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A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest (Books 2008, 9)

This is the motherlode of all brains-in-jars/life-is-a-computer-simulation-type stories. Gibson’s and the Wachowski’s Matrixes can both trace their origins back to here - or at least, they should be able to. I’m not aware of anything older than this that quite deals with this idea.

At Maiden Castle in Dorchester in the near future (of the time the book was written; it’s now our near past) a scientific research project has been under way for several years. It involves ‘projection’, in which the particpants, their bodies unconscious, enter into a shared, simulated fantasy world. This consensus hallucination was intended to examine a possible future, with a view to suggesting answers to some of the problems of today.

But one of the participants has been stuck in the projection for two years (when the normal period is measured in weeks or a few months at the most); the trustees are getting worried about the costs; and a new participant is about to arrive and change everything.

It is excellent, and (of course) leaves you wondering how many levels of fantasy there are to reality - both the book’s, and ours.

Fluidity

Why does no-one make themes that are fluid anymore? By which I mean ones that re-flow the text when you resize your browser window, of course.

New theme

Have just activated a new theme for this site. It’s called “MNML”:http://themeshaper.com/mnml-a-tumblelog-style-wordpress-theme/, and it’s designed especially for quick posts. As ever, I’m not quite sure about it yet, but we’ll seee.

The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest (Books 2008, 8)

What a fine conceit. Take the two great science fiction works by one of the genre’s defining masters, mash them up together, and use the result to tell the ‘inside’ story of both of them.

It’s title is an obvious allusion to The Time Machine, but this is actually much more rooted in The War of the Worlds. And why shouldn’t those two novels take place in the same fictive universe? And why shouldn’t they be linked? After all, Mr Wells wrote both the stories down, so he must have experienced some of the events of both, right?

Priest sustains the tone and style of a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century novel admirably well, and there’s not much to fault in this novel.

Except, perhaps, for the ending. The actual climax and conclusion of the story is well expected if you know The War of the Worlds. It’s just the last page or two; the rationale for the behaviour of one of the characters (a Mr Wells, in fact) in particular is, to my mind, inexplicable. Not that it matters, that late in the story, I suppose, but it does bother me.

I wish I had known about this novel a few years ack, when I read both The Time Machine and Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships. It would have sat very well in company with them.

42 referendums and and a resignation

I can’t decide on this David Davis thing. Is it just a stunt? Is he genuinely concerned enough about civil liberties to take the chance (small though it is) of losing his seat? Certainly he sounds sincere when he talks about his concerns about the growth of state power; and Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty counts him as a friend, it seems.

But as others have pointed out he has a bad reputation on some other rights votes.

Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d be better than “Kelvin Mc-bloody-Kenzie”:… (as backed by Rupert Murdoch, of course).

The most concerning thing, though, is the talk to the effect that the public is in favour of 42-day detention without trial. This member of the public most certainly is not, and I’m sure I’m by no means alone. And honestly: would people who’ve really thought it through be in favour of this kind of thing? I find it hard to believe. What happened, if it’s true, to the great British sense of fair play, of support for the underdog, even of disrespect for authority? Is this another facet of the grumbling about human rights that I wrote about before?

Maybe we need to re-educate people about what is good and right. But how?

And then Ireland have voted ‘No’ to the EU treaty. I can’t help but think that this is a bad thing. The EU itself has been a net good for Europe and the world, as I’ve probably said here before. Whether these reforms will really make it better and more democratic, or not, I can’t say: I haven’t studied it.

Thing is, though, I would probably have been in favour of the EU constitution; if only because we could do with one in the UK. Admittedly, I’d want one that got rid of the monarchy and introduced an elected upper chamber in parliament, but one that further enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights would be a good start.

It would be quite difficult to amend it, mind you, since you’d need a Europe-wide referendum.

But I’m havering fancifully here: it was never meant to be that kind of constitution.

What now, then? Who knows, really. I expect they’ll either re-work it slightly and try again, or just apply various components of it without the treaty.

Newton’s Wake: A Space Opera, by Ken Macleod (books 2008, 7)

A scorching, searing cyberpunk space opera. It has everything in it: FTL starships, uploaded minds, nanotech, the Singularity, wormhole gateways… Absolutely stunning stuff.

Though on the downside, I did find it bit hard to follow some of the plot twists and turns. Specifically, it wasn’t always immediately obvious to me why some of the alliances and disputes between the various factions happened. I expect a more careful reading, or retracing of my steps, would have resolved those difficulties. But such was the pace of the plot that I didn’t want to.

I loved some of the terminology. Travelling faster than light, for example, is called ‘fittling’ (from FTL). The “technological singularity (what is this singularity thing, anyway?)”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity is called the ‘hard rapture’. I especially like that Ken has grabbed the term ‘Rapture’ from the weirdo fundamentalists christians who believe Jesus is going to come back and sweep them all up to heaven. The “Googleplex (where Google live)”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Googleplex (for example) becoming self-aware and sucking up everyone’s mindstate is far more likely, if you ask me. Which is not saying a lot about its likelihood…

One of the groupings of humanity that have survived through the hard rapture, and remain players on galactic stage, are called the Carlyles. They started out as a Glasgow gang, basically. They were based in something called ‘The Castle on the “Clyde (Glasgow’s river)”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Clyde ‘, which I’d like to hear more about. Then there’s AO: America Offline. They didn’t get uploaded because they weren’t connected to the net.

This means that the two main dialects of the language everyone speaks are called ‘American’ and ‘English’; but the ‘English’ is rendered partly in Scots. Good fun.

I haven’t read any of Ken’s stuff for a while (aside from “his blog (Ken MacLeod’s blog)”:http://kenmacleod.blogspot.com/, obviously). That’s a situation I need to put right forthwith. But first I think I should go back to the start, and dig ??The Star Fraction?? out of the attic.

Trying out Drivel

I’m trying out an offline blogging client that runs on Linux (these things are not that easy to come by). It’s called Drivel, and it seems to work OK, as long as you tell it that your WordPress installation is actually Movable Type.

Oh, and it looks like it only supports one category per post, and no native tags. Not very impressive, really.

Since I tend to draft in jEdit, I’ve often thought that what I need is a blogging plugin for that, and been surprised that it doesn’t exist. One of these days I’ll have to write it…

(ETA: tags added later via the web interface. Far from satisfactory, really.)

(E further TA: damn, it looks like this theme isn’t showing native WordPress tags, anyway.)

Novelist Joanna Kavenna points out that I was wrong

Ok, I was wrong when I said that no other genres had disparaging abbreviations.

“I don’t understand what chick-lit means, and to a degree it’s just used to dismiss quite a lot of writing by women,” she says. “It’s a blanket term that renders a wide variety of literature frivolous. It’s used either to dismiss the writing or to avoid thinking about it.” Stephen Moss interviews novelist Joanna Kavenna on her seven unpublishable novels, and eventual success | Special Reports | guardian.co.uk Books

Identity and letdown in The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall (books 2008, 6)

Eric Sanderson wakes without his memories. In short order he starts receiving messages apparently sent by his former self, is told by his psychiatrist not to read any such messages, and starts reading them - in the wrong order, which leaves him unready for the trouble that is about to assail him.

He is attacked by a ‘conceptual shark’: a living, sentient creature that is composed of ideas, of thoughts, of words; and that swims in the sea of information that surrounds us. This is the creature that took his memories. It eats such information, and fixates on a victim, and will keep coming back to attack them again and again.

So the messages from “the first Eric Sanderson” tell him. Fortunately they also give him some tools and techniques to protect himself, and information about someone who might be able to help him.

So eventually he sets out on a quest to find the mysterious Trey Fidorous. That’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot summary (it covers probably a quarter of the book).

It’s an interesting idea, that creatures composed of pure information, of ideas, can exist and can do us harm. We’re well into SF territory here, without wanting to hegemonise, and irrespective of the fact that it’s marketed as mainstream literary fiction (why, I’ve often wondered, don’t people talk about “li-fi”, or “cri-fi”, or even “hi-fi”? Why is SF so special that it gets its own disparaging abbreviation?) There was real justification for including this work in the Clarke Awards shortlist (sadly I haven’t read any of the others on the list). We are plunged into a world of infinite strangeness and difference (even though it stands alongside the world we are familiar with). We have to hang on for the ride and pick things up as we go along. These are standard, recognised characteristics of much SF.

Which may be neither here nor there, really; unless how we classify a work affects how we approach it, how we read it. And I think it’s true that it does: if you approach Iain Banks’s The Bridge, for example, as SF (it’s a ‘non-M’, so it was marketed as mainstream), then you’ll get quite a different effect from the scenes on the bridge, and with the barbarian; at least allowing for the possibility that those events actually happened in some sense, in some reality. As opposed to the assumption that they were ‘only’ the deranged fantasy of a mind in a coma, which is of course the only ‘mainstream’ reading.

We are in a similar situation here. Eric’s psychiatrist thinks that he might be going into a fugue state; and clearly something has happened to his mind. But Eric has experienced the attack of the Ludovician (the name of the particular type of conceptual fish that attacked him) and he believes throughout that what is happening is real. And all through the quest, and the love story and the fight scenes, he believes it. And so does the author, apparently.

And so do we.

Except.

Except, except.

Right on the second last page, Hall undermines it all. After the narrative has finished there are a couple of pages of extra material before the ‘undex’ (the point of which I’m not sure about).

The first of these pulls the rug out from under us, and dumps us more or less into “he woke up and it was all a dream” territory. Or didn’t wake up. It’s a bit like Sam Tyler at the end of Life on Mars, except there it was more or less clearly stated all the way through that he was in a coma: you just didn’t want it to be so.

The present work is less honest, in a way, since there really is no suggestion that what Eric is experiencing might not be ‘real’. Sure, it’s always there as a possibility, but I’d have to say,”What’s the point?”, really. Why would you bother to write a story that, in the internal logic of that story, all took place in the head of its protagonist, and didn’t do anything to help the protagonist, or illuminate his life, or help him to come to terms with something?

As such, this is ultimately disappointing: it’s a great ride, spoiled by the ending.

Although, a further twist occurs to me, a couple of months after reading it. If the rug-pulling element were not there, you could say, then we would have a fantasy-happy ending, like the fake ending in Brazil. That’s never a good thing, of course, but the difference remains this: in Brazil, the false ending was tacked on (or it would have been if the ‘real’ ending hadn’t superseded it). Here, the ending grows naturally out of all that has gone before. If everything was in his imagination, then fine, so was the ending. But if everything was ‘really’ happening to him, then the ending is legitimate in that context, and the additional material subverts it for no good reason.