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
This podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book is on the first of Gene Wolfe’s epic science-fiction & fantasy tetralogy The Book of the New Sun,The Shadow of the Torturer (1981), the only one of the four I have been able to finish. It is EPIC, a tremendous, sprawling feast of fantastical invention slathered over a strong sf foundation. To reassure those not wishing to read celebrations of violence, it contains only two torture incidents, both very brief, and described in such a way that we are more interested in the how and why than the what.
Here’s the story: Severian is an apprentice torturer, and hopes to rise one day to become not just a journeyman but a master torturer. The torturers are the executioners and punishment inflictors for the Autarch, who is the supreme ruler of this part of Urth. That’s our Earth in the very far future. Severian becomes emotionally too close to a ‘client’, as torture victims are called in this world, closer than he should be, with the result that he is sent on a journey. The journey introduces him, and us, to his world, which is convenient since he and we are equally ignorant about its fascinating details, while the things that Severian knows about that we don’t are not explained because they are the mysteries of his trade, and we the readers are not privy to these. It’s a familiar way to tell a story – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle came to mind quite a few times while reading this.
Severian narrates the story from many years later, with more than enough remarks about his later career, so we don’t have to worry about whether he’ll survive (an awkward pitfall of first-person narration: if they’re still alive to write/dictate the narrative, obviously they’re not going to fall down a cliff or onto a spear halfway through). As I say, we are given so much reassurance that Severian will survive, in a narrative where death is simply everywhere, we can concentrate with greater avidity on his story, and try to work out why his society makes a guild of torturers necessary. The McGuffins that keep the plot moving are (1) that Severian has to get to his destination, and (2) by the end of this first novel in the tetralogy he finds a certain extraordinarily valuable something and he has to decide what to do with it. There are other, smaller mysteries as well: why does Dorcas have no memory? Will Vodalus the rebel ever come back to challenge the Autarch? How will Severian reach the destiny we are told about almost at the beginning of the book?
This society is medievalised, which is a peculiar convention in fantasy literature. It is oddly common for a fictional future society to have reverted to pre-industrial technology. This produces useful hand-to-hand, one-to-one combat scenes between characters the reader has learned to care about, rather than big impersonal explosions between anonymous armies (though fantasy still deploys these: looking at you, Michael Moorcock), but why the reversion? What events cause a society to forget all it once knew and regress, other than a lack of industrial quantities of resources? As a former economic history student (one term only, till I failed the course utterly), these motivations for world-building bother me.
Wolfe complicates the medievality by allowing glimpses of, for instance, the fliers owned by the rich, which zip through the air like silver tears. The lighting in the Citadel is clearly from something as long-lasting as nuclear power; some of the torture techniques are based on psychotropic drugs; and the Tower of the Torturers is clearly part of a long-defunct and partially overgrown and overbuilt spaceship. In this respect Wolfe has done what Anne McCaffrey did with her dragons of Pern novels, but he’s stayed on Earth. Extra-terrestrials are mentioned briefly; they are cacogens, pale and thin, but a few more clearly alien creatures and people appear in the last crowd scenes of the novel, with the effect of letting us know that Wolfe has hardly got started: this is just the first act.
On rereading The Shadow of the Torturer, I found that I had not remembered anything much except a sense of wonder and a world that I wanted to return to. Sometimes you get a sf novel where the society is more interesting than the plot, and I think Wolfe may have tipped the balance with this one. I don’t care very much about Severian and his agonies of conscience, but I adore his world. There is a fascinating use of hierarchies in his society. Severian knows his place and refuses to be elevated from it, because his role is more important than the man. He dissuades the chiliarch from giving him his executioner’s fee with his own hand because this would have demeaned the chiliarch’s own office, and was not traditional: his fee had to be flung at him on the ground.
Chiliarch. Yes: what’s a chiliarch? For this purportedly post-historic frame narrative Wolfe adds a note at the end explaining his ‘editor’s need to invent words for ancient concepts that had not come into existence’. Instead of leaving us to accept that sf is just invention like any other kind of storytelling, Wolfe adds extra meaning to the very idea of sf, like so many other sf novelists, by inviting the reader to think about these stories as being the narratives and records of history that have not happened yet. So we don’t just read ‘story’, we also think about these stories as histories, reports, assessments, commentaries: all of which let us consider how future reality might yet be.
With this in mind, we might read The Shadow of the Torturer in this way with some relief, because its most striking aspect is its vocabulary. Opening the book at two, unrelated, pages at random, here is a representative sample: cataphract (some kind of guard), sateen (a fabric, but not the Victorian cheap furnishing fabric with the same name), optimate (middle-class, burgher), armigette (woman of the trading classes), anagnost (official from the justice courts), jade (low-grade mistress, much the same as its early English meaning), bravo (thug, ditto from Renaissance English), sabretache (satchel, also a British nineteenth-century military accoutrement), fuligin (a colour darker than black). Their meaning is fairly obvious in the context, and there are very few words whose meaning is totally obscure, because otherwise how would we understand what’s going on? Wolfe doesn’t want to scare his readers off, he wants us to work through the story with the experience of not everything being familiar or clear.
The associations carried by the similarity of these strange words to existing words add layers of sound and meaning to the prose. His new vocabulary (mainly nouns) sounds as if it was altered by changing a vowel or suffix to make new words from a familiar root. He also changes the meaning of real words, like destrier, which in his world isn’t a horse, but another animal that is however ridden and used like a horse for the upper classes, which is what a destrier was. Wolfe warns that even some words that are familiar may not mean what we understand them to mean, like ‘metal’ and ‘hylacine’.
The early scenes of the novel are set in the apprentices’ world in the Tower of the Torturers, which inevitably recalls Earthsea, or Hogwarts, and then we think, no, this is much darker. The Shadow of the Torturer is about medical training with a particularly non-Hippocratic use of the Oath to ‘do no harm’. These medievalised characters are also not saving the world through magic. There isn’t any magic in these novels: it’s all physics and invented alien biology. This is a magical world only in the sense that it is conjured up by invented and archaic words.
Wondering what the words mean, and knowing that there are going to be gaps in our knowledge throughout the story, keeps us nicely off balance. Nothing can be taken for granted. Wolfe is an expert distracter of attention, of casting casual asides down in our path just as we expect to be focusing on something else, with the clever result of dividing our attention. At the same time that we are focusing on the present we are also looking at the past. Being told things in such an oblique way also changes the focus. Because we aren’t told anything about screams, bleeding flesh, details of pain, or anything else that we might expect from a torture scene (and believe me I do not read that kind of fiction, so I’m just guessing here), we don’t feel immediate horrified empathy. Instead, we’re told about the event from a very clinical viewpoint, and also an artist’s perspective. We are first invited to admire the skill, we applaud the careful work, and only then do we think about the poor suffering ‘client’, and wonder, with increasing horror, what the clinical details actually mean to the nerve endings concerned. It’s very effective, because the displacement of our attention from natural, emotional empathy for the victim to rational admiration for the technical expertise is done solely by the narrative voice, by the torturer himself.
After the distancing, comes the interest in the details of the technique, the rituals, the taught practice, the means of doing the job properly. The torturer is concerned to maintain dignity for all, there is no degradation, but there is also no exceeding or mitigating the sentence handed down. The final, most important effect of the distancing technique is that we never forget that the role of the torturer is to be an officer of the law, a means to enable justice as decided to be enacted. And this leads us to ask, who sets these punishments? What IS this society that maintains torturers to separate verdict and punishment? You will only find out by reading the next three novels. (Caveat: I have tried the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator, but it lost my interest.)
The title is the second-best thing about The Other Log of Phileas Fogg. How can you resist the suggestion that Phileas Fogg kept an alternative log of his trip Around the World in Eighty Days? What else could have happened that the world didn’t know? The first best thing about the novel is the answer: that Phileas Fogg and Captain Nemo (from Verne’s other cracking good read, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) are murderously opposed aliens battling it out on Earth for the supremacy of their respective races.
It’s not a very well-written novel, but having read no other Philip José Farmer than this, for all I know he’s not so much of a stylist, more an ideas and adventure merchant. The rather sloppy writing style doesn’t matter very much, because the exuberance of the concept will carry you through.
I particularly like the way that gaps in Verne’s narrative are ingeniously backfilled with a mad story of Fogg’s early adoption by his step-father, his true origins as an Eridanean through blood transfusion and genes from Lord Greystoke and his tenth wife (what happened to Tarzan’s earlier wives?) and his commitment to the total destruction of the rival Capellean race. Around the World in Eighty Days is actually a search and destroy mission, Passepartout’s famous watch is a teleportation device, the rescued Aouda is also an Eridanean agent, and in the Pacific Fogg and Nemo have a titanic struggle aboard the Marie Celeste, abandoning it to be found abandoned, as they themselves had found it. Rather like a fantasy version of the Countryside Code, leaving nothing but footprints.
Farmer has probably weaved into his plot many more of the notables of late Victorian fiction than I have recognised. I spotted Moriarty, of course, but only dimly thought that the name Vandeleur sounded familiar, until I was told he was in R L Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights. The plot is strongest at its end, suggesting that Farmer was ingeniously working towards it all along, when the clocks of London all chime at ten minutes to nine in the evening. This event is probably the genesis of this enjoyable counterfictional narrative, because nobody, as Farmer notes, seems to have thought it weird that clocks would chime at such an odd hour, not on the quarter or the hour. There are no notes to this effect in the revised OUP edition of Around the World, so not even William Butcher, Verne’s most recent editor, seems to have wondered what Verne was on about.
Farmer produces a fine plausible reason for this bonkers public event, and caps the novel at its close by reprinting a 1959 essay from the depths of hard-core Sherlock Holmes investigations, positing that Captain Nemo and Moriarty were one and the same man. Given this supposition, the reader is thus encouraged to go back and read the whole of Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, and look again for Holmes in these newly revealed adventures of Phileas Fogg. I don’t think I’m going to do that because I do not have worlds enough and time to do the job thoroughly. I rather wish Farmer had done more thinking-through for the details of his Eridanean and Capellean struggles, but we can’t have everything.
A little light internet research indicates that Farmer reused these alien races from appearances in some of his other novels. The existence of the Wold Newton chronicles online even manages (oh joy!) to bring in Dominic Medina from the Buchan universe. I am in fact dipping my toes in the waters of an ancient and highly popular resort of the imagination for readers of adventure and sf who like their preferred characters to hang out together in combat. It’s the first outing for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
This was Vonda McIntyre’s first novel, published in 1975, about twenty years after the first thalidomide disaster in Germany, the UK and North America, in which around 10,000 children died or were born with malformations. The novel is about disability, and difference, and how society accepts and rejects different differences. It’s also an astoundingly undated speculation on a future society, which she developed further in her 1979 novel Dreamsnake. By using a medical incident from the recent past and replaying it in a future of decay on earth that can only be escaped by space flight, it’s clear that McIntyre is exploring ethics, medicine and society.
The main plot is about Mischa, a teenage sneak thief struggling to make ends meet for herself, her addicted artist brother Chris, and her greedy uncle who is quietly selling off their younger siblings as beggars to keep himself in paid companions and nice carpets. The whole family is impaired in one way or another, but only those children who don’t look human are cast out into the underground caves. The others have to work. A subsidiary plot is how their degenerate and decaying earth city, Center, is going to survive, given that its economy is being strangled by the decadence of the Families who run its necessary services.
Mischa’s forays into Center’s stratified layers of houses and shops and palaces, looking for targets, show the phenomenal imaginative effort that McIntyre put into creating this massively complex society. It’s complicated by the arrival of Subone and Subtwo, two two-metre tall pseudosibs with computations for brains, who plan to effect a takeover of Center, but their private subplot of fracturing bond conditioning disrupts everything. Jan Hikaru, a mathematician travelling with the pseudosibs, has come to Earth with the body of his elderly navigator friend to bury her on her home planet that she didn’t live to see again. He links all the plots together when he discovers Mischa’s mathematical abilities, and Subone lasers Chris, driving Jan and Mischa underground ahead of the pseudosibs’ pursuit, where they find the secrets of Center’s survival.
Yes, it does sound complex. But The Exile Waiting is so rich, the complexity is barely noticeable when you begin to read, because you are immediately beguiled by the detail. From the first page of the novel – Jan Hikaru’s diary – the reader understands that spaceport bazaars are commonplace, that Jan’s father wants him to be ethnically Japanese rather than the blond genes he so obviously also carries, that Jan is running away from purposeless study to find something worthwhile, that the old navigator’s eyes have been destroyed by too much space radiation, that space navigators have care homes and she has a wide acquaintanceship, and that Earth is held to be abandoned and dead.
The second page, which describes Mischa returning home after an exploratory trip underground, tells us that Earth has many old nuclear-age structures still underground, that robot mice still dig tunnels to lay communications webs underground according to an old and forgotten but still running program, that the underground outcasts are used to frighten Center children, but that the cave panthers are more dangerous. Other marvellous discoveries include organic lightcells that you feed with powdered protein to keep glowing, that the mining Family have soft white flabby hands because all their work is done by machines, that baby sister Gemmi can call Mischa and Chris telepathically, relentlessly, which is their uncle’s hold on them, and Chris’s addiction has blown his and Mischa’s last chance of getting away on the seasonal space ships. Their technology is disconcertingly old and new, reflecting poverty and privilege. Crystal knives aren’t picked up by metal detectors, but punishment by sensory deprivation puts offenders into skintight suits suspended in gel. There is passive, indifferent cruelty and rough, unaccustomed affection in a society that is slowly only able to focus on survival, rather than living. It is joyless, and emotionally dead.
Gender divisions, and disability, which are two very fashionable topics now in the study of fiction, are used to drive this novel’s ethics with breath-taking assurance. What really impresses is me is how McIntyre’s prose is pure enough to remain undated (a very rare talent) and also remain precise and clear in what she is saying: that just as society should develop to not care about gender, it should not make exiles and outcasts out of bodily difference. The multiple focalisations, by which the story is told from the perspectives of Mischa the local, and Jan and Subtwo the visiting aliens, gives the reader a kaleidoscopic impression of Center as a place of hopelessness and cynicism from all sides. We become increasingly desperate for Mischa, and the other characters who attract readerly empathy, to escape, and to leave the filth, misery, and crumbling wrongness of this society behind. We do get there, but the adventure is far too complicated to explain here. Go buy a copy.