ONLY FORWARD by

In Stark’s world, the country (presumably either England or Australia) has lost its separate cities, and they have all become one huge city with various and distinctive neighborhoods.  Stark, a single young man,  lives in Colour, a neighbourhood whose inhabitants like to be co-ordinated with their surroundings – a neighbourhood where spangly purple trousers are admired by the walls of buildings as you pass them. Close by is Sound, where you mustn’t make any, apart from one designated hour a day when you can scream your lungs raw. Then there’s Red – get off at Fuck Station Zero if you want to see a tactical nuclear battle recreated as a sales demonstration.

Stark has friends in Red, which is just as well because Something is about to happen. And when a Something happens it’s no good chanting ‘Duck and cover’ while cowering in a corner, because a Something is always from the past, Stark’s past, and it won’t go away until you face it full on.

This strange, surreal book was for me a mixed bag.  The first half was interesting and entertaining, a strange world, curious and cleverly drawn.  However, as the plot moved forward (see what I did there?), it turned into something less compelling, a dream world, where danger and peril lurked.  I don’t like dream worlds.  I don’t care about other people’s dreams in RL, so I have zero interest in the dreams of fictional characters.  I mean, really.

There was a surprising denouement to be found in that dreamworld, however, and I am not telling you what it is because that would totally spoil the book.

Well written, speculative fiction about identity, and how the past is never really over no matter how hard we try to move foward.

DEFINITELY MAYBE by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky

The Strugatsky brothers were Soviet-Russian science fiction authors who collaborated through most of their careers.   They were arguably  the greatest science fiction writers of the Soviet era: their books were intellectually provocative and riotously funny, full of boldly imagined scenarios and veiled—but clear—social criticism.

Definitely Maybe tells the story of astrophysicist Dmitri Malianov, who has sent his wife and son off to her mother’s house in Odessa so that he can work, free from distractions, on the project he’s sure will win him the Nobel Prize.

But he’d have an easier time making progress if he wasn’t being interrupted all the time: First, it’s the unexpected delivery of a crate of vodka and caviar. Then a beautiful young woman in an unnervingly short skirt shows up at his door. Then several of his friends—also scientists—drop by, saying they all felt they were on the verge of a major discovery when they got . . . distracted . . .
Is there an ominous force that doesn’t want knowledge to progress? Or could it be something more . . . natural?

Told in the form of diary excerpts, it is fragments of the attempts of various scientists to achieve their breakthrough ideas, but just who or what is preventing them is unclear to all.  Could it be ……. aliens?  hahaha

Not quite as funny as Roadside Picnic, which posits the debris and trash left behind by alien sightseers, but Definitely Maybe is still pretty clever, nonetheless.  The Strugatsky books give the reader a lot of questions, and dang little in the way of answers, suggesting that we are simply a clueless species who don’t know what questions to ask, let alone any of the answers.  I talked about Roadside Picnic here.

 

PERMIAN – EMISSARY OF THE EXTINCT by Devyn Regueira

Official plot description:

Their vastness  concealed since an era predating the earliest mammals, two titanic chasms are uncovered beneath the canopy of modern Siberia.

Lining the granite walls of the first, high above an orderly reservoir of fossilized eggs, an inscription spanning eighty-five miles describes the genome of a proto-mammalian species eradicated during the Permian Extinction. In the next, researchers discover etchings of the constellations as they would have appeared across the eons; a global timeline of ten billion years remembered and foretold by a primordial intelligence beyond our own. Armed with a genetic recipe, compelled to act by the harrowing implications of a pattern detected in the timeline, an international effort begins to return that species from extinction before mankind encounters its own.

The human race has only just learned to pluck at the strings of life on Earth. Will the curtains rise on a siren’s song?

The group of governments who are investigating the genetic recipe etched around the abysses use that recipe to make a creature which is a compilation of an extinct somewhat-human species, and then spend a lot of time dialoguing with it.  Mixed in with this are flashbacks of a sort to episodes of the creature’s life in which we learn they have the ability to see into the future and predict their own extinction.

Interesting premise, confusing second half.  Reads like a textbook on genetics, etc. wrapped within some kind of plot.  The writing itself was fine, the plot line could use some serious work to make it a bit more palatable and less pedantic.

But again, intriguing premise.  I am always supportive of ideas that do not trod the tried and true ruts, but come up with something different.

 

GNOMON by Nick Harkaway

“In the near future world of London, England, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of ‘transparency.’ Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories–all in the name of providing the safest society in history.

When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. The System doesn’t make mistakes, but something isn’t right about the circumstances surrounding Hunter’s death. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn’t Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter’s psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future call Gnomon.

Embedded in the memories of these impossible lives lies a code which Neith must decipher to find out what Hunter is hiding. In the static between these stories, Neith begins to catch glimpses of the real Diana Hunter–and, alarmingly, of herself. The staggering consequences of what she finds will reverberate throughout the world.”

VERY interesting concept, and a pretty interesting execution …. for a while.  This book is  over 700 pages, about 300 pages too long.  Each of those fictional characters parading around inside the dissident woman’s head has its own (very long) story, which clouds what would otherwise be a nifty murder-in-plain-sight mystery.

I found it compelling and page turning for about 65% of the book, and then it just became tedious.  Once we Gentle Readers understand that all these separate stories and characters were deliberately made up by the dead woman to obfuscate her real intentions should she be subjected to interrogation,  the fascination with them plummets to nuttin’.   It’s like somebody telling you their dreams.  Who cares?  It’s dreams, it is not a real happening.  Side diversion while I bitch complain testily about fiction which recounts some character’s dream, yeah, like it means anything.  I don’t let people tell me their dreams in real life, why would I want to waste time reading about the fictional dream of a fictional character in a novel? So I spent the rest of the book skipping over the tedious and seemingly endless tales of these fictional characters in the head of a fictional character in a piece of fiction I was reading, till I got to the end, the mystery was solved, and ended with some very weird and unnecessary woo woo paranormal crap happenings.

Disappointed.  And I LOVED Harkaway’s other book, The Gone-Away World, which you will find here.  But as always, I am bedazzled by such a mind that can create a world such as exists in Gnomon.

NEW YORK 2140 By Kim Stanley Robinson

Another one of Robinson’s rants disguised as sci fi. “It is 2140.  The waters rose, submerging New York City. But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever. Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.

Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building, Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.”

Although meant to be a cautionary tale of what happens when the climate changes, basically, it fails at that, because although some folks lose out, most just keep on keeping on, moving to higher ground, and living their same old lives.  But in boats.   Let’s face it, people live their lives in Venice, and aren’t all tragic about it.

It has something of a plot, sort of.  It follows a smallish cast of folks and how their lives converge, centered on a huge building in midtown Manhattan, in the intertidal, a part of Manhattan that is partly submerged, most above the water line.

Oh, and us ladies are thrown a bone of one of the principle characters, a young hedge fund financial worker, who falls for a women 16 years older than he is, but decides it is alright.  Oh, geez.

There is a lot of what Robinson does best: description.  It is for this I fell in love with him after reading his Mars trilogy, which is 1/3 plot and 2/3 descriptions of Mars.  His book about Anartica is mostly description.  He is the James Mitchner of Sci Fi,  without the great characterizations and plots.   Let’s face it, Robinson’s characters are more stand-ins for ideas than characters, but it is OK if you are reading for the ideas, etc. His plots exist mainly to function as structure to hold together his screeds.  His descriptions in this book are of the landscape of the pre-drowned New York City and its five boroughs, and the currently drowned area, and detailed descriptions of how Finance works, and in this book, it would seem that the 1% have become the .10%.  Money goes to money, and there are layers and layers and layers of it and the vast majority of us have no idea of how it all works, other than somebody hires us, we get a paycheck which is not enough to cover expenses, and the wealthy have houses and apartments in all the important cities of the world.

As most of his books, it is long.  Really long.  Maybe a couple hundred pages too long.  A few less rants, a bit more plot, but, what do I know?

So, yeah, I liked it.  Not as much as the Mars trilogy, but hey, that was MARS, people.  Mars.

 

THE CARPET MAKERS by Andreas Eschbach

German Sci Fi.  No, really.  It is.   And beautifully translated by Doryl Jensen, too.

It is based on a unique idea….  and you will love it.  It starts off kind of like a fable, or maybe fantasy, with a smell of sword and sorcerer to it, set as it begins in a primitive medieval-like land on an unnamed planet, definitely Earth-like. and I was not sure I would continue, as this type of thing is not usually my cup of tequila.  What we got here  is a caste-like primitive society, whose highest caste members are carpet makers. But not just any carpet makers.  They make intricate carpets the size of a man, the width of his out-stretched arms.  Made of human hair.  Tied in tiny intricate knots, so tiny and tight that it takes the maker his entire lifetime to complete one carpet, and the hair comes exclusively from the heads of his wives and daughters.  He is only allowed one son, who will be taught the skill and will follow him.  If any other boys are born, he kills them.

OK, so far, so weird.  These carpets are then bought and collected by traveling caravans which take them to the Port City, where they are packed onto space transport ships (aha!  the sci fi is appearing) and sent to the Emperor’s Palace to cover his floors. The Emperor is a deity worshiped by all.  The people on the planet believe there are other planets which produce exclusively other products for the Emperor.

On the planet where the palace and the Emperor reside, there is not a single hair carpet.  Where are they all going?  The Emperor is believed to be eternal.  But a rebel faction arises, and kills him, and then spends the next 20 years trying to go to all the planets of which there are thousands, and which strangely enough are producing nothing but hair carpets, to advise the Emperor is dead, and to stop making carpets.

Each chapter starts a new narrative, following a different group of characters, with few repeat appearances from previous characters or story-lines. But after a few chapters in I started to see the relationship between the (seemingly) disconnected narratives, and began to enjoy putting together the puzzle pieces, and unraveling the mystery.

I absolutely loved this book.  Especially because although there are space ships which transport the carpets, the people do not have running water, inside plumbing, electricity, or vehicles.  Everyone travels by foot or carts pulled by animals.

This book is not about aliens.  It is about belief systems, and toys with our notions of extended time. And of carpets.

 

CYTEEN by C. J. Cherryh

I almost didn’t read this book.  My Dearly Beloved downloaded it and since we have a linked Amazon account, it ended up also on my Kindle.  I thought it would be about a cyber teen, you know, another YA where the teenager has special powers suddenly overnight?  Right?  No.  Wrong.

It is about genetic engineering, and politics and clones, called replicas, and bossing everybody around even after you are dead. Gee.  That notion holds a certain appeal, doesn’t it.  It won a whole bunch of awards in 1989 – Hugo Award for Best Novel: winner,  SF Chronicle Award, Best Novel: winner,  British Science Fiction Association Award, Best SF Novel: nomination,  Locus Award, Best SF Novel: winner, and in 1998, the Locus Award, All-Time Best SF Novel before 1990: position 38.

Let me see if I can narrow down the plot description from Wiki’s 18 paragraphs to a  more manageable length.  Whew.  OK. Diving in.

Founded in 2201 by a group of dissident scientists and engineers, the Cyteen star system includes the planet Cyteen and Cyteen Inner and Outer Stations. Cyteen declared its independence from Earth in 2300 CE and now serves as the capital of Union.

The planet’s atmosphere is moderately toxic to humans, necessitating enclaves, or semi-encapsulated city-states, which drives Union’s political outlook. Cyteen is seen as the antithesis of Earth; the heart of Union is the research facility Reseune, the center of all research and development of human cloning.

Cloned “azi” provide the additional population Union needs to exist and expand, a policy which Earth and the Alliance, Union’s main rival, deplore and refuse to sanction. Azi are incubated in vitro in “womb-tanks”, but citizen (or “CIT”) babies can also be cloned the same way, for example to replace a dead child. The fundamental difference between azi and regular humans is that they are educated from birth via “tape”, a computer-controlled combination of conditioning and biofeedback training. This technology is not limited to azi; it is used by normal humans as well, though to a lesser extent and after they have a chance to develop (i.e. usually after the age of six). This results in profound psychological differences; for example, CITs are much more capable of handling new and uncertain situations, while azi are able to concentrate better.

The overall educational program of an azi is referred to as his or her “psychset”. Designing tapes is an extremely complex discipline, since a badly designed psychset can cause azi to become emotionally unstable.

OK, that’s the basic background. Onto this scene we encounter Ariane Emory, one of fourteen “Specials”, Union-certified geniuses. In addition to her research on azi, she runs Reseune (founded by her parents) with the assistance of Giraud and Denys Nye. Emory is also a member of the Council of Nine, the elected, top-level executive body of Union. Two political factions vie for power in Union: the Centrists and the Expansionists. The latter, led by Emory, seek to enlarge Union through exploration, building new stations and continued cloning. Her political enemies, headed by Mikhail Corain, prefer to focus on the existing stations and planets. The Expansionists have held power since the foundation of Union, a situation fostered by “rejuv”, which extends lifespans and staves off the effects of old age. Emory herself is 120 years old at the start of the novel – and only just beginning to show signs of aging – and has been the Councillor for Science for five decades.

Emory’s former co-worker and now bitter longtime rival, Jordan Warrick, is also a Special. Jordan has created and raised a clone of himself named Justin. Justin has grown up with and is very close to Grant, an experimental azi created by Emory from the slightly modified geneset of another Special. When Justin goes to work for Emory, she threatens to use Grant, who is Reseune property, for research. Using drugs and tape to overcome Justin’s remaining resistance, she rapes the inexperienced seventeen-year-old. This trauma causes him to experience periodic debilitating “tape-flashes”, similar to the flashbacks that PTSD sufferers experience. Justin does his best to hide the sordid matter from his “father”, but Jordan eventually learns of it. He is furious and confronts Emory.

She is found dead later that day. Though it could have been accidental, there is strong suspicion that she was murdered by Jordan. He protests his innocence, but agrees to a confession in order to protect both Justin and Grant. Because of his Special status, he has legal immunity and is only exiled to an isolated research facility far from Reseune.

Emory’s ultimate goal was to clone herself, with her successor reliving her life as closely as possible, down to her hormone levels and including two longtime bodyguard azi and companions, Florian and Catlin. Emory also created a sophisticated and powerful computer program to help guide her replacement. With her death and the resulting disruption to both Reseune and Union, the second project is begun immediately.

And the rest of the book is all about the replica Ari growing up and the events that happen to her and to the political situation.  Full disclosure — a lot of that plot description was lifted whole from Wiki.  OK, most of it.

You will be as pleased as I am to learn that C. J. Cherryh is a female.  I LOVE sci fi written by women, and so much of her wondrous oeuvre was written during a time when the field was dominated by male writers.  Cherryh (pronounced “Cherry”) appended a silent “h” to her real name because her first editor felt that “Cherry” sounded too much like a romance writer. Her initials, C.J., were used to disguise the fact that she was female.  Cherryh, has written more than 80 books since the mid-1970s, including the Hugo Award-winning novels Downbelow Station (1981) also set in her Alliance-Union universe. She is known for her world building, depicting fictional realms with great realism supported by vast research in history, language, psychology, and archeology. Her series of fantasy novels set in the Alliance-Union universe, the Morgaine Stories, have sold in excess of 3 million copies.

And dig this:  the author has an asteroid, 77185 Cherryh, named after her! Referring to this honor, the asteroid’s discoverers wrote of Cherryh: “She has challenged us to be worthy of the stars by imagining how mankind might grow to live among them.”  

Dang. Any of you have an asteroid named after you?  I didn’t think so.