Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels

41fj1hz38sl-_sx283_bo1204203200_My first encounter with Greg Bear’s fiction was the superb Moving Mars, at a time when I was reading everything I could find about the planet Mars. Queen of Angels, though set mainly on Earth, is considered to be part of the same loose sequence, along with Slant and Heads.

Queen of Angels is quite a demanding read – thanks to the sheer complexity of plot, which alternates between several protagonists who have no direct contact with each other; and the cognitive dissonance induced by coolly presenting future technologies, mores, and language without explanation; and the intellectual ambition of Bear’s themes. It’s not only an intelligent novel but also artfully written and psychologically convincing.

What brings everything together is the theme of the ghost in the machine, the mind–body problem, the question of whether we have a soul. The kind of thing that the recent film Ex Machina tackled in a much simpler way. Bear comes at it from every direction. We have an out-of-favour poet whose stream of consciousness reads like a notebook app. Another poet who has gone mad and turned into a murderer. A pair of psychologists who, in a superbly dramatised sequence, use a controversial technology to enter the unconscious of said mad poet. A policewoman (in search of the same mad poet) who’s undergone ‘transform’ nano-surgery so that her body no longer matches her original racial identity. Two AIs struggling towards consciousness, one of them in orbit around a distant planet and, with a nod to Solaris, trying to work out whether or not it has sentient inhabitants. Infusing all of this are coercive norms of ‘therapying’ people to make them into compliant citizens, the prevalence of nano-technology that can make anything out of anything, and Hispaniolan beliefs in Voodoo gods who can ride people’s bodies.

All this adds up to an exploration, from science fiction’s usual materialist perspective, of the traditionally spiritual concept of the soul – and not merely the existence of a soul that’s something other than the body, but its association with the power to choose between good and evil. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But the novel goes further that that. Bear is raising questions about the implications of advances in IT for human consciousness and the relationship between mind and body. Much seems at stake in the quality of people’s lives, in how we are treated and what is demanded of us; and deeper than that, if you take a spiritual perspective, in the well-being – the survival? – of our souls. Big questions to reflect upon when you consider how the world has changed since 1990, when this novel was published and the digital revolution had barely begun.

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Forty Signs of Rain

sc1_forty20signs20of20rainHaving tackled the environmental politics of Mars and Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson took on the challenge of global warming. Forty Signs of Rain is the first instalment of a trilogy and should not be judged as a stand-alone novel. Most of it is devoted to establishing characters and the political and scientific background for a climatic drama that only begins towards the end of the book.

The central theme is the politics of science. Robinson takes us inside Washington’s corridors of power, following three main protagonists: Charlie, climate adviser of the ecofriendly senator Phil Chase (revived from Robinson’s earlier novel Antarctica); Frank, a sociobiologist employed in reviewing grant applications at the National Science Foundation; and Charlie’s wife and Frank’s colleague Anna, who befriends the Washington representatives of Khembalung, an island nation threatened by rising sea level.

The writing is leaner and faster-paced than in Robinson’s other big books, yet, as usual, includes dollops of scientific explanation, emplaced either in a protagonist’s consciousness or as chapter prologues; a practice Robinson has defended as enabling more thorough examination of subject matter than is possible in a straight-line narrative. A detailed subplot concerning a new pharmaceutical procedure appears only tenuously connected to the subject of climate change, but, in the light of Frank’s ruminations upon game theory, illustrates the dubious ethics underlying the funding of research. Much of the politics and psychology is spelt out to an extent that might seem unsubtle were it not justified by the analytical mindset of the protagonists, though Robinson allows us to note for ourselves the irony that the one person (Charlie) making a serious effort to modify US climate policy for the benefit of future generations is saddled with the daytime care of an unpredictable infant (who’s the source of much incidental humor).

The scarcity of external description through much of the book also seems calculated to convey the scientists’ inhabitation of a life world of abstract ideas, ICT, and indoor spaces. External nature is present mainly in pervasive repetition of how hot and humid it is outdoors – until meteorological events breach the cerebral space of science and politics with lucidly narrated drama.

The book ends with a whole raft of unresolved subplots as well as the big question – ‘What’s the climate going to do?’ – to catapult the reader into the next volume. On Robinson’s previous form, one would expect the sequels to this thoughtful and compelling first act to unfold a crisis of awesome scale and yet hold out a creative glimmer of hope.

This review was first published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2005

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The Light of Eden

Light of Eden - HarbinsonDo you remember, if you’re old enough, the beautiful painted illustrations on the covers of fantasy and science fantasy novels in the 1980s? Each would depict a scene capturing both a moment in the story and the essence of the whole setting. These pictures filled me with desire to imaginatively inhabit the worlds they evoked. Sometimes the text delivered on that; sometimes it didn’t. In a labyrinthine second-hand bookshop in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, the other day, I discovered W.A. Harbinson’s 1987 novel The Light of Eden. It has just such a cover. The prologue narrates the disappearance of Glastonbury in a pillar of darkness from the sky, to be replaced by a marshy wilderness where prehistoric animals are glimpsed. Chapter 1 shifts scene to southern Iraq and a similar phenomenon that sucks protagonist Frances Devereux into the distant past – into the original Eden, and then further back to the time of humankind’s evolution. The copy of the book was a bit battered, but, well, I had to have it.

It’s the sort of book that, if I’d read it before I wrote Deep Time, I would have regarded as one of my inspirations. I’d never heard of Harbinson before, but in The Light of Eden his imagination has travelled some parallel pathways to mine. Not merely the premise of a spacetime distortion that takes you into a prehistoric past with resonances of Eden; also the idea that travelling into that deep past can bring out one’s baser instincts – and a lust triangle of one woman and two men. There’s a lot of sex in Harbinson’s novel, even more than in Deep Time, but there’s also an extraordinary narrative stance which presents as sordid and depraved a range of activities that never stray, physically, beyond the wholesome scope of The Joy of Sex. One of the men is an (initially) virginal young Christian; and a survey of Harbinson’s oeuvre reveals a preoccupation with paranormal scenarios rooted in biblical mythology. At the same time, The Light of Eden is ultimately a redemptive story and hazards its own interpretation of the nature of God. My guess – the author is from Belfast – is that it gives expression to a wrestling with a conservative Christian heritage characterised by deep-seated shame about sex.

The book is written in a more ‘popular’, more lurid style than Deep Time, though it’s much better than the bland facile style of equivalent work today by the likes of Dan Brown. The quality of writing is variable, though, and there are passages where Harbinson should have been challenged by his editor. I found the first half of the novel quite gripping, but things become less involving after that, at times, when complex global developments are elided via infodumps of dialogue that have the tone of paranormal journalism. At the same time, I have tremendous admiration for the book’s imaginative ambition. Does the text deliver on the promise of that cover painting? To some degree, yes. But not quite enough to fully satisfy me. Those prehistoric animals glimpsed in the marshes – apart from a pterandon that repeatedly glides overhead, we’re never told what they are or what they look like.

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Utopia without Fascism

islandia2web

The 1000-page bulk of Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia had sat intimidatingly on the shelf since I acquired it. Only in the period of forced leisure after an operation did I get round to reading it. Long hours in bed gave me the chance to experience this leisurely utopian novel in one unbroken sweep. For a week, I inhabited the imaginary country of Islandia and, like the narrator, John Lang, I came to love it. I wanted to stay in this place where a life more authentic than seems feasible in my own society is imagined in persuasive detail. I surfaced from the novel desiring with all my heart to find in the real world a way of living more like that which is possible in Islandia.

But there’s a worm in the apple. Turn the frontispiece map of Islandia upside down and it looks rather like South Africa. Across the mountain frontier to the north dwell ‘blacks’, who are the bronzed Islandians’ implacable foes. Any blacks who cross the frontier will be hunted down remorselessly. Wright seems unaware how morally compromised is his utopia by the hints that, in centuries past, the Islandians exterminated the native people of the land they’ve made their own. White-supremacist South Africa extrapolated to a Final Solution. Lang, the US consul, falls in with Islandia’s conservative faction, who resist opening the country to modernising, mercantile influences from overseas. Exposed here is the linkage that can arise between authentic inhabitation of a land you love as your home and xenophobia towards others who may wish to share it.

Islandia’s utopia is not totalitarian, like some, but the means by which it has come into being and is defended are uncondonable. A more benign process of change is captured, in microcosm, in Holly Phillips’s ‘Summer Ice’ – for me the stand-out story in Jetse de Vries’s Shine anthology, and also published in her collection In the Palace of Repose. There are glimpses of dirty-hands transformation of the physical environment as it’s happening: ‘Pneumatic drills chatter the cement of Manon’s street … The art school is already surrounded by a knot-work of grassy rides and bicycle paths … buildings are crowned with gardens … She skirts piles of broken pavement, walks on oily dirt that will have to be cleaned and layered with compost before being reseeded.’ You’re aware of pressures on people in this future – from social norms, from regulation, subsidy, and scarcity – to serve society’s needs, but the engines of change are neither totalitarian nor fascist. The young artist Manon feels a tension between the impulses to be useful and to follow her calling; and achieves a synthesis.

I’d have been glad to tarry in this imagined world as well, but the story sent me back into my own world after only 30 pages instead of 1000. Unlike Islandia’s, its vision lies conceivably in the near future. Its challenge to me is to live the dream.

This piece was first published in Vector, No. 266, 2011 

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A Prehistoric Giant African Weasel

ekorusWhen I was a boy I got interested in the mammals of the world – including a particular affection for the Mustelidae, or weasel family. I guess that’s why it struck a chord when I found out about a large fossil mustelid described from Kenya as recently as 2003.

The focus of my boyhood interest was an encyclopaedia of mammals that I was writing: one A4 page per species, each with a pencil-crayoned drawing, range map, habitat and diet symbols, vital statistics, and a general write-up of whatever I could glean from the books I had available. I managed about sixty species before the project was overtaken by A-levels and dreams of going to Mars as a planetologist. But this particular hobby bequeathed me a robust knowledge of the taxonomy of mammals, the species being grouped into distinctive families whose names all end with ‘-idae’. The Mustelidae fascinated me because they are so anatomically diverse compared with other carnivore families, and because most of the British wild carnivores belong to this family: weasel, stoat, polecat, pine marten, mink, otter, badger.

In other parts of the world, they’re even more diverse and include some really spectacular animals, like the wolverine in the Arctic, the sea otter in the Pacific, the giant otter of the Amazon. In Africa, however, despite the high biodiversity of mammals in general, mustelids are thin on the ground, many of their usual niches being taken by mongooses and genets. The whole continent boasts only ten species: weasel, polecat, zorilla, Libyan striped weasel, white-naped weasel, ratel (or honey badger), and four kinds of otter. But if you go back into prehistory there are always more creatures to discover – and they always seem that bit more exotic because you know you’ll never be able to see them.

In particular, in the late Miocene epoch, around eight million years ago, there flourished in East Africa an animal named Ekorus, a powerfully built mustelid as big as a leopard, sixty centimetres tall at the shoulder, much bigger than any extant African mustelid. Unlike the low-slung build more typical of weasels, Ekorus was long-legged and had evolved into an active pursuit hunter that must have been competing against the big cats and hyenas.

I wasn’t able to engineer for Ekorus an instrumental role in Deep Time’s plot, but I loved the idea that so unusual and so little-known a giant weasel had once lived in Africa, so I gave the beast a cameo appearance in one of the novel’s descriptive interludes. My source of information about Ekorus and other prehistoric African mammals was Alan Turner and Mauricio Anton’s Evolving Eden.

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Forbidden Ecstasy

Hill of DreamsYou know that feeling of discovering an author you’ve never read before who really hits your buttons, so you want to seek out everything they wrote? It doesn’t happen to me as much as it used to, my taste having got fastidious with age, but it did in 2014. The author was Arthur Machen. It was Lovecraft’s essay on ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ that put me on to him. I read the selection of stories in Penguin’s The White People first, then the unforgettable The Hill of Dreams, then everything else I could find, culminating in asking my town library to seek the Holy Grail of Machen novels: the unexpurgated The Secret Glory including the legendary Chapters 5 and 6 which Machen suppressed. The library succeeded, bless them, and it was worth the wait.

Among the writers of ‘weird tales’, why does Machen strike such a deep nerve? Lovecraft is so gloriously over the top that you read him partly for laughs, and other leading practitioners – Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Ambrose Beirce – are so leaden that I can’t read them. I think it’s Machen’s coupling of a conscious mastery of style with a tremendous daring in drawing upon his deepest, half-understood fears and desires. Lovecraft tries to do the same but cannot match Machen’s craftsmanship in prose and has a less robust, less developed psyche that in the end can offer only madness, slime, and unfulfilled longing.

Machen’s style develops during his career, from a jaunty storytelling manner modelled on Stevenson, to painstaking pursuit of literary perfection in The Hill of Dreams, and then a plainer journalistic style in later work. The Hill of Dreams perfectly clothes its theme of a man’s desire for a forbidden state of ecstasy with prose whose rhythm builds up and up throughout the novel till you’re carried away in a literary equivalent of the ecstatic state of being more commonly associated with spiritual or sexual experience.

The Hill of Dreams is so good that Machen could never match its brilliance again, but pervasive throughout his oeuvre is this fascination with a kind of secret desire that is not explicitly explained and partakes of both the spiritual and the sexual. When he writes about the supernatural, Machen is in earnest, for he believes in it; so his writing has a force that can’t be matched by fantasy that is merely contrived. Both the positive and the negative aspects of secret ecstasy he evokes have an exhilarating intensity. That he dwells so much on the dark side may perhaps be linked to the collective psychosis of European civilisation that led to the First World War, as becomes explicit in ‘The Terror’, in which the animals turn against humankind in judgement of the way people are behaving in the war. In ‘A Fragment of Life’ Machen quickens our hearts with the memory of an ecstasy sacred and good in the rustic intimacy of husband and wife. But in The Secret Glory he satisfies our deepest, most forbidden dreams, only to take it all away.

This piece was first published in Vector, No. 279, 2015

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When Dinosaurs Ruled Again

when-dinosaurs-ruledResearching Deep Time was an excuse to rewatch the dinosaur films that had captivated me as boy. Through this painstaking scholarly process I discovered that in my memory two of these films had merged into one. That’s not entirely surprising because When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is largely a remake of One Million Years B.C. Both centre on a romance that transcends the enmity between the barbaric ‘Rock People’ and more hippy ‘Shell People’.

Of the two, One Million Years B.C. has the better reputation, largely because of the mesmerising presence of Raquel Welch, though John Richardson is a good actor too, and Harryhausen’s stop-motion dinosaurs are superb. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth has dinosaurs animated by Jim Danforth which are just as good. It also boasts a more complex plot. The hero saves the heroine after her people have tried to sacrifice her (for being blonde), so the Rock People are after them; but he already has a woman back among the Shell People, so she’s not best pleased and the Shell People end up equally hostile to the happy couple. The film’s problem is that the actors are upstaged by the dinosaurs. Victoria Vetri is manifestly a glamour model who can’t really act. Robin Hawdon is so unresponsive to all the dramas he’s engulfed in that either he can’t act either or he’s pursuing a commitment to deadpan irony. Both of them are so skinny in physique – which their prehistoric outfits do little to conceal – that’s it hard to believe either of them would last long amidst the rigours of the Palaeolithic.

Hammer must have been playing the film for laughs, though. The drama of the sacrifice scene is wonderfully undermined by the guys at the back playing a tonk-tonk-tonk percussion number with drumsticks on skulls. And then there’s the astonishing ‘prehistoric dance’, unlike anything you’ve ever seen, performed by the jealous other woman – the much more charismatic Imogen Hassall. And the protracted battle with a gigantic plesiosaur that’s managed to lurch far enough up the beach on its flippers to devastate the Shell People’s camp. And the cuteness of the mother dinosaur who, upon finding Vetri asleep in a broken egg, is convinced she’s her offspring – and in consequence the woman can control the reptile when need arises.

The problem with that particular dinosaur is that, unlike the others, it looks nothing like any real kind of dinosaur. It reminds me of the reconstructions Richard Owen designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851, when no complete dinosaur skeletons had yet been found and so no one knew what they really looked like – except maybe the Native Americans, whose notions of a ‘Thunderbird’, inspired by dinosaur trackways, were closer to the truth. That’s nothing, you may say – of both this film and its predecessor – compared with the asynchronous juxtaposition of cavemen and dinosaurs, but these films are only reprising a trope established by Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, albeit without any rationale about an unusual compression of evolutionary processes.

The film prominently credits J.G. Ballard, who wrote a treatment for it at some stage. Ballard, poor man, thought When Dinosaurs Rule the Earth was terrible and tried to disown any connection with it, but of course Hammer wanted to make the most of his name. As for me, I retain great affection for this film. That four-note tune – da duh duh duh – that plays over and over again, the elemental dramas of storm, sea, and earthquake, the dinosaurs, the sweaty cavemen – and cavewomen – the bit where a pterosaur carries the hero off to its nest – the film had everything to electrify a prepubescent boy. I can remember how I felt watching it on TV sometime in the seventies, completely transported. And of course the child that you were lives on somewhere within you.

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