Ocean travel without a boat

Journal of Peter Greenwell

Tag: science fiction (page 1 of 2)

Matthew Hughes – The Other

The OtherThe Other by Matthew Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ah, judging books by their covers, what folly. You know, from the sly and self-serving smirk on Luff Imbry’s face, I expected this to be a tale about deception, intrigue, derring-do, skulduggery and the like. No, what we have here is an adventure tale cum quest fantasy where Mr Imbry is not really in much of a position to play scoundrel, rogue or rascal. In fact, he spends much of his time figuring out how to escape from the world of inbred religious loonies he’s been stranded upon.

In fact, I feel a little cheated, though I shouldn’t be. The novel’s blurb states quite unequivocally that Imbry is a rascal and a crook and I guess in the other stories he features in, he may well be precisely those things. In this book, his implied talent for cleverness and deception is put aside by a need for self-preservation and some mystery solving.

All that aside, the novel could be best described as pleasantly serviceable. From what little I know of this author, I believe he writes in the Jack Vance vein, which is something I’ve always thought to be fraught with deceptive danger. Vance had a style that is seductive to an author – you want to imbue your every sentence with whimsical poesy and colourful verbiage. He’s easy to imitate – I’ve done it too, but he’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to master. Underneath the “big words” and the dash and the colour lies a scintillating internal logic that only Vance understood. I don’t think anyone will master his voice, only approximate it.

While there are echoes of Vance’s work in the beginning and end sections of this book, it’s too matter of factly constructed to be Vance. It’s also decidedly nastier than anything Vance ever wrote. Vance liked to throw the odd barb at religion and those who adhered to it like glue, but this book all but names religions the playground of the weak-minded and pliable. Doesn’t disguise itself in any way.

Also, I felt like I was reading one novel and portions of another. The beginning and the ending seem to come from outside the central narrative – there’s things going on before and after this story that are alluded to, but I’m not seeing anywhere in the book that this is part of a series. Goodreads isn’t listing it as one. And only about two thirds through the novel does Imbry actually list who may have led him to the forsaken planet he ended up on. Almost an afterthought.

A couple of quibbles that other reviewers have pointed out. Hughes overuses the word “ineffable” a lot. And why call Imbry a fat man throughout? Does Imbry being fat have any significance above and beyond the fact he likes his dinners? Is it part of some characteristic or notoriety he gained in another story? Without knowing this, I wasn’t sure what the point of it all was.

Anyhow, I like enough of what I saw in this book to seek out more of Hughes’ work.

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Jack Vance – Lurulu

LuruluLurulu by Jack Vance
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m not mean enough to give Vance’s last published book one star though there are plenty of reasons to do so. As with Ports of Call, this book dispenses with any kind of plot and character development and instead we get a colourful travelogue, with a cohort of nameless ciphers who go traipsing about one planet after the other and not a whole lot happens, apart from an early episode of vengeance.

My pet peeve with Vance is all over this book too – everything and everyone is a miser. It’s all about the freaking money. One half of the universe is trying to rip off the other half who are trying to haggle their way out of paying retail. Seriously, Vance has been at this unwelcome shenanigan for much of his fantasy and SF writing career and it overstayed its welcome about thirty books ago.

Yes, I’m being captious. Vance was ninety or thereabouts when this book was released. Few people will live as long as he did let alone write legible fiction then. On its own merits, that aspect is to be commended. But also on its own aspects, this book is an ipso facto stinker. Not the most ideal way to bow out, Jack, but the sheer fact you even got this book out is something I’ll raise a glass to. Vale Jack.

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Jack Vance – Vandals of the Void

Vandals of the VoidVandals of the Void by Jack Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first “new” Vance book I’ve read since Night Lamp about twenty years ago. So, I only need to get hold of Lurulu now and that will be soon. Then, I’d have read everything he’s published.

Ok, this isn’t a bad book, yet it’s a product of its time and the genre. Typical juvenile SF – young, resourceful lad uses tenacity, bravery and logic to overcome the nefarious schemes of adults. Vance’s imaginary future timeline at the beginning of the novel is off, and it’s actually rather odd seeing Vance write one of these and I wonder if an editor urged him into doing it (without researching the answer).

It’s an average work of fiction, tightly plotted and written in a straightforward, serviceable manner that’s largely unlike Vance’s usual way – outside of his mystery and police procedural novels. But his fondness for baroque language threatens to break through the simple and flowing text, hinting at where he’d been withThe Dying Earth, and where he would go with the remainder of his extensive SF and fantasy oeuvre.

Second order Vance for sure, but I’m glad I finally tracked this book down.

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Philip K Dick – Martian Time-Slip

Martian Time-SlipMartian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a landmark work! You know, this is another novel I swore I’d read but no, I never have until now. Well, I’m absolutely elated that I did get around to reading it, as this is a keystone member of the SF oeuvre – union cronyism and corruption, infidelity, mental illness, autism, greed, capitalism, land speculation, racism, ableism, indigenous land and cultural rights – it has it all. And all of this in a work of science fiction that was written in 1962. 1962! The topics Dick touches on here are just as relevant today and apart from dated references to voice recorders and other 60s technology, this book could well have been written now.

The book challenges the notions of reality arguably better than any other work I’ve read – science fiction or otherwise. Those sections where Arnie plays his messed-up version of Mozart are both stark and off-putting. Arnie Kott himself is a real piece of nasty work and everything you’d expect in a corrupt union boss (is there any other kind I wonder?). In fact, there’s not a character out of place here, from the indecisive and cowardly Dr Glaub to the mysterious yet touching Manfred Steiner, he of the titular time-slips.

As the cliche goes, it all comes together. This is equally the best work of Dick’s I’ve read along with The Man in the High Castle.

Oh yes, gubble gubble!

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Arthur C. Clarke – The City and the Stars

The City and the StarsThe City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book I thought I’d read already, but no…

Well, this is typical Clarke really: big ideas, sense of wonder, driven characters, yearning, advancement, eyes to the future with a fondness for times past, subtle digs at religion, no villains in sight, science with a mystical bent.

Really, this is very good like practically everything else Clarke wrote. It didn’t connect with me as much as Childhood’s End or Rendezvous with Rama did…there was an aloofness in this book that was all-pervasive. As much as I sympathised with Alvin, I couldn’t equate with him in any way. He’s a transhuman character for all of his questing nature, and just as alien. Hilvar is more like us, but Clarke seriously expects us to believe that after a billion years, his kind of human would be practically the same as we are now, apart from telepathic powers? Plot-holes in a Clarke story? Say it isn’t so!

But…it’s all good, except for that sense of detachment.

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David Haden – The Time Machine: a sequel

The Time Machine: a sequelThe Time Machine: a sequel by David Haden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short and fairly sweet. This author approximates Wells’ voice adequately, though he also pays homage to the 2002 Guy Pearce film with an all-knowing virtual librarian. He also integrates the so-called “lost chapter”, The Grey Man, into the story.

With this all said, I was acutely aware reading this novella that this was not Wells’ work. It’s not where he would’ve taken the story had he been of a mind to craft a sequel, at least I don’t think so anyway. He was less interested in the fate of Weena than he was in the fate of humanity, but quite naturally, these sequels by other hands have all made the attempt to rescue her from the fire with varying success.

Does this sequel by another hand succeed? Well, read it for yourself. For a dollar on Amazon you can’t go wrong, just don’t expect anything stunning or extraordinary in any area.

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The 85000 word challenge

Over at the writing thread of the Whirlpool forums, a challenge was issued recently. Before the 31 March, 2016, the takers of the challenge are to write an 85000 word novel. I accepted the challenge, despite the fact I’m working on a couple of other stories.

When I write, I usually revise what I’ve written the next time I look at it. Not on this occasion. There’s minimal editing and I’m simply putting down whatever comes to mind, and going with the creative flow.

The story? Science fiction, and it’s based around an idea that I’ve had developing for some time. Several hundred years in the future, most people have left Earth for other worlds. Left behind were about 100 million people and they banded together to redesign the world in a self-sustaining ecological manner, and based their society on an anarchic meritocracy.

Through huge engineering projects, the old continents were broken up or shifted around, allowing for better oceanic flow, thus allowing the world’s land to receive more reliable (and higher amounts of) rainfall. Then the world was divided up into preserves for nature, called Greenbelts, which humans living in smaller regions surrounded by the Greenbelts.

The tale starts with a character called Jacqueline 5146 Advanced, who finds herself on trial for manslaughter and possession of alcohol and cocaine. She dodges the manslaughter charge, but isn’t so lucky in regards to the others as drinking booze and doing drugs are serious crimes in the future age that is dominated by logic and reason.

The trouble is, she was employed at the time by one of her world’s more influential people…and questions were asked: why did he have booze and cocaine? Some people are not happy about these polite enquiries and seek to eliminate anyone that knows anything. Including Jacqui.

Life has now become very interesting for Miss 5146 Advanced…(and yes, there is a perfectly logical explanation for her silly name.)

Once this tale is done, and I’ve edited it, I’ll put it up here.

Richard Morgan – Broken Angels

Broken Angels (Takeshi Kovacs, #2)Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an interview with an Australian SF magazine, Richard Morgan stated that he dislikes two or three star reviews of his stuff. Sorry about that, but this book is a three star affair. It’s involving and interesting enough to where you want to keep reading but it’s a muddle in places and the author gets carried away with his plethora of ideas.

No, it’s not as good as the book before it, and you can put that down to a loss of focus. The book’s reach exceeds its grasp.

And Kovacs isn’t as interesting this time around as he was in Altered Carbon. A touch of the old cardboard has crept in.

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Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 and a half stars actually. C’mon Goodreads, give us the ability to vote half-stars.

Anyhow, I liked everything about this book save how long it was. I felt it could’ve been tightened a bit by about 60-70 pages. So yes, it did drag a little, especially some of the sections where Kovacs and Ortega are alone. But apart from that, everything else contained within this book was A+. It’s uncommonly complex, labyrinthinely plotted, well characterised and it’s briskly paced (apart from what I said above). I’m impressed, so off to the sequel I go.

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H.G. Wells – The Time Machine

Welcome to the first of my in-depth book reviews.

the time machine

Original cover for the first printing of the Time Machine. Source: Wikipedia/public domain

Introduction

This book is the archetypal “scientific romance”, the wondrous joy that set the tone and mood for all others of its ilk to follow. I’ve started with The Time Machine, as it’s my favourite book or story. I read it as a sixteen year old and it had the most profound effect upon me. It was this novella that spurred me into a writing escapade of my own. Forsooth, my first book was an attempted sequel to it. Yes, it was not very good though I wish I still had it…

According to shmoop.com, this was Wells’ first published novel (though he had published many short stories beforehand). Wells had written about time travel before in a short story called the Chronic Argonauts. That story was expanded upon, and at the urging of his publisher, Wells wrote the novella, where it was serialised in The New Review.  Reputedly, he was paid £100 for his efforts, a sizeable sum in 1895. It has never been out of print since.

The novella is written in the style of a third party narration, where an unnamed guest (though he’s identified as Hillyer in some sources) is recording the words and deeds of the Time Traveller. So in effect, it’s written from the viewpoint of two people.

At 33000 words, it’s brief and is easily read in an afternoon. It is in the public domain in many places and can be found in downloadable form if searched for.

At this point, I need to be clear that there were two published versions of The Time Machine. The novel was submitted simultaneously to English and American publishers, and the text of the American Holt version differs from the English Heinemann edition. This review refers to the Heinemann edition. In addition, a section of Chapter Eleven was removed at Wells’ insistence. This segment is commonly known as The Grey Man and can be found here.

Plot

The Time Traveller (who isn’t named) is gathered with a group of his friends, where he starts to discuss his theories of time. The novella has arguably one of the more awkward sounding introductions in literature:

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.

I remember having to consult a dictionary with reference to “recondite” and “expounding” – neither of which were words in the canon of a sixteen year old. Even so, it’s an odd and off-putting introduction, and much has been made of it elsewhere. The American Holt edition has a syntactically simpler introduction.

All right, the Time Traveller is discussing time with a select group of friends, and he demonstrates a small example model of a time machine (see a picture from the 1960 movie). While his friends watch with varying states of credulity, he sends the model into the future. He then takes the party to his workshop to view a larger model upon which he intends to go travelling.

We return to the house in Richmond, London a week later, with a slightly different cast of friends. The Time Traveller is late for dinner, but arrives shortly after in a very dishevelled state. While his friends listen (and the narrator records) the Time Traveller gives a recounting of his adventures into the future. He travelled to 802,701 AD, where he finds a ruined yet outwardly idyllic landscape, of bountiful fruit trees, endless gardens and tumbled and deteriorated buildings. He encounters the Eloi, who are small child-like folk approximately the size and shape of a seven or eight year old child. He rescues one of these from drowning, and notes at the time the complete insouciance and disregard the Eloi have for each other when imperilled. 

The Eloi live an ostensibly serene existence, doing no work or toil, living out their days playing games and other carefree pastimes. Apart from an initial curiosity, the Eloi pay the Time Traveller no further regard, an attitude that gives the traveller some pause.

Returning to the area where he arrived in this age, he finds his time machine gone, seemingly dragged by some unknown force into the the base of a large sphinx-like statue nearby. It’s about this time he realises that humanity has diverged into two separate strains after witnessing a Morlock escape a cluster of falling masonry to run and clamber down a well-like structure further away. He’d previously wondered why the Eloi were not active at night, and stayed in doors in tight knit groups.

He develops a paternal (and innocently happy) relationship with the Eloi he rescued, who gives her name as Weena. From her, he learns the rudiments of the Eloi language, and some basic information about the world including the startling fact that fear had not yet left the human world. She makes it clear to the Time Traveller that she (and presumably the remainder of the Eloi) live in fear of the new moon, when the night is completely dark.

The reason for this is made clear to the Time Traveller after he descends the well into the Morlock’s domain. He sees meat on a table and later makes the connection that the Morlocks eat the Eloi – they are their only source of food. He also wakes pre-dawn one morning to see a brace of Morlocks scurry away holding a captive between them.

The Time Traveller, devising a plan to retrieve his machine, takes Weena and heads to a distant building, which he dubs the Palace of Green Porcelain. There he finds it is a museum, complete with a whole array of varying exhibits. More importantly, he finds both a weapon in the form of a lever, light in a box of matches and fuel in a lump of camphor.

So armed and with Weena in company, the Time Traveller starts out on his return walk back to the vicinity of the sphinx. Night falls, and he and Weena are beset by Morlocks. He keeps them at bay by lighting a fire, which quickly gets out of control in the dry underbrush. During the fight with the Morlocks, he loses sight of Weena (who had fainted) and her ultimate fate remains unknown.

The next morning, he returns to find the base of the sphinx open and his time machine in plain view. Avoiding another close call from the Morlocks, he moves ahead into the future. There, he discovers a world in its final days, all trace of mankind vanished into the ages. The sun is a huge red orb, the oceans still, the air thin and what life there is, is a sad pitiful remnant of what once was.

He returns to his own age, where he relates the tale (dutifully recorded by the narrator). The following day, prepared with provisions and supplies, he travels again on the machine, never to be seen by friend again.

Analysis

At its heart, The Time Machine is a story of those who have and those who have not. The Eloi have it all – leisure time, freedom, happiness, the open air, sunlight, peace, and though it’s implied, there’s signs of sexual liberation. The Morlocks are the have nots. You could argue they have freedom in their own way, but they are also beholden to their habits. In truth, both races are products of hundreds of thousands of years of divergent evolution.

You see, the story is a fictional relating of the class and social theories Wells held. His Time Traveller (who often acts a mouthpiece for Wells) theorises that the Eloi and the Morlocks are the end product of a separate evolutionary process that started in 1800’s Industrial Revolution England. For as much as The Time Machine is an adventure story, it’s a social treatise. The Eloi are the descendants of the upper classes and the Morlocks are the proletariat, the working classes slaving away in the dim factories of the late 1800s.

Yet, as the novella eventually portrays, there is interdependence – nearly a mutualism, to use an ecological term. Both races are bound to each other, are exactly one half of a total ecosystem. They cannot survive without each other, though there is absolutely no beneficial contact between the two species. You see, the Eloi rely upon the Morlocks for their clothing, housewares and other utensils, and in turn, the Morlocks rely upon the Eloi for food.

This aspect of the story was not obvious to me when I first read it. What moved me the most was Weena, specifically her loss that night on the hill. I can’t say it as effectively as Wells said it, so let me quote it here – my exact feelings on this. These are the last words of the story.

And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.

For all the futurity, and the gulf between the Time Traveller and Weena, the time they shared together – as innocent as it was – was a reaffirmation that the humanity and the scope for compassion had never left the Eloi. That simple act where Weena filled the Time Traveller’s pockets with flowers. Or when she tried in vain to stop him from climbing down the well into the lair of the Morlocks. Plain and simple heartfelt gestures. Sweet and trusting moments.

And it makes her loss that night on the hill that much more poignant. So, this novella works at many levels. For sure, there’s the Social Darwinism, the evolutionary divergence, the communistic overtones, the ultimate sense of futility of human ambition but underpinning it all is the attachment to basic human values. The desire for company, the need for shared affection, and resolution in the face of adversity.

It’s what makes The Time Machine the greatest tale ever written.

Positives

All covered above. I’ve really nothing more to add here except to say this short tale is a profoundly moving experience.

Negatives 

It is a little on the short side, and the romantic in me wishes Wells had spent a bit more time exploring the interpersonal between Weena and the Time Traveller. Nothing edgy mind you, just a bit more – rounded both of them a bit further.

Rating

10/10. Couldn’t be anything else.

Further reading

I have a brief review of the 1960 film version of the novella here. While it hardly remains true to the Wells’ novella, it is a better film in nearly all aspects than the later 2002 remake. I’ve not seen the TV films made so I cannot comment on them.

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