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A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias

A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias

Memory becomes a curiously fallible tool as we grow older. Some things seem clear in our minds, yet other details remain elusive. So it is that I forget when I read the first book by Hal Clement (pseudonym of Harry Clement Stubbs). It was probably in the late 1950s and my money says that book was Cycle of Fire (1957). Although he seriously went off the boil in later years, the early works are remarkable for their world building. At the time, there was no-one to touch him for the ingenuity and creativity that was invested in constructing the scientifically plausible planetary settings for his fiction. It’s just sad the prose would seem rather flat by today’s standards. Anyway, in this review, we’re more interested in Mission of Gravity (1954) where he devised a planet called Mesklin. As the book title suggests, the surface gravity varies significantly depending on where the main characters are placed on the oblate-shaped planet. Reading A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias (Tor, 2014) produced a real retro feel not only in terms of the attention to detail, but also the way in which the author explores life in a high-pressure underwater environment. At their heart, both Mission of Gravity (and its sequels) plus this new book are adventure stories in which the main characters are driven by a desire to advance their scientific understanding of their environments.

 

So how does it all play out? We humans have already met another technologically advanced alien species and there’s an uneasy calm on both sides. Midway between the Earth and Sholen is the planet Ilmatar. For Earth, this is a kind of test case. It’s not a planet that either race could easily colonise, but it does have a local sapient species — in human terms, these beings have late Mediaeval levels of technology, being held back by their deep underwater habitat. By landing a strong scientific exploration team on this world and inviting the Sholen to participate, Earth is exploring whether it’s possible to co-operate. Conflict is not inevitable and, in theory, the risk of disagreement is lower when the only likely gain is acquiring knowledge of a “new” culture. At first, the human team make good progress despite the Sholen’s insistence on no direct contact with the Ilmatarans. As is required in books like this, there has to be a catalyst. This comes in the form of Henri Kerlerec. He’s a media personality, somewhat in the mould of Jacques Cousteau, who has smuggled a Russian underwater stealth suit into the station. He wrongly believes he’ll be invisible to the locals and can directly investigate without being detected. What he forgets is that the locals perceive the absence just as much as the presence of sonar soundings. The local team which includes rising academic Broadtail, capture and investigate this strange phenomenon. Unfortunately, cutting off the suit has fatal consequences, but their knowledge of human beings rises 100%.

James L Cambias

James L Cambias

 

Naturally, the leader of the science team reports this death to Earth. The message is intercepted by the Sholen who turn up in orbit, armed to the teeth. So now we get into the clunky politics and somewhat superficial discussion of the different approaches to decision-making among the three species. Let’s start with the Sholen. Because they have a warlike past, they depend on consensus-building to maintain stability. This is achieved both through intellectual debate and sexual interplay. The theory says that once consensus is achieved on an issue, every individual conforms. Although the society could be caught in its own past, the emergence of new issues such as what to do about the humans, allows gradual development of thought and practice. Unfortunately, the author does not explain why this species would suddenly drop whatever they were doing and spend a vast amount of their treasure to come to Ilmatara. This species has nothing to gain by preventing humans from interacting with the Ilmatarans. The only possible explanation for this intervention is a desire to provoke the humans and use this incident as a pretext for trying to force the humans to stay within their own planetary system. This is all somewhat strange. Given this species has almost destroyed itself in past internal conflicts, why would it be lining up a war with a species which has not completely known capabilities? You would think this race would be highly risk averse when it comes to initiating conflict.

 

Earth has anticipated the possibility of conflict and so seeded the science team with some trained military specialists. When the Sholen arrive, they adopt the guerrilla model of T.E. Lawrence, who persuaded the colonized Arabs to fight with the British in their war. Hence, the humans persuade the Ilmatarans to join them in repelling the “invaders”. Fortunately, the local cultural system is driven by property rights. Since their survival depends on their ability to grow food close to the undersea vents, they have relatively sophisticated ideas about occupation rights and the threat of trespassers and squatters. This social system is one of the more pleasing aspects of the book.

 

Put all this together and you have a book that’s almost excellent in today’s terms — few readers are old enough to remember the glory days of Hal Clement. Although the concept of the Ilmatarans is interesting, the Sholen are less well explained. The mechanisms for developing factional groups and resolving views not considered part of the consensus needs to be established so we can understand the behaviour of the first two to engage with the humans. As to the humans, the responses to the arrival of the aliens are probably realistic ranging from the childish, to the passive resistance of protest movements, to the more obviously aggressive. So although it’s not a complete success, A Darkling Sea is still a very good attempt at a classical science fiction novel with a political subtext. Given this is a first novel, James L Cambias is someone to watch.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder

December 9, 2012 Leave a comment

ARedSunAlsoRises

Language is a fickle friend. Just when you think you’ve met all its conditions for a lasting relationship of real meaning, you can suddenly find yourself cast adrift in a fog of uncertainty. To put it mildly, this is a most disconcerting experience. You know all the words but somehow your grasp upon them becomes slippery, as if they are resisting your best efforts to grab hold of the ones best suited to say what you want to say. In my own case, the excuse is one of age. Naturally, as dementia beckons, I’m overcome by the delusion I’m still making sense when, actually, my word selection has gone to pot as senior citizen moments of mental vacuity become whole minutes or even longer. Why am I delaying a discussion of A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2012)? Well, there’s something of a problem with the language and the debate about beliefs and psychology is unconvincing.

Back when I was emerging from the mists of childhood, I enjoyed myself demolishing Victorian and Edwardian adventure books. There’s a wonderfully naive quality to them as heroes dash around, avoiding the predictable annihilation by running faster, jumping higher or being prepared to crawl through sewers no other self-respecting human being would ever think of entering. In the midst of all this, some authors had the temerity to interweave ideas. It’s a radical thing to do. When we’re all expecting derring-do, the author suddenly switches his attention to a discussion of something of profound importance. A classic, albeit slightly later, example of this phenomenon is the Space Trilogy by C S Lewis which pretends to be science fiction but is actually rehearsing the process Christianity has gone through to emerge from early myth-based beliefs into the current faith-based form. So what we have here is a journal supposedly written by a Victorian man who passes through a dimensional fold and, with a young woman by his side, finds himself on an alien world. It’s obviously not a spoiler to reveal this interdimensional movement is not permanent because our hero returns to Earth to write the journal we read (as in Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels). So like Elwin Ransom from the Space Trilogy, our hero is sent off to another world so he can learn to be a better person.

Mark Hodder covering his eyes as the windows to his soul

Mark Hodder covering his eyes as the windows to his soul

The other book I need to mention is Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement which, I confess, is one of my favourite books from the 1950s. It catalogues the exploration of the planet Abyorman as it follows its unusual orbit around a binary star, producing sixty-five-year cycles of temperate and hot climate. As Nils Kruger, our young hero, and Dar, his alien “friend”, walk across the landscape, they realise there are extensive ruins from a completely different civilisation yet none of the current inhabitants seem to know anything about the builders. It’s a nice puzzle for the protagonists to solve. A mirror image to this idea emerges in Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton and parallels are found in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. A Red Sun Also Rises is a more sophisticated variation on the original theme with what begins as a nicely balanced system thrown out of kilter by the unfortunate arrival of an outsider.

If this was a straight science fiction novel of a young human couple who are sent to another world and struggle to survive in a hostile environment, I think it would have been very good. The basic plot idea has been well thought through and there are enough obvious threads to make the threats to our two humans potentially terrifying. But there are two authorial interventions to contend with. The first is the language. Over the last ten years, the occasional book reproducing early writing styles has become two or three bookshop shelves. Some modern authors have been hooked on the notion their work is somehow better if they wrap up their science fiction or fantasy as if written by Jane Austen or some other luminary. Even though I think most of them deluded, their books have been selling in sufficient numbers that each year sees more titles emerging. In this case, we start off with a young and terminally inexperienced Anglican clergyman in the 1880s who dutifully shows Christian charity to a disabled woman. This section is written in a reasonably conventional Victorian style which grows slightly more purple when they move to London. At this point we have the primary theme introduced.

He has been displaced from his quiet parish through his naive reaction to an amusingly corrupt family. Early on in London, he reads Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Later, he literally stumbles on the first victim killed by Jack the Ripper. This produces an emotional crisis. He’s been burdened by guilt because he lacks his father’s simple faith in God. Now he knows true fear. Put the two together and this is not the ideal state of mind in which a man should set off as a missionary. He rationalises his experiences as proving some people are inherently evil. He worries that he lacks essential goodness and is therefore fated to end up as evil as the murderer of the prostitute in Whitechapel. This is a version of Platonic psychology which assumes universal versions of good and evil exist. Further, although there’s a rational part of every mind that should prevail, there are appetites that can overwhelm reason. Such moral weaknesses can lead irrevocably to evil if the desires are strong enough.

If we had stayed with Jules Verne filtered through H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, I would have lived with the philosophical debate as fitting into the character of our rather pathetic specimen of humanity as hero. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving on the planet, the natives suddenly affect a spirited version of English not unlike that spoken by the characters in P G Wodehouse. Frankly, this killed my interest almost stone dead. I read it through to the end to see how it was all resolved. There are fantastical machines, potentially in what we now call a steampunk style although they are more ERB-like with aircraft and submarines powered by the energy released from crystals. There are some rather superficial political diversions into the potential merits of hive socialism enforced by a form of mind control and our hero finally reaches peace of mind by abandoning the Platonic view of moral psychology and all associated notions of a kind of internal war between forces of good and evil. Rather he sees everything as being on a single scale of goodness. The psychological resolution is therefore somewhat adjacent to the Aesopian “Hercules and the Waggoner” and the idiomatic need to avoid judging books by their covers. Sadly, A Red Sun Also Rises is a backward step for Mark Hodder. His first two books were exuberant fun. This is somewhat dour and, for me, uninvolving.

For reviews of the other books by Mark Hodder, see:
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Return of the Discontinued Man
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

January 12, 2011 2 comments

Jacket artwork by Michael Whelan

Rather in the same style as one of those old ads for miracle products to rid us of acne or baldness, I think it best to have a before and after picture.

 

Before

 

I suppose the question ought to be what most people feel when they pick up a 1,000 page book. But in these reviews, we never mind the “oughts”. Being a selfish and cantankerous old man, I am only thinking of myself at times like this. I feel intimidated. I know it is not fashionable to admit to physical frailty, but I am not joking when I complain about the weight of books. After holding the damn things for any length of time, wrists do grow tired. In this case, I have decided to cheat, raising my legs on a low stool to take the weight and, with knees carefully adjusted, balancing the tome without stressing the spine in all senses of the word. Now I only have to worry about the other thing. Will a book this length hold my interest? Born and raised on novels clocking in somewhere around the 40,000 to 50,000 word mark, I could easily read one, if not two, in a day. The local library loved me for my fast turnaround. There’s little time to grow bored when you’ve already finished it. But when a book staggers in at three-hundred thousand plus words, it gives you pause. What on earth is this author going to rabbit on about at this length to keep it interesting? Perhaps more importantly, will I still remember who everyone is as I get nearer the end?

 

After

 

Well, this has been a remarkable experience. I am pleased to report that this is completely fascinating. I am reminded of Hal Clement (the pseudonym used by Harry Stubbs). He delighted in world-building to present his readers with puzzles. Probably the best of these is Cycle of Fire in which the local ecology has evolved to cope with major climatic shifts every 65 years. It is like a mystery or detective story in which you see the world through the eyes of the main protagonist and have the same chances of working out the solution. So Brandon Sanderson has developed a highly complex world for us to explore. There are multiple types of life-form, both physical and intangible. The real is described from the grass up, and is very specifically adapted to local climatic conditions. The other forms are hinted at and described. There also appears to be at least one alternate dimension in play.

 

This is a very postmodernist fantasy with a major part of the work devoted to describing the cultures, defining roles by gender and other physical attributes. In this, the most important academic skills are considered appropriate for women in general and certain sects or groups of individuals. Rather in the same way that Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is built around the abbey’s library, so we are also invited to spend time in the planet’s major library with Shallan and Jasnah as they excavate the past and interrogate the written texts to determine the significance both of what is written directly and as glosses, and of what is not written. Although we are not quite in the same league as Eco in describing a full scholastic methodology as a part of semiotics, we do have a real opportunity to watch two scholars try to interpret the past, using different tools. This may be logic or philosophy as they try to tease out meaning from the content as written and as commented on. In this, they must often try to reconcile stories within stories, separating what may be facts from the fiction. In this note that the title of this novel, The Way of Kings, is a reference to the name of a largely anecdotal work on how to unify and run a kingdom extensively quoted and relied on by characters in the book.

 

The process of archaeology as proposed by Michel Foucault is complicated by the religious character of some of the information. Different sets of powerful people through time try to distort or conceal parts of the discourse. In the main, this is achieved by scapegoating or demonising some earlier or contemporary groups as evil or wrongdoers in both the literal and the religious senses of the words. Religion is often used by those in power to control access to information or to skew the interpretation of past events. This story is a classic example of the problem, signaling its intent by making one of the scholars a well-known atheist. More generally, the novel gives us a perfect opportunity to watch the different individuals access information as visions, and from their oral traditions and written texts. Their interpretations differ according to their cultural backgrounds.

 

That said, the main thematic concern of the novel is the question of honour and it poses the interesting question of whether it is a good in its own right. Altruism has always had a fuzzy feel to it because what is a selfless concern for the welfare of others in the minds of some, is loyalty to abstract concepts like government or a national state in others, or duties and obligation owed to leaders, or self-interest to those who are part of the group that will benefit from the planned activity. In this, we are primarily interested in Kaladin, whose story we work through in direct narrative and flashbacks. This is a man who constantly struggles with who he is and how he should relate to others. His early life training as a surgeon with his father taught him the notion of service to others but, in the real world, such service has not always been welcomed or valued. Similarly, Brightlord Dalinar Kholin struggles with himself as a warrior. What code of honour should he follow in his life and in combat? How much can or should he bend to achieve what he believes to be necessary improvements in the way his local kingdom is set up to run? It is all about ends and means, thinking through whether the journey is more important than the arrival at the intended outcome.

 

At the end, we have everything perfectly set up for the next thrilling installment. All the right people have been moved into position. Even the enigmatic “fool” is on the move as one of the key plotters emerges into the light.

 

I can well understand why it has taken so long to get this book into print. It is a major work of fiction, showing immense narrative skill in balancing “adventure” and “physical conflict” with the more cerebral elements. Although Elantris and Warbreaker are substantial and impressive works, this is has moved one step up the ladder of complexity and interest. If Brandon Sanderson keeps on improving, he could become the premier fantasy writer of the first part of this century. I unreservedly recommend The Way of Kings Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive, even though its use may not put hair on your head or remove unsightly zits.

 

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.

For the record, The Way of Kings won the David Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2010.

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