Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Science Fiction Roundup, July 2003

 [This ran as a column in the Washington Post Book World.  I came across the file by happenstance and, reading through it, found it full of novels and stories that I remain happy to recommend.]

            Ian R. MacLeod has published one previous novel, but is best known for his short fiction, particularly the brooding and densely textured novellas he has published over the past half dozen years.  The Light Ages (Ace Books, 456 pp., $23.99) is, like his earlier The Great Wheel, a long and meditative portrayal of an exotic society, fascinating in its unhealthy languor and seemingly imperturbable stasis.  But unlike the first novel, which was a clearly identifiable novel of the future, The Light Ages is a kind of Industrial Fantasy, a more recent (and very English) sub-genre, upon which MacLeod plays some striking variations.
            In a world whose history diverged from our own sometime in the seventeenth century, the basis for modern civilization is aether, a strange, almost immaterial substance that, properly controlled, can power machinery, hold up buildings, and produce a variety of exotic substances.  Mined in central England and sent by train to the enormous industrial centers of London, aether has been the making of enormous fortunes, and a generations-long force for social stratification and paralysis.
            This is a potentially interesting setup, if nothing terribly original, but MacLeod’s story – the narrative of a poor boy who rises in time to great wealth (for reasons that have to do with the terrible secret of an appalling social outcast), but finds his subsequent life haunted by an unattainable beloved whose very essence seems a mysteriously unanswerable rebuke – proves to have its own mysterious quality:  it bears a startling similarity to the emotional topos of Great Expectations.  Like Dickens’s Pip, Robert Borrows feels himself tainted by inauthenticity and an inchoate sense of guilt; he visits a bizarre house where an outlandish elderly woman and a beautiful young girl live seemingly beyond the confines of ordinary time; and finds himself repeatedly drawn to the rivers, marshes, and shifting margins of his mercantile and time-deadened world.
            MacLeod’s narrative does not closely follow the plot of Great Expectations, and the numerous points of correspondence often appear in a different order.  But the novel, “Dickensian” in other, more or less traditional ways (such its use of outlandish names, which include a nasty overseer named Stropcock who labors in the great factory Mawdingly & Clawtson), so powerfully recalls Dickens’s novel that its affinity – like the spooky aether, which glows in the dark yet somehow casts shadows by daylight – animates the entire work.
            The sense of loss that pervades The Light Ages would be immediately apparent even to a reader unfamiliar with Dickens’s novel, but for those who can hear the complex overtones produced by its interaction with MacLeod’s great predecessor, the result is deeply affecting.

            Ian R. MacLeod is also the author of the novella “Breathmoss” in Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twentieth Annual Collection (St. Martin’s Press, 648 pp., $35 hardcover, $19.95 trade paperback), a leisurely, atmospheric tale of an adolescent who grows to adulthood in an idyllic far-future civilization that is (the reader realizes only gradually) virtually all-female and Islamic.  “Breathmoss” is, perhaps only incidentally, one of a number of stories in Dozois’s volume to deal with issues regarding matriarchy, one of traditional SF historic bugbears.
            Year’s best anthologies tend to produce such apparent trends, which usually prove more statistical quirk than bellwether.  Still, it is interesting to contrast MacLeod’s colorful, quietly intriguing story with Eleanor Arnason’s “The Potter of Bones,” whose off-world protagonists belong to a species for whom female dominance (with heterosexuality practiced only for breeding) is universal.  Arnason does not sit the reader down to explain which aspects of her characters’ behavior are genetically determined and which are socially constructed, but leaves it to her readers to sort through a text that pretends to be ingenuously straightforward, but is (like much of her fiction) a good deal more complex.
            Only John Kessel’s “Stories for Men” treats matriarchy as a political option, meaning a locus for controversy.  His story is set in a benign twenty-first century society whose champions claim, “We do not seek to change men, but to offer them the opportunity to be other than they have been.”  The sentence’s faint suggestion of coercion, and the problematic promise of transformation in (half of) human nature, contain the seeds for much conflict, which Kessel dramatizes with uncomfortable acuity.
            If there is another theme that runs through several stories, it is the coming bad times for aging baby boomers.  Geoff Ryman’s “V.A.O.” (the title refers to Victim Activated Ordnance, hardware to protect affluent geezers; but also to Very Ancient Offenders, because not all the elderly are rich) is an engagingly ill-tempered diatribe delivered from a high-tech rest home (I like especially the toilet that samples an aging resident’s urine then yells at him for not taking his meds).
            Ryman’s story makes a risky swerve from cynicism to sentimentality in its last pages, a move that Maureen McHugh’s “Presence” emphatically declines to make.  A harrowing account of a middle-aged engineer who watches her slightly older husband succumb to Alzheimer’s, McHugh’s story begins with the protagonist sitting in Ohio and remotely manipulating products in an empty factory in China, and continues to evoke images of displacement, emptying, and remoteness (it could have easily been called “Absence”) as the husband undertakes an experimental procedure that promises to grow new neurons in his “gap-ridden brain.” 
            Charles Stross continues the saga he began in last year’s volume “Lobsters” with “Halo,” which follows the mid-twenty-first-century adventures of Amber Macx, who was just being conceived as the first story ended.  Now an almost-teenager chafing under her mother’s domineering behavior, Amber escapes by indenturing herself to a Yemen-incorporated company owned by her own trust fund.  She intends to assume control of the company upon reaching adulthood and dissolving her contract, but her mother’s enraged countermeasures catch her by surprise.  Fast-moving, inventive, and very funny, Stross’s story takes Amber from the West Coast to the orbit of Jupiter, with the extravagant promise of greater vistas to come.

            Stross has also just published a novel, Singularity Sky (Ace, 313 pp., $23.95), which offers greater vistas in serious abundance.  He characteristically wastes no time getting under way:  the novel begins, “The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.”  The opening sentence tells it all:  a low-tech world undergoing disruptive contact with advanced visitors, who want not to shoot, but talk.
            Stross’s novel about the Carnival, a moving front of interstellar vehicles that enter star systems and offer anything from their trove of self-replicating technologies in exchange for new information (When someone picks up a telephone, it says, “Hello?  Will you entertain us?”), moves quickly and with assurance, dramatizing the collision of seemingly immovable object (a reactionary regime that maintains power by suppressing knowledge) and an almost certainly irresistible force (unlimited dissemination of information and unregulated free trade, before which, as Marx observed, all that is solid melts in air).
            The book’s strengths include Stross’s considerable humor, his cutting-edge knowledge of modern science (he knows how a working interstellar vehicle would power up, and how quantum entanglement might be used to communicate faster than light), and a flair for moving things along.  Its shortcomings, or at least problematic aspects, include a series of satiric portraits (the reactionary regime acts like decayed Ruritanian aristocrats, while the radicals opposing them comically resemble a bewhiskered and wild-eyed batch of  pre-Soviet Bolsheviks) that play out their comic potential fairly early, and a pair of secret agents whose interaction becomes much less interesting once they fall in love.
            The intensity of Stross’s short fiction seems harder to sustain at novel length, and an alert reader can pretty much guess at any point how the rest of the novel will go.  But Singularity Sky is an unusually fun read, one that doesn’t waste the reader’s time or insult her intelligence. 

            For those whose fiction need not partake so insistently of high tech, Trampoline edited by Kelly Link (Small Beer Press, 331 pp., $17) presents twenty stories, skewing from science fiction – only one seems to be set in the future or outer space – to what the back cover calls “Fiction/Fantastic Fiction,” which can be decoded to mean that while the stories aspire to “literary” rather than “genre,” most partake in some wise of the fabulous.  (Even this is not dogmatic: Maureen McHugh’s “Eight-Legged Story” is fantastic only in that the narrator, troubled by her relationship with her husband’s son, imagines herself an evil stepmother, while Karen Joy Fowler’s moving “King Rat” similarly plays the world of children’s fairy tales against obdurate grownup reality.)  The authors range from those familiar to readers of SF and fantasy – McHugh, Fowler, Alex Irvine, and Carol Emshwiller have especially good ones – to several who have published in non-genre venues, or are new to print.
            The most remarkable story, however, is Greer Gilman’s “A Crowd of Bone,” a 76-page novella set in Cloud, the stony north-English landscape of her novel Moonwise.  A harsh and unremitting tale of the doomed attempt of a pair of young lovers to flee the wrath of the girl’s mother, Gilman’s story is dense, enjambed with archaic words and neologisms, most of them (“uncloudish”) formed from non-Latin roots.  The prose is sometimes limpid (“Far beyond, the sea shifts, turning its sleepless bed”) and sometimes forbiddingly extravagant (“Cast out of that cold sky in which my lucid soul was stringed, I did undo myself, redo: not Thea of the braided hair, but tangly Thea, tattery Thea, Thea of the grubby knees who crouched and plaited in a tinker’s petticoats”), but the story – complex, tangled in narrative as well as syntax, and very dark – rewards the most careful of readings.