Book Review

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Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

If this book, and the previous one by the same author which I have read, Cryptonomicon,  [albeit a much later book in his canon] are representative, then they are all [13] very long indeed; this one runs to 697 [!] pages, and the font used for the text is small—possibly 12pt—but I can genuinely say that this was a book I really didn’t want to end. It will probably be classified as SciFi but, given that it has been written within the last couple of years, on recent evidence, I would describe it as prescient, because IMHO one doesn’t have to be a tree-hugging, panicking environmentalist to discern that the scenario presented here is all too plausible; even possible—I hope against hope it is not probable. It is the near future; although the exact year is not specified, but COVID-27 is mentioned [subsequent to COVID-23 and our by-now familiar COVID-19], so it could be in the region of ten years hence, at least, and the climate has significantly worsened. The explanation for the book’s title will follow some further background information.

There are several different strands to the narrative, starting in different locations, but the reason for that will soon become clear. I had to put my republican sentiments into suspended animation for the duration of this story but, thankfully, that wasn’t too difficult, despite one of the main characters being the fictitious queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilda Louisa Saskia, although the Dutch ‘royal’ family is famously low-maintenance; Saskia, as she prefers to be known by those close to her, is also a likeable person [but that has no bearing on my principles, as in the British situation]. A Texan billionaire, T.R. Schmidt [aka McHooligan, the publicly marketed persona for his chain of truck stops] has invited a somewhat disparate group of prominent persons to a conference in Houston, to discuss the climate crisis, and Saskia is one of these; although her constitutional inability to act directly & unilaterally is explained in great detail [as is much else: one of the commendable aspects of Stephenson’s narratives]. Unfortunately, her incoming self-piloted jet aeroplane crashes on landing at Waco airport; Houston being unavailable as a result of the intense heat; but she, and her minimal entourage survive, albeit with a few non life-threatening injuries, to continue the journey, and during her rescue from the cause of the crash, feral swine [and, randomly, although not much more, an alligator], she encounters another main character in the story: Rufus [Red] Grant, a self-employed operator trading under the name FERAL SWINE MITIGATION SERVICES.

Another character, who initially also seems like a rather random inclusion, is a young Canadian man by the name of Deep, although he generally goes by the nickname of Laks, which is derived from the salmon he catches for a living; when he can’t do that in his native British Columbia, out of season, he works as a welder. Initially, these aspects of his character, in addition to his high level of fitness and toned physique, and the traditional Indian martial arts he enjoys practising because of his Indian heritage, don’t seem to connect with the rest of the narrative, but slowly & surely, through the literal, as well as emotional journey he undertakes, the author draws these loose strands together, and they later connect very satisfactorily.

Schmidt’s proposal, which is demonstrated after all the scrupulously polite & accommodating preliminaries, is to spread the sulphur which he has available in vast quantities into the upper atmosphere, providing a global reflective blanket to mitigate the greenhouse effect of the sun, which has been exacerbated by human-produced carbon dioxide. He is going to do this unilaterally and, it transpires, has already started doing it [the technical details are quite involved, so better absorbed from the narrative]; he hopes to also encourage other strategically placed nations to do the same, hence the conference, although the invitees are not necessarily the most geographically, or politically, obvious. Hence the jeopardy in the story: a scheme such as this has been proposed in similar forms previously, but a scientific consensus was never reached so, with a nod to his location, Schmidt decided that he must take the metaphorical bull by the horns and use his money for humanity’s benefit. Unfortunately, not all of humanity would be similarly benefited, and nations such as China & India, which were not invited, are significantly concerned, for political as well as geo-climatic reasons.

The title is the name of what is generally reckoned [using the climatic data currently available to the scientists] will happen if climate-mitigating measures, such as that proposed, and already put into action by Schmidt, are precipitately terminated: the climate would go into a sort of shock, from which it might never recover; or, at least, not in a way which would be conducive to long-term survival of the human race. For several different reasons, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: whether it would convince waverers, or hardline climate change sceptics, of the need for rapid & decisive climate mitigating action is debatable, but aside from the politics, it’s a damn good and well-written story—I would also recommend Cryptonomicon, if you have any interest at all in cryptography, but the history aspect of it is also illuminating, and written in a very approachable way. The [large!] paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by the Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0084-0440-6.

Book Review

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Over A Torrent Sea, by Christopher L. Bennett

This story is one of the multitudinous episodes in book form in the Star Trek canon, and this particular one is an adventure of the Star Ship Titan; although I wasn’t familiar with this ship, or the events which precede this story, the fact that I know the captain, William Riker, from the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, means that I felt comfortable reading it, without a steep learning curve required to acquaint myself with a lot of new characters [although there are quite a few]. I’ve never been able to understand how the Stardate system works, but at the beginning of the story, we are given an equivalence between Stardate 58126.3 & 2381 in the current western system: no doubt I could look it up online, if I could be bothered….. There must have been a series of books preceding this one, entitled Star Trek: Destiny, detailing “devastating events”, according to the book’s cover, presumably involving The Federation’s arch-enemies, the Borg, who have, also presumably, been defeated, enabling “Captain William Riker and the crew of the U.S.S. Titan … to resume their deep-space assignment, reaffirming Starfleet’s core principles of peaceful exploration.”

They encounter a very unusual planet, one consisting of a global ocean, with no apparent solid land to be seen anywhere. They [as in, the English-speaking ones] name the planet Droplet and, initially, it appears that it is devoid of any life, sentient or otherwise, but luckily, there is in the crew an aquatic lifeform, Aili Lavena, who is able to explore the oceans freely [and joyfully], unencumbered by the life-support suit she is obliged to wear in gaseous atmospheres; she has also, because her species is unashamedly promiscuous at a specific period in their life-cycles, enjoyed a brief but rewarding liaison with Will Riker, which will become a matter of some embarrassment for him as the story unfolds, especially as he is now in a serious relationship with the ship’s Counsellor, the Betazoid empath Deanna Troi, who must have moved with him from Enterprise, for that very reason: she is in the late stage of pregnancy, having tragically lost a previous baby by miscarriage.

It is discovered that there are, in fact, lifeforms in the ocean, capable of living at great depths, but it isn’t clear whether they are sentient, or simply ‘animal’; because they look like an amalgam of a whale & a squid, they are called squales. The question of sentience is almost resolved when Lavena is rescued from a predator, and it is confirmed when the squales destroy probes which have been submerged to warn them away from an area which would be dangerous for them, as a result of an underwater tsunami; also, Lavena has been able to establish primitive communication with them, as her own language bears some basic similarities, so she learns that technology appears to frighten them. Inevitably, the Federation’s Prime Directive has to be considered when a rogue asteroid appears to be on course for the planet, and Riker has to decide whether they can reveal their extraterrestrial origin, something which has thus far been carefully concealed. Revealing any more would probably spoil the plot which, if you enjoy science fiction in general, and the Star Trek canon specifically, is exemplary of the Star Trek ethos; in particular, how all life, in its great diversity, is precious, and that difference in all forms should be respected, and not feared. The paperback I read should still be available, but it might necessitate some effort in locating: I like to think that effort will be rewarded. It was published in 2009 by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., under exclusive licence from CBS Studios, Inc., ISBN 978-1-4165-9497-0.

Book Review

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A Remedy in Time, by Jennifer Macaire

I’m a sucker for stories about time travel, but I usually try to be discerning in which ones I give my attention to, rather than just slavishly reading any old time-travel pulp. This is another physically small book filled with small type [10.5pt Bembo Std, for those typophiles among my readers], running to only 179 pages, but it packs plenty in to that page count [I’m not gifted with the ability to visualise word counts, whereas page counts make much more sense]. This is a reasonably prolific author, with fourteen publications to her name, and many of them seem to have a time element in the name, although not necessarily time travel. The synopsis on the back cover, albeit somewhat melodramatic, seems acceptably concise, so I will shamelessly quote it here—the strapline is: “To save the future, she must turn to the past.” [The text is laid out centrally oriented, to simulate sand passing through an hourglass, but I will eschew that, and apologies for the Ands and But, which I normally also eschew]:

San Francisco, Year 3378. A deadly virus has taken the world by storm. Scientists are desperately working to develop a vaccine. And Robin Johnson — genius, high-functioning, and perhaps a little bit single-minded — is delighted. Because, to cure the disease, she’s given the chance to travel back in time.

But when Robin arrives at the last Ice Age, hoping to stop the virus at its source, she finds more there than she bargained for. And just as her own chilly exterior is beginning to thaw, she realises it’s not only sabre-toothed tigers that are in danger of extinction…”

It is difficult to explain much detail from the story without spoiling the plot, but it is possible to make some general observations, in addition to saying that I enjoyed reading it. Very much in its favour, in contrast to most narratives dealing with time travel, which gloss over, or even omit details of what the process involves, is the fact that this book gives some very plausible information to this layman, at least: the travellers are “basically frozen, then unravelled atom by atom, and projected into a vacuum where our atoms are shot into a sort of hadron collider.” This sounds similar to the Star Trek “beaming” process, but that could just be a coincidence, of course. The element which I find difficult to accept [but then again, I’m a layman, so what do I know?] is “…our atoms are immutable so they can be taken apart but they will always snap together in exactly the same order they started out as. That way, we don’t leave as human beings and arrive as pineapples, for example.” Wait a minute: wasn’t that the reason why the ST transporters had pattern buffers? Anyhoo, she [Robin] does say that the process is “incredibly painful”, which I have no difficulty believing!

Mindful of the danger of interfering with the timeline, customarily the travellers are exhorted not to interact with any organic matter, unless it has a specific purpose which, of course, this latest mission does, or leave behind any anachronistic artefacts. It is interesting to speculate, given the currency of the publication date, whether the story is to any extent inspired by the contemporary pandemic: if so, sadly, we don’t have the exotic option employed by this story at our disposal. The travellers have a strictly limited ‘window’ for their missions, and an option of a rescue mission, activated by a message sent via a beam of light similar to that used to send & retrieve the travellers, also exists. The travellers are even injected with a self-destruct capsule which is set to dissolve all organic matter in its vicinity after a set timespan, to avoid the timeline contamination if the mission were to fail disastrously. One general observation I would make [and not unfamiliar to those of my close acquaintance] is that, as usual, money causes all the regular problems in the future as distant as the one described here, even with the sophisticated technology in evidence, and colonisation of Mars, in our own solar system: greed is the primary evil, as ever.

I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with the option chosen by Robin in the dénouement, to resolve the situation but, thankfully, I know that isn’t remotely likely; having said that, the course she opts for, after overcoming the perils she encounters, is highly commendable, given the circumstances. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Headline Accent, an imprint of Headline Publishing Group, ISBN 978-1-7861-5790-4.

This will be my last post before the new calendar year, so happy Solstice/Yule to all my subscribers, and compliments of the season to all who celebrate it—here’s to happier times ahead!

Book Review

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Solaris, by Stanisław Lem

I don’t know if this book could be considered a modern classic of science fiction; or perhaps, a twentieth century classic would now be more appropriate, as it was published in 1961, in the author’s native language, Polish—it is, however, described on the rear cover as the masterpiece of this author. The first English translation was published in 1970: a delay which isn’t necessarily significant, but intriguing, nonetheless. It has certainly been considered good enough for two film versions to be based upon it: a rather dated-looking 1972 Russian version, with melodramatic music, and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky; and a 2002 American version, produced by James Cameron & Jon Landau, starring the then [and still] hot property, George Clooney, and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who, according to the Wikipedia entry for it, promised to be closer in spirit to the source material—apparently, Lem disliked both renderings.

Notwithstanding that the type is quite small; possibly 10pt, at a guess, because this isn’t stated on the flyleaf; the book packs a lot into its 214 pages. There appear to be three distinct sections to it, although there is some overlap: the setup; action; and the philosophy incorporated in the story. The latter section occupies a significant amount of space and, in my own humble opinion, this is what Lem wanted to propagate, for which the story [action] is a vehicle. A space station [referred to as the Station], a description of which is not given until well over halfway through the book, is in low orbit around the eponymous planet of the story, which itself orbits two suns: one red, and one blue. There have been no reports from the Station latterly, implying a lack of progress in the research the Station was created for, so a spaceship, Prometheus [it is interesting to speculate if this was the inspiration for the 2012 film in the Alien canon] is sent from earth with a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, on board, but the length of Kelvin’s mission is indeterminate, as Prometheus doesn’t wait for him, once he is safely delivered to the Station. When he arrives, he quickly discovers that all is not well, but to reveal any more would spoil the plot; however, the encapsulated philosophy can be discussed.

Solaris is a water planet, with only isolated islands & archipelagos visible, and this is a very significant element of the story. The very nature of humanity is questioned, but it also raises the question of whether there is such a thing as absolute truth; or is it always [and only] subjective? Certainly, Kelvin’s encounters on the Station, for all his experience & expertise, change him profoundly. Incidentally, I discovered a hitherto unknown word in the text: auscultation, with which medical personnel might be familiar, as it refers to the action of listening to sounds from the heart, lungs, or other organs, typically with a stethoscope, as a part of medical diagnosis. Naturally enough, given the preponderance of philosophical observations in the book, at the end of the narrative, religion, and specifically Kelvin’s concept of it, comes under the metaphorical microscope, and the mysteries of existence itself are considered, something which space travel inherently seems to inspire [2001, A Space Odyssey et al], given man’s participation in exploration of a boundless cosmos/universe: nowadays, these two terms appear to be synonymous.

There is a lot more I could write about the articulacy of the book; for which English-speaking readers should be grateful to the translators, Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox; and the descriptions of occurrences on the planet are very detailed & copious, but to give them here would forewarn the reader as to how the narrative develops, so I will refrain, other than to say that Lem’s imagination is to be applauded. Arguably, all science fiction has an agenda, but the agenda of this story is right out in the open, and irrefutably thought-provoking. The paperback version I read was published in 2016 by Faber and Faber Limited, London, ISBN 978-0-571-31157-6.

Book Review

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World Engines – Destroyer, by Stephen Baxter

I am very happy to state ‘upfront’ that, except for the ending, I have enjoyed reading this book more than any other I have read, of any genre, for a long time; that might seem like a contradiction, but my enjoyment of the main body of the narrative was not diminished unduly by the short final section, which was something of a disappointment. I can’t reveal any details of the final section, naturally wanting to avoid spoilers, but I felt that, after such a comprehensive narrative, in which Baxter has allowed time for the folds in the story to be revealed & explored, the ending could have been longer and more detailed: it was as if he knew a sequel would have been a better way to wrap the story up, or even develop it some more, but in the end, he couldn’t be bothered, or he ran out of steam, so it was just a question of tying up all the loose ends as cleanly as possible. Enough of that for now, though, because you need to know what the story is about! Ahead of the characters & the plot, what I enjoyed about the story was the elements of alternate universes and time periods, rather than time travel per se, but also the fact that the fantasy was very much rooted in the real world that we know, instead of a fictitious universe full of alien races & technology that is unknown to us and, given our current level of knowledge, impossible.

The story starts hundreds of years into earth’s future, the year 2469, precisely, when earth has suffered the climate catastrophe that is now widely predicted. A man is woken from a cryogenic sleep, and it appears that he is a space shuttle pilot from the early days of the 21st century; so, our own time now, but subtly different in the state of space technology (and the political history that has allowed this to be created). He is conversing with a form of artificial intelligence (AI), and he has been woken earlier than he might otherwise have been, given that he suffered a devastating accident which left him very badly injured, because a message has been received from Phobos, one of the satellites of Mars. The main problem, apart from some significant differences in the sequence of events that led up to the sender’s distress call is that it is impossible, because the sender couldn’t be there in the first place, because she is Emma Stoney, the wife of the pilot, Colonel Reid Malenfant, and her ship was lost when it reached Phobos. In this timeline, Mars was already colonised by 2005, and there was “some kind of puzzle with Phobos”, but it was easier to send a dedicated mission from Earth than to have the Mars base colonists do it from the ground. Unfortunately, the problem with Phobos is inextricably connected with an event known by everybody by the name The Destroyer, which is predicted with some accuracy it would seem, by the AIs, to occur in the year 3397, resulting in the destruction of Earth and very possibly also much of our solar system.

Malenfant is sent back to Earth from the moon, where he had been kept in cold storage, and he is assigned a humanoid AI with medical specialities, to monitor & supervise his recovery, and he befriends a young woman who is also assigned to him as a sort of cultural advisor. The Earth of the twenty-fifth century has a well-established resource based economy (the long-term result of a very surprising innovation by one of the best-known 20th century American politicians: and not who you might think!), as money is no longer necessary, apart from occasional exceptional circumstances; the population doesn’t have to work for a living, because all necessities for a comfortable life are freely available: the fact that the population is much reduced as a result of the foregoing upheavals is a positive contributory factor here. Malenfant is curious as to why the populace seems to accept unquestioningly the impending fate of Earth, albeit in the relatively far distant future, but when he speaks to the Earthbound AI, he discovers that it is distinctly worried (displaying a surprising level of human empathy), so he sets out to find out more about the problem with Phobos, which seems to be the root of the danger. Using by then outdated space technology, but with which he is familiar from his own experience, he manages to get to Phobos, which is where the story becomes distinctly strange……

This is about as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but if you enjoy space fantasy fiction and, especially, if you have read any of Stephen Baxter’s other books, either solo or with Terry Pratchett, I am as sure as I can be that you will enjoy this one. The paperback version I read was published in 2020 by Gollancz, London, ISBN 978-1-473-22319-6. This is a book to really luxuriate in, and revel in the way the plot develops quickly enough to retain your interest, but not so quickly as to leave you gasping for breath. As I said, the ending seemed tantalisingly short, but I don’t think it leaves the way open for a sequel: should that be the case and I am wrong, however, I would be eager to read it!

Book Review

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

Book Review

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I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is possibly the best known of Asimov’s stories, but the book with this title is, in fact, a series of nine short stories, published individually between 1940 & 1950, plus a fictitious introduction, in a connected thread, and it is also one of five ‘robot’ books written by Asimov; the epithet ‘seminal’ can surely and safely be ascribed to it, in the science fiction genre. Younger readers might initially associate the title with a 2004 film of the same name, directed by Alex Proyas, and starring Will Smith; given that it is a few years since I watched this film, from what I can remember, it bears little resemblance to Asimov’s original: the Wikipedia ‘blurb’ tells us that the original screenplay, Hardwired, was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection of the same name.” The underlying message of the film might not be too far removed from the original, however, because Asimov’s portmanteau essentially uses the technology of robotics as a vehicle for psychology, philosophy and, possibly, even morality: how much autonomy can we, should we, give to what are machines or, perhaps, cyborgs; if they have organic content in the form of a positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov, and now very well known in science fiction); and if we do, how far would we be able to trust them, in view of their likely superiority, both mental & physical?

Of course, AI (Artificial Intelligence: “founded as an academic discipline in 1955”, according to Wikipedia, so very much springing out of, if not necessarily inspired by, Asimov’s thinking) is now a very widely known, if not necessarily understood, concept, and it is used in a plethora of applications, from internet search engines to what are now referred to as ‘smart’ devices; the worry, which some technologists are probably quite happy to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theory’, is that much of the work that AI does goes on unseen, in the background, so it is virtually impossible to monitor its activity and the repercussions for society, especially where privacy & human rights are concerned: perhaps these wider implications weren’t obvious to Asimov when he was writing the stories in the American post-war, white heat of technological development, although it is pretty clear that he was aware of the dangers that intelligent, autonomous robots could present.

These creations, initially of mankind but, before very long, self-reproducing, can be made to be beneficent (probably the best-known example of which is the android Data, from the Star Trek Next Generation series) just as easily as they can be made bellicose, as they would be when (rather than if) the military were allowed to dominate their development: the difference would be governed by the primary programming of the neural net (another name for the positronic brain), and it must be assumed that the military’s killing machines would not be given the fundamental & inescapable guidance of Asimov’s wonderfully precise & concise Three Laws of Robotics, “designed to protect humans from their robotic creations”, hence the clear & present danger which would be obvious to all, including (but expediently ignored by) the military.

The protagonists of these stories are three main characters, the primary one being, to Asimov’s credit, a female ‘robopsychologist’, Dr. Susan Calvin, the other two being engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who have to deal ‘on the ground’ with different situations involving robots, in the chronological course of the narrative. It is structured in the form of a memoir of a series of interviews with Calvin by an unnamed future version of a journalist (he is only ever referred to by Calvin as “young man”: he is thirty-two), who is acquiring background information on her for his “feature articles for Interplanetary Press”: he already “had her professional ‘vita’ in full detail.” The year is 2062, and over the course of the interviews, Calvin gives the journo her thoughts on both her life, to that point, and sketches in the scenarios involving the main & supporting characters, which are described in the third person, including Calvin herself.

There are many interesting aspects to this series; the first is the obviously, and occasionally, in our terms comically, antiquated manifestation of the future technology as it could be conceived in the late 1940s; another is the way that everybody, across this future society, is quite comfortable with anthropomorphism of robots, primarily derived from their nomenclature: “Dave”, from DV-5; “Cutie”, for the QT series; but the first robot mentioned only has a human name, Robbie, rather prosaically, although ‘he’ cannot vocalise, being “made and sold in 1996. Those were the days before extreme specialization [sic], so he was sold as a nursemaid…” Also, and somewhat depressingly for me, it is taken for granted that capitalism will still be operating in this technological future, but it doesn’t have to be so: there is at least one highly developed ‘alternative’ system, Resource Based Economy, embodied in the work of Jacque Fresco and his collaborators in The Venus Project — it is difficult to pin down exactly when his work would have first achieved some prominence, but he was born in 1916 (died 2018!) and, according to the website, “Fresco’s lifelong project stems from his firsthand experience of the Great Depression, which instilled in him the urge to reevaluate how many of the world’s systems work.”, so it is possible that Asimov was aware of this concept, but whether he chose to ignore it is a moot point.

The impression given by Dr. Calvin’s reminiscences, for all her obvious genius professionally, is that she is distinctly ambivalent about the advisability of humanity’s inexorable & irrevocable reliance upon robots and AI, and her empathy, for all she could come across as occasionally cold & arrogant, is presumably the vehicle by which Asimov conveys his own reservations: any tool, or weapon, has no impetus other than the autonomy which is bestowed upon it, so an inert tool is subject to the use to which a human being might put it, but it appears that Asimov was wanting to warn us of the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box. Thankfully, those concerns are being addressed to some extent, but inevitably, secrecy associated with humanity’s protectionism embodied by global military forces means that it is possible that wider society will have no inkling of how far development of autonomous AI has progressed before it passes the point of no return: perhaps the best we can do is hope and work for peace wherever possible. The paperback edition of the book I read was published by HarperVoyager, London, in 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-827955-4.

Book Review

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The Disappearance of Tom Pile, by Ian Beck

This is a relatively new book (published in 2015 by Penguin Random House UK, ISBN 978 0 552 56776 3), whose full title, too long for the paperback cover, is The Casebook of Captain Holloway: The Disappearance of Tom Pile, and the author is new to me, but I have to confess that I was drawn to the book by the cover (thereby refuting the well-worn adage) and, given the author’s background, I was surprised that he didn’t design the cover himself: “Ian Beck has worked as a freelance illustrator for many years (including such notable artwork as the record [remember those?] cover for Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). Ian turned to writing and illustrating children’s books when his own children were born.” This isn’t a particularly long book at 267 pages, so it is an easy read, especially if, like I do, you enjoy science fiction which has a reasonable plausibility, even if one’s disbelief does have to be suspended to some extent. The book also includes some monotone photographs which have been edited to support the narrative although, somewhat perversely, they don’t always exactly match the section of the story they support; that’s only a minor quibble, however.

Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, the story concerns the eponymous Tom Pile who, we learn, went missing and was quickly presumed dead, in the year 1900, only to inexplicably return forty years later, having not aged at all, in exactly the same location, which is a part of Dorset I know slightly, having had family whom I occasionally visited with my parents, living there, and some still do. The area, according to the story, has been subject to strange lights in the sky going back to some years before Tom’s disappearance; the author claims not to “know if strange lights have ever been seen over the hills of Dorset…”, and that could well be true, but there are military establishments not too far away (although they possibly didn’t exist when the lights were first noticed), so that would lend some credibility to the theory that curious extra-terrestrial visitors (since that is the obvious, albeit not initially stated inference to draw from these events) have been investigating earth’s military capability. However, to use a well-known saying of the time, “there’s a war on”, so the fictitious (probably) government department investigating these phenomena has to use the threat of a German invasion to cover its enquiries, in the person of a young, precociously gifted Londoner by the name of Jack Carmody, who is sent to deepest, darkest Dorset, to see what he can find.

There is a twist at the end which is not entirely unexpected, and the dénouement could have been extended somewhat, but what could have been a tragedy turns out not to be so, entirely anyway, and it would appear that this is the first book in what could be a series, given that there is at the end of the book an “exclusive extract of the next story about Captain Holloway [Jack’s superior officer], Corporal Carmody and Tom Pile: The Miraculous Return of Annick Garel”; however, one disappearance (this book) and a “miraculous return” (the next book) don’t necessarily suggest an open-ended series: time will tell, of course. This is definitely not hard-core science fiction (apologies if that upsets hard-core science fiction aficionados), but I think that will make it more attractive to a broad audience, including perhaps a lucrative demographic, the ‘young adult’ readers, although this book doesn’t appear to be specifically targeted there. If the paranormal and/or unexplained phenomena irritate you, this is probably a book best avoided, but given that there are indeed many reports globally of people who have mysteriously vanished, and/or experienced time loss (they can’t all be mad or looking to make an easy buck, surely?), as I said earlier, it does (in my opinion, of course) have a reasonable plausibility, so if you can handle that, give this little book a whirl. If it helps to convince you, on the Penguin Books page marketing the book, no less an icon that Philip Pullman gives the book a glowing, albeit oddly brief, endorsement: “A cracker . . . Utterly convincing”: it works for me!

Book Review

Westwind, by Ian Rankin

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Image credit: The Reading List

I like Ian Rankin’s work; or, I should qualify, what little of it I have read hitherto; but, given that this is not a detective novel per se, in the Rebus oeuvre, I thought it would be worth reviewing. It is almost science fiction, but (so don’t panic) not quite, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this review. It is also presented, on the cover of the 2019 edition which I read, as “The classic lost thriller”: hyperbolic, perhaps, but it seems that one doesn’t win many prizes in publishing for understatement. After the probably inevitable, and understandably somewhat grudgingly undertaken rewrites, the book, actually his fourth, was published on March 1, 1990, to an almost deafening silence: one small review in The Guardian. “So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” Somewhat later, a surprise: Twitter to the rescue! Fans using this estimable service, and one in particular, combined to persuade Rankin to look again at this book, which he duly did, and it was republished in 2019, after giving “the original printed text a polish, … [a] few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser . . .”

The story, which is set in a slightly alternate version of our world in 1990 (where Germany is still divided, for example), begins with parallel situations of a British government listening station, monitoring satellites, especially ‘our’ spy satellite, called Zephyr (the significance of which will become clear near the end of the book), and a space shuttle mission, Argos,  to launch a satellite ends disastrously (not unknown, unfortunately), when the shuttle crash-lands, killing four (all American) out of the five astronauts (or are some of them already dead?), and as a consequence, the British surviving astronaut becomes a hate-figure, because American military forces are being unceremoniously kicked out of mainland Europe, which considers that it is capable of defending itself against the old Adversary, Russia. At the same time, there has been a panic at the listening station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, that has lost contact with Zephyr for over three minutes, which is unprecedented: it was not a drill, and yet the military overlords do not seem unduly concerned. One of the monitoring operatives, Paul Vincent, who is relatively new to the job but very well qualified, thinks he has spotted something worthy of mentioning to his superiors, but before his older friend, Martin Hepton, can quiz him further, Vincent is mysteriously sent on sick leave, to a nursing home, even though Hepton knows him to be very fit & healthy. Hepton is able to visit Vincent on a day off, but their eventual clandestine conversation appears to have been observed by two well-muscled ‘orderlies’, so when Hepton drives away, he becomes fearful for his colleague’s safety.

After this, the story develops into a cat & mouse chase, with an assassin thrown into the mix, and the British astronaut, Mike Dreyfuss, is brought back to England to assist the British security services get to the bottom of what has happened, and how much of a threat Hepton’s suspicions, and Dreyfuss’s near-death experience might be; not only to Britain, but to the whole world. There is many a slip along the way before the purpose of the satellite launched by the Argos mission is revealed, and as usual in any story involving security services, the reader is given clues as to who might be untrustworthy, or actively working for ‘the other side’: it is suggested that one of the main characters might be a wrong’un, but this turns out to be a red herring. It is clear (to this reader, at least) that, despite being one of Rankin’s earliest efforts, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller, and the pace of the action increases to a pitch where the book, which is not overlong at only 288 pages, not including the new introduction by the author, attains that epithet that has become something of a cliché: ‘unputdownable’! The story isn’t a classic in the way that, say, Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, or Lolita are considered to be, but it is a thumping good mystery, and I recommend it.

Book Review – 3001, The Final Odyssey

This book was a revelation to me, primarily because I hadn’t known it existed! The title gave me to expect, and in which I wasn’t disappointed, that it was a sequel, of sorts, or at least a further instalment of the story, to the original novel by Arthur C. Clarke, which was written as the narrative for a truly iconic film of the late 1960s, created by the maverick director Stanley Kubrick: 2001, A Space Odyssey. I’m sure that most other avid readers, especially those of science fiction, would have come to the same conclusion. I was aware that there had been what appeared to be a direct sequel (but see below) to 2001, called 2010, Odyssey Two, although I wasn’t sure if there had been a book before the second film; this question was answered in the helpful notes at the back of the book (which were appropriately titled Valediction, and I often smiled as I was reading this section, imagining Arthur Clarke himself reading the notes in his rich Somerset burr), and a further surprise came with the revelation that there was a second sequel, called 2061, Odyssey Three, before the final volume that I had just finished.

Very briefly, the chronology of the series is as follows. Clarke’s original story was written for a BBC-sponsored competition at the end of 1948! It didn’t win, but the story, which was published just over two years later in a British Sci-Fi magazine, was the basis of a “proverbial good science-fiction movie” for which Kubrick asked Clarke in 1964 if he had any ideas; the book & the film were released four years later. The unmanned Voyager space-probes in 1979 sent back such fascinating images of Jupiter and its moons that “the temptation [for Clarke] to explore it was irresistible; hence 2010 Odyssey Two [1981], which also gave me the opportunity to find out what happened to David Bowman, after he had awakened in that enigmatic hotel room.” The film was made in 1983 by Peter Hyams, using “actual close-ups of the Jovian moons obtained in the Voyager missions”. Odyssey Three was already being conceived thereafter, on the basis that the forthcoming Galileo mission would provide “a detailed survey of the major satellites over a period of many months.” Unfortunately, this mission didn’t happen, because the Challenger disaster ruled out a launch from the Shuttle in 1986; nevertheless, Clarke decided to press on, and the 1985 return of Halley’s Comet suggested the theme for the story, based around its next return in 2061.

Clarke is unequivocal that “Just as 2010 was not a direct sequel to 2001, so [2061] is not a linear sequel to 2010. They must all be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe. … So this Final Odyssey has discarded many of the elements of its precursors, but developed others — and I hope more important ones — in much greater detail.” So it would appear that the ‘reboot’, which nowadays causes so much consternation & debate among sci-fi fans, is by no means a new phenomenon! I certainly don’t want to give the impression that a reader new to the Odyssey saga, if I could refer to it so, would struggle without reading any of this book’s precursors: quite the opposite, so don’t feel inhibited by a lack of previous knowledge.

After a brief prologue (the details of which I won’t reveal), in which the background to the whole odyssey is laid out, the story starts, and it features ‘Dave’ Bowman’s erstwhile colleague from the USSS Discovery, which was on a “Top Secret mission to Jupiter”, Deputy Commander Frank Poole. He wakes up feeling rather confused, in a hospital bed on what he presumes is a space station, but before long, he is apprised of the fact that it isn’t, and how he came to be there. Without wishing to reveal significant elements of the plot, he decides to complete his mission, in a manner of speaking, by discovering what happened to Dave, after HAL’s mutiny; which he does.

Along the way, Frank has some romantic involvement; one abortive liaison, subsequent to an exhilarating flying experience, then a slower to develop, but longer lasting relationship. I’m very pleased, as an avid fan, to relate that Star Trek, which was already quite long in the tooth, gets an honourable mention. There is a jeopardy here, of course, as there should be in an engaging story, but I feel that there is a very slight ‘cop-out’ at the end: even though I do prefer a nice, neat ending generally, this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, however. For me, the most salient point that it makes is delivered as a quote from one of the book’s main characters, Dr Theodore (a.k.a. Ted) Khan, who resides on Ganymede, “curing any True Believers he can find there … all the old religions have been discredited.”, and which includes the name for the first monolith that was found on earth, TMA ZERO:

‘Ted’s fond of quoting a famous palaeontologist who said “TMA ZERO gave us an evolutionary kick in the pants”. He argues that the kick wasn’t in a wholly desirable direction. Did we have to become so mean and nasty to survive? Maybe we did … As I understand him, Ted believes that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the wiring of our brains, which makes us incapable of consistent logical thinking. To make matters worse, though all creatures need a certain amount of aggressiveness to survive, we seem to have far more than is absolutely necessary. And no other animal tortures its fellows as we do. Is this an evolutionary accident — a piece of genetic bad luck?’

This sounds rather like another nod, albeit inadvertent, to Star Trek: a reference to the Vulcans, who deliberately modified their nature over centuries, to rid themselves of the inherent aggression that they felt was destructive. Human nature: a subject about which there will probably never be any agreement (for as long as we have the free will to debate it)! At 253 pages (the edition I read: this might vary) the book is by no means too long, and there is a very brief, but in the context of the narrative, rather portentous epilogue, right at the end, before the notes, acknowledgements and valediction. We are left to draw our own conclusions about this portent and the possible necessity for the manipulation of human nature, perhaps emulating the fictitious Vulcans. The pace of the story is just right, for me, and even though it is now over twenty years old (the book was first published in 1997, by HarperCollins Publishers, London), the future technology does not feel unduly antiquated by contemporary standards. A very satisfying read for a sci-fi buff; this one, anyway.