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The Revolution Business by Charles Stross

In theory, writing should be the easiest activity in the world. It is, after all, nothing more than speech captured on paper. Since everyone seems able to speak at nineteen to the dozen, dashing off the odd short story before lunch and a novel or so on your summer hols should be no problem. Except that, if you ask the few who can string more than two sentences together to make a coherent paragraph, there’s a lot of craft to learn before the paper version is worth reading. One of the key problems to resolve is the issue of narrative structure. Starting on page one, the author has to offer a coherent exposition of events, sufficiently interesting and credible to lead the readers through to a satisfactory ending.

One approach is like building a tower or digging a tunnel. Once the author sets off up the tower or down the tunnel, we are all obliged to follow, limited in what we can see because of the structure through which we pass. If you’re like Ted Chiang, you write something like the Tower of Babylon which, incidentally, won the Nebula in 1990. This should be the ultimate linear story of a man who climbs up the titular Tower, except the only discovery is that, like Ouroboros, what goes up, must come down. In non-linear stories, the events as described are not necessarily chronological or immediately related to each other. They exist like pieces in an unmade jigsaw until the author assembles them in some hopefully pleasing manner. The most common example is a multiple point-of-view structure that introduces a cast of characters that may not meet until the end or may not meet at all but influence each other indirectly. In the vast majority of all plots, we get to see an increasing convergence between all the narrative strands as the plot develops and more characters do meet.

Under normal circumstances, the author is modest and limits the cast of characters. This keeps the storytelling manageable. All of which brings me to The Revolution Business by Charles Stross. This is the fifth volume in what has been projected as a cycle of six although, unless everyone with nukes uses them in a MAD way, there could be a new series involving expansion into, or interaction with, different worlds as they are discovered. Stross has been attempting something only rarely seen. He has been building an upside-down pyramid, i.e. he placed the apex stone on the ground and then began to fan upwards and outwards without the structure falling over. It has four faces, one for each world and, as new characters are introduced and situations develop, the volume above the apex stone has been expanding. Frankly, I thought the whole thing too ambitious. It would have been an easy ride to take if the lead character, Miriam, had been the sole point-of-view. But Stross has been running multiple characters in each of the worlds (albeit the fourth world has merely been visited so far and appears enigmatically empty).

I thought the monumental effort was threatening to fall over in the fourth book, The Merchants’ War, but Stross seems to have more discipline in this latest episode and I feel more confident that the sum of the parts will prove an interesting whole when we can all look back and see how we ended up. The plotting here is more taut and, it must be said, all the better for being less ambitious. Much of the activity surrounding a subset of the lead characters is kept in outline. We see only as much as we need to see to get us where we need to go. It’s all building up towards an interesting high-stakes game in the final episode.

As one final thought, I was amused to see Paul Krugman’s endorsement on the front of the jacket. I find Krugman’s twice weekly columns in the NYT a fascinating read. My estimation of the man has been enhanced by his willingness to publicly endorse science fiction. Too few big-name intellectuals are prepared to admit opening the boards of an explictly SF book. As a world-renowned economist, I wonder what he makes of Mack Reynolds and Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo. Reynolds was a one-man army when it came to speculation about economics and, although it’s all a little wooden by modern-day standards, the ideas remain interesting. Spondulix is just good fun and should be read by all — it’s probably slightly better in the short version rather than the full novel. Di Filippo is one of the very best short story writers around.

For a review of a collection by Charles Stross, see Wireless. The concluding volume of this series is The Trade of Queens. Also see The Apocalypse Codex, Neptune Brood, Rule 34 and The Fuller Memorandum.

The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch & The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

It’s always interesting to observe the growth and development of jargon — a kind of insiders’ language, a code people can use to impress strangers. Today, I’m particularly interested in the idea of a fix-up novel — one that has been created from a group of short stories. In the days of the pulps, authors would throw off as many stories as possible to keep the dollars coming in. Some never caught the imagination. Others spawned related stories or sequels. Given a growing accumulation of such stories, authors would then edit then for consistency and, more often than not, write new connecting material to create a novel. Whether apocryphally or not, the neologism is attributed to A. E. van Vogt, one of my favourite authors of the so-called Golden Age. The best example of a fix-up is The Voyage of the Space Beagle, later plagiarised in part as the film, Alien (and its sequels).

By accident, I have read two very similar books back-to-back. The first was The Bone Key by Sarah Monette which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same protagonist. The second is The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same organisation. Monette’s book is, in essence, a fix-up without the frame. In other words there is a kind of progression from one story to the next so that, if we close one eye, it can read as a form of picaresque novel, episodic in nature but focused on a single “hero” figure”.

Finch’s book is, as they say, a very different kettle of fish. For those of you interested in epistemology, what we know and how we came to know it can be of critical importance. It gives us a basis upon which to make rational decisions, to assess the credibility of evidence, and so on. Monette’s book gives us multiple and reinforcing images of the same thing. Because of the internal corroborations, we can feel the “truth” of the character even though the linearity of the telling may not be confirmed. Finch has written a number of short stories about the same organisation but there only one overlap of character (between “A World Waiting” and “The Roaring Ground”) and there is no general attempt made to edit the stories to achieve coherence or internal consistency. All we have are eleven different stories plus one non-fiction piece that just happen to be about the role of interpreters in a multilingual extraterrestrial culture. After the first two or three stories I had to stop because I was approaching them in the wrong way. Rather than reading them as stand-alones, I was trying to fit them together to create my own fix-up novel. I suppose there was a deliberate decision made to exclude the kind of background information available at http://www.sff.net/people/sheila-finch/fullhistory.htm

Trying to follow this way leads to frustration because the stories do not fit comfortably together. To that extent, we have to distinguish between this book published by Golden Gryphon which bravely keeps going with its specialisation in collections, and Reading the Bones, which is a fix-up “novel” published by Tachyon Press. This includes the complete text of the title novella, which won the Nebula for best novella of 1998, and then continues with an Interlude to bridge into a second novella “Bright River of Talk”.

But, if you enjoy short stories on their merits, there are some very good stories in this collection. The one which many will know is “Reading the Bones”, but there are some very affecting ideas, well explored as in “Stranger Than Imagination Can” which carefully exposes stereotypes and prejudices. There are, as in any collection, one or two where the ideas are a little threadbare and the execution flat. Overall, this is enjoyable so long as you are not expecting a fix-up.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang

Well, for once, I’m setting off to write a short review in honour of a short “book”. Subterranean Press have a wonderful habit of picking extraordinarily good stories and packaging them well. In this instance, I propose to say a few hopefully well-chosen words about The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang. This won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette (2007) and was nominated for the Hugo.

As I have commented in two other reviews on this site about time travel, it’s very difficult to get the logic right and avoid boredom as the inevitable asserts itself. Joe Haldeman gets the plot working as it should but fails in the writing. Kage Baker just writes the book and rather ignores the paradox problems. Here we have a model author who gets everything absolutely right. This is quite simply one of the best written, most elegant time travel stories I’ve read for years.

It starts off with a delightful cheat in that, instead of hard science, we have a mediaeval alchemist in the Middle East develop a gate that allows people to pass through a predetermined amount of time in either direction. The partial telling of the history of this gate is therefore left to one of the travellers who, being stranded, comes to the attention of the local Caliph. Yet this is no One Thousand and One Nights with djinns and the usual trappings of Arabian, Persian, Jewish and Indian folklore. This is a work of modern sensibilities where love, loss and redemption resonate implacably through time. It is the kind of story you can reread with perfect satisfaction, simply admiring the mechanics of plot and writing in such perfect harmony. A real joy!

For a review of a new novella from Chiang, see The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

June 29, 2009 3 comments

Following in the footsteps of David Copperfield, you should continue reading to find out whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else.

But, just in case you’re of a nervous disposition, I’m the eponymous author of this piece, so be reassured. I survived to the end otherwise I couldn’t have written as much as I did before I (was) stopped. Ain’t no-one who can chop logic better than me (or something).

In this, I’m following the general trend in modern fiction. Most stories with an “adventure” element promise from the outset that the main characters are almost certainly going to survive whatever is thrown at them (like the cat in Ridley Scott’s Alien). If the authors want to introduce tension and suspense, the tried and tested tactic is to build up empathy between the readers and the most favoured characters. Thus, when they are exposed to the threat of injury or death, we can feel the vicarious thrill of danger. Escapes by the skin of teeth generate the “white-knuckle” quality that makes a good thriller. If the authors can’t manage a real sense of danger then they have to fall back on wit or satire or something else that will engage our interest and make us want to read to the feel-good ending of hero/heroine triumphant. There are, of course, famous exceptions where the author cheats and the hero/heroine dies. Sometimes, this happens in a first-person narrative which increases the shock value when we read the last page.

A different exception to the general rule crops up in some time travel stories where the authors happily maim or kill off lead characters in one version of history because they can be continued uninjured in sequential or parallel timelines depending on whether history is retrospectively changed (and no-one remembers) or multiple universes are created (as in the TV series Sliders). An example of mutable timelines is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus where a small group of time travellers make sequential attempts to change history for the better. The alternative is the assumption that the timeline cannot be changed (as in the Company novels by Kage Baker). The best known example I can give you to explain why never to write a book based on this proposition is probably J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry because, having struggled through the overblown first version of history, you then get to read it all over again as the “hero” loops round to ensure that what was predestined actually results.

All of which brings me to The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Berkley, August, 2007). Joe (sorry about the familiarity, but I need to distinguish brother Jack) is getting a little long in the tooth. In conventional PR-speak he’s an “old pro” or a “veteran”, having first leapt into prominence with Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Forever War in 1975 — a triumph that should never go out of print. His approach to writing is simple and uncomplicated, telling the story in a straightforward way with little embellishment. This directness works really well when the plot moves along. Unfortunately, this latest effort is genuinely pedestrian. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with pedestrians. They lurk forlorn in the corner of our eyes as we swish past in our gas guzzlers. But, in a different way, Joe is following a genuine favourite of mine, Jack Vance. The young Vance was full of passion and imaginative fire, and reading almost all his books is a delight. But that delight peters out when we come to what I assume will be his last book, Lurulu. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly readable book. But it’s not a good advertisement for Vance. Similarly, Joe’s latest book is a big disappointment with his simple prose now wooden and lifeless.

Joe is peddling the saga of a young researcher as he hops forward through time. Structurally, time travel is simply a narrative excuse to jump from one culture to another, much as Swift pushed Gulliver into meeting people of varying size, avoiding uncultured Yahoos and inquiring whether sunbeams could be extracted from cucumbers. Swift was, of course, writing a satire which might continue in a cycle with Wells’ The Time Machine, detour via Huxley’s Brave New World, and end with Sheckley’s The Status Civilization. Wells tells us a straight-laced allegorical story about innocence and Morlocks. Huxley creates a dystopia of genetic manipulation which produces a sterile, drug-based, caste-ridden society. And Sheckley gives us another of his rollicking over-the-top satires. In short, the writer’s motive for introducing cultures that contrast with our own is to hold up a mirror to edify, amaze or amuse us.

So what does Joe offer us here? Well, the two pivotal episodes are religious and economic. As to religion, early writers like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis set the bar high, closely followed by individual classics like Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. but Joe seems content to dally with the notion of a new Church Militant, prepared to cast the first missile and smite the unbelievers in a restoration of an archaic Puritanism. Given the polarisation in the USA between believers and non-believers, I can understand that such a theme may have a certain contemporary resonance, but the delivery is curiously unconvincing. We’re given little more than a flat description of what our hero sees with no explanation or rumination to enliven the proceedings.

In the second set-piece, we’re in a culture based on barter. Telling it straight, one of the best writers of economic SF was Mack Reynolds, always prepared to extrapolate albeit with slightly naive political overtones. Personally, I prefer to laugh and so love Dario Fo’s theatrical farces like Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay in which a protest over shop prices has unexpected consequences. But the big comparison is with one of the best fictional barter societies — another delightful satire, Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo, where the owner of a sandwich shop inadvertently invents a new currency. Sadly, Joe doesn’t measure up.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to a book is that it lacks momentum. In the barter sequence, the society is managed by an AI character called La. “She” describes the people as  “. . .complacent and rather stupid. . . addicted to comfort and stability”. Later explaining, “This is one boring world.” Was ever an admission so ironic from an author supposed to be interested in keeping us amused?

In short, this is a competent book that goes through the motions of a time loop because that’s how plots of this kind have to work. But, instead of maintaining interest with subversive wit, boundless imagination and a satirical eye, we get descriptions of societies that even the author admits are boring. If you haven’t done so already, read the early Joe Haldeman. The man genuinely deserves his royalties for past glories rather than for this current effort.

Hey, guess what? I survived to the end of this episode. Next week, I’ve scheduled a heart attack during a visit from my mother-in-law. You’ll have to read on to find out whether I can be bothered to survive. Hopefully, I’ll find a better book to read in the meantime.

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
Earthbound
Work Done For Hire.

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