Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Monday, 30 May 2011

Review: The Demolished Man

 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1951)

Ben Reich, √úberkapitalist and owner of Monarch Enterprises is locked in a financial death struggle with Craye D'Courtney, head of the D'Courtney Cartel.  When D'Courtney reject's Reich's offer of a merger, Reich decides that the only way out is murder.  The only problem is that there hasn't been a murder committed in almost three quarters of a century.  Why?  Imagine a world where the police are telepathic.  Imagine that crimes are detected as soon as the thought is formed.  That is the world of the future that Reich lives in. Not being a telepath, he has about as much chance of getting away with murder as a blind shoplifter in a piano shop.  Unless, that is, he is very, very clever.

 The Demolished Man has its footnote in history by being the winner of the first Hugo Award for best novel in 1953, though the novel was published in 1951 and serialised in 1952.   It's a book of stark, vivid imagery and some remarkable innovations, such as the use of typography to convey what instantaneous telepathic conversations are like, as in this mind-reading cocktail party:
It's also been called a "police procedural", though that's a bit of a stretch.  True, we do follow policeman Lincoln Powell of the Psychotic Division as he tries to build a case against Reich, a particularly frustrating task because Powell knows telepathically that Reich is guilty but can't prove it, but this it's a very long way from Dragnet or Law & Order.   A better way to describe it is as a satirical, Freudian howdunnit with surrealistic overtones.  Freudian psychology was a fad in the 1950s and Bester exploits it to the hilt not only as for plot twists, but as the basis for the society he depicts.  His writing is lean, effective, and stands out from the less disciplined science fiction of the day–small wonder when you consider that Bester was a successful radio and television writer who instinctively knew the value of story-telling economy.  Even at it's most bizarre, The Demolished Man remains taut and avoids the self-indulgent cul-de-sacs that would become a blighted feature of later science fiction.  The only unforgivable flaw is a strange gear shift in the third act where Reich becomes a "galactic" menace for not explainable reason.  It looks almost as if Bester had an idea and didn't have time to go back and craft it properly into the rest of the story.  It's a minor flaw and one that Bester's lightning pace manages to let slide by in a way that the reader can forgive–at least until the book is finished.

The Demolished Man had a great influence on later science fiction.  The writing is half serious, half joke with a distinctly New York feel and the style of Bester's future world is that mixture of advanced technology and social decay that would later run under the moniker of "steampunk".  Sometimes it reads almost like a blueprint for the novels of William Gibson or an early script for Ridley Scott's Bladerunner.  It even influenced television in the form of the Psi Corp of Babylon 5, which was based very heavily on the Telepath's Guild of the novel, but might have guessed that since the head of the Psi Corp was named Alfred Bester.

Friday, 27 May 2011

To em dash or not to em dash–that is the question

If you're going to write an article discussing the proper use of the em dash, it's generally a good idea not to labour the blessed thing with em dashes to make your point.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Time off

It's our tenth anniversary, so the wife and I are vanishing for a few days.  The weekend posts have been preloaded and I'll be back on Monday.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Getting wise

Are you trying to break into freelance writing, but you're put off by the insultingly low rates offered by content farms?  Are you a client who wants good content, but you're put off by the shoddy work that comes from writers who make 1¢ per word?

Then repeat after me, "You get what you pay for".

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Comma controversy

Thanks to the Internet, American's are finally learning that you're supposed to put the comma outside the quotation marks.

Take that, AP Stylebook!

Update: You can have my semicolon when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The changing face of publishing

It used to be that getting published followed established rules:  You finished your manuscript, put together a proposal, got yourself and agent, and submitted your book to the various publishers in hopes of landing a deal.  Like so many other things, the Internet has changed all that and the agents and publishers are now less the gatekeepers than the middlemen when it comes to getting your book in front of the public.  And the job of middlemen is to be cut out as soon as possible.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch looks at publishing in the 21st century and how it's now less like this:
  1. Writers provide content (product) to Publishers. 
  2. Publishers distribute that content to Distributors. 
  3. Distributors distribute books to Bookstores. 
  4. Bookstores distribute that content to Readers.
and more like this:
  1. Writers provide content (product) to Bookstores
  2. Bookstores distribute that content to Readers
Bottom line: Writers are becoming more like small businesses than publishing employees–and that's a good thing.

Friday, 13 May 2011

We're back

Blogger has finally come back on line, but too late for today's entries.

Anyone up for a spot of torches and pitchforks?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The deadline cometh

One of the banes of the writer's life is the deadline.  I'm facing one today, so posting will be light.

Review: Dark Side of the Moon

Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard J DeGroot (2006)

Dark Side of the Moon aims to be a corrective to the romantic aura that still surrounds the American space programme.  Starting with  popular literature of the 19th century and going on through the German V2 programme, the Space Race, and after Apollo, DeGroot works to uncover the seamier side of the conquest of space.  He spares no effort to bring the warts of politics, propaganda, and promotion to the front stage and makes very clear his thesis that landing a man on the Moon was not as tidy an adventure as many think.

The Moon landings are a peculiar event that many still find puzzling to this day.  After all that effort of getting to the Moon, the Americans abandoned their beachhead and no one else stepped in to claim the prize for themselves.  Nearly a half century latter, even the most ambitious manned space efforts are mere repeats of what was accomplished in the 1960s–only this time for wealthy tourists rather than national prestige.

Why?  What happened.  Put simply, manned spaceflight turned out to be more difficult and expensive than the pioneers thought and the Moon and beyond proved worthless against the risk and expense.  DeGroot recognises this and includes the reality check of physics as part of his account, but his basic theme is so simple and so easy to state that it really warrants an opinion piece rather than a book.  Providing little in the way of new information, DeGroot keeps restating over and over about how difficult space travel is and that the men behind it weren't so pure and that the enterprise had its vulgar side.  Never mind that the Americans are a vulgar people and proud of it.  With so much overstatement, one wonders if DeGroot is not a little worried that Apollo 11 really was a romantic, pivotal moment and not an insane sideshow.  In fact, sometimes he pushes his point so hard that he starts sneering at predictions that were valid.  It's hard to mock someone advocating satellites for weather prediction and military surveillance or that developing space technology would be as influential as the atom bomb.  How absurd.  How provincial.  How's that GPS and Internet thing working for you?

An interesting airing of space travel's critics and cynics when read in random dips into the text, Dark Side of the Moon is a hard slog front to back.  The Dark Side is in the end, not light reading for a very light thesis.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Review: Ender's Game

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (1991)

Ender Wiggin is an exceptional little boy.  He has an IQ that would make Einstein look at his feet and at the age of six he is already an obvious leader and a tactical genius.   With the right training, he has the potential of becoming the greatest military mind since Alexander the Great.  That's a lot for any child to be burdened with, but Earth faces repeated invasions by a deadly race called the "buggers" and if the Earth fleet can't find Alexander the Great in a hurry to lead it, then mankind is doomed.  So Ender is sent to Battleschool; an orbiting academy dedicated to turning child geniuses into military commanders.  Since the tests all show that Ender is, to use a cliche so worn you can feel a penny through it, The One, his childhood is set to become a living hell as Colonel Graff, in charge of Ender's education, forces the boy to become the greatest tactical leader in history before he's old enough to shave.  That is, if Ender's training doesn't get him killed first.

Ender's Game is what the Harry Potter series should have been six years before the first Potter book came out.  Like Potter, Ender is a boy with an unwanted destiny; marked as special from birth and required to face danger and death at too young an age before he goes on to his final battle.  He also has a schoolmaster who cares about him, yet is willing to withhold information and put him through nine kinds of hell, has a loathsome brother, and there's even a form of Quidditch.  Ender's version, however, is a zero-gravity combat game that's actually interesting and forms the backbone of the story.  But this is not a sports novel.  The Game of the title is "game" as in war games and is treated with as much seriousness

The only real difference from Potter is that in Ender's case, the unending whimsy, bad writing, clumsy plotting, and tangled continuity are missing.  Ender's Game is a coming of age story in the vein of Robert Heinlein's juveniles, but without the Heinlein standard character.  Graff isn't the Old Man and Ender isn't Competent.  He's a small, often very frightened boy who misses the childhood that's been taken from him, feels isolated from the other boys as his successes in the Game and against assorted bullies grow, and he comes to hate his teachers as faceless sadists intent on destroying him and the team that he leads like an army.  Like all good coming of age fiction, Card doesn't treat childhood like a static state, but allows us to see the boy inside the man.  At times, it's often hard to remember that Ender is between six and eleven as the story unfolds or that he's fighting other children.

Card's style is reasonably paced and he keeps the story moving along, though the subplot involving his megalomaniac elder brother seems irrelevant and half-heated.  The Battleschool scenes are crisp and Card knows when to cover the war games in detail and when to let them pass in a quick sentence.  Though the climax of the novel is good, it's also easily foreseen and the gap between Ender leaving Battleschool and getting to the denouement leaves a sag in the plot.  Card also admits that he wrote this book to set up the Ender character for later novels, which is a pity because the ending is unsatisfactory and unconvincing from a dramatic point of view.  Had he written this as a stand alone with an ending to match, Ender's Game would have been a much stronger book. 

Still, I'll take Battlechool over Hogwarts any day of the week.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Review: Nightfall

"Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov (1941)
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?
The planet Lagash is an odd planet.  Instead of orbiting one sun, it winds its complicated path around six stars that rise in fall in such a pattern that the entire planet is always illuminated by one of them.  It's a world that never knows night and where darkness is a strange, fearful thing that is only found in the caves that everyone shuns.  It's also a world with a bizarre archaeological record that shows the Lagashian civilisation self-destructs every 2,049 precisely, leaving behind nothing but the ruins of burned-out cities.

Reporter Theremon 762  is writing a story about the scientists at the Saro City observatory who believe that they've solved the mystery.  Using archaeology, psychology, and astronomy, the scientists believe that once every 2,000 years an eclipse occurs when only one sun is in the sky, plunging the world into an unaccustomed darkness that drives the people mad with claustrophobia; destroying all civilisation.  Hoping to break the cycle of destruction, the scientists plan to record the coming event and preserve the knowledge, along with some survivors fortified in a bunker with crude candles, so that the truth will not be lost.  Unfortunately, the fanatical Cult of the Stars are convinced that the scientists are committing blasphemy and as the darkness starts to fall, raises a mob to destroy the observatory.  Will civilisation again be destroyed?  And what are the mysterious "Stars"?

"Nightfall" is one of the most anthologised science fiction short stories, appearing no less than 48 times including six of Asimov's own collections.  Not surprisingly, it was also one of Asimov's favourite stories.  I was going to qualify this with "that he'd written", but we're talking about Isaac Asimov.  It's also his best written story with far more description and characterisation than Asimov usually allows.  The characters stand out as individuals with their own quirks, fears, and motives rather than just props for one of Asimov's debates or logic puzzles.  There's good conflict at the opening with some nice foreshadowing as the scientists bristle at the presence of the reporter who has spent months making them a laughing stock now wanting to cover their attempts to record the darkness–and spare their credibility if nothing happens.  Theremon is well handled, if a bit cinematic; as if Asimov was channelling James Cagney, but the psychologist Sheerin 501 stands in good contrast to the other scientists and Asimov gives him credible reasons for talking to the reporter.

Though rising above Asimov's usual schoolboy prose, "Nightfall" still has its shortcomings.  It's very obviously a stacked deck of a story with the outcome a classic example of begging the question.  Though Asimov has a academic background, he brings no insights to his group of scientists as opposed to those that C S Lewis did in his science fiction.  But the worst is Asimov cultists, who are the coarsest stereotypes of religious fanatics from a man who famously regarded science as having a monopoly on reason, religion as pure anti-reason, and in the last decade of his life was convinced that the Moral Majority were going to throw him in prison. However, "Nightfall" stands as an unusual Asimov story; one where the ideas are not particularly interesting, but where the story telling excels.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Review: A Martian Odyssey

"A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G Weinbaum (1934)

If you want to mark a turning point in science fiction, then the publication of "A Martian Odyssey" in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories is most definitely it.  With his first story, Stanley G Weinbaum was immediately hailed as the greatest living science fiction writer in the world and nobody argued the point.  This one story changed science fiction forever and vastly aided the genre as it evolved away from its penny-a-word pulp potboiler roots. 

So why isn't Weinbaum's name as well known to the general public as Asimov or Clarke or Heinlein?  Why is it that even science fiction readers who don't care for the "old stuff" probably never heard of him?  That's because Weinbaum was a true literary meteor.  having burst on the scene in 1934, he produced 13 short stories and four novels only to die of lung cancer 18 months after "A Martian Odyssey's" appearance.

"A Martian Odyssey" is actually a light parody of science fiction stories of the time.  It's told by Dick Jarvis, chemist with the Ares, the first ship to reach Mars, who's just been rescued after his scout rocket crashed hundreds of miles from base.  He tells of his accident, his decision to walk the hundreds of miles back to the ship, the strange lifeforms that he encounters, and most especially of Tweel, the Martian who befriends him on his journey. 

Tweel is the real turning point here.  For the first time, an alien is depicted in science fiction who is not only a full-blown sympathetic character, but one possessed of a possibly superhuman intelligence that is so alien in its thinking that its only the friendship between man and Martian that allows them to understand one another at all.  Tweel vaguely resembles a plucked ostrich with hands and a flexible beak and a little head that makes him look like a bird until you realise that his brain is in his torso.  Jarvis sees that Tweel is obviously intelligent because he carries a bag filled with sophisticated weapons and devices, but he has incredible difficulty communicating with him because the Martian language never seems to mean the same thing twice in a row.  Even Tweel's name is one that Javis just picks because he can't remember the dozen other ways that the Martian refers to himself as.  Despite his alien qualities, Tweel and Jarvis soon become fast friends as they trek back to the Ares.  Along the way they encounter wonders such as a silicon animal that has spent millions of years building little pyramids across the desert, a mind-reading predator, and a civilisation (for want of a better word) made out of drum-shaped inmates of an insane asylum. 

Weinbaum's style is light, breezy and confident as he breaks up the plot with banter between the international crew of the Ares.  Jarvis is well enough developed to stand as a character in his own right, but is left two-dimensional enough that he fulfills his main purpose as our guide through a world of wonders.  And, of course Tweel is a genius of creation who is funny and noble at the same time.  He is the first true embodiment of John W Campbell Jr's command to his writers:
Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.
Small wonder everyone in the field immediately dusted off their typewriters and started imitating Weinbaum's style.