Tag Archives: Science fiction

River of Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews River of Gods [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald

McDonald River of Gods

The “river” of this amazing work of science fiction is not merely Ganga Mata–the goddess who is the river Ganges–but also the flow of human life and experience on which the god-like artificial intelligences of the novel are borne. The human characters begin as separate tributaries, and their stories twist and merge with each other as they rush down into the watershed of an imagined history of the mid-21st-century. These characters inhabit niches throughout the spectrum from the absolute top to very nearly the bottom of Varanasi society, with a couple of American academics and an Afghani-Swedish journalist thrown in for good measure. Although the book takes place on the eve of the centennial of Indian Independence from Britain, its political situation describes a balkanized subcontinent in which independent Bharati and Awadhi states are on the brink of war for control of water resources. (It goes without McDonald’s saying, that the epochal drought is a function of climate change and the exhaustion of Himalayan glaciers.)

The futurological scenario of this book doesn’t feel at all dated, despite the fact that it was first published seven years ago–a long time at today’s pace of cultural and technological change. The two tiny clinkers naturally relate to personal electronics: McDonald’s “palmers” failed to anticipate that everyone’s pocket computer would be subordinated to the concept of a phone, and his use of “the Tablet” to denote a unique piece of espionage data hardware falls a little flat in the wake of iPads and their competitors.

The novel’s setting presupposes an assortment of post-human types, in addition to great masses of “ordinary” humans with virtual-reality headsets and nanotechnologically engineered pharmocopoeia. There are genetically enhanced “brahmins” who age at half the ordinary human rate, with immunity to many degenerative diseases. The oldest of these are in their early twenties, all with great influence, money, and native intelligence, but they look like ten-year-olds. There are “nutes,” who have “stepped away” from masculine and feminine gender identification into a third sex, surgically created, with erogenous cues tied to subdermal buds on their forearms. And there are artificial intelligences (“aeais”) beyond generation 2.5, the point where they are smart enough to pass a Turing Test, and to know when it is in their interest to fail one.

This is a big book: a 600-page doorstop, but it reads fast like a rushing river. Where the events of McDonald’s lovely debut novel Desolation Road take place over three human generations, the course of River of Gods spans a mere three weeks. And into that it packs political intrigue, edge-of-the-envelope scientific speculation, love stories, violent deaths, profound disillusionment, and, gosh, other stuff besides. The plot is full of semi-surprises; McDonald is an artful stylist who provides enough information to sometimes create dramatic irony by giving the intelligent reader an edge on the characters, but often stuff just happens in ways that are jaw-dropping at the time, but seem inevitable in retrospect. 

Anyone who can enjoy thoughtful science fiction should love this book.

Then suddenly everything changed. That is, everything was just the same as before—I was crawling along the corridor in just the same way—but the pain and fatigue, passing beyond the level of endurance, seemed to switch something off inside me. Or else just the opposite—they switched something on.

Victor Pelevin, Omon Ra [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

 Hermetic quote Pelevin Omon Ra everything changed same as before but pain fatigue passing beyond endurance switch something off inside or switched something on

Desolation Road

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Desolation Road [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald.

McDonald Desolation Road

The jacket copy promising “every conceivable abnormality” had me expecting a more comical romp than the wry and profound storytelling McDonald provides in his first novel. Although in many ways the most science-fictiony of science fiction–a story set on Mars during a period of human settlement–there are many other literary veins enriching Desolation Road. The little serendipitous town by the train tracks certainly has a 19th-century-US Western feel to it that gave the book a steampunk vibe (this well before the coinage of the genre label). Some readers have accused McDonald of “magical realism” in this Martian novel, which nevertheless intensely engages religious and political themes. The net effect for me was something like a hybrid between Little, Big and Dune

There must be many influences and allusions that flew past me. Critics commonly point to homages to Jack Vance and Ray Bradbury. The 1985 Terry Gilliam movie Brazil is “sampled,” if you will, in chapters 25 and 35. Cory Doctorow notes that the Catherine Wheel in the religion/planetary administration of McDonald’s Mars alludes to the music of David Byrne. It’s clear that McDonald has taken the old Clarke “indistinguishable from magic” saw to heart, and thus lays himself open to the charge of fantasy in SF drag, but if time travel is acceptable as science fiction, the rest of this kit should pass muster.

Sometime around page 150 I started to wonder, “What’s with all the characters being sexually active at the age of nine?” It wasn’t until I read about the grandfather of mature grandchildren thinking “the thoughts a man of forty-five thinks” that I realized these are Martian years! There are no C.E. dates in the book, but the story must start in the 28th century at the earliest, given some information about the timescale of “manforming” Mars. It takes place over roughly three human generations, each of which conveniently corresponds to a “decade” in Martian reckoning (i.e. 18.8 of our years).

McDonald very comprehensively adheres to the framing of Mars as “the world,” with the word “earth” used only to reference soil and planetary surface, while planet Earth is called “the Motherworld.” And still the Martian milieu is full of clever evocations of 20th-century mass culture. 

The chapters are short and delicious, the vivid characters abundant, and the plot is so manifold that each of chapters 57 through 63 constitutes an independent climax, leaving room for a further half-dozen chapters of denouement and closure. It is a well-formed independent novel, and it does not in any way beg a sequel. The one McDonald eventually wrote (Ares Express) doubtless leverages the terrific world-building in Desolation Road, but I won’t be surprised if it is at a significant remove from the characters and events in its predecessor.

This is one of those books that I devoured rapidly, and then toward the end I started to feel sad that it would soon be over. I recommend it without reservation.

“It’s Chung Fu,” Juliana said. “Inner Truth. I know without using the chart, too. And I know what it means.” Raising his head, Hawthorne scrutinized her. He had now an almost savage expression. “It means, does it, that my book is true?” “Yes,” she said. With anger he said, “Germany and Japan lost the war.” “Yes.”

Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Dick The Man in the High Castle chung fu inner truth i know what it means true yes

Descent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Descent [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Ken MacLeod.

MacLeod Descent

This 2014 novel is the most recent Ken MacLeod book I’ve read, and it has some near-future optimism that has become dismayingly dated in the last seven years of climate catastrophe and global pandemic. But it’s not set in any particular year, and I guess the sort of sanguine pivot away from Neoliberal hell that it depicts is still imaginable.

The story is set firmly in MacLeod’s own Scotland throughout, and its central plotline involves a sort of phildickian epistemological struggle with ufology. It is recounted by the protagonist Ryan Sinclair, who begins (after telling of a recurrent dream) with his teenage close encounter. The book also involves a troubled love triangle of the sort that MacLeod has treated before in The Stone Canal, although this one is squared off more neatly.

The Orbit first edition hardcover I read made it seem like a much bigger book than it actually is, with heavy page stock and a generously-sized typeface. It’s a fast read, and entertaining throughout.

He had known about the general prosperity that had bloomed continuously, like the flower of some giant and impossibly hardy weed, for the forty years since the end of World War II, and he had known how this wealth had been distributed among and spent by the nearly all-inclusive middle class that, as every year passed, put more time into less productive work and made more money for it.

Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth [Amazon, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Tevis The Man Who Fell Earth known general prosperity since end war wealth distributed spent middle class every year more time less productive work more money

Babel-17 / Empire Star

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Babel-17 / Empire Star [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany.

Delany Babel-17 / Empire Star

Delany’s Babel-17 is a very sophisticated space opera written in the mid-1960s. The protagonist is a linguistic savant and intergalactic celebrity poet, and the plot is focused on military espionage and a mysterious new language. The number of unlikely anachronisms (such as tape spools to hold data) are surprisingly few. There is not much explanation for the fundamentals of the “stasis shift” technology that makes interstellar travel possible, but its ancillary operations are fascinating in that they use “discorporate” people (i.e. technologically-sustained intelligences of the dead) to help parse and represent much vaster energy spectra than human senses can perceive. The story also presents a caste society, with some castes participating in extreme “cosmetisurgery” and marital “tripling.” Philosophically, Babel-17 epitomizes a linguistic turn in science fiction, according to which the powers and limitations of societies and individuals both are grounded in the characteristics of their language. 

The novella Empire Star is here bound tête-bêche with Babel-17 (as the author had originally hoped), and the former is in fact a metafiction putatively written by a lover of the protagonist of the latter. The smaller page-count of Empire Star does not make it less interesting or significant: in keeping with its name (and the cover design of the Vintage edition), it has a lapidary quality. “The multiplex reader has by now discovered that the story is much longer than she thinks, cyclic and self-illuminating.” (89) And in these respects, it anticipates, as much as do the psychedelic linguisticisms of Babel-17, the work that Delany was to accomplish in his spectacular Dhalgren a decade later.