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In EXIT STRATEGIES: Hannu Rajaniemi

4 Feb

What if your books could read you? Hannu Rajaniemi explores the next step in literary evolution

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“I caught a glimpse of the future of books while reading Iain Banks’s The Crow Road for the second time.

The first time I read it was in Finland, in 1998. It made an even stronger impression on me than my first Banks, the exuberant space opera Consider Phlebas. I had barely dipped a toe into the rushing stream of my twenties – the same age as the hapless protagonist Prentice – and I was dealing with university, unrequited love and the infinite awkwardness of early adulthood. The Crow Road assured me it was all going to be okay: a bit messy, with cruel twists and the occasional lightning strike, but basically okay. Even if the same end, the crow road – a Glasgow expression for death – waited for us all.

When I returned to it, nearly fifteen years later, I found a different book. I had lived in Scotland for more than a decade. The imaginary town of Gallanach came alive with association and memory. I could see the clouds over Stornoway. I could smell the heather in the castle ruins. I got the sex jokes. The wonderful strangeness and smallness of humanity, explained in Banks’s gentle voice, rang truer than before. The book had changed with me.

So what was the book? What was The Crow Road if it could change so much between readings, in a way that was almost quantum-mechanical, observer-dependent? Where was its eternal bookness if Banks’s stream of consciousness on its pages was like the river of Heraclitus, into which no one can step twice?

Of course, this question applies to books in general. And the ongoing transformation of books from stacks of bound paper into digital objects is forcing us to rethink what a book really is, and what it could become.”

Read “On crows, roads and the future of books” in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1). Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)

In EXIT STRATEGIES: Adam Roberts

3 Feb

Adam Roberts reflects on the accomplishments of Iain Banks, our generation’s only utopian writer

“To quote T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (a work from which Iain Banks took titles for not one but two of his science-fiction novels), April is the cruellest month. In April 2013, Banks announced his cancer diagnosis to the world. At that point we thought he had a year, at least. The announcement of his death on 9 June 2013 blindsided us. We all thought we had longer.

Any death diminishes us all, but the death of a science fiction writer has a unique poignancy all of its own, I’ve always thought. I suppose it is because SF is so prominently the idiom of the future, and death is so grievously the eradication of precisely that possibility. The announcement of his diagnosis prompted a huge public outpouring of good feeling, which genuinely touched him. The good feeling has continued after his death. He was SF’s Big Yellow Taxi, and too few of us knew what we’d got til it had gone.”

Read “The sanity of Iain M. Banks” in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1). Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)

In EXIT STRATEGIES: Simon Barraclough

30 Jan

Fourteen micro-poems tell the story of the universe

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In a parallel universe
Bruno and Turing
have no need
of pardoning.
But we’re stuck in
this one.

Read “From big bang to heat death” in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1). Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)

In EXIT STRATEGIES:

29 Jan

Stuart Clark explores astronomy’s love of the invisible

“For a science based on observation, it is remarkable how often astronomy has invented invisible things to get itself out of trouble. Whenever its theories are at odds with reality, a little mathematical snake oil can usually be relied upon to make things slip together more comfortably.

“The snag is that the astronomers then have to say what this invisible mathematical thing is in reality. Perhaps it is an unseen planet tugging at the others to draw them off course, or a sea of particles designed to carry light like waves on an ocean. And once they have decided what the invisible thing is, astronomers then have to invent something that will find some evidence for it. That’s when life becomes really tricky…”

Read “The measure of dreams” in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1). Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)

We’re reading THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers

28 Jan

Becky Hogge considers a broad-brush satire of social-media capitalism

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Hamish Hamilton, HB £18.99 / Knopf, HB $27.95 

In what has swiftly become a time-worn tradition, Dave Eggers’ techno-capitalist dystopia The Circle opens with a tour of the campus. And the campus of the Circle, Eggers’ post-Google/Facebook/Twitter hybrid, makes the last time we looked round the real-life Googleplex, watching Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in The Internship, feel like a tour of the offices of a public utility firm.

Which is, coincidentally, where Mae Holland, the novel’s protagonist, has just arrived from: she has been languishing amid burlap and her boss’s halitosis since graduating from $250,000-worth of liberal arts education. Having called in a favour from college friend Annie (whose swift rise through the ranks to the company’s management team of self-styled cultural revolutionaries is never really explained) Mae finds herself in a workplace furnished with yoga studios, cooking schools, kennels, organic vegetable gardens, mini golf, a vintage pinball arcade and an indoor badminton court that keeps a former world champion on retainer.

From hallways boasting artworks salvaged from the firesales of the old elite, to the year-long waiting list for household-name rock stars to play the company’s cafeteria for free (Annie: “Oh god, we don’t pay them”), Eggers has the satire turned up to eleven. But Mae doesn’t notice. By the end of her first day

“…her home town, and the rest of California, the rest of America, seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth.

But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?”

Utopias are just dystopias waiting to happen: the system that underpins the Circle’s riches begins to reveal itself near the end of Mae’s first month, when she is hauled in front of HR. Does she have a problem with her self-esteem? Does she have something to hide? Why, in short, does nobody know about the fact she’s into kayaking?

It seems Mae has been ambling around the Circle’s campus not realising it’s built on Passion, Participation and Transparency. Her Participation Rank is slumming it in the bottom 10,000s, and this is mostly because Mae insists on having a father with MS, and on enjoying solo kayaking around San Francisco Bay, without telling anybody in her digital social circle, and consequently, without leaving an auditable, saleable digital vapour trail The Circle can monetise (“kayaking is a three-billion-dollar industry”).

For the sake of her friend Annie – and for her father, whose health the Circle has just agreed to fully insure – Mae resolves to improve her PartiRank (geddit?) and thus keep her job. So begins Mae’s descent, as her quest for ultimate transparency begins to hollow her out on the inside, and her mind is replaced bit by bit by the Circle’s ideology.

Mae’s journey into madness is as convincing as Alice’s in Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, with the twist being this time it is not the ideas of the radical left that act as the bait for Mae’s previously aimless anxieties, but their noughties grandchild, “information wants to be free”.

And Mae is not the only one. The services the Circle offers the outside world are barely elaborated upon. We learn early on that most of the money comes from TruYou, which takes the sloppy diversity of the old web and moulds it into a Unified Operating System, “one button for the rest of your life online”. The rest (DIY video streaming using devices so small you barely notice them, embeddable microchips for your toddler) are thinly veiled plot devices. It is the campus which stands for what we imagine the Circle’s appeal to be in the wider world: abundance, where everything is ludicrously attractive, endless and free. And just as similar services in our life today have encouraged us to give away more than we might tell our own mothers to companies with IPOs that are global news events, so the Circler lifestyle takes Mae over to a dark side of deep disclosure.

The gradual replacement of her character with an ideology is the thread to keep reading The Circle for, although lesser minds (mine included) will also continue turning the pages to see whether the enigmatic love interest really does turn out to be the company’s equally enigmatic founder (spoiler: he does) and if Checkov’s loaded hand job in act 1 surfaces in act 3 (spoiler: it doesn’t).

Anyone who suggests that this level of hammy-ness undermines comparisons drawn between The Circle and 1984 should reread their Orwell. The Circle stands up against the best political satire. The only question left open is whether any of us can prevent its narrative becoming our own, before the circle closes.

@barefoot_techie

M John Harrison discovers the secrets of science communication in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1), out now.

Also on the blog: Adam Greenfield takes apart the smart city (from Tim Maughan in New York).

We’re reading THE JG BALLARD BOOK, edited by Rick McGrath

27 Jan

Tom Hunter enters the weird world of Ballard fandom.

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PPB, £19.99

For the vast duration of his career, author J.G. Ballard would repeatedly deny the existence of anything so mundane as an archive of his writing materials: “There are no Ballard archives. I never keep letters, reviews, research materials. Every page is a fresh start.”

Never trust a writer, of course, especially one whose personal mythology so often threatened to eclipse his fictional output, and indeed at the end of his career a small but valuable stash of novel manuscripts and cheap notepads were duly brought to the surface and donated to the safekeeping of the British Library.

Walk through the library today and, past the Shakespeare folios and notebooks of Jane Austen, you might be lucky enough to turn a corner and find the first pages of Ballard’s classic techno-nightmare Crash framed amongst the exhibits, the blue biro of his scrawled annotations revising line-by-line the precise angle of attack of hoodlum scientist Vaughan and his final staged collision/copulation with the limousine of the film actress Elizabeth Taylor.

The reveal of an “official” archive was most likely received as a mixed blessing by Ballard’s enduring fanbase. Even as you signed up for a reader pass. you secretly hoped his previous denials would prove true, adding further fuel to the myth.

Indeed, is there any other author of the 20th and early 21st Century whose body of work has inspired the same obsessional and influential fanbase as Ballard’s?

Enter The JG Ballard Book, the latest entry into the ever-multiplying library of the Ballardosphere, and something of a unique oddity amongst a profusion of critical texts, interview compilations and the occasional hack biography.

The copy on my desk is the large-format hardcover edition, and first impressions suggest something more akin to the exhibition catalogue of a moderately fashionable contemporary art gallery than either the recently published Extreme Metaphors, a collection of interviews with JGB, or the more modest indie publishing efforts of a typical fanzine. This comparison carries through into the contents, which are made up of fifteen or so assorted interviews, essays, speculations and even spoofs accompanied by full-page photo artworks and blow-ups of original handwritten letters and manuscript annotations.

It’s almost as though Tate Modern or the ICA had embarked down the road towards a radical re-staging of Ballard’s career, only to abandon the project at the last minute, leaving only this alternate history account of a lost exhibition buried in the collective deep-time memory of only the most dedicated or pathological Ballardophiles.

As with Ballard’s own archive the results are mixed, and for every dusty notebook containing the first hints at a potential new novel, there are moments of clumsy dead-ends, strange wrong turns and circular reasoning that might have been better left to history’s cutting room floor, or at least the letters page of a science=fiction convention fanzine. In the end, though, perhaps this adherence to ephemera is both the whole point and the only possible strategy in a post-Ballard world.

Read the introduction to a recovered and reprinted interview from the “one-issue wonder” magazine Repsychling from the mid-1970s. It opens with the story of “collector, archivist and bibliophile” Mike Holliday’s efforts to acquire a copy, once he heard that it contained a previously forgotten Ballard interview. The interview itself is typical Ballard-as-crowd-pleasing-entertainer – stories about arguing with hospital staff over the copyright of his own skull x-rays after a car crash and so on. It’s the introduction – this inadvertent insight into the collector mindset – that proves most revealing. This is after all a book for Ballard fans, more than for casual readers.

Editor Rick McGrath’s own essay – an exploration of Ballard’s Shanghai in search of his old family home and the remains of his prisoner-of-war internment camp – is a romp improved by Ballard’s own encouraging letters and back-of-a-napkin-style memory maps. Ballard’s own summary, that “the Shanghai I knew, along with 31 Amherst Street and Lunghua camp, can only survive inside my head” ultimately renders the project more whimsical than essential.

Still, Ballard interviews in particular are always worth the time, and there are moments when The JG Ballard Book rises above its bricolage editorial approach and becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Read Mike Bonsall’s piece “JG Ballard in the Dissecting Room”, which juxtaposes profoundly anatomical passages of description from Ballard’s novels with illustrations from Cunningham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy, a text Ballard would have been exposed to as part of his medical training. (There are no marginal additions from the man himself on this occasion, although the often indecipherable photosets of his scrawled notebooks and letters elsewhere suggest he would have easily passed the doctors handwriting exam had he chosen to pursue this vocation.)

The pathology of fandom is perhaps most obviously revealed through a predilection for collecting. With that diagnosis in mind, I feel very happy indeed to have been anatomised by The JG Ballard Book, even as I add it to the shelves of my own personal Ballard exhibition.

@clarkeaward

Claire Dean finds J G Ballard’s brittle disaster novel inspiring real crystal worlds in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1), out now.

Also on the blog: Georgina Voss wanders in ever-decreasing circles round an empty swimming pool.

We’re reading THE KITSCHIES award shortlists 2014

24 Jan

The Kitschies annual prize for “speculative and fantastic” literature have announced their shortlists for the most “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” fiction of the year with fame, fortune, and lashings of The Kraken Rum awaiting the lucky winners…

This year’s shortlists were selected from a record 234 submissions, coming from over fifty different publishers and imprints.

 The Red Tentacle (Novel), selected by Kate Griffin, Nick Harkaway, Will Hill, Anab Jain and Annabel Wright:

  • Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape)
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker)
  • The Machine by James Smythe (HarperCollins / Blue Door)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut), also selected by the above panel:

  • Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)
  • A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47 North)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
  • Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art), selected by Craig Kennedy, Sarah Anne Langton, Hazel Thompson and Emma Vieceli.

  • Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz) / Design and illustration by Sinem Erkas
  • The Age Atomic by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot) / Art by Will Staehle
  • Homeland and Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Titan)  / Design by Amazing15
  • Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)  / Art by Gianmarco Magnani
  • Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human (Century) / Art by Joey Hi-Fi

The winners will be announced in a ceremony at the Seven Dials Club on 12 February. The winners will receive a total of £2,000 in prize money, as well as one of the prize’s iconic Tentacle trophies and bottles of The Kraken Rum.

Previous winners include Patrick Ness, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville and Nick Harkaway.

http://thekitschies.tumblr.com/

Your exit strategy has arrived

23 Jan

The wait is over! The first issue of Arc’s second volume, Exit strategies, is now available to buy

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

Exit strategies looks for a back door to the universe. How much of the cosmos is real, how much an astronomer’s dream? And if we could escape from reality, what kind of utopia would we build for ourselves?

With a foreword by CERN physicist Michael Doser, Exit strategies features stories by Jeff Noon, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and the best-selling fantasy writer Tad Williams. Meanwhile, M. John Harrison meets a rising star of TV science, Hannu Rajaniemi considers what will happen when our books start reading us, and Claire Dean meets the artists bent on making J G Ballard’s Crystal World a reality.

And in a special tribute, Adam Roberts considers the life, work and sheer sanity of the late, great Iain Banks.

Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)

We’re reading ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie

20 Jan

Writers! Do you dress up political truisms in the motley of science fiction? Then you need a dose of Nina Allan

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Orbit, PPB £7.99

Thousands of years from now, humanity has spread throughout the known universe, devolving into opposing empires and factions as it goes. The Justice of Toren, a mega-ship in the service of the intergalactic empire known as the Radch, is destroyed in an act of terrorism. The disaster’s last survivor is Brecq, a corpse-soldier who is now the one remaining repository of the ship’s vast hive-mind and who is sworn to hunt down the terrorists and destroy them. Twenty years into her quest, Brecq finds and rescues the Radchai officer Seivarden, who has also survived an atrocity and who has been floating in suspended animation for a thousand years. The two seem unlikely allies, but as the final reckoning approaches, each must confront their prejudices and reassess their existing notions of what it means to be human.

The thing I admire most about this novel is the author’s obvious commitment to it. There is nothing lazy, cynical or even particularly commercial-minded about Ancillary Justice. What comes through right from the start and continues throughout the book’s four hundred pages is the sense that this is a novel that has been thought about, reworked, agonised over and reworked again.

This is a book of ideas, a novel that buzzes with the authorial drive to expand on those ideas, to communicate them to the reader. If authorial commitment were a mainstay of what makes a work successful as literature, then this invigorating and ambitious debut should be winning hands down. I think that if I’d had this book in my hands when I was eighteen, I’d have loved it unequivocally. But therein lies the problem.

I haven’t been a consistent reader of what science fiction critics most commonly refer to as core genre for some many years now, but the buzz around Ann Leckie’s debut made it impossible to resist – hating the first hundred pages, gripped by the middle hundred and fifty, and finishing with a sense of indecision. I can’t help asking myself if Ancillary Justice is really all that different from the science fiction we were reading thirty years ago.

Leckie sets out to show not only how empires rise and fall, but the corruption and atrocities that accompany their progress, the ingrained class systems that invariably support their structures, their patronising and entropic assumptions around questions of culture and what and who determines ‘civilization’. Worthy aims for any writer, and Leckie’s project certainly has political validity. But personally I found the metaphors disappointingly heavy-handed: not crude exactly but certainly obvious. The reader cannot mistake Leckie’s message, but I would wonder how many would feel personally affected by it, beyond the simple intellectual pleasure of recognising and supporting what is being said.

There are no characters in Ancillary Justice, by which I mean that the characters-in-embryo, any of whom might have proved interesting if the author had devoted sufficient attention to giving them lives, have no vitality beyond their purpose in the plot. Lives are hinted at – One Esk’s un-ancillary-like passion for music, Lieutenant Awn’s hard-won progression from cook’s daughter to senior officer, the doctor Strigan’s isolated and unaffiliated existence on a distant colony-world – but they are never allowed to develop an internal reality.

It could be argued of course that in choosing an artificial intelligence as her narrator, Leckie has deliberately foresworn such intricacies, preferring instead the alienating yet invigorating sensation of ostranenie, or affective strangeness, that such a narrative choice would provide. To which I would reply that Ancillary Justice falls into the trap that so much core genre science fiction falls into: of failing to register the importance of properly realised emotional lives. What we have instead are the usual broad-brush generalisations and simplified responses. The characters do not live, they merely act:

My Ten segment came around the Fore-Temple water at a dead run. “Trouble in the upper city!” it called, and came to a halt in front of Lieutenant Awn, where I cleared the path for myself. “People are gathering at Jen Shinnan’s house, they’re angry, they’re talking about murder, and getting justice.” (p114)

I can’t read that “trouble in the upper city!” without thinking of Star Trek: aliens in elaborate robes sweeping into the citadel, nameless Redshirts running down the central companionway of a juddering Enterprise like so many headless chickens. Instead of being shown how it feels to live as a citizen – or a slave – of this overbearing and oppressive culture through the eyes and ears and minds of actual people, we are told in lengthy expositional dialogues between military types what is going on and why that might be.

One only has to ask oneself how a writer might more effectively capture the atmosphere of the 2011 Tottenham riots – through the voice of one disadvantaged teenager caught up in the looting of Primark, or through a lecturer in sociology at LSE droning on about capitalism’s last stand – to catch a glimpse of what the problems are here.

Much has already been written about Ancillary Justice’s treatment of gender, expressed primarily through Brecq’s habitual default to the personal pronoun ‘she’, as opposed to our own long-accustomed and unthinkingly patriarchal ‘he’. Brecq informs us that for the Radchai questions of gender as such do not exist, and so we as readers are left to work out a character’s gender from the reactions and speech of other, often non-Radchai characters. It sounds gimmicky in being explained but in practice it feels natural and hugely refreshing – and one of the more successful aspects of the novel.

I’m less convinced by Leckie’s treatment of AI, mainly, I suspect, because I couldn’t keep from comparing her Justice of Toren with M. John Harrison’s White Cat in his 2002 novel Light. In Ancillary Justice we have ships staffed by ancillaries, standard-issue “corpse soldiers” created in a manner that might roughly approximate with how humans are turned into Cybermen in Doctor Who. In his creation of the K-ships in Light, Harrison employs a similar kind of Frankenstein science, but instead of a perfunctory variant on the overused Nazis-in-space trope, he presents us with a subtle and heartbreaking meditation on the nature of consciousness and physical being. In K-Captain Seria Mau Genlicher, we see a real person with real problems and choices to make, life-altering decisions that she cannot now go back on. Much like the rest of us, she has to make the best of things as they now stand:

You are conscious all the way through this process, except for the brief moment when they introduce you to the K-code itself. Many recruits, even now, don’t make it past that point. If you do, they seal you in the tank. By then they have broken most of your bones, and taken some of your organs out: you are blind and deaf, and all you are aware of is a kind of nauseous surf rolling through you forever. They have cut into your neocortex so that it will accept the software bridge known ironically as ‘the Einstein Cross’ from the shape you see the first time you use it. You are no longer alone. You will soon be able to consciously process billions of billions of bits per second, but you will never walk again. You will never laugh or touch someone or be touched, fuck or be fucked. You will never do anything for yourself again. You will never even shit for yourself again. You have signed up. It comes to you for an instant that you were able to choose this, but that you will never, ever ever be able to unchoose it. (Light, p259)

Harrison’s mode of SF is diametrically opposed to Leckie’s, of course, and Light is less a science fiction novel than it is an ironical commentary on a genre that is often as inflexible in its assumptions as its harshest literary critics claim. Harrison’s understanding and deployment of SF tropes is virtuosic, hallucinatory, but the sense of wonder one experiences in reading Light is never not tinged by one’s awareness of the author’s ironic detachment from – and literary rejection of – the pompous and stylistically cack-handed “big-ideas” SF so beloved in the genre heartlands. I personally stand with Paul Kincaid in considering M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy to be the most significant work of science fiction to have appeared so far this century, yet I know there are those who consider Harrison’s novels to be a cheat in science fictional terms, an abnegation of SF’s mission statement.

Leckie, on the other hand, embraces the mission statement fully. Ancillary Justice gives us teeming galaxies, evil empires, a version of warp drive, and all without a hint of irony as the commonly accepted imagery of the particular version of SF that ranges itself against the mainstream as “a literature of ideas”.

When examined up close, however, the ideas contained in Ancillary Justice seem disappointingly simple: empires are evil, class systems are oppressive, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ancillary Justice is an SF novel of the old school: tireless in its recapitulation of genre norms and more or less impenetrable to outsiders.

The novel I happened to read immediately after Ancillary Justice was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Both novels are debuts, both are the first instalment in a trilogy. Both deal with far future empires, both have war as a central leitmotif, both have important things to say about society, faith and gender. At a surface level at least it would appear that these two books have much in common, but in fact, I would argue, they are different beasts entirely.

Nina Allan’s story “The Art of Space Travel” appears in Homes of the Stars (Arc 2.5), out later this year. Visit our FB page, follow us and subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news.

Also on the blog: Adam Roberts ponders the curious religious tract that is Ender’s Game and Philosophy

We’re reading THE ECHO by James Smythe

17 Jan

Martin McGrath struggles with isolation and abandonment in deep space

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HarperVoyager, HB £16.99

The science in most science fiction is nonsense. Normally this doesn’t matter because, normally, science fiction isn’t about science. Genre trappings – warp drives and blasters, time travel and aliens – rarely provide more than exotic set dressing and science, if it serves any purpose, most often provides the excuse for the author to work out variations on the theme of “if this goes on…” So (with apologies to Ian Sales) the science in science fiction doesn’t always have to be right, but there are occasions when it must sound plausible. And that, for me, is the niggling problem that undermined my enjoyment of James Smythe’s The Echo.

Smythe’s writing can be insightful and atmospheric and he has quickly developed a distinctive voice and interesting thematic concerns in novels such as The Machine (2013). The Echo is his fifth novel and the second instalment in “The Anomaly Quartet” – a sequel to last year’s The Explorer. In The Explorer the spaceship Ishiguro disappeared during a mission into deep space. In The Echo a second craft, the Lära, is sent to explore a strange void that is approaching Earth, discovers the fate of its predecessor, but also succumbs to disaster. Both novels feature damaged male protagonists who struggle with isolation and abandonment – not just in their disastrous space missions but in their equally disastrous private lives.

Space, for Smythe, represents an implacably hostile environment. More than physically dangerous, its emptiness detaches his characters from their humanity. It’s not just that his protagonists cannot grasp the nature of space or the weird anomaly they encounter; even trying to understand this outer space is fruitless when they (and, by extension, we) are incapable of grappling with the inner space of our own psyches. Indeed, for the men and women in Smythe’s universe the whole scientific endeavour is a lie, a false god to which they are deliberately sacrificed by forces who are no less indifferent to their fate than the vacuum through which they travel.

This is why it matters that Smythe’s science is so often plainly wrong. If an author is offering a critique of the scientific worldview, then the reader has to believe they know what they are talking about. This is even more true when, as in The Echo, a book’s protagonist and narrator is one of a pair of genius twins who are physicists, engineers, bureaucrats and managers of supposedly extraordinary capability.

Mira, then, should not be saying things that cause even this reviewer to wince. Pressure-sealed capsules will not protect a body from the force of acceleration (p32); neither Algol nor any other star will appear to move as an astronaut sits and watches (p66); the metal skin of a spaceship will not deflect all debris (p110). and a spaceship travelling at 43,000 miles an hour (p38) would take about 210 days to travel the 30 light seconds that the Lära appears to cover to reach the anomaly – far longer than the described voyage.

There is a long sequence early in The Echo where the crew of the Lära are prepared for the initial launch of their mission from a refitted International Space Station. The crew are to be placed in hibernation inside complex sleeping bays designed to protect them from the fierce acceleration that will take them to speeds never before reached by humans. They will be sedated using specially developed drugs to survive this terrible force. Mira is very proud of this technical achievement.

But none of this makes sense.

There is no need for a spaceship to accelerate hard when it is already in orbit. At a comfortable one G acceleration the Lära could have achieved its top speed in just over half an hour. If you were in a greater hurry, accelerating at about the average of a space shuttle launch (1.6 G) would take the Lära to top speed in around twenty minutes. A trained and fit crew could endure six G (the sort of force experienced by fighter pilots) and reach top speed in just over five minutes. The crew would be uncomfortable, but not unbearably so, and unlikely to be at any greater risk whether conscious or unconscious.

Many will read The Echo and get a great deal of pleasure from it. The quality of the writing is high, the protagonist’s characterisation is interestingly complex (though the women in both books are not well realised, serving mostly as victims who spur men to action) and the themes are intelligently explored. For me, though, Smythe squanders the trust that should exist between reader and writer. The Echo is immensely frustrating: flawed in a fashion that could have so easily been avoided.

@martinmcgrath

James Smythe takes on the games engines in Postcards from Uncanny Valley (Arc 2.3), out next year. Subscribe to our newsletter for further details.

Also on the blog: Martin McGrath’s ire is kindled by Stephen Kiernan’s deep-frozen Curiosity.