Blog #1

My son frequently passes on books which he feels I ‘ought’ to read. Since his own reading is almost entirely in the fantasy genre, this is actually a very time-effective way of diversifying my own reading. In fact, his choices are largely more science fiction and generally with a heavy emphasis on the fiction. The genre, if we accept it still is a genre, has certainly moved on from the days when I used to read The Foundation Trilogy or the ultra-macho Heinlein books.

A very good example of the ‘modern’ approach is The City & The City by China Mieville. It is probably a science fiction book but it might be fantasy or just a novel. The story is narrated by a senior policeman in an imaginary city but in today’s world. The city is essentially Istanbul, but it is called Beszel. In fact it is also a city called Ul Qoma, for the two cities occupy the same space but in different planes. That would be confusing enough, except that there are indistinct areas which are part of both cities. These ‘crosshatched’ areas are a problem, because citizens of each city state are not supposed to recognise those from the other. So the populace has learned to ‘unsee’ the ‘other’. This is powerful symbolism for today’s complex world and a brilliant study of otherness. To add to the mix there is a separate inter-city police force called Breach which discipline those who try to creep across the borders in these areas. Breach are all powerful and accountable to none. The murder our narrator Tyador is working on is difficult as although it took place in ‘his’ city, it appears that the murderers came from the other. Add to this a heightened political situation with groups calling for total integration between the two cities and other groups demanding a more aggressive, independent approach to its Siamese twin and there is more than enough plot to keep you turning pages.

What strikes me is that while 20 years ago the author would have set out the uniqueness of these twin cities in loving detail, today you have to infer what is going on. It took me a couple of hundred pages to really get grips with the way the two City States work and the complex policing arrangements between then. A great metaphor for some of the world’s current trouble spots and a clever way of getting you to think about otherness; the instinct to ‘unsee’ is present in all of us.

Completely different is Alistair Reynold’s Revelation Space. This is as traditional Science Fiction as you can get – light speed inter stellar spaceships, colonies on far flung planets living under geodesic domes and a heavy emphasis on pure physics. I didn’t know people still wrote like this. What this book does very successfully is to build a world which is not ’normal’. Most SF books (and indeed fantasy ones) tend to be set in the contemporary world with a twist. The world of Revelation Space is extraordinarily alien. People are people, but genetic engineering is advanced to such an extent that it is hard to tell with some whether some are machine or human. One of the main characters is dead, but existing as a simulation based on a programme which has learned his entire lifestory and so able to mimic his actions, thoughts and even insights. The elites are so rich and long-lived they pay assassins to try and kill them to add zest to their idle and privileged lifestyles.

More excitingly, I thought, were the Ultras, the professional space travellers who man the ‘Lighthuggers’, the near speed of light interstellar ships. These people are impossible to age, spending decades in ‘reefer sleep’ while travelling and their aging is slowed down even if awake by spending so much time travelling close to the speed of light. Yet the ships they pilot are a mystery to them, having been designed and built by a previous civilization who have now died out. The ships, self repairing, self replicating, continue to function as the only means for mankind to get round its disparate empire.

There is a long and complex plot about a war which took place a billion years ago and the ramifications that a colony discover, but in honesty I read this to enjoy the extraordinary world created. No questions on this one, Revelation Space is first class SF.

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