Monthly Archives: July, 2013

The Eternal Flame

The following will include spoilers for The Clockwork Rocket, which I discussed over here.

A universe where parts of the spectrum of light travel at different speeds. A race where mothers cannot exist. Vector diagrams. They’re overused, but I’ll use them anyway: Egan is nothing if not ambitious and audacious.

Unknown A warning: the same issues that pertained to Clockwork crop up here. It is most definitely not a book that will work for everyone. You have to fall within a fairly specific range of readers: either someone who really enjoys thinking about physics and won’t be weirded out by the bizarre physics Egan is working through here; OR someone who is willing to skim over the vector diagrams and other physics-lecture bits, and just enjoy the story. Personally, I’m the latter. And the only reason I was willing and able to push through the physics was because I trust Egan to give me a really worthwhile story between, or around, it. I kind of imagined that I was listening to a really, really interesting person who occasionally meandered into talking about stuff I didn’t get, but was bound to get back to the good stuff eventually. And I was right.

The point of the Orthogonal series is to explore two central ideas: how the universe might be different if the speed of light isn’t constant; and how society might be different if mothers didn’t exist – or rather, they cease to exist at the point of childbirth. The story revolves around these two issues, and does so in occasionally remarkable ways. The physics aspect is very much an intellectual exercise; if there is commentary on modern science, aside from the obvious bureaucracy-getting-in-the-way, I missed it through not understanding enough of it. The biological/social aspect, though, includes a huge amount of commentary on modern Western gender relations, and it’s confronting, frightening, and sometimes scathing. I loved it.

Clockwork ended with a crew aboard the Peerless – a mountain launched into space – setting out with the objective of experimenting and thus hoping to find a solution to the probable destruction of their home world by an oncoming storm of meteors. This is only possible because of the different way light and time work in their universe; by moving away and then retuning home, much more time will have passed for them than on the planet. Because of the discoveries and attitudes, I’ve seen this book described as mirroring the Newtonian/seventeenth century European scientific revolution, which I think makes some sense but I wouldn’t push it too far. Along with the very pressing problem of saving the world, the crew carry in their bodies another issue – an issue that was only just being recognised as an issue: the fact that a mother’s flesh splits into her (usually four) children at ‘birth’. Mixing up the historical periods, this might be seen as somewhat comparable to the long period between Mary Wollstonecraft (late eighteenth century) and the suffrage movement of the early twentieth century (…. would that make Yalda both Ada Lovelace and Millicent Fawcett?? I Unknown Ada Lovelaceam loving this idea, daft as it is). Women are starting to think that there might be alternatives to simply living with their co and eventually becoming their children.*

To continue this intriguing historical comparison, Eternal Flame is scientifically moving into an Einstein/Hubble frame of thinking, and socially (I can’t believe the gall of this sentence) into the second-wave feminism of the 1970s (I wish there was an author in the story that I could tag as Joanna Russ, but there’s not). In physics, in particular, there are astounding discoveries being made about the properties of light and heat which are beginning to have profound ramifications for how they think about solving their problem (problems actually, since they also left their planet with no way of getting back with the solution…). Socially, the crew has pretty much always accepted women as being just as worthy in science and other jobs as their male counterparts – not least because many of the crew, especially in the sciences, were women. However, biology is still an issue. The original women used a drug, holin, in order to delay the onset of fission (birth). By this stage – three generations later – still use holin but are also basically starving themselves, for two reasons: both to delay birth, and in the hope that their fission will result in two, rather than four, children. Because the Peerless has experienced a population explosion, and they cannot support every pair becoming five. So (to get back to my comparison), the right of a woman to decide when to have children is one of the big issues – as it was with the introduction of the pill and the controversy over abortion (which I know is still ongoing).**

There are three narrative strands going on here, which frequently intersect but deal with different issues for the ship. I assume they’re meant to be of equal importance, but I’ll be honest and say the one that dealt the most with pretty full-on physics definitely took a bit of a backseat for me, even though I could see how vital it was to the story’s point. Carlo is investigating biology and fertility; both the fact that animals appear to exchange information somehow via infrared… something… and the fact that some animals seem to have adapted to biparous fission very easily. Tamara is an astronomer who observes a massive object outside in the void, and develops an audacious plan to use it somehow. Carla, a physicist, is investigating the properties of light and energy and challenging a lot of preconceived notions in the process.

The novel as a whole does involve a lot of physics-lecture stuff. There really are a lot of vector diagrams, and graphs demonstrating energy levels, and… other things. The biology doesn’t get quite the same treatment, perhaps because it’s not quite so radically different from our world. However, the science is not the be-all of the novel – if it had been I probably wouldn’t have persevered. There’s a bit of action, with an excursion out to the Object Tamara observed and some other dangerous moments for characters I had grown fond of. There’s some great character development, in particular as different people consider the biology issues for themselves and reflect on what it means for them individually and as a society; a few make very surprising decisions that are nonetheless entirely consistent. Being set on a spaceship, large as it is, means that the story is necessarily constrained; keeping the focus on three main protagonists helps with it not feeling claustrophobic but rather focussed, which is also aided by making them active in such different spheres. The physics and biology dominate, as discussed; there are also undercurrents of the frustrations of bureaucracy and the impact of history – after all, this is a generation of people working towards solving a problem for a world they have never known.

If you want to be read a science fiction series that will really challenge you scientifically while also (largely) being very readable, coming complete with a compelling storyline, this is it.

You can get The Eternal Flame at Fishpond.

*I’m well aware that this is grossly unfair and generalising to the women before Wollstonecraft, and in fact Egan does not make it nearly so clear-cut; as with real European history, there have always been women who bucked the trend in this world, too.

**I have no idea where Egan could go with this historical comparison for the next book. Still, it was fun while it lasted.***

***I’m not suggesting Egan did this deliberately. I’m quite sure he didn’t.

Galactic Suburbia 84!

bowieIn which we ask the all-important question, what do David Bowie, Tolkien, Judith Merril, H.R. Giger and Joanna Russ have in common? Also harassment in SF, and the many shades of awesome that was Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager

SF Hall of Fame includes some familiar names.

Elise Matthesen reports sexual harassment at Wiscon, kicking off a long conversation across various spots on the internet about harassment, procedures, and gender issues.

Some of the related posts we discuss:
Alisa: It’s Not Just Them Over There
Tansy: Sexual Harassment at SF Conventions (links mostly)
Genevieve Valentine on “Dealing with It
Elise Matthesen’s post at Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog (with commentary, and links to all the other hosts of the post)
Jared Axelrod on “Ruining the Party
SFFragette: Moving SFF/F into the 21st Century

Culture Consumed

ALISA: Defiance and Voyager rewatch, and Why Voyager Is The Most Feminist (and Best) Star Trek

TANSY: Captain Marvel: Down, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Dexter Soy & Emma Rios (artists); Xena Season 4; Ovid’s Heroines by Clare Pollard, Warehouse 13 Season 1

ALEX: Abaddon’s Gate, James SA Corey; The Lowest Heaven (anthology; ETA: discussed on Last Short Story!)

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Death comes to Pemberley

UnknownThere’s a bit of hating going down for this book, I’ve noticed. Some people are dismissing it simply as fanfic which… yes, I can see that, especially if you don’t think that fanfic can possibly have any merits. But to suggest that this is fanfic and therefore unworthy of engaging with is just lazy.

Other people have dissed this because of its merits, or lack thereof. That, I am totally fine with.

I have read Pride and Prejudice. I have seen, and adored large chunks of, the BBC adaptation. I am not, however, an Austen fangirl. This is, I think, my very first PD James. So on neither count am I particularly invested. I read my mum’s copy; I read it partly to keep up with her, and partly because I was expecting exactly what I got: a bit of light entertainment, and one person’s suggestions for how life might have turned out for Lizzie and Lydia.

I did not expect the reaction I had against Wickham that was very, very strongly influenced by the Lizzie Bennett Diaries. There may have been metaphorical gnashing of teeth at the mention of his name.

Is this brilliant literature? No. There are huge chunks of info-dump where James appears to want to show off just how much she knows about 18th and 19th century law and policing. There is one hilarious bit where she manages to get in a little “America will grow up to be most awesome” message, which had me choosing between giggling and eye-rolling so hard I was going to fall off the couch.

Is this a fun read? I thought so. I had been misled somehow about who it was that died (spoiler! this is a murder mystery!), so that was a surprise. There were obvious tantalising clues dropped early on that I looked forward to having explained properly; some of them were resolved as I half-expected, others were quite different. There are a few different plot-lines woven throughout, which was nice, and it’s not entirely following Elizabeth – James gets to play a bit with Darcy, in particular, although I thought those sections were often the least interesting.

As an homage to Pride and Prejudice, it’s ok but not awesome. I think James does an all right job of capturing Elizabeth and Darcy as a couple; Lydia has turned into a mini-Mrs Bennett, and Jane is a smiling placeholder, nothing more. There are some reflections on other characters – Georgiana, Fitzwilliam (who has completely changed for me thanks to the Lizzie Bennett Diaries, and this version was consequently very weird), and even Wickham. There was one P&P character that James did a very, very clever thing with that I really didn’t see coming – she gets kudos for that, if nothing else.

Overall, a satisfactory murder mystery. Don’t read it pining for Austen; do read it for what it is, if that’s your thing.

Knitting. Knitting socks

Last year I got adventurous and I decided to try my hand at knitting socks. How hard can it be, right?? Fortunately, unbeknownst to me I had actually been practising the hard bits – some of the monster feet in Rebecca Danger’s patterns have turned heels etc. So the answer was “not quite as hard as I expected,” while still being a serious slog. Nice socks are made from awfully light yarn! Anyway, for my birthday the ever-lovely Alisa sent me a flying saucer.  The yarn itself comes as what looks like a flying saucer, and if you knit it right you get flying saucers as part of the pattern! Awesome!

Yeh. That ‘knitting it right’ bit? That’s the hard bit. These socks caused a wee bit of angst, it’s fair to say. I got this far:

photo

when I decided that, because it didn’t look exactly like the pattern, I was clearly doing it wrong. So I ripped it apart, re-rolled the ball of yarn, started again… and got no pattern whatsoever. So… unknit, re-roll again, cast on again, knit. Ignore the fact that I only got a half-saucer

photo copy 4

and just deal with it as best I can.

photo copy 2

I was pretty happy when, by following the directions (after getting to the heel, cut, re-roll, keep going) I got another half-saucer on the foot, and then another again at the toe.

photo copy 3

So, overall I am quite happy with my flying saucer socks. They fit; they have funky patterns. I wish I had made them longer (I’m still learning exactly how long my legs are, and when it says ’20cm from cast on to heel’? that’s not very long on me.

Flying saucer socks!!

Stellar Alchemist

I’m not sure that I remembered to blog my joy at discovering Kim Boekbinder, who performs as The Impossible Girl. I found her Kickstarter for the album The Sky is Calling thanks to Kirstyn; ever since my copy of the CD arrived it’s been on (um, metaphorical, since mostly electronic) high rotation. And now there’s a video for Stellar Alchemist – a song about stars creating elements…

While you’re here, you should watch this one – The Sky is Calling, the song that made me realise I HAD to have this album:

Abaddon’s Gate

Unknown

HOOOORAAAAAAAAY.

(Some spoilers below for Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War. READ THEM.)

The last line of Caliban’s War was an absolute killer, because I read it when it was first published which meant that the next book was about a year away and GOODNESS ME it was a cliffhanger. So I preordered this as soon as I could and happily, it arrived about a week before I went on holidays. I very carefully put it on a shelf where it wasn’t tempting me to read it… and then this week, on holidays, I cracked it open and devoured it in one day. And it was worth the wait. Oh yes. Thank you, James Corey.*

At the end of Caliban’s War, the protomolecule has been doing weird things on Venus, the Mao-Kwik company has been busted for attempting to weaponise it, and Miller – who died, going with the protomolecule to Venus – has just appeared to James Holden, who has once again (somewhat accidentally) been fundamental to saving the universe (well, the solar system). The conclusion to the series has the protomolecule and its… construction project… out near Uranus’ orbit (it’s basically gone on its own little Grand Tour of the system… and now I’m imagining the Ring being made out of Lego. Oops). Earth and Mars are once again sitting in an uneasy truce with each other, with the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) not sure where it fits. Meanwhile James Holden is almost happy with his crew (but we all know that won’t last)…. While some of the early story takes place on-planet (or moon), most of it happens on board space ships of varying sizes, which is a big change from the earlier two where Earth and Ganymede in particular played important roles. Much of it also happens a significant time-delay away from official decision-making bodies, highlighting the issues of merely light-speed communication when people are many light-hours apart.

As with the first two books, this is told from multiple perspectives. The only one that is continuous across the three is Holden, master of the Rocinante (and OH! I just GOT the name, in making sure I was spelling it correctly. Don Quixote’s horse!!) and generally known across the solar system as a truth-telling, occasionally annoying, bad-ass. I love Holden. He is far from perfect, but he does the very best he can by his crew – who have, as a group, come a delightfully long way from their dysfunctional beginnings in Leviathan. (They’re still somewhat dysfunctional as individuals, but they work exceptionally well as a team.) He’s finally it together properly with Naomi, he’s getting good above-board work to keep the ship flying (… hmmm. It now occurs to me that there are some distinct similarities between Holden and Malcolm Reynolds. Huh.), and he really is trying to leave his solar-system-shaking days behind him. Honest. The fact that Miller – ghost? or something? – keeps bugging him… well, that’s a sign he’d rather ignore. Pity we all know that’s not going to work.

There are three other narrative streams, and (as with the other books) they have distinctly different parts to play in the story. Melba – not her real name – has one driving ambition, and it is not a nice one. Hers is a really interesting exploration of how an individual impacts on wider events. Holden’s story does, too, except that the way he impacts on wider events is usually accidental – or at least begins that way, as he is driven to bigger events, all to get back to his nice comfortable leave-me-alone life. Melba, though, doesn’t really care what impact she has on other people as long as her goal is achieved. Her development over the novel is the greatest of any character – or perhaps it just seems that way as the reader gets deeper into her head over the course of it.

Melba’s opposite in many ways is Anna, a Methodist minister who’s been out on a Jovian moon with her wife and daughter for two years. Let me say here that one of the most awesome things about this story is the way it takes religion seriously, and as a genuine force to be considered in medium-term science fiction. The religious figures are not perfect, and nor should they be – Corey is representing humanity in its fullness here. But Anna has conversations about the spiritual impact of the protomolecule’s existence, about what it means if there are aliens for those who hold to Christianity (are they fallen, like humanity? if so, does that mean that Christ died for them?) – and that’s fine, that’s acceptable. I can’t express how happy it makes me to see religion acknowledged like that. Anyway – Anna ends up on a ship heading out to the Ring. She gets to play a really important role on a personal level with a lot of people, but she herself basically stays the same over the course of the events.

Fourthly, and acting in some ways as Holden’s opposite, is Bull. An Earther in service to the OPA because of the charisma of its leader, Fred Johnson, Bull is on board the OPA ship going to investigate the Ring as security chief. I really like Bull. He is honest about himself and his limits, he tries hard to get the job done, and he’s willing to take the consequences when they’re in service to a worthwhile cause. It was a small event concerning Bull that brought a tear to my eye, which is not something I expected in a grandiose space tale like this one. Bull has a very tough job, especially as an Earther in charge of a largely Belter (that is, people from the asteroid belt, not from Earth or Mars) crew.

This issue of racism is an intriguing one throughout the series. I think (in my whitey-white way, I hope) that Corey* has done a very good job of showing the colonisation of the solar system as a multi-ethnic business; there are a few lines where someone is described along the lines of “if he was from Earth, he’d be [X]; here, he was a Belter.” The names are a delightful mash of multiple European, Asian, and African backgrounds (maybe South American as well, but I have less familiarity there and can’t be sure to pick it up). Sadly, but realistically, there is still xenophobia – and it’s based largely on where you were born. Planetary birth? You’re a duster, to a Belter. Born in the asteroids or on a moon? You’re a skinny, to an Earth- or Mars-born. And given the political situation – two wars between Earth and Mars, the Outer Planetary Alliance only recently (and that sketchily) graduating from terrorist organisation – place of birth can still be seen as having a significant impact on your politics and views on a range of important issues, like who gets to be boss of the inner solar system. I think Corey does a very good job of showing these issues in a sympathetic, not condemning but not condoning, manner.

This is a brilliant end to an exciting series. There is action, there is drama; there are explosions and chases, personal confrontations as well as planetary ones. Women and men both play important roles, the solar system is not white, and James Holden finally find out what the hell Miller wants with him.

You can get Abaddon’s Gate from Fishpond.

*Yes, I know that James Corey is actually two people.

The Lord of the Rings: the films

Confession: I watched almost the entire LOTR trilogy in one day last weekend. The extended versions. I was up to the arrival of the eagles when I decided enough was enough and I went to bed; I grouched at myself for watching the extras attached to Game of Thrones seasons 1 and 2 before starting it, since clearly that’s what stopped me from actually finishing.

This is not the first, nor the second, nor the third time I have watched these movies. I love them. I have read the book more times than I have kept count. Some thoughts on this viewing:

Unknown-1

1. I still do not like Elijah Woods. He just doesn’t work for me. While the Frodo+Sam bits are my least favourite bits overall, in the books, I think Woods is too sappy in the role. And given Frodo is my least favourite character, that’s saying something.

2. I was struck quite forcefully by how much of a love triangle Frodo/Sam/Gollum are. Frodo is the innocent object of Sam and Gollum’s affections – where ‘innocent’ means ‘not looking to attract either of them.’ Same is the long-time friend who has been harbouring love in his little faithful heart for a long time, just waiting for Frodo to notice him; Gollum is the slightly bad-boy new kid on the block, come to whisk Frodo off his feet. And here they are, all stuck together, Sam and Gollum forced to work together to look after the object of their mutual desires…

3. It still makes me angry that they screwed with Faramir so drastically. There is no narrative need for Frodo etc to be taken to Osgiliath, so why not allow Faramir to be the pure one the whole time? Why does he need a moment of coming to his senses? It’s a much more stark difference between him and Boromir when his struggle about whether to take the ring takes place over minutes, not over days. Grump grump grump.

4. The death of Saruman annoys me less, since I do understand it from a narrative point of view. Like the deaths of Agamemnon and Menelaos in Troy, they’re audience-pleasers. It does mean of course that there is no Scouring of the Shire, which – y’know – bit sad about…

5. … but since the ending of Return of the King can already be argued, by those who haven’t read the books, as having a multitude of mini-endings, I do understand not including it. I’ve heard arguments for finishing the film with the arrival of the eagles to save Frodo and Sam; that can’t be the end, though, partly because there needs to be that reunion between everyone, and partly because Aragorn HAS to get crowned; note the name of the movie. While I love the departure from the Grey Havens, I wonder whether the film would have been better off finishing with everyone bowing to the

Unknown

hobbits. Although that would have left out Sam’s marriage to Rosie, which would have been annoying because…

6. I was thinking about the women in LOTR. Yes, I completely agree there are too few. It is absolutely a product of its time and Tolkien’s context, which doesn’t make it less annoying but it does give context. Still: Eowyn is brilliant and played magnificently here (especially of course in Tolkien’s little stick-it-to-Shakespeare moment). Arwen is crucial, even though she doesn’t have much direct action; Galadriel likewise, and aren’t we all so glad Cate Blanchett was alive to take the role? Other than that… well, there’s Rosie. There’s a fleeting glimpse of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, who could have had a bigger role with a Shire scouring. Ioreth, wisewoman and healer in Minas Tirith, doesn’t appear in the films. Those are the women I can think of who have roles of any significance in the story. So much as I don’t like Jackson taking liberties, I can see that adding a female elf who takes some action will (hopefully) be a good addition to The Hobbit.

7. There are other bits that I am still sad they missed out, but can understand. Tom Bombadil was never going to work; Freddy Bolger is probably just as happy to be out of it; Ghan-buri-Ghan would have been awesome in a tiny little cameo but would have made no sense to those not having read the books.

8. My goodness but the VFX are almost universally astounding. I adore Minas Tirith. And Fangorn.

I am very happy I own these movies.