hard science (particularly nanotechnology) and less humour, but there are many similarities. The major difference, that Banks' novels are far less interconnected, imparts strengths and weaknesses to each writer's work. The ending of Redemption Ark really calls out for a sequel; it is nothing like as definite as those of Revelation Space and Chasm City. More additions to this series are, I hope, inevitable. Reynolds is one of the finds of twenty-first century science fiction, amply confirming the promise of his debut.

Saturday, 19 October 2002

Michael Moorcock: Phoenix in Obsidian (1970)

Edition: Millennium, 1995
Review number: 1127

It took a long time before Michael Moorcock wrote a novel which was in the strict sense a sequel to The Eternal Champion. In between, he had firmed up the concept suggested by that novel, the idea that fantasy heroes were aspects of the same individual, and had begun several of the other series which use it. A long wait for a sequel is often a bad sign, but here Moorcock has been spending his time refining the concept.

In retirement with his beloved Ermizhad, John Daker is called once more to travel between worlds and take up the mantle of Eternal Champion. He becomes another ancient hero returned to save his people, yet no one seems to know who summoned him, or to what purpose. The city of Rowenarc is doomed by an approaching Ice Age, and its inhabitants have given themselves over to despair and sado-masochistic orgies, a darker equivalent to the Dancers at the End of Time, who would have been in Moorcock's mind soon after he wrote Phoenix in Obsidian. Many of Moorcock's novels contain pictures of decadent cultures, and he is superlatively good at delineating them (here, for example, the description is remarkably sparse, but conveys a lot by focusing on Daker's feelings of disgust).

The other major feature of Phoenix in Obsidian is the reluctance of Daker to get involved, to become a hero once again. This is a something of a rarity outside Moorcock, but in his fantasy it is a theme on which many variations are played. Here, there are two aspects: Daker's longing to return to Ermizhad, which gives poignancy to the story, and his distaste for the weapon of the Eternal Champion, the Black Sword that he is sure that he has abjured in the past, even if he can't specifically remember doing so or even precisely why he has done so.

Many of the middle books in Moorcock's large number of fantasy series tend to be lacking in interest compared to the first and last instalments; the first volume introduces the ideas, setting and character, and the third provides the resolution while in between there is frequently only an unwinding of the plot. This is not the case here, though, as the combination of maturing ideas and a new setting have produced an enjoyable novel which is more than the equal of the early Eternal Champion.

Friday, 18 October 2002

Michael Bishop: Ancient of Days (1985)

Edition: Tor, 1986
Review number: 1126

After the death of Philip K. Dick, Michael Bishop seemed to be the author most willing to follow in his footsteps. He has written a direct tribute (Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas) but, more importantly, has taken on the question more central to Dick's output than any other, "What does it mean to be human?"

Ancient of Days is explicitly (at least, for a novel) about this question. It concerns a surviving member of the species homo habilis, an ancestor of modern humans thought to be long extinct, who turns up as a refugee on the American coast near Atlanta, Georgia. There, he is hidden and befriended by an artist (RuthClaire Loyd) living on a remote farm; eventually they marry. Taking the name Adam, he sets out to find his identity, embracing theology and art, fathering a child and eventually undergoing surgery so that he is able to speak instead of being forced to use sign language. With his gentle, but slightly alien outlook, Adam is a figure reminiscent of Michael Smith in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

Like Smith, Adam has to face a variety of difficulties and misunderstandings
These include the jealousy of RuthClaire's former husband, the narrator of the novel; intrusive attempts by anthropologists to treat him as a scientific specimen; a tele-evangelist who tries to take advantage of Adam's instant celebrity and interest in spiritual matters; and, most seriously, attacks by the local Klu Klux Klan, who find his marriage to a white woman disgusting. Bishop makes his point by contrasting the actions of Adam and his enemies - it is our behaviour which makes us human, not our genes. Adam is revealed to be human in the ways that matter, with his attackers exposed as lacking in human virtues. (The narrator is mainly just confused rather than having an abiding hatred for Adam.)

The attacks on Adam brigh real tragedy to the novel, especially as it explores the stupid inhumanities of racism. Its major flaw is that Adam is made far too saintly to ever really come alive as a character (something which could also be said about Michael Smith), though the other characters go a fair way to making up for this. It has strangely never been as well known as its companion novel, No Enemy But Time (which features a time traveller joining a group of homo habilis), but to me Ancient of Days is one of the best science fiction novels of the 1980s.

Tuesday, 15 October 2002

Jeffrey Deaver: The Blue Nowhere (2001)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001
Review number: 1124

Jeffrey Deaver may usually be a writer of traditional thrillers, but with The Blue Nowhere he joins the small group of authors who can convincingly depict the world of the computer hacker (Neal Stephenson and William Gibson being the best known of the others).

The basic plot of The Blue Nowhere is a computerised version of the Eddie Murphy film 48 Hours; a hacker is let out of prison to help the LAPD Computer Crimes Unit track down another hacker, who has the screen name Phate, who has turned serial killer. The actual crime plot is pretty hackneyed, but the computing background means that the novel is more than just a run of the mill police procedural. (The style, by the way, is similar to Michael Connelly.)

The one part of the plot which seems unlikely, if not impossible, is the program used by Phate to target the victims, which is named Trapdoor. (Deaver admids in the acknowledgements that the experts he consulted were dubious about the way it is supposed to work.) Phate has cracked one of the major Internet routers, and uses a steganographic (and the proof reader of the novel should note the spelling of the word) method to infect the target machine, sending small sections of the Trapdoor program in individual IP packets which are part of the normal online communication. (Steganographic means "hidden writing" , and is the process of writing a secret message as part of an innocent one, say be using every twentieth character, or altering specified bits of an image file.) To put the information into IP packets, given control of a router, would not be particularly difficult. The problem is that once the data reaches the target computer, it needs to be separated out from the genuine information, re-assembled and then executed, and I can't see any way that this could be done barring serious bugs in the IP stack and operating system of the computer being attacked. This is essentially the same reason that a virus spread as an email attachment is not activated unless the user or operating system is conned into executing (opening) the attachment - computers need a reason to run a piece of software. The reasons that systems are vulnerable to cracking are generally attributable to human carelessness, such things as users writing down passwords or using obvious words, or bugs in software which can be exploited.

Since the Trapdoor program is important to the plot, this is something of a problem; yet the convincing nature of the rest of the setting makes it easy enough to suspend disbelief and enjoy the novel.

Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)

Edition: Little, Brown, 1998
Review number: 1125

Edward O. Wilson is best known as the author of Sociobiology, an early attempt to look at the social structures of human beings alongside those of other animals (he began his career as a researcher into the biology of the ant). The theme of Consilience is related - it is also about extending ideas of a particular kind into areas where they are not common or, to some people, welcome to go. The word "consilience", which literally means "jumping together", has been resurrected by Wilson to mean a unity of knowledge, or, more accurately, of ways to approach problems. The book is a manifesto arguing for the extension of the methods of science into the social sciences and the humanities, even to the interpretation of fine art and to ethics and religion.

This is not, of course, a new idea. Some of the weirder products of the popularisation of Newton's work, for example, were half-baked attempts to derive laws like his in other fields, driven by the idea that once the initial positions of particles were fixed, mathematics would determine their positions for the rest of time. More respectably, many philosophers have tried to base their ideas on mathematical style derivations, most notably Spinoza, Hobbes, and Descartes. However, this is not quite what Wilson means; his manifesto is based on a particular aspect of the way that science works.

One of the most powerful mechanisms in scientific thought is reductionism, which basically means looking at some aspects of a process in isolation from the whole, and in particularly designing experiments to test ideas about these aspects alone. The idea is that once the simplified versions are understood, explanations can be brought together to decipher the more complex. (Wilson points out that critics of reductionism typically ignore the last part, the synthesis back into increasingly complex explanations of the original process.)

There is a hierarchy of reduction in science; biology can (in principle) be reduced to chemistry, which (in principle) can be reduced to physics. (In principle because in many cases a detailed reduction would be too complex to carry out, or some small points are not yet understood; but nevertheless no one doubts the possibility. No one would want to attempt to document every chemical reaction which goes on in a cell, but everyone would expect the processes that happen to be fundamentally chemical in nature.) This relationship between different branches of science is what Wilson means by consilience, and his view is that the social sciences are the next step up in the chain from biology, particularly as the biological underpinnings of brain functionality become better understood. His feeling is that individual psychology will then become reducible to biology, and then that sociology and anthropology will be reducible to psychology.

This is not likely to seem particularly controversial to a scientist, especially given that (as Wilson points out) this kind of reductionism is the most successful kind of explanation known to the human race. However, from the social science side it must come as a shocking attempt to usurp long cherished methods and ideologies (from Marxism to postmodernism). Wilson doesn't soften the blow, ridiculing the achievements of academics in these areas to date - drawing attention, for example, to the evident inability of economists to predict the downfall of the Soviet system. He is clearly knowledgeable about these areas, but frustrated with their inability to move on away from exploded ideas such as those parts of Freudian psychology contradicted by modern studies of the brain. To Wilson, the issue is quickly increasing in importance and urgency, for he suspects that an integration of economic and sociological thought with science will be a necessary part of any viable solution to the world's environmental problems.

Consilience is very clearly written, in a style which manages to combine precision and accessibility. A reader would not need to agree with Wilson's thesis to be impressed, but he is also an able and convincing debater. A fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the future directions of either science or the social sciences.

Friday, 11 October 2002

Janna Levin: How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (2002)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002
Review number: 1123

It is not, generally speaking, usual for modern science books to be concerned with the private lives of their authors, even though it is inevitable that the scientific work that they have done will have been influenced by this. This is a result of the idea that scientific ideas should be valid without any cultural context, but the anecdotes which litter popular science books demonstrate how important some subjectivity is for interesting the reader - few people read textbooks for pleasure. An excellent example is Pais' 'Subtle is the Lord...', which is a biography of Einstein which places equal emphasis on his life story and an explanation of his ideas.

How the Universe Got Its Spots is based on a series of letters written by cosmologist Janna Levin to her mother, which seek to explain her work. I don't know how much Levin's mother already knew, but the letters don't presuppose significant amounts of scientific and mathematical education; which makes even writing the letters in the first place quite a brave thing to do; a parent is a far more difficult audience than some unknown reader. The letters also contain details of her personal life over a two year period, a diary of the gradual breakdown of Levin's relationship with musician Warren.

Levin's work is in the topology of cosmology, trying to come up with possible descriptions of the large scale shape and structure of the universe. This may be discernible as patterns in such measurements as the COBE map of variations in the cosmic background radiation. The ideas which are introduced to explain this include a fair amount of topology, which is one of the more entertaining branches of mathematics. The explanations of the ideas behind Levin's work are clear and simple (though as someone who has studied topology I might well not be a good judge).

It is for the combination of the science and the personal history that readers will pick up How the Universe Got Its Spots, however. The way that the two are put together makes the book reminiscent of a novel which was a bestseller a few years ago, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaardner. That book, though intended to introduce children to philosophy, was enjoyed by large numbers of adults; and if you liked it, you are pretty certain to like this.

Wednesday, 9 October 2002

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio (2002)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2002
Review number: 1122

Although An Instance of the Fingerpost is a great deal more literary than Pears' other earlier novels, it remained part of the crime genre. Now he moves on to something else, an extremely literary idea in an accessible style. The Dream of Scipio is a historical novel, which has three parallel narratives separated by 1500 years but all set in the Avignon region of France. Each story centres around an individual, each a man trying to do their best to preserve what they love as their world falls to pieces around them: villa owner Manlius as Rome decays; poet Olivier de Noyes in the fourteenth century plague; and historian Julien Barneuve under the Vichy government and the German occupation of France in the war. From the start, the reader with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history knows that their efforts are basically doomed to failure, which helps Pears to create the atmosphere of the novel.

As an author, Pears seems to be fascinated by this kind of structure - An Instance of the Fingerpost also features multiple viewpoints on a single issue. In that novel, he used the idea to give weight to a mystery; here, it has a more literary end as it is used to elucidate the characters of men through history. The women in the story, though essential to the plots, are far less completely realised as characters. In fact, they are used to introduce the other major theme of The Dream of Scipio, which is an attack on anti-Semitism. The men's abstract interest in maintaining the culture around them is matched by a personal desire to protect a Jewish woman close to their hearts.

Of the three stories, that of Julien is the most interesting; offered a post in local government, he has to balance his repugnance for the regime against the feeling that if he didn't take it up someone more zealous could be appointed and that he might be able to do some good by accepting. The other major characters have similar choices to make about compromising their ideals, but Julien's is on a larger scale - the earlier anti-Semitism is basically mob violence springing from ignorance, stupidity and fear, while the Nazis went a step beyond that, putting technological organisation behind their killing.

The simple style which Pears uses in The Dream of Scipio (named after a philosophical work by Manlius based on that by Cicero, read by the other two men) makes it seem easy to read; it is rather like his Jonathan Argyll books in the way it is written instead of pretentiously proclaiming itself as a deep work of literature, which is what it really is. (That isn't to say that pretension isn't ever enjoyable, just that this is a refreshing change.)

Friday, 4 October 2002

John le Carré: The Constant Gardener

Edition: Coronet, 2001
Review number: 1121

One of the major issues that faces our generation, one which receives relatively little publicity and which seems quite intractable, is how large corporations can be controlled by public opinion, particularly their operations in Third World countries desperate for money. Stockholders continue to put short term profits ahead of other concerns - such as humanitarian and environmental ones - and are frequently able to exert considerable pressure even on the American government to be allowed to do whatever they want. (The US attitude to the recent environment conference in Johannesburg is a good example, and this year's accounting scandals show that blatant and illegal lying to maintain share prices has been an accepted part of some corporate culture.)

The Constant Gardener is set mainly amoung the diplomatic community in Kenya. There, the British High Commission is hit by a scandal when the wife of a junior diplomat is found with her throat cut while on a drive from a safari resort. What at first sight seems to be a violent robbery soon turns out to be something more sinister; the drive was to visit Richard Leakey, newly appointed to the Kenyan cabinet so that Arup Moi could be seen to be trying to deal with the corruption of the regime, and Tess had been gathering evidence about the wrongdoing of a Western drug company which she wanted to present to Leakey as someone who might be willing to act on the information. Orders rapidly arrive from the Foreign Office in London to drop any investigation of this side of things, but Tessa's husband Justin wants to find out just what she had discovered that was so important that the company involved would consider ordering a "hit" on her.

Le Carré's diagnosis of corruption is not just confined to Kenya, but stretches right back to Europe and North America, exposing such practises as attempts by pharmaceutical companies to take control of university researchers (via large donations) and thus the journals which contain the reports made of drug trials. In the case invented by le Carré, the problem is not that the drug is no good (it is a spectacular cure for TB), but that the proper tests have been hurried and the drug at present has potentially fatal side effects.

John le Carré is not the first writer to take up the theme of corporate sleaze; it is easy to see most cyberpunk as warnings about what might happen if nothing is done, and it is more explicitly addressed in Ben Elton's Stark, a novel which I found almost unreadable. The Constant Gardener is the most convincing and enjoyable thriller I have read on the subject, and feels like a real call to action.