Friday, 31 May 2013

Off on holiday!

I'm off on holiday today, I've now got 10 days off work, and a week in a country cottage in Shropshire. I'm sure my four year old daughter won't let me read that much, but I'm hoping to get a bit more reading in than I normally do. No internet to distract me, apart from anything I call up on my phone. I'm leaving work and other work-like projects completely behind too, which will be really nice.

I'm currently reading 'Way Station' by Clifford D. Simak, a classic from the 1950s, set in backwoods America about a rural man who secretly runs an inter-galactic 'Way Station' for travellers from the stars who are passing through. Someone from the American intelligence agency discovers something suspicious is going on, as the man hasn't aged in over a century... It is described as 'pastoral sf', along with most of Simak's other works. Is good so far!

The other book I'm hoping to read is 'Redemption Ark' by Alastair Reynolds. It's the sequel to 'Revelation Space', and really ramps up the story as humanity is at risk of extinction from the return of the Inhibitors. I've got a few other things on my Kindle too, in case I finish those.

Also working on an author guide to Peter F. Hamilton's books - nearly done but that will have to wait until I get back.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Greg Egan & Hard SF

I recently put in a request on Sword & Laser for some recommendations for great SF short stories and authors. One of the suggestions was Greg Egan, an Australian author of 'hard SF'. Now up until this point I'd probably have said I wasn't a fan of hard SF. Wikipedia has this to say about Egan, which doesn't make things any better:

"He specialises in hard science fiction stories with mathematical and quantum ontology themes, including the nature of consciousness."

Err okay. I'm not even sure what ontology is. (Dictionary: the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such - okay, could be interesting...)

However, and perhaps because the newest word in my vocabulary is the sort of thing I find interesting, I decided to give him a go. It turns out that he has quite a few short stories available  for free on his website. I selected 'Crystal Nights'. It was quite a long story, about 10,000 words and was about a computer scientist and entrepreneur who is trying to create artificial intelligence. Not a new topic perhaps, but an interesting take on it. There wasn't a huge amount of what I'd call hard science in there, I found it quite easy to follow the story.

So maybe I do like hard science fiction after all. I'll be reading more Greg Egan, and hard SF generally.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Three Apolcalyptic Short Stories.

I was going to call these post-apocalyptic stories, but all are set just shortly before the apocalypse, so apocalyptic is more of an appropriate title in this instance. All three are from 'The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF' edited by Mike Ashley. This was a 99p purchase, part of last year's '12 Days of Kindle' offers. It's sat on my Kindle since, and have finally decided to dive in. I'll be reviewing more stories from this anthology in the next few weeks, but here's the first batch.

'Sleepover' by Alastair Reynolds
This story comes hot on the heals of having my first Alastair Reynolds book, Revelation Space (read my review of it here). It's quite a long short story , heading into the novella category (it took about an hour to read, so I'd estimate about 15,000 words). A billionaire inventor and businessman is put into cryogenic suspension in the mid-21st century, along with about 200,000 others, awaiting the day when medical science can make them live indefinitely which they are led to believe won't be far off. More than a century later, he is woken, but the world is far from the one he was expecting...

Okay, so this is quite a cliched idea that has been used and over-used many times before, but don't let that put you off, this is very different from any other stories with this plot device that you may have read. The future world is brilliantly conceived, it is a great concept, with a proper story and characterisation. It feels like a much longer story than it actually is, which is all credit to the author.

'Fermi and Frost' by Frederick Pohl
Frederick Pohl is one of the masters of science fiction's Golden Age. I've read his classic novel, 'Gateway', before, but this is the first time I've read one of his short stories. It's set in presumably the 1960s, when nuclear war commences between the USA & the USSR. Almost all of the world is destroyed, and more than 99% of the population die within the first few months. This story is set in one of the last pockets of survival, and it is not the place you are probably expecting.

This story is on the shortlist of the best short stories I've ever read (admittedly, so far I've not read many - I'm still at the start of my journey through the world of SF short stories). It is quite haunting and evocative, not lessened in any way by the fact that the probability of nuclear war is (for now) thankfully quite a remote one today. It is unusual in science fiction as being something of a 'what if' tale. It probably came quite close to actually happening once or twice. As well as telling a great story, it outlines one of the big theories of science and cosmology very simply and well. A fabulous short story.

'The Last Sunset' by Geoffrey A. Landis
Compared to the previous two short stories, this is quite small and small scale (or as small scale as the end of the world can be). It is a very touching and emotional tale about a young astronomer who discovers that the world is about to end within hours. It's a short short, at a guess I'd say less than 2,000 words, so quick to read and well worth it. I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil it, but it is definitely worth reading.

'Revelation Space' by Alastair Reynolds

As a fan of Peter F Hamilton (and having run out of his novels to read - get writing Peter), Revelation Space has been on my to be read list for a while with Alastair Reynolds in my mind as the other big British science fiction writing epic space opera. Finally, I get around to it.

Revelation Space is a standalone novel, but is the first of five books (thus far) in the 'Revelation Space Universe', with a few linked short stories too. Revelation Space follows Dan Sylveste, a scientist, archeologist and quite a politically controversial figure. He is obsessed with a long extinct alien race called the Amarantin, convinced that there is something strange and unexplained about their extinction, and is drawn to their home-world, Resurgem, to do some digging literally. Unfortunately before he manages to reveal the secret, there is a coup, and he is thrown in jail... Throw in a reluctant assassin, strange alien forces and a starship the size of a city, and you've got the making of a great novel.

Revelation Space is set in the 23rd century, and is a little darker in tone than many space operas, but is by no means dystopic. There are very few surviving alien races, and those that are known about are elusive and mysterious. The universe and its laws are also more convincing than many space operas - no faster than light travel for one thing, probably stemming from Reynolds' previous job as a physicist.

So what did I think? Well obviously I really enjoyed it, giving it 5 stars. It was quite a slow book to get going, only becoming truly gripping towards the end. But the world building was fantastic, the characters well rounded, and plenty of hooks and mysteries to keep you interested - pretty much all of which were resolved/answered by the end while still leaving plenty of scope for new books.

I read recently Frederick Pohl's description of what makes a good science fiction novel, which he sets out as a series of questions. I thought I'd consider them here as part of this review.

Does the story tell me something worth knowing, that I had not known before, about the relationship between man and technology? - Yes it does. Humans have evolved and altered themselves in many ways, a few of which are described in detail here, others hinted at.

Does it enlighten me on some area of science where I had been in the dark? Yes and no. There's a lot of hard science in here, how much of that I've retained is questionable as the story always took precedence over the science, but there's a lot to learn in this book.

Does it open a new horizon for my thinking? Does it lead me to think new kinds of thoughts, that I would not otherwise perhaps have thought at all? - Yes it does, some truly galaxy spanning thoughts, and an interesting and plausible possible answer to one of science and cosmology's greatest mysteries. If that don't hook you, I don't know what will!

Does it suggest possibilities about the alternative possible future courses my world can take? - Yes. It offers a convincing possible future for humankind (though not specifically Earth, which I'm not sure was ever mentioned).

Does it illuminate events and trends of today, by showing me where they may lead tomorrow? - Yes, does that.

Does it give me a fresh and objective point of view on my own world and culture, perhaps by letting me see it through the eyes of a different kind of creature entirely, from a planet light-years away? - While the book is mostly told from a human point of view, it does kind of do this, yeah.

Overall a great book, I think I've discovered a new favourite author and can't wait to read more...