Much is taken, much abides…

I’m revisiting Babylon 5 at the moment, just into season four. A man Earth president who schemed to get power, who conspired with dark forces to get that power, who establishes a cabal to enforce his rule, suspecting anyone who offers criticism of being disloyal, harping on about alien influence ruining the purity of Earth and of “fake news” spreading anti-government propaganda. Twenty two years old and it seems very sadly relevant to today.

This evening I just reached the point where, preparing for a final battle he may not return from the captain quotes from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It’s a harkening back to previous generations, measuring ourselves against their historic deeds and considering ourselves unworthy of them, not their equals. And yet this looking back to a lost, golden age of great heroes who strode through all problems with their mighty deeds is a peculiar faculty of humans that we have had going right back to at least the time of Homer – the Iliad and Odyssey are replete with those ancients even then looking back to the centuries before them, marvelling at great heroes and deeds with a “we shall not see their like again” feeling for their own era. And yet each of those eras too had their own great turmoils, and usually those generations too overcame them. Which gives us hope for our own troubled times. We must not yield.

Reviews: the Laundry is changing – the Delirium Brief

The Delirium Brief,

Charles Stross,

Orbit Books

The latest volume in the brilliant Laundry Files arrives from the delightfully warped brain of Charlie Stross. I’ve enjoyed Charlie’s books for many years, but I have an especially soft spot for his Laundry novels; in fact they’re a particular favourite of mine, a delicious mixture of fantasy-horror, laced with dark humour and some fine satirical sideswipes at society and organisations, and, in the form of husband and wife team Mo and Bob, characters that grow on you very quickly and who you become very fond of and invested in.

For those not in the know, the Laundry is nickname for a very special section of British Intelligence, with a very unusual remit – like MI5, MI6 and predecessors like the famous SOE they track and attempt to neutralise threats to the security of the realm. Except the Laundry deals with what most would consider supernatural threats – vampires, portals to other realms, mind-crunching extra-dimensional parasites and unspeakable Elder Gods.But this is no Buffy-esque secret Watcher society, the Laundry may be super-secret (even most of the cabinet doesn’t know about this, and they operate beyond even the secretive oversight of the other intelligence services (which is going to be one of the problems in this volume) but they are still a part of the civil service, and that means procedures, HR requirements and lots of paperwork in-between trying to save the world from soul-devouring monstrosities.

After an enormous incident in the preceding novel though, involving many deaths and an invading force from another dimension in a major British city, the usual clean-up protocols are useless – the Laundry has been exposed to the public and government scrutiny, and as we open poor Bob, who has faced everything from unicorns (nasty buggers) to the skin-crawling horror of the The Sleeper, has an even more terrible foe to face – a live interview on Newsnight. With the Laundry exposed the media is diving on this once secret division and of course the government isn’t too happy either, and in best tradition both media and government are looking for someone to blame for the previous disaster. The media scent blood and the embarrassed government wants scapegoats to blame. And there is outrage that the Laundy has been operating beyond the oversight of the parliamentary intelligence committees (and the legalities that constrain just what more regular services like MI5 can and cannot do).

This is just the start of a seismic shift in how this organisation has been run for many decades, and enemies can scent a sudden weakness and opportunity. The fact that the Laundry has held off absolute nightmares from devouring our Green and Pleasant Land (not to mention the rest of the world and humanity with it) seems to count for little in this atmosphere. And some enemies are prepared to use the devious weapons of the political-corporate elites as much as they will use more fantastical means. Why use up your supernatural energies when you can manipulate government ministers and get them to go along with your ideas – privatise and outsource many operations to a private security firm, it’s more cost-effective and market-efficient, don’t you know! And the group pushing the prime minister for this has already successfully taken over entire sections of the Laundry’s opposite numbers in Washington. Bona fide government contractors, what could be better???

Naturally there is much more going on here, the dark forces using ideas dear to certain sections of the political establishment (supposed free-market competition and efficiency that usually actually means even poorer service – usually bailed out by the taxpayers – and contracts given to firms which just happen to have friends in government, and where many politicians go on to serve after retiring from political life), to infiltrate and quietly take over whole sections of the fabric of our society we depend on, without anyone even knowing they have ceded that control. The huge upset in the operations of the Laundry are also mirrored in Bob and Mo’s personal life – in the most recent volumes both have been through enormous changes that have left their marks. They are both still in love but unsure they can be together (not just in the emotional sense after the traumas they’ve endured, there is an actual safety issue, not least because Bob is now also the Eater of Souls).

I don’t want to go to deeply into the unfolding narrative here, it’s nice, tight, packed with tension and turns, as you would probably expect from one of Charlie’s books, but this set-up with the Laundry now in the open and being menaced as much by government rationalisation plans as it is secret societies and dark gods, is one ripe with potential, both for satirical humour and for dramatic tension, and Charlie uses it perfectly, giving a gripping new installment and quite a major development in the Laundry itself. If you are already a Laundry fan you know you need this, and you know you are in for a treat, if you are new to the series then get yourself started with the Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue and I think you will soon be as addicted as the rest of us. Clever, funny, gripping, inventive and with more than a few satirical comments on the state of our modern world, what more can you ask for? Except maybe a TV series? Constantly surprised there hasn’t been a Netflix or HBO type series based around the Laundry novels yet…

You can read an excerpt from the Delirium Brief on the Orbit blog. Charlie will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Jo Walton as part of Ken MacLeod’s guest selector strand on August 16th. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

This little piggy went to market – Okja

Okja,
Directed by Bong Joon Ho,
Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun HeeBong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal

Bong Joon Ho brought us the brilliant monster movie with a twist, The Host and the film adaptation of the Snowpiercer graphic novels, so when I saw his latest film, Okja, was due to make its bow at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I had to grab myself a ticket. A Korean film in both Korean and English – and boasting a nice bonus in the form of the great Tilda Swinton – Okja sees a huge multinational attempting to rebrand itself away from its toxic image, with new CEO (Swinton) waging a PR blitz to try and make the company look warm, eco-friendly and fuzzy after the reign of her father (who even his own family admitted was psychopathic). And the main plank is the superpig, which, over the next ten years, as well as being studied by their own scientists, will be given to traditional farmers in different parts of the world to raise for ten years.

Following the slick (and sickeningly obviously fake) PR launch (riffing nicely not just on how heartless corporations try to hide their agendas with a feel-good PR blanket but also the way so many super-rich CEO seem to desperately want the public to love them), we move to the mountains of Korea and meet Seo-Hyun Ahn’s Mija, who loves with her grandfather and Okja, their now fully adult superpig. Okja is less farm animal and more family member/pet (let’s be honest, to most of us pets are family members), and we get to see Mija walking with him through the woods, playing with him, tapping the sleeping giant animal so he rolls over on his back and she can sleep on his tummy. It’s all quite adorable and I take my hat off to the very young Seo-Hyun Ahn for being able to give such a convincing and emotional acting job to a CG creation she couldn’t see when the film was shooting, it’s a terrific job for such a young actress, and it isn’t long before the audience totally buys into their relationship.

But the day is coming when the corporation wants to pick up Okja and take him back to their American facility, hold their even bigger publicity show and then… Well, gigantic or not, what usually happens to farmed pigs sooner or later? Mija is heartbroken at Okja being taken away from their hillside farm, this is her best friend in the world, and the animal is so clearly bonded with her too. She decides to set off to Seoul after Okja, in what could, in other hands, have become a clumsy Disney-esque “incredible journey” type tale, but fortunately never does. Enter some comedic light relief in the form of some animal liberation activists, apologising to everyone for any harm as they try to free Okja. They have a longer term plan though, and Okja and Mija become a part of it – and of course the corporation too has plans to use both superpig and adorable young girl for their own ends, and the pair are caught between them.

This was such an utter delight – adorable and emotional in places, often wonderfully funny in others, and with some deliciously satirical barbs, especially for giant corporations, the spin doctors who spend vast sums trying to persuade the public how nice they are (really, we are not evil, honest!), and most especially on the way humans treat animals, especially food animals. I don’t think the film is trying to persuade anyone to become a vegetarian (although some scenes made me glad that I am), but certainly to think about the mass-production of animals for food and the appalling way thousands of animals are treated every day so we can buy cheap food from the supermarket and not bother our consciences by thinking of what sort of life the animal that ended up on our plate had before its demise.

The story moves from sweetly emotional to gleefully satirical, with swipes at Almighty Power and healthy doses of our old friend The Absurd, saving perhaps for a later scene where we see what is to happen to the animals, which is just horrifying. The CG for Okja is terrific, the animated animal coming across much more like a giant, good-natured Labrador than pig, and young Seo-Hyun Ahn’s acting with this creature added in post-production totally sells the relationship and is the heart of the film, while Tilda Swinton’s increasingly deranged CEO steals scenes left, right and centre. This is an absolute gem.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge,

Mike Carey,

Orbit Books

I’ve long enjoyed Mike Carey’s writing, both his comics work and his prose, and his Girl With All the Gifts (also published by Orbit), was one of my Best of the Year selection when it came out (review here by Mal), and likewise the more recent film adaptation (scripted by Mike himself) also made my Best of the Year list. The Boy on the Bridge returns us to that post-apocalyptic Britain, but this is no straight sequel; if anything it is more of a parallel tale set in that ruined world where a fungal infection (like the one in the Amazon which infects insects and hijacks their nervous system) has brought down human civilisation, the infected – “the hungries” – a zombie-like shell of their former human selves, moving only when stimulated to feed. I think you could read this quiet easily on its own merits, without having read Girl, but really I’d advise reading Girl first if you haven’t already, because it will enrich your experience of Boy (and yes, there are some nods to the earlier story, which are very satisfying, but which I won’t blow here).

Where Girl started in the enclosed base and labs, encircled by hordes of Hungries (a deliberate nod to Romero’s Day of the Living Dead and the military-scientific besieged base), Boy is even more claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie, as she is known), sister research vehicle to the lost Charles Darwin expedition, a heavily-armed mobile fortress complete with onboard lab facilities, slowly traversing what’s left of Britain, picking up safely stored samples cached by the Darwin expedition and picking  up their own specimens, all in a desperate attempt to find out a way to stop or cure the infection. A dozen odd scientists and soldiers sealed in an armoured vehicle on a quest they all feel increasingly is hopeless. Even an upbeat crew would be stressed out under such prolonged close quarters, in this broken world though it is even worse, and the differences between them are becoming more and more obvious.

It’s probably not going to be a surprise that those stresses and differences are going to reach a boiling point sooner or later, you can almost cut the increasing tension with a knife. It’s a scenario rich with dramatic possibilities, and the real meat here is in how the writer takes those paths, twists those knives, turns that screw. And here, with a writer like Carey we are in exceptionally fine hands; Mike doesn’t just deliver an ever-increasing ratchetting up of dramatic tension, he weaves us into the confined, strained lives of Dr Khan and all of the Rosie’s crew. Within a few dozen pages you can practically smell the sweat of sharing a small, restricted space with others, the increasing sense of urgency mixed with desperation. Add in a new development found out in the field – after they had all but given up on finding anything new that might help them – and back at base, where the last remnants of humanity are packed in as badly as the crew of the Rosie, struggling among themselves almost as much as against the infected, and you have the Rosalind Franklin (good name) effectively turned into a pressure cooker.

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(Mike signing Girl With All the Gifts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Boy on the Bridge oozes atmosphere – within a couple of dozen pages I found myself right back in that world Mike first conjured up in The Girl With All the Gifts, so richly described, the characters’ emotive responses to this world gone to hell echoing with the reader so well that you can imagine it, feel it, smell it. The differences, from small-scale bickering to an ever-escalating level feels all to plausible, people under severe stress, in a crisis, with no seeming end in sight (save for a hideous one), the cracks appearing like emotive metal fatigue and just as deadly in the long run. The internal politics of individuals and groups fighting among themselves as the world falls seems all to possible, the descriptions of what some have had to do – awful, unspeakable acts – also far too real.

And yet this is not entirely a book of doom and despair, there is a light there, a tiny, flickering candle of a light, and that makes the despair and death perhaps even harder to bear – if it is truly hopeless then the characters are better off facing the end, shortening the misery…. But when they may be a tiny sliver of hope then they have to struggle for it. It’s a deliciously baited hook for the readers, drawing us deeply into both hope and despair. I really don’t want to go to deeply into some of those elements for fear of spoilers, but, oh boy, are they effective in totally miring the reader into this world until they feel they are right there among the Rosie’s crew. A simply superb, chillingly plausible post-apocalyptic tale.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Kenstibec returns in Jon Wallace’s cracking Rig

Rig,

Jon Wallace,

Gollancz

Back in 2014 I was offered an advance copy of a novel by a writer I knew only from short stories in the likes of Interzone (still a great place for short SF). The publisher was excited and comparing Jon Wallace’s Barricade to Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut novel Altered Carbon. Which is one of my favourite debut novels (it would also be the very first book my long-running science fiction book group covered). So it had a big claim to live up to and by the literary gods, it damned well did and then some. It went on to become one of my favourite reads of the year (in fact a quote from my review can be seen in the new book), as did the sequel, Steeple. Fast-paced and action-packed, but still managing to layer in plenty of commentary on everything from the nature of being to environmental destruction, the refugee crisis, the classic Frankenstein monster that humans make in their pride only to then turn on them. Yes, they gave us gripping, tight, rapid action but also a good deal of thought too – a perfect having and eating the cake situation.

Given how highly I rated the first two books you’ll understand I was more than happy for a chance to read the new book, Rig. In Barricade Kenstibec – often shortened to just Ken – was a Power 9, a model of Ficial, an artificial being optimised for specific work (Ken is an engineer, others are medics, soldiers, even “pleasure models” – one of several nods to Blade Runner’s Replicants). Human-looking but a little too perfect, kept in perfect repair by clever nanotech, able to heal even horrendous injuries. Which is quite handy given this near-future world is ruined, chemical and nuclear pollution, a devastated world where the few remaining Reals (actual humans) now live a short, brutal life more like something from the Middle Ages, and like our centuries-ago ancestors heir to every infection going with little or no medical help any more. But a Ficial? They can shrug off almost anything. Until Ken is hit by a special virus which destroys his nano, leaving him, physically at least, almost human. And he’s not happy about it.

Where the first two books took us from the ruins of Edinburgh to a demolished London, and saw the fall from Ficial grace of Kenstibec, Rig opens up the setting, well away from the wretched mess left of the British Isles, with a group of Reals and a couple of Ficials working together on a new plan out in the Atlantic, off the eastern seaboard of  what had been American and Canada, using a beautifully designed, hi-tech floating base – the Lotus – as a sort of ark, rescuing youngsters from the barbarous slave markets in surviving settlements on the coast, to train for a new, better world to rise from the ashes. Ironically this modern Noah’s Ark had originally been part of the Martello Project – as the more historically astute of you will infer from the name, these were a form of fort, designed to repel unwanted visitors from the coast of the UK (mostly desperate refugees – a Daily Mail reader’s wet dream, no doubt).

Ken, now sporting a hi-tech mechanical arm to replace his real one, lost in Steeple (now that he can’t regrow damaged parts like a proper Ficial) is finding himself somewhat adrift on this new ocean life (pun intended, sorry). One of the Ficials now co-operating with the Real crew calls him brother, despite the virus having stripped his Ficial physical superiority from him. But Ken doesn’t feel entirely Ficial anymore – like a human he gets sick, he has to eat, excrete and all the other messy processes of life. And feelings, he’s developing feelings that the brutal Ficial conditioning would have kept burned out of his mind as inefficient. But he’s not human either, and he knows it – like Blade Runner’s Replicants he really doesn’t understand his emotions too well, he’s simply not had the experience. Fortunately he has some of the crew who have taken to him, not to mention Pistol, a dog who has become very attached to our Ken. In some ways he’s suffering a form of PTSD, and like similar sufferers of that condition his animal chum is a powerful device for helping him to hold it together.

Naturally the new human-Ficial plan to create a new, young population trained to make a better society and world from the spoiled ashes of the old goes awry. There are disagreements between the crew as to the correct way to do this, not least from a moral point of view. But their arguments are about to be rendered irrelevant by events – someone has been watching their trips to the coastal slave markets, someone who has designs on both their population and on the Lotus (which may now be an ark, but still carries a substantial military payload from the pre-devastation days, a rare and powerful prize).

And I am not going to spoil it for you by revealing any more of what happens, because this is a beautifully-paced roller-coaster, with some gripping, tight twists and turns and some major revelations. We get a little more of the history of the final days before the world collapsed and see more of the violent, small communities which are surviving it in the finest Mad Max style (yes, including some dangerous driving, a nice nod back to the first book when Ken had become a specialist in such driving trips), and the ways in which some groups will use even the end of the world for their own ends, power, privilege and enrichment. Slightly longer then the previous two books, Rig still maintains a cracking pace, delivering a number of high-octane action scenes. As with those earlier books it still healthily mixes these with a lot of observation and commentary to chew over alongside that action, from politics to religion, taking in a number of very current hot topics, from the environment to the refugee crisis to politics (including a reference to the last US president who reminded me a little of President Booth in Judge Dredd history) to the greedy one percent.

This is a terrific slice of action-fueled science fiction, but Rig, and the previous two books, are also a journey, not just the physical one Ken takes from Edinburgh to London to the Atlantic, but a journey of the self; he’s not properly Ficial, not Optimal anymore, but he’s not quite human either. But he’s slowly learning to be himself, whatever that now is, and to realise if he does there are others who will be with him on that journey. And those people, those friends, are perhaps more important than any Ficial efficiency, more important than anything else. All this served up with brilliant post-apocalyptic action on the high seas and the roads, delivering thrills and even some outright horror along the way. The Tin Man had it a lot easier than poor Kenstibec…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Boldly Go…

Star Trek: Boldly Go #1,

Mike Johnson, Tony Shasteen,

IDW

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I’ve been a Trek fan since I was knee-high to a Tribble, but I must confess I rarely dabble in the novels and comics spun off from the various incarnations of Trek, but every now and then one comes along that tractor beams in my attention. And right off the bat I will admit that this cracking cover artwork by George Caltsoudas was a part of that, I couldn’t resist picking it up for a wee peek, and once I did Johnson and Shasteen did a fine job of keeping my attention for the whole read.

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Set soon after the events of the recent Into Darkness movie, with the Enterprise destroyed our crew have been displaced – Scotty is lecturing at Starfleet Academy (and having to use put-downs on some snotty cadets in his class), Spock is on sabbatical on New Vulcan with his father (Uhura has decided to accompany him and learn about Vulcan culture as well as spend time with him), Sulu is now promoted to Commander is First Officer on the USS Concord (under the command of a young captain called Terrell – yes, as in Star Trek Wrath of Khan’s Paul Winfield) in a remote part of the galaxy. Meanwhile James T Kirk is the interim captain on the USS Endeavour, another Constitution-class starship.

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There’s a nice scene of the over-excited bridge officers of the Endeavour discussing their new temporary captain before he arrives. It’s a nice scene, reminding us that highly trained Starfleet officers or not, people are people and they love a wee gossip, especially about each other. And let’s face it, Kirk must have a hell of a reputation in the fleet by this point, some good, some bad, some true, some pure fantasy and it’s pretty understandable his new crew would be nattering about it, until his Federation-born Romulan First Officer, Commander Valas snaps their attention back to duty with a crisp “Captain on the bridge!”, followed by a wry “at ease, I promise I didn’t hear anything” from an amused Kirk.

All of these groups are about to have their new paths altered however – the Concord encounters a strange vessel approaching them at high speed, emitting an odd signal they can’t quite decipher. And then things cut off – on the Endeavour a garbled distress call is intercepted, and with both ships being so far out Kirk opts not to wait for orders from HQ (naturally, this is Kirk, after all), as they are the closest to the Concord, and they make haste to rescue their comrades, while Kirk has the strange message forwarded to Uhura to see if she can tease some meaning from it.

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As I said, I only occasionally read Trek novels or comics, despite years of following all the shows and films. Not sure why, I think perhaps while I liked some over the year there were some where the characters didn’t match the way I thought they were and it put me off. No such problem here, Shasteen does a fine job of creating some fine, sharp comic art and carries the likenesses of the modern Trek film characters very well (and adds in some nice visual references to Trek history – Uhura’s Vulcan garb being strongly reminiscent of Spock’s wife-to-be in the classic Amok Time episode, Spock’s attire also similar references some Nimoy-era movie costumes, little touches but they work and they also let you know the creators here are clearly familiar with Trek history and lore, which I’m sure fans appreciate).

The duo also really nail the characters – Kirk’s wry amusement at his own legend preceding him onto his new bridge is very in character, for instance, a young Sulu knowing he is experienced through his Enterprise days, despite his lack of years, but still pondering if he is really up to being a First Officer yet, Scotty’s smart smack-down of a cheeky cadet in his lectures, Uhura more than holding her own on Vulcan, it all rings very true and authentic, and that appealed greatly to me, as much as the actual story did (and let’s be honest, we love these characters, they are family to us and we love Trek as much for them as we do the stories).

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And there are numerous references to Trek history (great to see this timeline’s version of Terrell, also good to see a Romulan officer, given The Next Generation once pondered the fairness of anyone of Romulan descent being barred from serving). Add in this mystery vessel, as yet unseen but there are hints you will recognise (and no, I won’t spoil them by mentioning them here), and you’ve got a terrific first issue, establishing the post-movie scene for our various crew members nicely and setting their new adventures into place and leaving us with an intriguing situation and hook – pretty good going for a single issue.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: how the future used to look – Tom Gauld’s delightful Mooncop

Mooncop,

Tom Gauld,

Drawn & Quarterly

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We’ve been huge fans of Tom Gauld’s work for ages here on the blog, so it’s always a pleasure to have a new book from him, and in my own case I also had the added pleasure of getting to meet and chat to Tom about Mooncop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few weeks ago (report here). In his weekly Guardian cartoons Tom has often referenced science fiction and also a sort of retro-futurism which somehow manages to combine humour and amusement along with nostalgia and a gentle melancholy. Think, for an example closely related to his new book, of his cartoon of three panels, one showing the Moon from billions of years ago to 1969, an unchanging vacuum desert, then a panel showing the brief visits of Apollo, then the last showing the Moon from 1973 onwards, back once more to the empty, unchanging desert, empty of people, the bright moment of optimistic future exploration has been and gone.

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(revisiting some of Tom’s earlier work before our Edinburgh Book Festival chat I saw this strip in a different light now, perhaps an early ancestor of what would become some elements of Mooncop. Collected in the You’re All Jealous of My Jetpack by Tom Gauld, published Drawn & Quarterly)

Mooncop takes that feeling and that older, optimistic belief in the future, one many of us of a certain age grew up, that by the 21st century we would be living on the Moon, holidays in space, jet packs for all (an old children’s guide to the future proudly proclaiming all of this as if it were fact was one of Tom’s inspirations for the book), and delivers a story that celebrates the wonders of the stark Lunar landscape while also questioning why we thought we would want to live there in the first place. “Living on the Moon, whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now” comments one older lady, one of the original colony designers, to the Mooncop, who replies “Not to me. I think what you did was wonderful”.

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Our cop zooms around that astonishing landscape in his hover-car, but with little to do – zero crimes, means actually his efficiency rating is high, but that low crime is mostly because there are fewer and fewer people still living on the colony. Helping an old lady find her missing dog (off for a Lunar walk in his pressurised “hamster ball”, which makes for some smile-inducing visuals), or retrieving the faulty robotic automaton of Neil Armstrong (a clever way to give him a sort-of cameo and pay homage to that first human on the Moon) is about the worst he has to deal with in his police duties. And as he returns to his apartments each evening (a relative term on the Moon) he experiences an ennui, that this place he always wanted to come to and finds beautiful is slowly dying as people give up and move back to Earth.

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Perhaps he should too? What’s the point in being the only cop on the Moon if there are almost no people for him to serve and protect? Every day there are fewer and fewer. He feels like he arrived at a great party after it had started to break up, and starts to consider the other may be right and he should request a move back to Earth too. And yet… And yet, it’s the Moon, it’s that stark, otherworldly beauty and the image of the Earth rising above the horizon, a homage to that remarkable photo, Earthrise, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as they came out of the shadow of the dark side of the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the first time any human being had ever had a view of the whole globe hanging in space.

He loves it, and as the book continues, as the 60s-style optimistic, shiny Big Future fades in the face of everyday necessity and reality Mooncop becomes less about the science fiction or the humour (although both remain present, I should add) and more about that personal journey, not the physical one to the Moon but the inner one we all have to take at some point, about getting to a place, both physically and emotionally, where we don’t judge our place by what others say but how we feel about it. Our slightly-lost Lunar policeman needs to figure out where he is happiest, what makes him feel right. It’s a lovely, gentle tale of how the future used to look on one level, while on another level it’s about how it isn’t the discoveries and new locations and technologies which make a good future, it’s us ourselves and our understanding of where we want to fit into it all.

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The art is gorgeous throughout, Tom’s minimalist approach paying dividends on the largely barren Lunar landscape, while the colony itself is quite different from many other Moonbases I’ve seen in science fiction. Rather than a huge, domed city sprawling across the plains or a large underground base as in 2001, here it’s individual buildings – apartments, small houses, trees, coffee shops (even a Mooncop needs coffee and donuts, which of course come packed in their own little pressurised containers), with their own little domes, spread out across the landscape, reminiscent of a small town in one of the great deserts of the USA, and there are some nice little references in the art to visual inspirations from the real-world (once futuristic, now run-down cube apartments in Japan) and from science fiction (from Duncan Jones’ Moon to 2001 and Silent Running). It’s a lovely, smile-inducing work, presented in a lovely, well-designed small flexible hardback with metallic finish (a nice addition to your shelves)

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(Tom Gauld at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, photo from my Flickr)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Boldly going… Fifty years of Star Trek

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man … where no-one … has gone before.”

Two of the most enduring television series of all time were born out of that remarkable era of social, artistic and scientific revolution and evolution, the 1960s, series which didn’t just capture the attention and love of the science fiction fans but of a wider audience, appealing to men and women, to different ethnic groups, children, adults, which would become so successful they would become embedded into the popular culture to the level where event those who aren’t fans are still aware of the icons of those series. They are also two of my personal life-long favourites, and I use “life-long” literally – as I’ve grown up with these series and their later evolutions. They have always been in my life; they excited me, thrilled me as a child and engaged my imagination with adventure and wonder, but also set my young mind to thinking, inspiring me to seek out books on related subjects the stories would touch on. How many of us have shared that experience, that inspiration?

One of those shows has already celebrated its fiftieth anniversary year, our beloved Doctor Who. The other one which has gone through my whole life with me marks fifty years today: Star Trek.

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As with Doctor Who, although there may have been a few who thought there was something special about the work in the beginning, no-one could really have foreseen the cultural impact the show would make across half a century (and let us hope, with new films and a new series to come, much longer). Like many of the best tales this is a story of triumph against the odds – famously the pilot episode, the trial show shot just for the suits at the network, was rejected. Trek creator Rodenberry, as I recall even as a kid listening to him on my Inside Star Trek LP (yes, I still have it) back in the 70s, promised the channel a “Wagon Train to the stars”, following the hugely popular Westerns of the period but set in space but brought them something more cerebral. But then in an unprecedented move the network let Rodenberry fashion a second pilot episode, and from that the series sprang forth.

And while Star Trek delivered more than its fair share of action, fist-fights (with ripped shirts, naturally) and more, as the network wanted, it also offered up something more cerebral, many of the stories adding a more thought-provoking layer. It addressed racism (this in a 1960s America in which city streets were sometimes burning during the fight for Civil Rights), equality among all regardless of race, colour, gender, of overcoming our own flaws to become the better versions of ourselves, and by doing so create a finer world, the nature of power and the responsibility to use it wisely. The wonderful Nichelle Nichols, our First Lady of Geekdom, was told by Doctor Martin Luther King himself that her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise was important – a woman, and a woman of colour, on a prime-time TV show, occupying a position of authority as a senior officer, it sent a signal to others who weren’t seeing many other people of colour on their screens back then. Nichelle would later work with NASA to use her Trek fame to encourage more women and more minorities in the space programme and sciences, just another in the many ways the show inspired others.

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Poverty was eliminated on Earth, a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it – hopelessness, despair, cruelty…,” Counsellor Deanna Troi, USS Enterprise, talking to a time-travelling Mark Twain.

As you may have guessed I am not going to reiterate the history of Star Trek here – plenty of others will be doing that for the anniversary (pleasingly among the mainstream press too, not just among our geek community – Trek has reached out everywhere) and besides, most of you are more than familiar with it anyway. No, this is more of a personal piece, a few thoughts on what Star Trek has meant to me over the years, and I’m pretty sure it has had a similar effect on many of you. I’ve read and watched a huge amount of science fiction since I was a wee boy, and I still do, and I have loved so much of it. But what marks Trek out as extra special to me is quite simple: the quality of hope. Hope for the future, hope that we can overcome our own failings, that we can rise above pettiness, greed, selfishness, be better people, and by extension make the world a better place.

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Just recently I was talking to Mary and Bryan Talbot at the Edinburgh Book Festival about their Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, a historical and biographical graphic work about a nineteenth century revolutionary, activist and dreamer, but one which also touched on the Utopian elements of some of the science fiction of the day, imagining overcoming poverty, disease, the grotesque inequalities in society so that everyone had their fair chance. The book was dedicated to their friend, the late Iain M Banks, as an author of future utopias himself with the Culture. And at one point we noted how the Utopian theme has dropped more and more, in recent years, that the dystopian future seems more common in science fiction, not just because it offers drama and spectacle but, it seems, because so many of us look around this world and wonder where that optimism of the mid 60s went to? That we would overcome, that we would evolve morally and use our knowledge and technology for the betterment of all?

And it isn’t hard to see why, in a world where zealots slaughter innocents and equally vile bigots then blame entire sections of society for their actions, increasing division, difference, hatred, while the 1% claws ever more wealth, resources and influence and the rest despair and give up thinking what can you do, what difference can any of us make… To my mind though that makes the hopeful message of the Star Trek future more important than ever. A future where we can build something as vast and powerful as the Enterprise (the ship, I would argue, is almost a character in her own right), but we do so not for some imperial colonisation or warfare or conquest, but for exploration, for advancing knowledge, learning from other cultures, just because we can and because it makes us better, stronger as a species.

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Utopias rarely come to actual reality, and if they did they often would by a dystopia to some because we all have different ideas of what they should be, these things are rarely a one size fits all match. But we’ve dreamed of them forever, and the dream that we can make it better because, because we simply have to, it has to get better than this or what is the point? That dream is an important spur – we may never have a Federation-like ideal society (I suspect Babylon 5’s visions of a more divided future is more realistic, given human nature and history), but if it inspires more to fight for equality, to have rights enshrined into law to protect everyone, to expand educational opportunities and awareness of other problems, practical and moral, that we need to address, then that dream is serving a good purpose.

The greatest danger facing us is irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily not understood,” Captain James T Kirk.

Of course there are many other qualities to Trek – the deep bonds of friendship between the characters are emotionally satisfying, to the extent that many of us feel as if these fictional characters are almost people we know (and we feel the same about the real actors behind those characters, and it causes us genuine grief when we lose one of them). I think that and the dream of a better possible future are some of the reasons why Trek, early on, spawned an entire fan community and early conventions; it brought a lot of people from all over the planet together. It still does; in many ways those early Trek conventions and gatherings and cosplaying (before that term was used widely) set a bit of a template for the SF and comics and gaming conventions that are so common now.

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And there are so many of the stories across the various series and films – I’m sure each of us could fill a whole post with our favourite episodes and why we love them so much. City on the Edge of Forever, with Harlan Ellison’s compelling time-travelling romance and the horrendous personal cost in protecting the integrity of history. Patrick Stewart’s measured but beautifully emotional role in The Inner Light, living a lifetime in a few hours with a people long, long gone. Avery Brooks’ Sisko wrestling with his conscience over methods he would never normally use but is forced into for the greater good, but at enormous personal guilt: “I can live with it. I can live with it…”

Or the fantasy of Deep Space Nine as a 1950s pulp sci-fi series in a magazine which couldn’t admit the writer was black, and the blurring of which was real and which was truly the fiction. Majel Barrett-Rodenberry and M*A*S*H* star David Ogden Stiers facing love late in life and death in a culture with very strict rules on age. Data creating a daughter, who lives only a short time but is so grateful for the gift of that life. Patrick Stewart and Paul Winfield playing members of two very different species, desperate to bridge the communication gap, using storytelling and myth, in Darmok.

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And then there are the ones which just flat out made us laugh with our cast of friends – the Trouble with the Tribbles (and the wonderful DS9 tribute decades later), the Little Green Men where the Ferengi find themselves back in time at Roswell (and dealing with rather rougher humans than the evolved Federation types they are used to). And… Well, again I think you all could be coming up with similar lists and also thinking the more you come up with the more others pop into your head – oh, what about? And then that episode where…?

But for all that again I come back to that simple but incredibly precious quality that Star Trek has delivered again and again across half a century: hope, that optimism that whispers to us that we can make the real future a better place. Live long and prosper.

(this piece was originally written for the Forbidden Planet Blog)

Reviews: Ancestral Fire

Ancestral Machines,

Michael Cobley,

Orbit Books

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(Ancestral Machines cover artwork by Steve Stone)

A few years ago Mike Cobley moved from his popular fantasy series to science fiction, with his hugely enjoyable Humanity’s Fire trilogy, centred around a lost colony world (settled mostly by Scots and Norwegian colonists) being rediscovered, only to be brought into the middle of galactic politics and power-plays they didn’t even know existed until contact with the Earthsphere was re-established. Over the course of the trilogy Mike gleefully indulged himself in some fine world-building, both on his lost colony planet and then a wider galactic canvas. Ancestral Machines is set in the same universe as Humanity’s Fire, but it is a standalone novel, and while those of us who enjoyed the heck out of the original trilogy will welcome this return to that setting, I think it establishes itself and its setting so well that you can still enjoy this even if you haven’t read the trilogy (and you will probably find afterwards you will want to seek those out!).

Brannan Pyke is a pleasingly irascible scoundrel from Cobley’s Scots-Norwegian colony world, now master of the Scarbarus, with a motley collection of crewmembers from various worlds, taking on legal and, well, slightly less above board jobs to make ends meet, now that their world is connected into that larger universe again. There’s more than a hint of Joss Whedon’s much-loved (and cut far too damned short) Firefly here, I was thinking as I read it, then found Mike actually referencing Firefly in his afterword. There are other influences visible here, notably from fellow Scots-based SF writers like Ken MacLeod and the late Iain M Banks, and readers who have enjoyed those authors will find much to enjoy here. Which is not to say this is slavishly following those other creators, Mike’s too good for that, he takes his influences but the characters, setting and compelling narrative are very much his style.

After a shady deal goes wrong Pyke and his crew wake up in their de-powered ship, their partners having left them to die and make it look like an accident with power and life support. Understandably angry they try to pursue the double-crossing former partners, little knowing that a smuggling deal gone wrong is about to lead them straight into a situation they could never have imagined, and a desperate struggle, as they are dragged into the Warcage, an unbelievably vast series of worlds, all connected by ancient technology, around an artificial star, travelling into our galaxy, built by creators so ancient and distant that even the AIs of the Construct, who monitor the galaxy from various tiers of hyperspace, had thought this travelling group of worlds to be a myth. Originally conceived as a utopia, creating harmony, it was long ago usurped by those who saw it as a tool for power; instead of harmony between various worlds now the various races all train in martial arts, competing in regular deadly tournaments to keep their skills sharp (and to ensure they are always going to have grudges against the other species, therefore unlikely to combine to take control).

All of this is overseen by a group of five cold, violent, loathsome beings, the Gun-Lords, so called because they are a hybrid of an organic host with a quasi-organic-machine parasite, which also includes a sentient weapon arm on the host body. These vicious beings took control of those harmonious worlds and turned them into the dreadful Warcage, and now it’s moving towards out part of the galaxy. The Construct and Earthsphere Intelligence are concerned and plan a covert mission to investigate, little knowing the human Pyke and his crew have already been drawn into this struggle and that their paths will cross.

This is an absolute cracker of a space opera, fast-paced despite being over 400 pages, with both the personal level – Pyke and his crewmates desperately trying to save themselves and also being inexorably drawn into a greater struggle – and the large scale (entire planets destroyed, the misuse of power and how tyrants craft their vile states and hold onto power through a mix of lies and violence, an origin going back millennia), the larger scale exciting the imagination, the personal scale keeping it nicely relatable, which characters we genuinely care about.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Tim Powers returns with Medusa’s Web

Medusa’s Web,

Tim Powers,

Corvus Books

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Tim Powers has been one of my favourite authors for many years – I tend to have a tottering tower of books and graphic novels waiting to be read at any one time, but Tim is one of the authors I will shove everything else in the queue out of the way for. Ever since the remarkable Anubis Gates back in the early 1980s I’ve been addicted to his work, which frequently takes real historic events and characters then slips them in and around the fictional characters, not contradicting the established histories of real people he uses, rather taking areas where there are gaps in their lives or parts we simply have no knowledge of, and then using those as an area where he can spin story elements, be it the Romantic poets in Anubis Gates or the spies and counter-spies like Burgess in the Cold War era Declare or the spirits of Edison and Houdini in Expiration Date. It makes for an intoxicating, immersive read, and the historic details leave you wanting to go and seek out some books on those people and periods to learn more (always a sign of a good book, I think, one that inspires you to want to read several more books).

Madeline and Scott Madden are sister and brother, living in Los Angeles, orphans, their mother and father having vanished in mysterious circumstances when they were young, leaving them always wondering what happened and why their parents just left without a word, never tried to contact their children again. Growing up somewhat damaged, they were raised by their Aunt Amity, alongside their cousins,  Ariel (who seems to harbour some grudge against Scott for reasons he doesn’t understand) and reclusive, wheelchair-bound Claimayne in her sprawling old mansion, Caveat (and with a name like that you already know this isn’t going to be a happy family home…). His aunt had been a writer for decades, although in later years her books had gone out of fashion, and the estate and house is rather run down, permeated with that faded glamour of long-gone better days. Once it was almost rural, a large house and estate with small guest cottages that were often rented out to Hollywood starlets back in the earliest days of the movies, but these days LA’s great sprawl means it is surrounded by dense neighbourhoods and the nearby log-jam of the eternally blocked LA Freeway.

After their aunt’s death (by a bizarre supposed suicide method that I will leave you to discover for yourself) they are summoned to Caveat, their first return in many years to the odd home where they grew up, a home with connections to the Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s, even having a corridor lined with doors salvaged from old Hollywood homes of famous people (they’re just doors, of course, fixed to the wall but opening onto nothing, just decorative architectural salvage. Or are they? Somehow you suspect there may be more to them than that…). Apparently their aunt had changed her will just before her death, leaving Caveat to them rather than her son Claimayne or Ariel, who both still live there and are, understandably, not happy about this state of affairs, although none of them, including Scott and Madeline, expect the will to be upheld when challenged as the nature of her suicide would indicate their aunt was clearly mentally unbalanced when she changed the will.

Or was she? Did she have an ulterior motive for changing the will? Is it a slight against her son? Sudden late affection for her troubled wards? Or did she have some plan which involves Scott and Madeline, something they have no knowledge of, a plan designed to work even in the event of her death? And where do the “spiders” fit into this? Strange patterns of lines which went glimpsed send the viewer into a strange state, as if different dimensions are crossing one another, and also connecting different parts of time together during a trance-like state. What did their aunt use them for? Why has she left some for them to discover, why do Claimayne and Ariel use them almost like a drug and who are the people in a shadowy, secret underworld of spider-users and what is their interest in all of this? Scott and Madeline seem increasingly to have been maneuvered into multiple labyrinths, some of which they aren’t even aware of, can’t even see, closing around them, while others are planning and stalking around them with purposes they can’t even guess at yet.

It’s a wonderfully mysterious story, each new, hard-won revelation illuminating fragments of this multiple-level conspiracy, but also offering more questions. Who is out for what and who means ill to Scott and Madeline is frequently hard to tell, Powers refuses to spoon-feed the reader with simple answers, but instead teases us into walking the labyrinth with the character. The spider viewing open up connection to other people and times – Caveat doesn’t just have many historical links to early Hollywood, in some ways it is still connected to it, and those connections are not just one way…

Early Hollywood history leaks into the present (as history so often does), and real historic characters like Rudolph Valentino (arguably the first great star of Hollywood) are tangled with the modern day characters, while closer to the present the family history of Scott and Madeline, their missing parents and aunt are all woven into the narrative, making it a century-long mystery and linked conspiracy, full of rich historical details and how that past shapes the present still as well as a satisfyingly emotional family history tale, arrived at through a wonderfully confusing and intoxicating puzzle across history, time and dimensions. The modern day story arc is compelling, while the historic elements pushing their way into the present are rich and evocative.

This post was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

An ancient classic re-imagined: ODY-C

Ody-C Volume 1,

Matt Fraction, Christian Ward,

Image Comics

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There are certain stories that are, essentially, immortal, which will be told and retold for as long as humans tell each other stories. The Norse Sagas, the Ramayana Cycle, the Epic of Gilgamesh and, of course, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey; these stories and characters have been passed down through the millennia, they remain in our shared, collective imagination and dreams because they speak of very human elements that we 21st century types still share with our Bronze Age ancestors, of human pride, arrogance, love, hate, of the whims of fate and the struggles of life. And, simply, because they are bloody good stories. And as such they are also endlessly open to re-interpretation in every medium, because their basic elements can be refitted and interpreted to each new generation. And here, as you may infer from the title, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward are taking the Odyssey, the epic Classical tale of Odysseus (also sometimes known as Ulysses), the crafty warrior of Trojan War fame, and the voyage of his vessel home after that decade of war, a voyage wrecked by capricious gods and fates, turned into a long trial of endurance.

Leaving behind the last century, leaving behind all their dead and their loss: Paris the coward and killer and thief. Here where Keles last stood. Here brave Hekta was bodily disgraced in death. Here where so many great women died. Three ships leave Troiia’s remains. Three adventures now start. Three great heroes begin their last odyssey…”

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Except here Fraction and Ward transform Homer’s epic into a great space-faring, science fiction tale, but an SF version of The Odyssey which is also gender-swapped: this is an epic of great women heroes and goddesses. And so instead of the crafty Odysseus we have “cunning Odyssia” and her fellow Achaeans at the sack of the siegeworld of Troiia, the only male visible being He, now on a collar like a dog, “thousands of swiftships once launched in his name”, now but a spoil of war for the victorious captains. The final ships make their sacrifices to the gods – again all female, save for the “mother-father” who partakes a bit of both genders in this female-centric universe – for a safe voyage home after their long, long war. But those familiar with the Odyssey will already know that this is not a voyage that will go smoothly…

Well, Olympians? What say you now? The war is over. Where shall we find our entertainment?

Yes, Fraction and Wards’ gods of the stars are as capricious, malicious – and downright mean and childish – as those ancient Greek gods of Homer’s day, less interested in helping mere mortals, more in using them as playthings. The war over, how shall they find their diversions now? Well, there’s this long voyage home, a lot could happen, and these gods are quick to take offence and equally swift to deliver revenge for slights, imagined or real (never hurts to be able to justify your violent actions, even if you’re fooling nobody, a sexed-up dossier is still useful for justifying your actions, eh?). One reprimands the Mother-Father, telling her it is vulgar to find pleasure in creating new tortures for great women like Odyssia, while another declares “why should we let these bloodthirsty wanderers roam our spaceways so freely?” and more talk of punishment for their hubris (and as is often the case in Greek myth, when the gods argue about human arrogance, pride and hubris they epically fail to see that they themselves are displaying exactly the same qualities. Never trust a god). It is quite clear that any excuse will be taken by some of these petty gods to inflict suffering and misery.

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I don’t want to spoil the story too much here – yes, it does generally follow the line of the Odyssey’s arc, so if you know your Homer you will already have a fairly good idea where this is going. But that’s part of the joy of it for those of us forever in love with the great Classics, in seeing how Fraction and Ward will tell their version of this ancient tale, of the clever re-imagining and re-workings of those events and characters, such as the gruesome encounter with the vile Cyclops, or the dream-like lure of the lotus eaters. Those not so familiar with the original though, are still in for a treat – there is a reason this story has stayed with us for over two and a half thousand years, after all – and after reading it you really should seek out the original Odyssey, one of the cornerstones of world literature.

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The gender and science fiction components of Fraction’s version of the epic are intriguing, a fresh take on an old tale, well-told, and it’s interesting to see crafty Odysseus of legend still being the same clever, devious and brave figure as a woman, a reminder that the both the heroic aspects and our not so fine behavioural traits are not confined to one gender or the other. And Ward’s artwork? Oh, but Ward’s artwork is utterly sublime here, from the curving swiftships (mentally linked to their captains and crews) to the various bickering gods, from scenes of carnal sensuality to cannibalistic horror and vistas of distant stars. And on top of this some quite remarkable use of colour, giving some scenes an amazing, vibrant intensity, sometimes almost a visual cacophony, an overload, like being on a trip, as if someone had taken Brendan McCarthy’s innovative palette and thrown a Psychedelic Bomb into the paint, a riot of colours, forms and unusual page layouts adding to the otherworldly feel of the story and inviting the eye to linger and drink it in – a wonderful reading experience.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The Word for World is Forest…

The Word For World is Forest,

Ursula K Le Guin,

Gollancz SF Masterworks

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Originally published in 1972 as a novella in Again, Dangerous Visions (edited by the great Harlan Ellison, who suggested the title – Le Guin originally called it Little Green Men) then expanded to a novel (albeit a very short one at a mere 128 pages) in ’76, a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, the diminutive size of The Word For World is Forest belies its power. To those of you familiar with the works of Le Guin – surely one of our truly great Queens of Words and Stories – that will come as little surprise; others of her works, such as the magnificent Left Hand of Darkness are not long novels either, and yet because of her skill they simply don’t need to be, she makes all her lines count, and the thoughts behind them, to produce work that lingers in the mind, provoking contemplation long after you put the book down.

Several centuries in the future and humans have expanded into space, entering an age of stellar colonisation. There are some changes for the better, not just advancing technologically but it seems by this era Earth people have set aside their differences on race, at least among one another. But the term “human” encompasses more than just homo sapiens – in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of novels we have a much older humanoid race, the Hain, who seeded many worlds eons past, leading to a number of different-looking but related human species and biospheres. And while slow progress towards these worlds and different members of a galactic human family working together is moving along, there is an awful lot of negative aspects to human behaviour we’re all to familiar with from our history and, sadly, our present. Earth is denuded of many natural resources, even her once teeming, verdant forests, gobbled up in an insatiable quest for more resources to exploit, and these new worlds offer rich pickings, especially for those with less than honourable morals. And just as with the colonial overlords of the ages of empire, there are men – and they are all men, soldiers, loggers, scientists – who go out to these distant places, with general instructions, but knowing they are far from contact with home and that they can effectively run it like their own private fiefdom.

Such a man is Captain Davidson, in charge of one of the remote logging camps, first glimpsed congratulating himself on being such a manly specimen of the officer class and yelling at his local servant – he and some of the more arrogant Earthers refer to them as “creechies” – in a pidgin tongue which all too clearly recalls the self-important colonial era overlords and their supreme self-assurance that they were entitled to be over other species because, clearly, they were superior. The local intelligent species, the Athsheans, despite being much smaller than Terrans and furry, are part of that galactic human diaspora the Hainish seeded the galaxy with. As such the rules state they must be treated with respect, there can be no coercion and indeed Davidson and the other officers explain there is no such evil as slavery in their colony (New Tahiti at they dub it), just “voluntary” local workers. Voluntary including being marched into the Earth camps and town, being held in pens and treated like lowly animals…

Despite being part of the Hainish human stock, it’s clear many of the Terrans, especially Davidson, simply don’t see them as actual humans, or if they do, they seem them as an inferior breed – smaller, weaker, lazy (why haven’t they stripped all their huge forests for resources and to clear arable land like the “civilised” Earth men?). This distaste at the perceived inferiority of the natives does not, however, stop them having sex with the females – usually by force (again far too many sad echoes of history in those vile acts). Of the Earth team only the scientist, the anthropologist Raj Lyubov, seeks to actually understand the native culture and befriends some of them, notably Selver, who he saves from the brutal Davidson. The Athsheans have a very peaceful culture, aspects of their society and culture shared between the men and women of their groups, the older ones, especially the head woman, holding a place of respect and, most remarkably, they all partake in a regular form of lucid dreaming. In fact they do so to such an extent that they have little distinction between the waking world and the dreamtime, and both play a role in their decision making, with some noted as especially great dreamers. While they hunt and kill forest animals there is no real violence between the Athsheans themselves, and as such they are socially and psychologically ill-prepared for violent, greedy Terrans – a people who don’t really dream properly, who even use hallucinogens (drugs are freely available) to give them what, to the Athsheans appear to be poisoned, deformed dreams. Clearly although they are men, they are not well…

The peaceful Athsheans eventually come to resist the colonial forces oppressing them. With no history or even concept of killing another human, let alone warfare, the change comes when Davidson rapes and kills Selver’s wife, leading to a confrontation. Saved by Lyubov and returned to his people, the beaten Selver dreams for days, deep, dark dreams. The great dreamers of the village listen to his dreams and the message is clear, something has to be done and the dreamtime has shown Selver how, and he must bring this concept from the dreaming into the waking world, becoming a “sha’ab”, a term that means both translator and god. And soon thousands of Athsheans, a people who normally live in small, peaceful, social groups, start to come together to follow his dream, which will lead to bloodshed.

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This short novel is redolent with echoes of the many outrages and disgraces any number of colonial, imperialist powers have shown to the locals they come to dominate, and it’s not just historical, those aspects of the book, along with the rapacious desire to plunder the natural world without thought of consequence or responsibility is not unfamiliar to our own present day either. There are more direct allusions though – Le Guin wrote this still cloaked in much anger at the scenes from the Vietnam War, which she had protested through the 60s and early 70s, and while this does give some elements that “of its time” feeling, for the most part it remains far too relevant to the here and now (I wish it didn’t, that we were better than that by now, but it often seems we’re not), with some scenes very reminiscent of the war in Asia (the firebombed clearings in the forest where the Earthmen set up their fortified camps, the Athsheans all but invisible in their great forest, suddenly appearing) and even some direct comparisons – the commanding officer Colonel Dongh orders Davidson to behave, and tells him that people from his part of Earth know that even a technologically advanced force can’t hold down a resistant people dispersed through a concealing landscape.

But this isn’t just a straight story of colonial masters and oppressed natives striking back, or a parable about greed and ecological damage. This is also a psychological and spiritual story, an examination of how their seeming power corrupts those who are in charge (or think they are), but also, crucially, about how having to resist such evil also infect and corrupts the oppressed. Because in having to learn to fight back – to take another human life – the Athsheans will have to change, and even Selver, the god who brought this knowledge from the dreaming, is terrified of what this will do both to him and to his people. Evil acts, like a viral infection, and a fall from grace for these gentle inhabitants of a natural Eden. Learn to fight the Terrans and maybe they have a chance to save their culture and their world, but the cost on their souls may be heavy. It’s not hard to see that also as perhaps an observation of what violence and warfare can do to even the best of people, even those who fight on the side of right and good still often feel revulsion and horror at the acts they have to perpetrate, haunted in their dreams forever after, and for the Athsheans whose dreaming is an essential part of their life, how much worse that must be.

It’s a compact tale, a masterclass by a powerful writer who fashions a lean narrative where others might have produced a much larger, bloated tome, and yet for all the brevity Le Guin delivers not just a narrative but a believable alien world and society in short yet compelling scenes. Some forty years on as this new SF Masterworks edition comes out (as a bonus featuring a thoughtful introduction by the excellent Ken MacLeod, as well as Le Guin’s own intro), this still retains huge power to provoke thoughts and to make the reader reconsider troubling events in our own day and age in a different light.