I loved the film. I died for the costumes. I was delighted with the actors, the cinematography, the sound, the script. Janelle Monae killed it playing an engineer in NASA’s obligatory high heels, though she did not convince me as a mother or wife. Taraji P Henson was stupendous as Katherine Goble, then Johnson, and nearly convinced me as a mathematician. Octavia Spencer just glowed, especially when she stole so righteously from the library. I also liked the book that sparked the film, now posting on Vulpes Libris. You might too.
I haven’t seen Arrival, but I wanted to read the book because the story as told to me by someone who had seen the film interested me greatly. I spotted the book in the bookshop because of the Amy-Adams-in-a-spacesuit cover, and was surprised to see that a whole film had been based on a short story. I’d heard of Ted Chiang, but only vaguely. I’ve finished all the stories in that collection now. Oh my.
Ted Chiang appears to be a polymath. ‘Towers of Babylon’ (a Nebula Award winner) is about Bronze Age architecture that can build a tower to Heaven. ‘Understand’ is about accumulating intelligence and quantitative cognition. ‘Division by Zero’ is about maths, really intimidatingly high-level maths. ‘Story of your life’ (the story the film was made from, and the winner of three awards including a Nebula) is about linguistic theory. ‘Seventy-two letters’ (a Sidewise Award winner) is about two (not one but TWO, darn it) invented pseudo-sciences in an alternative Victorian England. ‘The evolution of human science’ is a three-page short short about how humans can continue to work on science when metahuman science has long since outstripped human understanding. ‘Hell is the absence of God’ relies a little bit on OT theology but is otherwise fairly ground-level sf. It won four awards, including a Nebula and a Hugo: it’s the story I liked least. Hmm. ‘Liking what you see: A documentary’ hauls us right back to the hard stuff by theorising about gnosias that prevent our brains’ perceptions of beauty, and other human things.
Stories of Your Life and Others (the original title of the collection known as Arrival) will expand your mind relentlessly. The knowledge is only part of it: you don’t have to be a computer scientist to be pulled along by the scientific dilemma in ‘Understand’ because it is utterly human. All the stories are about being human, and dealing with the extraordinary. ‘Story of your life’ is the highlight for me; a perfect, beautiful story, beautiful in how the structure reflects the evolution of the story and what we learn from it as we read (the as-we-read bit is important, because this story is about the accumulative process). ‘Tower of Babylon’ was strange and deeply satisfying, and ‘The evolution of human science’ is a pocket firework.
I have some grumbles. ‘Tower of Babylon’ ignores the economic perspective: if a society is building a tower to reach to heaven, so high that the work continues not for weeks or years but generations, who pays for it? And why is that society, which will presumably be weakened by this constant and unproductive drain on its economy, left unmolested and uninvaded by its neighbours over the years that the building continues? ‘Understand’ ends with a titanic battle between two men: WHY? Why does every opposition have to end in conflict?
However, I was most irritated by the immensely long ‘Seventy-two letters’, which is really a novella, rather than a short story. It is set in Victorian England, and we quickly learn that it is an alt universe Victorian England, in which Robert Stratton learns to reprogram his toy golems to see how rewriting their names will affect their behaviour and refine their design. So far, so very steampunk. He becomes a nomenclator, designing new names to create new functions, and his radical new thinking on automaton design enrages the sculptors who make them by its threats to their livelihoods. Meet the Luddites at the Industrial Revolution. Stratton is asked to join a secret science project which is accelerating the development of homunculi from spermatozoa. This is the second pseudo-science of the story, a form of IVF that combines with the faux-genome mapping of the nomenclators to create a superb milieu of steampunk science without the explosions.
The invented sciences are marvellous and slightly chilling, treading closely on the boundaries of dystopia. But I am annoyed that no-one told Chiang that he can’t write British English dialogue. Both the third-person narrative voice and the ‘English’ characters make blooper after blooper, despite Chiang’s exceptionally good reconstruction of Victorian England. The story might have worked better if he had set it in New York, because then the Americanisms would have been appropriate. But to create an English society so faithfully, and not even posit that it was somehow American-English, and then drop clangers in phrasing, social usage and syntax, is just not good enough. No-one in England, now or 150 years ago, ever talks of a ‘steer’ when they mean a cow. Maybe the narrative voice is supposed to be American (but why?), which would explain why ‘Lionel had Robert wait outside’: no English voice would say that, not now or in the nineteenth century. No school-teacher scientist would address a peer without adding ‘my lord’ at the end of his request. No Victorian peer would drink ‘whiskey’, and he certainly wouldn’t pour it himself.
There are many more maddening small errors, and I’m not including the American spellings. It’s annoying to see detectable mistakes in otherwise brilliant work. If you’re going to recreate England AS England, why not do the job properly, or get someone to check it? But apart from that, I love these stories (most of them) and have joined the legions of Chiang admirers.
I love it when Jim Al-Khalili communicates science. He’s a physicist, a BBC Radio 4 presenter of science programmes (The Life Scientific is a great podcast, btw) and he’s written, among other books, a fine work on the history of medieval Arabic science. (I have no idea about his academic publications because I can’t read the first sentence of an abstract in Nature without gibbering.) Give me his popular science books, and I am happy.
I am even more happy when science is applied to science fiction, and Aliens does this excellently. Al-Khalili took the premise that if there are aliens out there, in the vastness of space, what will they look like, and how could we detect them? He asked twenty scientists with a foot in the field to speculate – in a nicely moderated popular style – how their specialisms could illuminate what might happen. He starts with Astronomer-Royal Sir Martin Rees, and moves from astrophysics to microbiology to psychology and neuroscience. In about half the essays, the alien extremes that we already know about on Earth are explored for what they might tell us about the possibilities for life Out There. I already knew about deep-sea thermal communities of bacteria that thrive in conditions that would slaughter most other life-forms, but did you know that communities of chasmoendoliths live inside rock?
I was most struck by Rees’ remark that our first contact will not be biological, but artificial, since that’s what we are doing already. Mars already has alien visitors: our AI vehicles and exploratory equipment are already out there, dropping Earth particles into its peculiar atmosphere. The limitations of space travel (time, energy and mass) make missions operated by AIs much more likely than sending humans out in deep sleep conditions. And then there are the places we could look at: since solar winds strip atmospheres from orbiting bodies unless their gravity is strong enough, only those orbiting bodies with the right geophysical parameters are likely to hold the conditions for life. These begin with water (or another substrate fluid for nutrient exchange and solvents: several of the contributors differ about including methane in this list), and the most common chemical elements that have created life as we know it. Most of the potential life talked about is microbial, and while it’s difficult to get excited, let alone alarmed, at the thought of a mat of proteins living between silicate layers only a few cells thick, it’s that scale, and level of strangeness, that we should be open to if we’re serious about finding life Out There.
The essays are short and snappy, and include excellent round-ups of science-fiction films and novels about alien contact that should be read or seen, or avoided. There is inevitable duplication of explanation – almost everyone carefully defines how H2O is essential – but there are also good links across chapters (evidence of a good editing hand). The consensus seems to be that Europa, Titan and Enceladus are the bodies most likely to harbour life in our own system, but my word, getting to that life will take many of our lifetimes. Even if the SETI search can detect suitable planets, identifying and contacting life on them is one of the longest-term projects we have. Assuming we’re still here on Earth when contact is made by the AIs we send out on missions lasting hundreds of years. My only complaint is that no-one, absolutely no-one, mentions the NASA press conference of a few years ago which announced with hysterical excitement that they’d found evidence of arsenic-based life on Mars. That debacle was hushed up so quickly: I really wanted to read more about the mistakes scientists make when they think they’ve found alien life, and what we learn from those mistakes.
Jim Al-Khalili (ed.) Aliens. Science Asks, Is Anyone Out There? (Profile Books, 2016), ISBN 9781781256817, £8.99
I really like the concept of Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion. In 2013 Hassan Blasim and his collaborator Ra Page, the founder of Comma Press, asked well-known Iraqi writers to write speculative short stories envisioning Iraq in 2113 or thereabouts. The Introduction and Afterword are persuasive about the artistic ambitions of this project, and give a proper sense of political and humanitarian rage at the destruction of Iraq by the British and US-led coalition, in 2003. As time has moved on, new predators have emerged in Iraq, so several of the stories feature deeply-felt responses to the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. This is an anthology about what it’s like to write fiction about the future in a present that no-one wants.
There is nothing hopeful about these visions of a future Iraq. It’s impossible to quantify how science-fictiony these stories are, but their defining characteristic is anger at the present, and a recurring sense that little is going to change in 100 years except the need to look back at this time. In that context, these are not particularly good science fiction stories, but I don’t think that’s important. In how they tackle problems of an unknown future that will somehow relieve the discomfort, injustice or the tyranny of the present, they are very like early Anglophone science fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, especially that written by women. They show strong signs of an emerging artistic tradition.
Early western male sf writers focused on technological advances and ignored everything else about society, or they railed against feminists and the horrors of sexual equality. Early female sf writers from the west also focused on technology, and how it would alter their lives for the better (rather than for war, which was often the male response), but they also wrote about changing society for the better, creating social equality, and doing away with injustice. That is the common factor with these Iraqi stories, by men and women both. Hassan Blasim remarks in the Introduction that ‘Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing’. In both content and impetus, Iraqi writers have used sf in this collection to express their fears and anxieties about the present, by changing them for the better through speculative fiction, or by digging into their nature to find out what needs to be fixed.
The stories most aligned to modern sf are ‘Kuszib’ by playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, with its really remarkable combination of alien eroticism and humans treated as meat; and ‘Najufa’ by Ibrahim al-Marashi, which envisions a modern and roboticised Islamic society, in and out of the mosque, in a totally climate-altered world. Other stories use a futurised society to retell the story of Scheherazade (‘Baghdad Syndrome’ by Zhraa Alhaboby), and the story of the 2013 invasion through time travel (‘The Corporal’ by Ali Bader’). There is an unsettling recurrent image of eating human bodies, in ‘Kuszib’, in ‘The Worker’ by Diaa Jubaili, also a story of a giant automaton, and in ‘Kahmarama’ by Anoud, which rages against the commodification of women by charlatan imams. For the strongest story of speculative invention glazed with horror I’d give the prize to ‘Operation Daniel’ by Khalid Kaki, in which transgressors are incinerated and archived into a glittering chip, to be attached to the robes of the Venerable Benefactor and tyrant, Gao Dong. This is the only story that reaches beyond the familiar Iraqi-US binary, and envisions a different cultural player in the future.
All these stories are about punishment and transgression. This is not a collection for comfort reading, and the stories are certainly not contemplative visions of a calm and perfect future as seen from a suburban armchair. But they’re vigorous, and exploratory, and represent a new way of writing about present-day problems by authors who really know what suffering and destruction mean. For that reason alone, this impetus should be nurtured.
Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press 2016), ISBN 9 781905 583669, £9.99
I am kicking myself for not having got around to reading this Elizabeth Moon novel before. In this house we have a long shelf full of her excellent space opera (I posted a happy note about the first one, here), but Speed of Dark arrived unnoticed, and stayed on our shelves for years unremembered. But oh what a treat to spend the entire evening reading it on the sofa. Speed of Dark sucks you in with the first pages, in which Lou the protagonist silently comments on the intrusive and facile questions that his psychiatrist is asking. It’s plain that Dr Fornum doesn’t realise that Lou is a highly intelligent man, or how he thinks, since he is autistic, and she is obtuse. Published in 2002, this is a near future vision of our world, still recognisable, but with some utopian, or dystopian, differences.
Like the narrative voice in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, published only a year later, Lou’s internal commentary brings the reader close to the experience of what it might be like to be a high-functioning autist. He is American, in his 30s, living independently since both his parents are dead, and holding down a specialist job in pattern recognition in a computer company that gets tax breaks for employing autistic technical specialists like him. The company has arranged a special parking area for their autist employees, since they need to park their cars in the same spots every day at the same time. This is important for their comfort and equilibrium. They have their own offices with doors, which they can decorate as they want (Lou has spinners and whirling wheels that he sets off with a fan, all carefully positioned so that the pattern of twinkles and shine are right for him). They have a special shared room with a trampoline which they can use to calm down, to express their energy or fear or excitement, and they are comfortable with each other. They go out for lunch together to the local pizza house, where Hi-I’m-Sylvia knows them, but they try to avoid going when Hi-I’m-Jean is there, since she is unpleasant. Their supervisor is Mr Aldrin, who is increasingly anxious when the novel begins, since a new manager has been installed who doesn’t like people with special privileges.
Lou is interested in patterns, everywhere. He understands that recognising the expressions that ‘normals’ make with their faces is hard for autists, though he and his friends read other signals to help them make sense of how ‘normal’ people communicate mood and emotion. Lou is in a fencing club rung by his friends Tom and Lucia, and is realising that his pattern recognition skills are making him better and better when they fence. Tom takes him to a tournament, where Lou wins the novice medal, and learns more about how people cheat, get angry and interact when they don’t know him. Lou has warm and confusing feelings for Marjory, who is also in the fencing club. He doesn’t understand why she looks angry when Don takes her bag, or sprawls on the ground talking at her but looking at Lou. Emmy, a woman who goes to the Center on Saturday mornings, has begun to shout at Lou for hanging out with normals, insisting that Marjory is his girlfriend and that this is wrong. Emmy tells Lou that Marjory is a spy, since she also works at the medical research centre in the university. Lou decides he doesn’t need to go the Center on Saturday mornings any more. He has his routines (Tuesday is groceries, Wednesday is fencing, Friday is laundry, Sunday is church) but he is feeling more comfortable about changing them.
Lou’s neighbour Danny is a policeman, and is friendly to Lou, which Lou likes because policemen, and security men, and people who are angry, make him feel tight and tense, and he stutters. Danny is there when Lou finds that all four of his car tyres have been slashed, and helps him through the reporting procedure. Danny and Miss Kimberly in the laundry room know Lou’s routines well. So does Mr Crenshaw, who waits for Lou to arrive every morning, and times his lunch break absences. Mr Crenshaw is planning to force the autistic staff out of their jobs by making them take the new experimental treatment for autism. Mr Aldrin is looking even more worried, and Lou and his colleagues are busy reading about the treatment on the internet and talking to their friends around the world about it. They share the scientific and medical papers, and Lou begins to read more biology courses online. Lucia, a doctor, is astounded when Lou shows her his tests, because Lou’s reading has got him through an undergraduate biology degree in two weeks. He’s starting on organic chemistry and biochemistry now, and the scientific papers are making more sense to him.
This novel is about patterns, and about sharing information. The characters who don’t share data are lost, unhappy, miserable and destructive. The characters who manage to make connections look after each other, and learn how to feel comfortable. Moon’s background as a parent of an autistic man has obviously stimulated her awareness of autists’ lives, and her desire to create Lou as the leading protagonist in a seriously far-reaching science fiction novel. She has written a beautiful and deviously clever examination of what it might be like for an autist to experience love, learn to change, and to feel as well as understand how social patterns work. The central plot device, of the ‘cure’ for autism and what it will do, is handled with sensitivity and nuance, making no point of view wholly negative or wholly positive (though Mr Crenshaw is an aggressively one-dimensional villain, with a highly satisfying end at the hands of nervous, connected Mr Aldrin). Choice is paramount, and we have been with Lou all the way as we learn how his choices are shaped. I so admire how Moon has handled this contentious and challenging theme, and I cannot recommend this novel highly enough: for utopian/dystopian vision, for sheer narrative power, and for depicting autism as a way of being. It won the Nebula Award in 2003, and was a finalist for the Arthur C Clarke Award in the same year, which shows you its sf credentials.
When Terry Pratchett wanted to explore how trolls might name themselves, he used mineralogy. Jade was one of the first Pratchett trolls to have a name. It was curiously dignifying as well as amusingly paradoxical (how could a lump of rock have a name, ho ho ho). Pratchett continued to dignify his troll characters rather than just generating cheap laughs, because naming confers identity as well as personality: Bauxite, Beryl, Mica, Flint and the greatest of all, Mr Shine: him Diamond.
In N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) [update: which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel] there was a similar geological component in the storytelling that produces dignity rather than jokes. On completing their first phase of training orogenes name themselves for precious and ornamental stones: Alabaster, and Syenite. Their job is to sense and work with the movements of the earth, to quell earthquakes, shape landscapes, create islands and bury cities. Because of their phenomenal destructive capabilities they are hated and feared by people without that power. In that excellent novel we also met stone-eaters, creatures who move through earth and rock, and eat stone, even stone that was once human. When the Fifth Season begins – a period of violent climatic change brought about by catastrophic eruptions and earthquakes – Essun, an orogene who is trying to find her lost daughter, meets Hoa. She assumes by his name that he is the lost small boy he looks like, although the reader has seen him emerge from a stone nodule. But Hoa is not a mineral name.
In The Obelisk Gate, as Essun struggles to survive after the apocalypse of The Fifth Season, she encounters other stone-eaters. They attach themselves to orogenes, as disconcerting guardians and bodyguards. They exude danger and power in a way that Pratchett’s trolls could not, though Hoa, for one, does have a sense of humour. Essun’s names for them are not particularly beautiful, or respectful: Ruby Hair, Butter Marble, Ugly Dress, Toothshine, Grey Man. Hoa has different names for them, and Essun does call the sternly imposing Antimony by her name for good reason. But these sloppy nick-names reflect Essun’s state of mind when she meets them: usually exhausted, and enraged at how little she understands of what is going on in her community, and in the world, now that everything is made different.
Perhaps it’s the gravity of the situation in The Obelisk Gate that makes the stone-eaters so grim, and so watchful, assembling silently in the plot with a sense of simmering excitement. (Is it food? More of their kind?) The earth has moved in several places, and Essun has learned to summon the obelisks, the gigantic hovering mineral rhomboids in the sky that magnify and amplify her mental earth-moving powers. Alabaster is trying to teach her how to work with them, but he is a terrible teacher, impatient and elliptical, and he is weakening because he is turning into stone. The other orogenes in the underground community of Castrima where Essun is living are only concerned with keeping the people safe and fed, and keeping the life support systems running. But on the surface, where ashfall is preventing crops from growing and killing the trees, other people are coming to find Castrima, and they are not interested in sharing.
The Obelisk Gate continues to develop Jemisin’s rich and complicated world. There is so much that the reader doesn’t and can’t know, yet the pace of the events drags us past unanswered questions. It’s like riding a white-water raft through plot points and characters. Essun spends the entire novel in Castrima, keeping her community alive, but what she doesn’t know is that several other characters are struggling to survive elsewhere on the continent, and she needs most desperately to find them before truly terrible things happen. Really terrible things happen throughout the novel, at the human scale, but Essun’s focus is planetary now, and the reader’s empathy is switched rapidly between small children and whole land masses.
Jemisin’s handling of several strands of narration simultaneously is expert, occasionally with deliberate tangles. As she did in The Fifth Season, in The Obelisk Gate she uses a challenging second-person narration to make us not quite sure who ‘you’ is, and who is saying ‘you’. The multiple narratives tease out the major new development in this novel, a new thing that orogenes can do, which brings magic into the plot, and the series. I was unsure how the integration of sf and fantasy would work, but because Jemisin describes the magical elements in grounded scientific terms, it works for me. What the orogenes do is of course totally fantastical, but by clothing its functionality in words from biology and geology, Jemisin cuts off any possibility of elves and unicorns. We only have the stone angels to contend with instead.
N K Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (2016, Orbit Books) ISBN 978-0-356-50836-8, £8.99
I loved this novel. It was an impulse purchase although I was looking for a Delaney. I’d read that he was a close friend of James Tiptree jr, whom the world now knows was Alice Sheldon, and wrote feminist sf, so I wanted to find out more. Babel-17 (1966) is certainly feminist, but in a breathtakingly audacious way: it simply isn’t made an issue. Delaney just writes a novel about language, xenotranslation and mathematics, and wraps it around a pirate space opera. All the potentially contentious feminist, post-racial, gendered stuff is tucked out of the way, under the hood, where it powers the novel unnoticeably, just purring along.
Babel-17 is beautifully well written. It’s adorned with poetry, because Rydra Wong the protagonist is a poet as well as a xenolinguist, and I can believe her poems are real. (Apparently they are real poems, by a real poet, not just mugged up for the novel.) The space opera feels like a James Blish engineering romp, but aeons ahead in social attitudes. We have the pleasure of superbly plausible space-tech details to ease us through an engaging plot about people who live, work, and continue to work after living is over.
Delaney’s invention is stunning. Old pilots and navigators never die, they just become discorporate, and inhabit a special space station afterlife facility until their skills are needed for voyages where the physics and working conditions would pulverise living bodies. Rydra breaks the alien code (Babel-17), and is plunged into an alternative existence of enhanced senses which makes human speech and thinking impossibly slow. Bored crews save their money for cosmetisurgery so they can wear tails, or remodel their bone structure for better shipboard function where navigation means a whole-body interface with the shipbrain. The discorporate crew have no audible voices, but they speak directly to Rydra’s brain, so she can self-program their remarks into Basque before they dissipate completely. (Why Basque? It’s a memorable sound, so Rydra can recall what those crew are saying from phoneme memory rather than meaning.) Navigation crew triad up in threes in a marriage that lasts until death, working and playing together through the stars.
Who cares about the plot: Delaney’s details and world-building create the real magic. It was joint winner of the Nebula Best Novel for 1966. Go find a copy. I’ll race you to the Delaney shelf.