Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
July 2016

Title: The Medusa Chronicles
Author: Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Saga Press

Arthur C. Clarke’s award-winning novella “A Meeting with Medusa” chronicled Howard Falcon’s stupendous discovery of giant jellyfish-like creatures in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. Now two titans of contemporary s-f, Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, continue Falcon’s odyssey in a riveting epic of extrapolative grandeur that doubles as a fine tribute to Clarke’s work.

If you missed the original, don’t worry: this book’s opening page recaps the essentials. Years before his mission to Jupiter, Howard Falcon was cybernetically enhanced. In the new novel this means near-immortalizing upgradeability, making him the ideal viewpoint through which to witness humanity’s colonization of the Solar System over the centuries, and the turmoil that results from the creation of sentient AIs called simply “Machines.”

Clarke’s novella hinted at Falcon becoming an ambassador between humans and machines, and The Medusa Chronicles fully explores that role. His involvement proves pivotal to both sides. One of this novel’s many successes is the deepening of Falcon’s character, for example through his relationship with Hope Dhoni. Baxter and Reynolds pull off the elegant trick of humanizing Falcon on the inside while consistently dehumanizing him on the outside.

They also imaginatively follow up on other aspects of Clarke’s novella, like the superchimps, or the significance of First Contact directives. Clarke’s story portrayed a 2080s near-future that may have seemed possible at its time of publication in 1971, but which appears less likely in 2016. Baxter and Reynolds cleverly address this by splitting their novel into two strands, a “present” one that begins in 2099 and progressively leaps to 2850, and a secondary series of 1967/1968 “interludes.” It’s these flashbacks that retrofit Clarke’s future into an alternate history in which the Earth is threatened by the asteroid Icarus, and NASA prepares an Apollo mission to deflect it via nuclear detonations. Unfortunately, I found these scenes slow, and feel that Baxter has more successfully covered this period in the alternate histories of novels like Voyage and Titan.

I also thought the novel’s opening chapters were plodding. The terrorist incident aboard the submarine Sam Shore (a nod to the TV series Stingray), for example, was underwhelming. But once things pick up, they gain momentum rapidly. Scenes convincingly unfold on Mars, Mercury, the Moon, the Jovian satellite Amalthea, the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud and elsewhere. As the Machines become more powerful they impose a “Jupiter Ultimatum” on humanity with the following chilly words: “By fourteen thirty-six on the seventh of June, 2784—precisely five hundred years from now—the last human must be gone from the Earth. For we require it for other purposes.” The ensuing events are depicted with a dazzling Stapledonian telescoping effect. And the final mind-bending journey through Jupiter itself provides both apotheosis and epiphany, recapturing the otherworldliness of 2001’s climax while wondrously reframing all that has come before.

As one might expect, there are many references to previous Clarke works, particularly 2001. HAL 9000 was a “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer,” and here Adam, a key character, is “an Autonomous Deutsch-Turing Algorithmic-Heuristic Machine”; HAL first became operational in Urbana, Illinois, and here the robot Conseil is “a product of Minsky & Good, Inc., of Urbana, Illinois;” according to Dr. Chandra in 2001, HAL succumbed to a “Hofstadter-Möbius loop,” also referenced here. The asteroid threat recalls Clarke’s The Hammer of God; the depiction of planetary destruction evokes scenes from The Songs of Distant Earth; the underwater exploration harkens back to The Deep Range; even Childhood’s End gets its due, and so on.

These allusions might suggest that the novel is old-fashioned, but that’s only half true. In the same way that Falcon connects two worlds, The Medusa Chronicles itself acts as an awe-inspiring, deeply humanistic science fictional bridge, linking authors like Gregory Benford, Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Peter F. Hamilton with newer talents like Charles Stross, Hannu Rajaniemi and Yoon Ha Lee. One could say it’s the best of both worlds.

Title: Ninefox Gambit
Author: Yoon Ha Lee
Publisher: Solaris

Yoon Ha Lee’s impressive debut novel drops us into a combat situation brutal and disconcerting. On the second page we encounter “feet scraped inside-out next to unblemished boots. Black-and-gold Kel uniforms braided into cracked rib cages. Gape-jawed, twisted skulls with eye sockets staring out of their sides and strands of tendon knotted through crumbling teeth,” and the horrors escalate. So from the outset we know we’re in for a gruesome ride.

It’s the context of these horrors that proves perplexing. We soon learn that the battle at hand involves notions of perceived time and beliefs, which for the side of Cheris, our math-whiz protagonist, is strictly “hexarchate”-regulated. This consensus belief-system is referred to as a “calendar.” Cheris and her soldiers are equipped with “calendrical swords;” they battle “dreaded calendrical rot,” and so forth.

Just as we’re beginning to accept this eerie, defamiliarizing notion, and getting a sense of who Cheris is, we’re introduced to legendary madman Shuos Jedao, who “had appeared as a Ninefox Crowned with Eyes, visionary and strategist, but had proved to be an Immolation Fox.” By chapter four we discover that Jedao lives on in ghostly fashion, and that his consciousness can be attached to a living person by a process known as “anchoring.” In fact, Jedao will become anchored to Cheris, a situation that provides much narrative vigor.

Cheris’s attempts to resist Jedao’s intrusive, puppeteering influence are fascinating, and their clash of personalities during Cheris’s against-all-odds mission to deal with a heretical uprising in the Fortress of Scattered Needles generates plenty of additional tension. Their exchanges, by turn emotional and philosophical, also serve to fill in several centuries of background without slowing down the pace. It’s an ongoing game of wits. Who’ll get the upper hand? Who is really being manipulated, and at what cost? Layer after layer of well-timed revelations recomplicates the plot in the best tradition of a spy novel, albeit an exceedingly gory one. Think of Joe Haldeman’s gritty Forever War, the political engagement of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the immersive, don’t-stop-to-explain world-building of C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner universe, and then throw in some John le Carré for good measure.

Besides the central notions of calendrical warfare and ghosting, Lee introduces plenty of other cutting-edge s-f extrapolations. One of the culminating speculative conceits of The Medusa Chronicles is “space-metric engineering,” the deliberate warping of local space-time to produce effects like wormholes. Conceptually, this represents Lee’s baseline: On the first page we are told that the “Eels had a directional storm generator,” one whose “storms scrambled vectors.” Wait until you see “threshold winnowers” and “carrion bombs” in action!

Stylistically, I found the novel a mixed bag. The writing fluctuates between poetic, formal and coarse. At times the prose feels overblown, and the occasional lapses into contemporary vernacular (“You’ve got to be shitting me”) can be jarring, breaking Lee’s otherwise careful scheme of inventive language. Lee’s themes, such as the moral complexities of war, and systems of belief vs. truth, are as varied as they are thought-provoking. Perhaps one of the novel’s grimmest musings is this: “The universe ran on death. All the clockwork wonders in the world couldn’t halt entropy. You could work with death or you could let it happen; that was all.”

Lee’s novel is military space opera at its most visionary, tough-minded and gut-wrenching. And with glowing endorsements from Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Ann Leckie, Elizabeth Bear, Seth Dickinson, Aliette de Bodard and others, you don’t have to take my word for it—but remember, as Jedao says at one point in the story, that “All communication is manipulation.” Careful what kind of voices you allow inside your skull.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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