Nova, by Samuel R. Delany

Delany has become one of my favourite science fiction authors and I’ve wanted to re-read Nova for quite some time. I didn’t fully enjoy it when I was younger, but I’ve recently been re-sampling his oeuvre and a few of his books that had left me cold when I younger are remarkable, intellectual gems; in particular, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (IMHO his SF masterpiece) and Dhalgren (a compelling book that defies categorization and requires a tolerant, tenacious reader).Nova

In Nova, Delany imagines intriguing forms of sensual stimulation: futuristic drugs, music and art, electronic-cyborg-sensations via jacking into computers, and the sensory syrynx. Early in the novel, the syrynx is referred to as an ax, inviting the notion of more than one use: certainly as an innovative, futuristic musical instrument, but also, potentially, as a weapon. The syrynx — an allusion to Pan’s pipe and possibly a syringe — can create music, scents and images.

In the opening scene of the novel a character explains how he became overdosed on sensory input while plugged-into to a spaceship’s computer, perceiving a nova at close-range. An input-overload left his senses permanently disabled:

“We were moving out, boy, with the three hundred suns of the Pleiades glittering like a puddle of jewelled milk on our left, and all blackness wrapped around our right. The ship was me; I was the ship… … It was like the universe was torn and all day raging through. I wouldn’t go off sensory input. I wouldn’t look away. All the colours you could think of were there, blotting the night. And finally the shock waves; the walls sang. Magnetic inductance oscillated over our ship, nearly rattled us apart… … then it was too late.” [p. 2]  

Nova is a short novel, but it is filled with subtle depth. Delany does an admirable job of assembling his universe with judicious measures of information on the economy, the arts, fashion, politics, and the ever-changing mosaic of human society. Mythic stories and characters resound ambiguously throughout the novel, unifying the whole. The novel’s characters are ciphers of mythical personalities (Jason, the Fisher King, Prometheus, Pan …) and the plot sails on the seas of allegory (the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece and the prognostications of the Tarot, to name a few). Individuals are nodes in the galactic web of humanity: their myths and tales are like the warp and weave that connects undulating nodes of a net in the ocean.

The novel’s characters have varied upbringings, allowing a comprehensive view of Delany’s future society. Lorq Von Ray is a rich man from the Pleiades (economic and political rival to the Earth worlds), Katin is an educated, middle-class man (raised on Earth’s moon), and the Mouse (who plays the syrynx) is a poor gypsy from Earth. There are also minor characters, some of whom come from the outer worlds with differing economic and political agendas. And there is a villain, the Prince, from Draco (the Earth-based systems). It is a male-dominated novel: there are interesting female characters (Lorq’s aunt Celia, crewmember and Tarot card-reader Tyÿ, and Prince’s sister Ruby Red), but they are overshadowed by the main male characters, and perhaps this is an unfortunate sign of the times.

Within the book, one character, Katin, wants to write a novel — an archaic art-form — and the book the reader holds, Nova, is presented as his attempt. ‘Nova’ and ‘novel’ share the same root, the Greek word novum, something new. My nova-knowledge is woefully slim, but in the context of the book, a nova not only shatters the laws of physics, but is also capable of providing the material required to shatter the balance of political and economic power; further, it can shatter the psyche.

Nova is a revenge story, a quest story, a space-opera, a story that reverberates with myth, and an economic/political story. It is intelligent and has a heart larger than its parts. It is a good starting point if you are new to the author: perhaps the best, and most accessible, of his early novels (Triton would also be a good place to begin, although the main character is quite repugnant).

I truly appreciate Samuel R. Delany’s fiction; in particular, The Einstein Intersection (1967), Nova (1968), Dhalgren (1975), Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), and the Nevèrÿon series (1979-1987).

I wish he would write more science fiction; if nothing else, perhaps he could write The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, the intended-but-unwritten sequel to Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand. His justification for not completing the diptych is scrupulous and, even without the sequel, the first book stands sufficiently on its own. Nevertheless….

 

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a darkling sea

James L. Cambias’ A Darkling Sea is hard science fiction/planetary colonization, with an almost golden-age sense of science fiction adventure. It involves two alien perspectives (as well as the human perspective), communication between the differing species, and political intrigue. There were some aspects that didn’t quite work me, but it was an enjoyable read.

Darkling Sea - James CambiasThe story is set on Ilmatar, a moon orbiting a gas giant. Similar to Europa, Ilmatar is an ocean moon with an outer crust of ice a thousand kilometres thick. There is life within the ocean, and a native intelligent species — the Ilmatarans — who build small cities around hydrothermal vents that discharge nutrients into the ocean waters. Ilmataran technology is not advanced, but it’s intriguing. The novel is at its best in sections that delve into their technology and culture; they are fascinating, blind beings who perceive the world using sonar. Their world-view is revealed mainly through the third-person viewpoint of Broadtail 38 Sandyslope, an Ilmataran Scientist (his name is shortened to Broadtail due to an unfortunate event that precipitates his further adventures).

The humans in the story are studying the ocean depths in a research facility: an elevator connects the facility to the surface station. The human point-of-view is mainly revealed through the third-person viewpoint of Rob Freeman, who struck me as a rather immature individual to be chosen for the research team, though he was likeable enough as a protagonist and the events in the novel appear to eventually lead him to greater maturity.

The third species of sentient beings in the tale, the Sholen, are larger than humans, possess a bonobo-like sexuality and an insectoid-like pheromonal physiology. Cooperation (rather, consensus) is of utmost importance to the Sholen, and their society is quite rigidly authoritarian. The Sholen are strongly opposed to making contact with low-tech alien intelligence (e.g.: the Ilmatarans). The Sholen, as a more advanced species, have forced humans to accept terms: humans can study the ocean world, but they may not make contact with the Ilmaterans.  Unfortunately, the Sholen are not nearly as well conceived as the Ilmaterans.

Among other things, the story is an argument against the concept of non-contact with alien intelligence; an argument against the Star-Trek-style philosophy of non-interference. I won’t argue the thesis here, but I found the substance, and the political intrigue, to be too rudimentary.

I also found the characterization a little lacking: Broadtail was the most interesting, by far. The protagonists, in general, received better development than the antagonists, who were generally one-dimensional. The story was definitely plot-driven, rather than character-driven.

There is an odd twist thrown in at the end that may be a set up for a sequel. The twist involves an enigmatic artifact that an Ilmateran discovered. If there is a sequel, I’ll probably read it for completeness. If a sequel is not planned, I don’t understand why the author weaved the artifact into the tale: the possible origin of the artifact invites speculation, but the novel gives no palpable clues to direct the speculation.

The narrative is imbued with the mood of a science fiction novel I might have encountered forty years ago, but it is built on a foundation of modern science and technology. The plot moves along swiftly and the novel is an easy, enjoyable reading experience.

 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Harry August is reborn, ad nauseam, as the same person, in the same life, at the same point in time. As per the book’s title, the novel relates the salient details from his first fifteen lifecycles, but the narration is not Harry_Augustchronological (the novel’s first sentence is from his eleventh life). Harry meets others like him (although their kind is rare) who have established a secret organization called the Cronus Club. They refer to themselves as orobourans (the circular snake, eating its tail) and/or kalichakras (a Vajrayana Buddhist term for the wheel of time). Kalichakras are rare, but Harry is even rare among his kind: he is a mnemonic, retaining all memories from previous lives. A ‘regular’ kalichakra retains quite a bit of their previous-life memories, but these memories fade during additional lifecycles.

The knowledge that is gained in each kalichakra’s lifetime gives them an inequitable advantage, which they use to advantage. It is unknown whether the kalichakras are reborn in the same universe, or whether they are born into an alternate reality each lifetime, but their timelines generate the same major events (e.g.: WWII)  each time they live through them, and they do not attempt to interfere with any major event. Kalichakra have, in the past, attempted to change history for the better, but the effects were devastating and the Cronus Club deals severely with kalichakras who attempt to meddle.

harry_august_hardbackThe plot unfolds in a manner quite similar to a time-travel story: a kalichakra is changing the future and, with each successive life-cycle, the end of the world is occurring earlier (kalichakras from the future deliver this message back in time through a chain of re-births). Harry must find and defeat this event-changing kalichakra, a campaign that lasts multiple lifetimes.

The novel delves into the ennui of the kalichakra, and Harry frequently ponders the purpose of existence. The themes include memory, companionship, love, friendship, intrigue and torture, but there is no grand romance tangled into the tale, which I think is better without it.

The plotting and world-building is very good; the pace of the story kept me involved enough that I was able to suspend disbelief regarding elements that didn’t quite work for me.

Harry was definitely the protagonist; but, after I’d finished the novel, I wondered if there really was a villain. There was an antagonist who performed villainous acts, and the ends do not, in my opinion, justify the means, but the antagonist’s ultimate goal could be interpreted as divine.

Recommended.

 

Note: there two other novels that have used this particular ‘rebirth’ set up (Ken Grimwood’s Replay (1986) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life  (2013)), but all three works use the plot device differently.

Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles_Mutants_and_MicrobesI recently filled a hole in my science fiction library when I bought a book by Lois McMaster Bujold, an author that I hadn’t read before. Ms. Bujold has won countless awards, but I’d never gotten around to reading one of her novels, likely because I’d shied away from the science fiction genre about the same time she was rising in prominence.

Perhaps I didn’t choose the perfect place to start (i.e.: it’s not a Miles Vorkosigan novel), but I came across a good deal on an omnibus collection and read the first story in the book, Falling Free, first published in 1988.

Falling Free is a story about quaddies, an experimental group of humans who have been genetically engineered to work in a zero-G environment. The quaddies’ distinguishing characteristic is a visible anomaly: they have been bio-engineered to have an extra set of arms instead of legs. The quaddies are exploited and the protagonist, Leo Graf, feels compelled to aid them.

Although I enjoyed the novel, it read like a book published in the 1950s, à la Robert Heinlein, but with more realistic female characters. Falling_Free_BujoldThe writing was pulpy in sections, and I was too aware of the author’s manipulations as I read: any difficulties in the story seemed destined to ‘work out’, so I felt little anxiety as I waded through the plot. For the most part, the characters are flat representations and the romance seemed like an awkward add-on to the tale. I grew to like and care for some of the characters, but none of them are strong enough to last as favourites in memory. The ending was satisfactory, but brusque.

The story moved along quickly and, once I settled into the tale, it was an enjoyable enough reading experience, but the novel is a bit too light and straightforward for my current reading preferences (I’m sure I would have loved it thirty years ago: perhaps I’ve just gotten old and difficult to please). It was decent, basic space opera, but I expected more sophistication in an award winning book from 1988 (it won a Nebula Award for best novel).

Perhaps I’ll search for a representative Miles Vorkosigan novel (I’ve read that he is an intelligent, complex character), but Falling Free didn’t inspire me to delve deeply into Lois McMaster Bujold’s oeuvre. There is a Miles Vorkosigan novel in the omnibus I purchased (Diplomatic Immunity), but I’ll wait a while before reading it. If there are any Bujold fans reading this, let me know what I should read to hook me!

King Rat, by China Miéville

I had previously read Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The City & The City; now, I’ve finally read Miéville’s debut novel, King Rat, which is intriguing, shows some of his promise, but is not as compelling as his later works.

King Rat is an urban fantasy set in a gritty, mucky, surreal London, beyond the ken of humans. The protagonist, Saul Garamond, becomes caught in an ancient power-battle: King Rat, Anansi (the Spider King) and Loplop (the Bird King) plot revenge against an infamous, magical flutist who is preserved in human myth for his deeds in a small German town (note: if you’re curious, Anansi is a major character in West African folklore, and Loplop is the bird-like alter-ego of artist Max Ernst).King_Rat

Saul’s human existence is turned upside down when he is falsely accused of murdering his father. Saul is sprung from jail by King Rat, who turns out to be a close relative. King Rat is untrustworthy, but he takes Saul under his wing and, together with Anansi and Loplop, they plan to battle the evil Piper.

King Rat includes many of the imaginative elements found in Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels (particularly Perdido Street Station), but Miéville’s first novel doesn’t provide the depth found in his later works. King Rat is a lighter read than the Bas-Lag stories (King Rat’s feathery 320 page trade-paperback is much easier to carry about too: both Perdido Street Station and The Scar are more than twice the weight).

I enjoyed King Rat, but I should have read it prior to being spoiled by Miéville’s later works.

A final note: In case you happen upon the Kirkus Review of the novel (which contains a few minor spoilers), please note that the reviewer didn’t read the novel carefully enough: the plot does not contain a “troublesome flaw”: King Rat lied about many things, one of them being the family history of Saul’s mother .

Retrospeculative View, 1989

Some of the short fiction of 1989:

The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Hugo & Nebula for best Novella)

Time-Out, by Connie WillisTTTA

A Touch of Lavender, by Megan Lindholm (Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogdenher; her other pseudonym is Robin Hobb)

Great Work of Time, by John Crowley (World Fantasy Award for best Novella)

The Price of Oranges, by Nancy Kress

Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another, by Robert Silverberg (Hugo Award for best Novelette)

At the Rialto, by Connie Willis (Nebula Award for best Novelette)

Boobs, by Suzy McKee Charnas (Hugo Award for best Short Story)

Ripples in the Dirac Sea, by Geoffrey Landis (Nebula Award for best Short Story)

Some of the ‘speculative’ movies from 1989Adventures_of_baron_munchausen

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third in a franchise.

The Abyss, a James Cameron science-fiction thriller: pretty good, but a disappointing ending.

The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, a Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) movie: a bit slow & muddled, but ultimately fun

Batman, the first of a franchise

Field of Dreams, an adaption of W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (the book is much better)

Books I haven’t read that created some buzz:

A Fire in the Sun, by George Alec Effinger, a sequel to When Gravity Fails. I did read When Gravity Fails, which was quite well-written, but it didn’t appeal to me so I skipped the sequels (in 1991 Effinger also published The Exile Kiss, a third novel in his Marîd Audran series).

The Boat of a Million Years, by Poul Anderson. The novel traces the lives of a group of immortal humans from their lives in the ancient past and into the distant future.the-childs-garden

The Child’s Garden, by Geoff Ryman (Arthur C. Clarke John W. Campbell Award winner). I’ve read good things about this novel and it is on my ‘to read’ list. It apparently triggers emotional and intellectual reactions, but is difficult to digest. I’ve enjoyed other novels by Ryman; in particular, Air.

Subterranean Gallery, by Richard Paul Russo (Philip K. Dick Award). The novel depicts an underground artistic community in a post-apocalyptic California.

The Healer’s War, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (Nebula Award winner). The author was a nurse during the Vietnam War and she apparently draws on her experiences to tell a mystical tale of the war. The main character is a nurse in the Vietnam War who is given a mystical amulet by an elderly patient before he dies. The amulet allows the nurse to perceive auras, and she embarks on a spiritual journey.

Some of the notable novels from 1989 that I have read:

Prentice Alvin, by Orson Scott Card, the third in the Alvin the Maker series. The series felt to me like it was leaking oil at about this point and I began to lose interest (I may finish reading the series for completeness, but I’m not particularly excited about the idea).

Grass, by Sherri Tepper. I’d heard wonderful things about this novel, but when I read it a couple of years ago I wasn’t particularly impressed. The initial set-up was good, but the story didn’t evolve in a way I appreciated and I wasn’t drawn to any of the characters (the main character, Marjorie, had potential, but I lost interest in her as the novel progressed). I probably won’t read another novel by this author, although I should point out that she has a large fan-base, so you might want to check elsewhere for differing opinions.

Madouc by Jack Vance (World Fantasy Award), the second book in the Lyonesse series. I loved this series when it first came out, but haven’t found the time to re-read it and cannot recall all the particulars. I do, however, remember being transported to an alternate realm because of exceptional world-building.

Eden, by Stanislaw Lem. A minor Lem classic that left a lasting impression on me. Eden starts slowly, but gains allegorical momentum. At first, the aliens on the planet seem very exotic; but, by the end of the novel, I felt they were not so very different from humans at all. Recommended, especially if you’re a fan of the author (note: the novel was first published in Polish is 1959; the English translation by Marc E. Heine was first published in 1989).

My pick for the Retrospeculative novel of 1989 is…

simmons-hyperionHyperion, by Dan Simmons (Hugo Award winner). This should be considered for any list of best science fiction novels of all time: it’s a classic of the genre (although, for some obscure reason, it wasn’t short-listed for a Nebula Award). Much has been written about Hyperion, and I’ll keep my synopsis brief (do a quick Google search for tons o’ information). There were sequels (Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and Rise of Endymion); and, although all the sequels were good science fiction, none of them captured the brilliance of Hyperion (which was, I believe, initially written as a stand-alone novel).

Hyperion follows a structure similar to The Canterbury Tales (not that I’m an expert on that tome!): it is a framed story involving seven pilgrims journeying to the planet Hyperion. All but one of the pilgrims tells their tale, forming the major sections of the book, and each tale is steeped in a different sub-genre. One of the characters is a clone of the poet John Keats, who never managed to finish his epic poem Hyperion (Keats did complete The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion, which contains the famous first line: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”). Hyperion contains a depth not often encountered in the science fiction genre. Highly recommended!!!

The Gone-Away World

the-gone-away-world1I’m having a difficult time pigeon-holing The Gone Away World, a novel by Nick Harkaway (an interesting tidbit: he is the son of John le Carré): the novel is a mishmash of several genres.

The novel’s narrator is unnamed, which is an important plot-point. I won’t give away his identity, but I will say that his memory may not be completely reliable.

Only a thin strip of our civilized world remains after an unanticipated by-product (stuff) from a purportedly ‘clean’ weapon (the Go Away Bomb, which removes information from matter) creates new life from people’s thoughts, and some of the ‘new’ are horrifying. The thin strip of civilization is protected by a mysterious mist (FOX: Informationally Extra-Saturated Matter) that is dispersed from the Jorgmund pipe, which snakes around the world.

As the novel begins, a section of the pipe is on fire: the  narrator is a member of a squad of disaster/hazmat specialists who set out to extinguish the fire.

Just as the hazmat team’s adventure begins, the narrator pauses the action to provide historic backdrop by relating the story of his life, from the age of five, until the apocalyptic event itself. The reader eventually discovers the narrator’s identity, and the story takes on an added dimension. After the pipeline fire is extinguished, the build-up to the climax of the real adventure/thriller/gong-fu/romance/science fiction-fantasy/comedy truly begins.

There are hints scattered throughout the book regarding the narrator’s identity; in retrospect, it is obvious, but I must admit that I didn’t quite get it right (although I did successfully foresee a couple of other ‘revelations’). It would be interesting to re-read the novel knowing the narrator’s identity, but — for me — it isn’t be worth the time investment: there are too many other novels unread, waiting on my bookshelf, and this one doesn’t quite warrant a re-read.

The ending was satisfactory, but too ‘Hollywood’ for my tastes, and the plot meandered unnecessarily; nevertheless, I enjoyed the book.

Recommended.