science fiction

Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

Climate change fiction: some recommendations

Climate change and impending environmental catastrophe have been in the news somewhat over the last couple of weeks. It seemed like a good time to recommend some novels which deal with the topic, a few of which I’ve mentioned here before. Obviously some are more realistic than others as possible scenarios go but they’re all good to read and if they get you thinking about what you could do right now, so much the better.

I’ll start with Kim Stanley Robinson because of the books I’ve read, he’s done it best. There is a trilogy (Science in the Capital) which starts with Forty Signs of Rain, which I read a few years ago and loved. It’s full of detail, being set in Washington with the main characters including a government policy wonk and his statistician wife, and shows a near future where climate change is producing noticeable effects but society is mainly still ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. OneMonkey tried to read it but pronounced it dull and gave up – too much detail for his taste. However, I thought it was excellent in the way it showed the clash between capitalism, day to day politics, and scientific prediction. Also there was an interesting thread of Buddhism, as I recall. It was written over 15 years ago so we’re probably well within that near future now (and still the politicians say ‘I’d love to, but…’).

The other KSR is a stand-alone novel from a couple of years ago, New York 2140. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag, but suffice to say it’s full of great characters in a flooded Manhattan. Again, man-made problems and capitalism’s disregard for long-term consequences are major themes but amazingly he still manages to be optimistic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand and deals with climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism and their interplay and consequences. It was brilliantly written and suitably tense but there are some pretty nasty bits in it, so maybe not for the overly squeamish.

The word ‘capitalism’ keeps cropping up here, doesn’t it? I’m partway through Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang at the moment and it’s got interesting things to say about the view of consumerism as the be-all and end-all. Even the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had a load of new-looking tents, stickers and plastic bits and bobs in the photos I saw. It’s a hard one. But I digress…

The classic Ursula Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven (you can read my review at Luna Station Quarterly) is set against a backdrop of climate change, an unhealthy future that some people obviously wish they could go back and change. The main focus of the book is the reality-changing dreams of a man named George Orr, but the setting gives a good view of a 1970s vision of the future.

If you’ve already read those, or want to explore further, you can find a list of other novels to try at the Wikipedia entry for the subgenre. I haven’t figured out yet whether it’s more environmentally friendly to produce physical books (you can after all use recycled paper and vegetable-based inks but you have to transport them) or e-books (you have to build an electronic device with all its rare materials but you could charge using renewable energy sources, and then there’s the storage capacity). Borrow a copy from a friend or your local library, is my advice. If you use the library (in the UK at least), they even give royalties to the author.

Short piece at Visual Verse

I’ve got a story called Air of Belonging at Visual Verse in response to this month’s prompt, you can read it here. It’s less than 500 words long, perfect for a tea break. Because September’s guest editor is Carmen Marcus (I recently reviewed her novel How Saints Die) and because I’ve been banging on about class again anyway, my sci-fi story is kind of informed by the row about working class access to the arts. While still being very much related to the prompt image, which is a woman in ballgown and breathing apparatus, playing a harp. Intrigued? Read everyone else’s response to it as well, as usual it’s sent all the contributing writers off in different directions, which is pretty impressive for such specificity.

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Alastair Reynolds so far (a novella, a few novels and short stories) but his 2004 novel Century Rain is not only the best I’ve read from him, it’s the most enjoyable sci-fi I’ve read in a while.

Earth has been uninhabitable since the Nanocaust, but field archaeologists like Verity Auger still make trips there to study its artefacts. When she messes up on one of those trips, Verity is handed an offer she can’t refuse and finds herself on a secret mission for which her expertise on twentieth-century Paris will be invaluable. Government scientists have discovered an unstable entrance to a poorly-understood galactic transit system whose origins they know nothing about. This particular branch appears to lead to nineteen-fifties Paris, though not quite the same version Verity’s studied. All she has to do is use the transit system and retrieve the belongings of a murdered government agent who went through before her.

Meanwhile jazz-loving Paris-based private detective Wendell Floyd is on his uppers as usual, and takes on a murder case against his better judgement. At least, the client thinks it’s murder but Floyd’s inclined to go along with popular opinion and stick to accident or suicide. Until he starts to wonder if the victim was actually a spy, particularly when another one shows up.

This is part spy thriller, part space opera, part beautifully-rendered fifties noir, and I loved every minute. With more twists than a journey through an unstable pseudo-wormhole, Century Rain has tension, romance, dry humour, and a suitably tear-jerking Casablanca reference or two. It touches on ethics and the unknown consequences of new technology, but it can be approached simply as a wild adventure. I can particularly recommend it if you’re a sci-fi fan who likes Raymond Chandler or Maigret, and if you’ve read and enjoyed Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer you’ll probably love this.

Stories of empire

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Coincidentally, the first two novels I read in 2018 were both tales of empire, though from quite different perspectives. One was the Portuguese empire as seen through the prism of science fiction, in Brasyl by Ian McDonald. The other was the British empire via crime fiction in India, in A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee. I recommend them both.

Brasyl had an interesting structure, within each chapter there were three sections set in 1732, 2006 and 2032 respectively, in three different parts of Brazil. It had slavery (of different types), stratified societies, football, religion, and quantum mechanics running through everything, and I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who likes both historical fiction and SF (because most of the 1732 strand reads as straight historical fiction). The book was peppered with non-English words and phrases, which added a flavour of Brazil but I felt like my reading speed was unusually slow because of it (and not everything was translated in the glossary at the end). The more I read, the more I realised how little I know about Brazil; I had no idea if historical events or people were real or not, and I found myself wishing I’d watched the programme I seem to recall Michael Palin making about Brazil a few years ago. I spent a while on Google maps dashing about the country though, so maybe I learnt something. I love a book that makes me go find out more in some way.

Abir Mukherjee was one of the writers on a panel at the Penguin WriteNow insight day I went to last September in Newcastle. I chatted to him a bit during that day, he seemed both thoughtful and entertaining, and I liked the sound of his crime series so I made sure I picked up one of the goodie bags that had his latest novel in it. That book was A Necessary Evil, which follows on from A Rising Man (which I’ve yet to read) and is set in India in 1920. Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police, and his Sergeant Surendranath (‘Surrender-not’) Banerjee witness the assassination of the heir to the throne of one of the states they have no authority in. But he was assassinated within their jurisdiction, and Banerjee did go to school with him, so they go to his funeral, blunder into a political situation they don’t fully grasp, and race to find the truth. Short chapters, flowing narrative voice with a dash of disrespectful humour, and a nicely flawed main character; I was hooked within a couple of pages and sped through it. Particularly good on complexity (characters and situations neither one obvious thing nor the other), and the British in India failing to (or refusing to) understand the culture they’re surrounded by, and being tripped up by preconceptions.

Science writer for hire

I had a revelation recently: I haven’t lost my love of physics, it had just faded for a while, and that being the case I could potentially combine science with writing.

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Because I loved the one on the left and have never been able to get rid of the one on the right

I do write sci-fi, you can read some of it in the Cracks in the Foundations collection (which also contains fantasy stories), and I’ve continued to read it even in my science-free years but I’d got out of the habit of reading popular science books or New Scientist and it hadn’t occurred to me to write factual science articles. Until now.

Last summer I did a story and science evening with Alice Courvoisier for the York Festival of Ideas and helping Alice put together her relativity presentation made me realise I was still fascinated by physics. For the last few months I’ve been giving private tuition in GCSE physics (with occasional forays into maths and chemistry) and loving those moments where understanding dawns. My don’t-inspect-too-closely analogies are definitely improving. Considering all this, when I say that I finished reading an interesting and well-wrought popular science book on the same day as I got an email from a MOOC provider (you know I love my free online university courses) advertising a science writing course, you’ll have guessed that I signed up immediately.

I’m hoping to get some science-related writing published soon. If anyone would like to point out any opportunities or offer work along those lines, the usual methods of communication apply (@JYSaville on Twitter; jy at ostragoth dot co dot uk; or leave a comment here and mark it private so I don’t let it through moderation).

In the meantime you can read my review of Marcus Chown’s book The Ascent of Gravity here at The Bookbag.

Never mind Article 50, won’t someone think of the environment?

Acres of coverage today for the ‘news’ that the UK is leaving the EU. We knew that already, it will take ages to sort everything out. Ultimately not much will change. Meanwhile outside the arena of UK navel-gazing there are some changes being made that deserve a bit more coverage. Trump tinkering with energy and environment policy matters to all of us because whatever trading bloc we do or don’t belong to, climate change is something we need to be doing something about. We don’t get to opt out of European temperature rises because we’re no longer in the EU, and Trump doesn’t get to build a wall round America to keep extreme weather or rising sea levels out.

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Read my review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140. Then read the book itself. Then think about what you can do to make a difference.