Ahead of its time: Robert Heinlein’s “Friday”

I first read “Friday” not long after it came out. It remains a remarkable novel, worth reviewing and unpicking even now forty years after its release. It’s a “Cyberpunk” novel published two years before William Gibson published “Neuromancer”; it was environmentally aware decades before the modern movement to environmental sustainability.  It posits a balkanised North America that to this day few if any other authors have dared describe. Its heroine, the female spy of the title, remains a relatively unknown icon of feminine power and ability.

“Friday” addresses racial prejudice and everyday sexism. It addresses police brutality, corruption amongst public employees, and – a favourite theme for Heinlein – the relationship of the individual with the state.  It upsets conventional storybook wisdom and in this respect is years ahead of its time. It would make a cracking film if only someone would write a screenplay for it.

Spoiler alert! Friday Jones, a female James Bond, calls herself a “combat courier”.  She is also an “artificial person”, that is, she is not born of woman, but a genetically enhanced superhuman rather like the characters hunted down by Deckard in “Blade Runner”.  She kills someone she finds following her while passing through an airport in Kenya. Hours later, the Nairobi Hilton is fire-bombed minutes after she checks out. She fails to connect these incidents. Arriving back at base in North America, she settles down for a ride in a horse-drawn carriage: in this world, fossil-fuel driven ground vehicles are not allowed. They are somewhere in what today is the Rust Belt of Illinois and Michigan: the chauffeur notes that “two hundred years ago, all these trees and fields were factories“.

Seconds later she is betrayed by that same chauffeur, captured by the enemy, and interrogated. Heinlein subverts the usual spy genre tropes and puts the obligatory torture scene (from which the hero escapes, as the climax of the book, right near the end) right at the beginning. Torturing a woman also is not normally the done thing. But Friday remains cheerful: she suggests to her torturer that he go and do something which she believes is anatomically possible, for some males…

She’s rescued, and nursed back to health. Her boss, the character in this story representing Ian Fleming’s “M”, sends her on break, and she goes to New Zealand to see her adopted family. Heinlein has always had innovative and unusual (and indeed questionable) ideas about marriage and sex. Friday belongs to a “line” or “group” marriage. Men and women, but in a line, as if for a dance. The difference is, all of the men, maybe 2, 3, 4 or eight men, are married to all of the women. Like Don Henley sings, “this could be heaven or it could be hell”…

All seems well until the “senior wife” in the marriage (the oldest wife and in this case one of the founding members of the marriage) finds out that Friday is an “artificial person”. Friday is summarily divorced. One minute, in the bosom of her family, the next, out on the street.

On the rebound, our heroine has a fling with a handsome Canadian airline pilot. As you do…perhaps. While she is in bed with him, a terrible world event happens, something rather like 9/11 but many orders of magnitude worse. “Black Thursday” or something like that. All airline traffic is stopped. Governments collapse; martial law is introduced; the Four Horseman have a brief canter through the world, and tens of thousands of people die or are imprisoned. Armed police come to the airline pilots house, and there is violence: a policeman lays hands on someone. Friday kills him, and she has to flee.

She spends a long time travelling round what in our world is the continental United States, trying to get back to base and report in to her boss. In this world, the United States has long gone: it is several different countries – the Chicago Imperium; British Columbia, the Republic of California, and the Lone Star Republic.  The story is set in the late fifties – we know this because at one point a lady of a certain age buys a lottery ticket ending in “99”, saying that this is a lucky number – it was the year of her birth. But we don’t know what century – certainly well into the 3rd Millennium. There is faster than light travel and a dozen or so settled planets around different stars. All industry and all vehicles are powered by “Shipstone” batteries, which working in some unknown proprietary way. Commercial aircraft are “semi-ballistic” glide rockets undertaking transcontinental journeys in merely hours. 

A favourite device of Heinlein’s is to see society through its small ads: in this part of the book there are fascinating job adverts: “Tranuranics Golden Division on Planet Golden around Procyon-B wants experienced mining engineers. Five year renewable contract”…the reader is told that the advert omits to mention that humans are unlikely to survive 5 years in the job…

Eventually Friday makes it back to her boss and checks in: he sets her to work on something we take for granted with Google and the internet: completely undirected and unsupervised research. This would have been very difficult to do in 1982 without access to reference libraries of books. After some weeks of this he rings her up in the middle of the night, and asks her “when will the next outbreak of Bubonic plague be?” A voice tells him the answer, and she is astonished to find that the voice is her own. That knowledge is the side-effect almost, the fruit, of her undirected research.  A few days later, her boss, an old man, is dead of natural causes, and she is out of a job.

Friday gets another job eventually – couriering something out to the royal family on The Realm, a fabulously rich and infamously totalitarian space colony. On the starship voyage out there, she becomes aware that she is pregnant and being closely watched by bodyguards everywhere. She works out that the unborn child planted within her is destined to become a royal daughter. She will go into hospital alive, go under anaesthetic for what she thinks is a minor procedure, and that will be the end of her.

With some difficulty, Friday escapes: she jumps ship at a colony world halfway; more by luck and plot devices than her own skill and judgement. She escapes from her bodyguards, disappears into the woods, and settles down to a normal existence as a colony wife, Cub den leader and mother.

Fifty-two shades of…something better than grey

Well I’ve done it! I’ve read fifty-two books this year! I think I can be proud of that. Some of them I have even reviewed properly. We’ll not go through them all in excruciating detail here, but we will discuss broadly, my year’s reading. I never set out to read a book a week, but I did set out for sure, to read many dozens of books in the year.

Of the 52, 15 of them were in my Kindle – I can do both paper books and e-reading. Eight of the books were re-reads. A few of those only, will I highlight. Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea” which I re-read after seeing the film one Sunday afternoon. C.S Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” remains one of my favourite reads, being an account of a man who dreamt of going on a day trip to Heaven – from a certain another place. Another re-read was R.A Heinlein’s “The moon is a harsh mistress”, at one level, a story about a rebellion in a prison colony in 2075: at another, the greatest manifesto for libertarian political views, you will ever read. Eighteen of the 52 books were fiction – an oddly low number, although it just means that my interests have been well satisfied by non-fiction.

I started the year reading Dr J.H. B Bell’s “A progress in mountaineering”. Bell, as a 16-year old in 1910, cycled 47 miles from Newtonmore to the foot of Ben Nevis, and climbed Nevis alone. And then he cycled back 47 miles again: the account does not make it clear if he cycled 90+ miles in hobnail boots, or if he climbed Nevis in plimsolls. What seems clear, is that when compared with our elders, we have become a nation of wuss.

I enjoyed Jonathan Nicholls’ “Kittyhawk down”, a well-researched story about RAF pilots in the Western desert during WWII. In February I also read Murray Rothbard’s short pamphlet “The Anatomy of the State” (Murray Rothbard also wrote “The fatal conceit” about the errors of socialism), and a book called “The road to Mecca” by Muhammed Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, who later became a senior diplomat for the government of Pakistan. In March I read Robert Winder’s “The hidden springs of Englishness”, and started Neil Sheehan’s “A bright shining lie” reviewed here – if you read one book about Vietnam, make it this one.

My sister sent me an old copy of Rich Roll’s “Finding Ultra” about an overweight man who turned his life around and became one of the fittest ultra-marathon runners in the world. As much for the appendices on plant-based diet, did I find that book interesting. William Wordsworth’s original travel guide to the Lake District proved oddly relevant centuries after it was written. Having tried and failed to source a copy of Varlam Shalamov’s rare Kolyma Tales, instead I read Hugo Jacek-Bader’s excellent “Kolyma diaries” and “White fever”, about travels in Eastern Russia – startling stuff about a very different world.

I read some science-fiction: Amongst others, Paul McAuley (“The war of maps”), Iain M Banks (“The Algrebraist” – again), an old Keith Laumer novel and two works of the modern writer Adrian Tchaikovsky. Also Heinlein – “Glory Road” (is that even sci-fi??) and “Harsh mistress” as already mentioned. Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” I review here.

I read three books about India: Shashi Tharoor’s (perhaps understandably) bitter and twisted “Inglorious Empire”, William Dalrymple’s account of the East India Company entitled “The Anarchy”, and finally Katie Hickman’s “She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India”. All very informative and enabling one to gain a more accurate perspective of world history. The lesson from Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire” is that bitterness and negativity, however arguably justifiable, is deeply unattractive.

I have read much about America: I am a fan of America. I believe in what America stands for, though it seem to be in trouble in these times and full of vice and failings. Robert Kaplan’s “Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World”, reviewed here, proved very interesting at the start but perhaps a little disingenous towards the end. A great interest of mine is American history, particularly the westward expansion. I read Bernard Devoto’s; “1846: the year of decision” and John Anthony Caruso’s “The Appalachian Frontier” , was well as several of Dee Brown’s books – one on the Fetterman Massacre, the other on women in the wild west. Dee Brown’s greatest and most famous book, all should read: that is “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, an account of the destruction of the native American tribes.

Later in the year I read Tim O’Brien’s “The things they carried” – the Vietnam war as seen through the lens of what soldiers carried with them. One soldier carried a pair of his girlfriend’s tights as a neckscarf, and wore them even after she dumped him. Also, I read Stephen Hough’s “The Great War at sea” – most informative – and Alice Roberts’ “Tamed – ten species that changed our world”. Self-explanatory title there, and rather a lot of detailed biology which I had to skip.

I read Ed Husain’s troubling account of journeys in certain cities in the UK – “Among the mosques”. In order to get published, Ed Husain has to be upbeat and positive about what is happening with Islam in the United Kingdom today, but I find that he can’t possibly be as naive as he comes across in his writing. A deeply worrying travelogue.

Tim Butcher wrote “Blood River”. The age of great explorers, opines one of the reviewers, is not dead. Butcher attempts with only partial success to navigate overland by motorcycle and boat, from the eastern Congo through to the Atlantic coast. The Congo is a messed-up place, and it is deeply messed up for a number of very complicated reasons. It will get worse – much worse. Certain important minerals essential for modern Lithium-ion batteries, required for what some people call “the energy transition”, are most easily sourced in the Congo. In the coming decades the extraction of those minerals, to salve the western conscience and enable electric cars, will do as much damage to Africans in the Congo as King Leopold ever did in his extraction of rubber in the early 20th century.

I read a useful and informative biography of Sir William Stanier by the ever-readable and prolific railway author O.S Nock. This one I found in an excellent second-hand bookshop in Bridport. I read Ryzard Kapuchinsky’s “Imperium” about Soviet Russia – including an unforgettable two-page interlude on how to make peach brandy. What drives my reading, is this – not what is in plain view, but what is not. Sometimes something tangential – a fact or anecdote of paramount importance or of deep interest, is almost literally found “in between the lines”.

I ended the year with David Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter”. This is a brilliant account of the Korean War. Another great Pulitzer prize winning author covering vast sweeps of American culture and history. Though some of the descriptions of battles are a little too detailed for me, what made the book is the wide arc of history, the bigger picture. In a book about Korea, I learned much about the “New Deal” and the life and times of Franklin Roosevelt. I learned about changes to domestic politics in the USA that are still very much of importance today. I learned about McCarthyism, and also about Douglas MacArthur – a horribly fascinating, perhaps deservedly reviled, but nonetheless important 20th century figure. What’s it like to have no self-doubt at all? Lack of self-doubt is not one of my qualities.

Earlier in the year, I chanced across Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt’s “Just for the record”, being an autobiography of Status Quo. This rock autobiography was a disappointment for me; it was potentially great story written in the most perfunctory manner. You would think that lyricists could write! No, obviously not. One thing I recall though is Rick Parfitt writing of himself as a teenager (when his guitar teacher patronised him) “No-one calls me laddie“. See my point above about lack of self-doubt.

Over Christmas I was given “Rainbow in the dark”, the autobiography of Ronnie James Dio. We learn that as a boy he swore to himself that one day he would headline at Madison Square Garden, in his own name – and he did! A readable enough tale of ambition fulfilled, of the virtues of hard work and persistence, and of some of the other less agreeable habits of rock ‘n roll stars. Reading it, I’d like also to read a biography of the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, if and when such a book becomes available.

This is for balance, for unfortunately, Dio’s account of those years is somewhat self-serving. It is a shame, for I regard him as a great lyricist, and the distinctive sound of his voice, be it in the heavy metal music of Rainbow, or Black Sabbath, formed a background to my youth.

The full list here:

Chris Anderson The official TED guide to public speaking
Paul McAuley The war of maps
J. H B Bell A Progress in mountaineering
Iain M Banks The Algebraist
Jonathan Nicholls Kittyhawk Down
Murray Rothbard Anatomy of the state
Muhammed Asad The road to Mecca
Robert Winder The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Adrian Tchaikovsky Cage of souls
Nicholas Monsarrat The Cruel Sea
C.S Lewis The Great Divorce
Neil Sheehan A bright shining lie
Jacek Hugo-Bader Kolyma Diaries
Rich Roll Finding Ultra
William Wordsworth The Lakes
Keith Laumer Doorstep
Jacek Hugo-Bader White Fever
Shashi Tharoor Inglorious Empire
Robert D. Kaplan Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World
Ryzard Kapuchinsky Imperium
Dee Brown The Fetterman Massacre
Bernard Werber Empire of the ants
William Smethurst Writing for television
William Dalrymple The Anarchy
Sven Hassel Court Martial
Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Bernard DeVoto 1846:The year of decision
Len Deighton Blitzkrieg
Dee Brown The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West
John Anthony Caruso The Appalachian Frontier
Larry McMurtry Lonesome dove
Larry McMurtry Dead man’s walk
Larry McMurtry Comanche Moon
Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt Just for the record – autobiography of Status Quo
Michael Bonavia The birth of British Rail
R.A Heinlein Glory Road
R.A Heinlein The moon is a harsh mistress
O.S Nock William Stanier
Katie Hickman She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India
Stephen Longstreet War cries on horseback
George Orwell Animal Farm
Ed Husain Among the mosques
Richard Hough The Great War at sea
Tim O’ Brien The things they carried
Tim Butcher Blood River
C.S Lewis That Hideous Strength
O.S Nock The Settle and Carlisle railway
Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of time
Alice Roberts Tamed – ten species that changed our world
Jeff Long Deeper
David Halberstam The coldest winter: America and the Korean war
Ronnie James Dio Rainbow in the dark

The year of the lockdown – in books

I’ve read more books in 2020 than I have read for many years. You might think that NOT commuting means I have less time for reading, but the data clearly do not bear that out. I have finished 57 books during the year. Three of them I started during 2019. As of Boxing Day I am still reading five or six books and will not finish any of them in the year.

Of the 57, 16 were re-reads. 43 books I read in physical copy, the remainder on a Kindle.

Emily St John Mandel’s account of a young actress caught up in an apocalyptic plague – “Station Eleven” – was my first of the year, followed quickly by Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Dogs of War”, which was about a world in which bio-engineered war-animals rebel against their corporate masters. The “collected intelligence” of a swarm of artificial bees was of particular interest in that story. Later in the year I read another high-concept novel about war, Adam Robert’s “New Model Army”, which is unusual and shocking in having descriptions of front-line warfare ravaging modern urban Britain – fighter aircraft strafing Guildford town centre, kind of thing. Some very thought-provoking ideas about direct on-line democracy there, too. Continuing the sci-fi line, I read Stephen Baxter’s “The Massacre of mankind”, being a sequel to H.G Well’s “War of the worlds”. My daughter recommended Margaret Attwood’s very readable apocalypse “Oryx and Crake”, which I perhaps oughtn’t have read during the fevered atmosphere of the first lockdown. I finally got around to reading Chinese author’s Cixin Liu’s “The three body problem”, which I didn’t find as exciting or as innovative as his earlier short stories. Of course I’m aware of the controversy relating to his views on who controls parts of central Asia, which we’ve become aware of since filming of this book was proposed. I was challenged – having had it on the shelf for years – by Ursula Le Guin’s “The left hand of darkness”. I read three Frank Herbert novels. “The dragon in the sea”, “Hellstroms Hive”, and “Dune”. A master story-teller, he. Apart from re-reading a few Heinleins (and Vernor Vinge’s startling “A fire upon the deep”), the final great sci-fi novel of the year was Robert Forward’s startling “Dragons Egg”, featuring a race of people living on a neutron star, and what happens when they encounter humankind.
Big hitters for me this year in the non-fiction space were Austin Kleon (“Steal like an artist” and “Show your work”). Kleon has written a series of short, entertaining books that encourage creativity. I’ve read American journalist Robert Kaplan. I started with his “To the ends of the earth” and “Eastwards to Tartary” and his very instructive book about the middle east, “The Arabists”. Staying in the middle east, I finally sourced a copy of Michael Elkins’ “Forged in fury”, about the creation of the State of Israel. Not a work I’d recommend to anti-zionists. I re-read Tristam Hunt on the English Civil War, I read Beevor on the Ardennes offensive. I read the engaging Andrew Marr on the history of Britain, and finished John Keay’s long and complex account of the history of China. I got through Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 questions for the 21st century” though it took me nearly a full year, and I read an inspiring account of Captain Cook’s life by my namesake Richard Hough. Anthony Beevor tells us, in his account of the Battle of the Bulge, about a certain Sergeant Salinger, who managed to write short stories whilst in the winter trenches in the Ardennes – this was before his big break with “The Catcher in the Rye”.
I re-read Tom Bingham on the Rule of Law, re-read HMS Ulysses, and read a life of Rasputin by Alex de Jonge. Remaining on the Russian side, I read P.S Nazaroff’s “Hunted through central Asia”, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The life of a dog”, an anti-soviet allegory whose writing – though not it’s publication – pre-dates “Animal Farm” by 20 years. The Soviets forbade it’s publication; this short and little known work did not appear until the 1960’s.
I’m still reading the official TED guide to public speaking as the year ends. I’m reading Gustav Herling’s GULAG memoir “A world apart”, Sashi Tharoor’s somewhat bitter and twisted “Inglorious empire”, and Muhammed Asaf’s “The road to Mecca”.
Reading should be a pleasure; it should be a distraction. It should entertain and it should inform. One might fall back on old favourites in times of stress. One might also, when feeling strong, test oneself with harder, more challenging material. I leave you with John Martin’s “A raid over Berlin”, an uplifting account of an RAF bomber command flyer’s time as a POW in WWII. Happy new year!

The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter, one of the most prominent sci-fi writers around today, has written a sequel to H. G Wells’ “The War of the Worlds“. I confess I never read Wells’ original, but like most people of my generation I’m familiar with the story. Jeff Wayne’s concept album has played it’s part in that familiarity of course; “Forever Autumn” remains one of my favourite songs. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to see the stage show live in London – a real experience. It’s a story that touches every human heart.

I’m no real fan of H.G Wells, whilst acknowledging him as the outstanding futurist of his generation and one of the grandfathers, as it were, of the science fiction genre as we understand it today. I did read one of his short stories – written in Edwardian England more than a decade before the Great War and the invention of the tank – in which he describes great metal wheeled “landships”. It’s pleasing to read Baxter gives them more than a passing nod in this sequel.

The story, written in the same laconic narrative style as H.G Wells, recounts a second invastion of Earth by the Martians, in 1920. It’s readable and a page-turner, but I will reveal no more about it other than recommending it highly.

But here is where I enthuse about Stephen Baxter’s work, for alternative history is his real forte. He manages to challenge the idea that what happened in our past was immutable and things could only have been that way. The Martians invaded in 1907: they were foiled in their attempt by deadly pathogens. But as a direct consequence England and the British Empire never joined what his characters refer to as the “Schlieffen War” in 1914. In his history, there was no Great War, there was no Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks were all defeated and tossed into prison.

The theme of “what might have been?” has entertained thinkers for all of history. What if Alexander the Great had lived? What if he had not recovered from a dreadful war injury he received when he was younger still? What if Henry VII’s oldest son had not died as a youth, leaving the throne open for his brother who became Henry VIII? What if the Nazis had successfully invaded?

Stephen Baxter in a number of his works, covers the the space-age era in this kind of detail. In “Voyage” he argues that humankind might have gone on from the Moon to visit Mars in the 1980’s – we could have; we just didn’t, for whatever reason. In “Titan” he sees an expedition to circum-Saturn space using Apollo-era technology, whilst Earth collapses into war, recrimination and apocalypse. In his short story “Sheena 5“, genetically-modified intelligent squid are sent to the asteroids to explore on behalf of humankind, because sending people is too expensive. They were betrayed: they were supposed to be unable to breed, but they could, and they did. Aggressive, intelligent, and capable of hard thinking, they return to Earth decades later as a space-faring species, to find humankind again mired in war, recrimination and apocalypse.

In “War birds” we see an alternative twentieth century far worse than our own, far worse than the worst nightmares of those who look down their nose at Donald Trump. The title refers to NASA’s space shuttles, which are seen and used almost entirely as fighter/bombers. We see Nixon rehabilitated; Tehran destroyed by an American atom bomb. A nuclear rocket blows up, rather like Challenger did in 1986, smearing radioactive material across the Florida sky. Reagan’s response is to start a nuclear war and destroy the Soviet Union. It gets worse…Stephen Baxter is willing to imagine the unimaginable in a quite relaxed and very English understated way. In his novel “Moonseed” (which does end on a positive note, though not before the Earth has been destroyed with billions dead) someone notes (after Arthur’s Seat becomes an active volcano) that “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”.

I do hope there’s hope: a review of The Rig, by Roger Levy

I cannot now recall who recommended this story by Roger Levy: possibly William Gibson, on Twitter, or possibly the recommendation came from having read Dave Eggers’ upsetting story “The Circle”.

Do we judge a book by it’s cover? Alas, we do, and the publishers are complicit in this, bringing us paperbacks for womenfolk that are broadly (but not always) in light, pastel colours, and paperbacks for men, that are either black or in dark hues. You won’t be reading an Iain M. Banks novel in a paperback copy that is anything other than dark in colour. “Dark have been my dreams of late”, said Theoden King, in the Lord of the Rings. And well they might have been if he’d read this book or indeed a lot of other modern science fiction.

I long for science fiction that is positive and hopeful. I started “The Rig” and after a struggle at the start, I got into it. So I tweeted to the author that I thought it was great. [That this is possible at all is a both a blessing and a curse of modern social media]. I wrote to him, “I do hope there is hope”

What we have in “The Rig” is a future where humankind has had to move to another “system” where there are a number of nominally habitable planets. Much is made of terraforming. Two planets are different – and one of them, Gehenna, a loosely Christian religious dictatorship, forms the background to the opening of the story. The story’s hero is, as some say, “on the spectrum“. Indeed, Alef is autistic to the point of being socially inadequate, but very, very clever. He – and his father before him – are the not exactly unwilling tools of an unpleasant gangster needing assistance with computers.

We’ve seen it all before. These gangsters and all their disgusting subordinate mercenaries, enforcers, mistresses and hangers-on all appear in the dark science fiction of such authors as Alistair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, Iain. M Banks and most particularly Richard Morgan. I grow tired of them. It displeases me that writers, publishers and indeed the reading public, seem have a fascination for them, all the sordid violence and mutilation, all the vengeance and torture. I agree with R.A Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, who said in “Time enough for love”: “I’ve never understood the gangster mentality. I simply know what to do with gangsters“.

Notwithstanding all that, I found I could hardly put this book down, and I found that the plot drew me on. It was simple enough not to confuse me and yet refined and complex enough not to be completely see-through. You’ve got implicit discussion of the internet and what it all means; you’ve got old Earth clearly destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by some unexplained environmental catastrophe. You’ve got a dig at organised religion and for that matter, at Christianity. So far, so normal for “dark” sci-fi – all the right boxes are ticked. But, much more unusually, you’ve got an autistic main character whose feelings and thoughts the author has worked hard to portray.

I’d make a plea, as a Christian, for positive, hopeful and uplifting stories. I’ll admit the publisher may say “it won’t sell”, but you know – I think it will. Something that defies the rather H.P Lovecraftian view taken by nearly all modern science-fiction. In all my life of reading I can think of only a handful of authors writing such material. I was impressed by Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – reviewed here, then we’re back to Stephen Lawhead, whose works The Search for Fierra/The Siege of Dome and Dream Thief I read thirty years ago. Or even C.S Lewis’ classics like “Out of the Silent Planet”, “Perelandraand “That Hideous Strength”.

Great future inventions

I was minded to write about some of the great inventions we may yet see, and to look at the rich imaginations of some of our great sci-fi writers.

1. The diamond flechette gun in Alistair Reynold’s “Chasm City”.  A small and easily concealed hand weapon, made out of diamond and exotic forms of Carbon – because there is no metal in it, of course, it can be carried with impunity through airport scanners and other such devices.  It is clockwork and as well as being made of diamond, fires bits of diamond as projectiles. It might be clockwork but I don’t think the users wind it up. It is, as characters describe, a thing of ‘intense, evil beauty’.  “Chasm City” is set in the 27th century.

2. The Turing Gate in Paul MacAuley’s “Cowboy Angels”.  In an alternative reality, Alan Turing is not hounded to death by the state for being gay, but emigrates to America where he goes onto invent a strange gate or means to move between dimensions and alternate realities.  The Americans of that reality (not ours) take it upon themselves to visit their particular brand of democracy on all other Americas in existence. All well and good until they visit the reality where President Nixon was elected.

3. The cortical stack, allowing Digital Human Storage, in Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” and it’s two sequels.  This memory device is about the size of a cigarette butt.  The device is implanted in the spinal column soon after birth and records everything – sensations, memories, feelings. All can be backed up, everything can be uploaded into a computer as digital data.  Humanity is reduced to big data – both freed from death and enslaved by eternal life.

4. Douglas-Martin sun-power screens in R.A Heinlein’s “Let there be light”. Two inventors in the 1960’s perfect bioluminescent screens that can be used to convert electricity into light, or, if stuck in the sunshine, act as an effective solar panel, generating electricity.

5. The Bobble, in Vernor Vinge’s “Across realtime“.  A spherical and perfectly reflective indestructable minature cosmos, which can be created in any size from tiny up to tens of kilometres across.  They can last for moments – or for tens of millions of years.  Anything trapped inside endures NO duration at all, no matter how long they or it are stuck inside. They are effective one-way time machines.  Vinge has his characters use them as perfect (if someone inconveniently shaped) fridges, as remarkable air bags to protect aircraftmen in crashes, as restraints for madmen, as time machines, and as a means to contain political prisoners. Oddly he misses using micrometre sized bobbles as a building material.

6. The piece of paper as a computer in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”. In the Diamond Age – late in this century – nanotech is all. An everyday piece of paper is many tens of thousands of molecules thick.  It’s a small matter to design the inside of it so that those many molecules can act as a kind of electro-mechanical microprocessor, churning through sums, doing calculations – doing computer stuff, in fact.

7. The genetically modified millipede used as sutures, in William Gibson’s “Count Zero“, set in the early 21st century but written in the 1980’s.  Our young hero is slashed across the back in a knife attack whilst on the run. The surgeon places a length of this millipede over the wound, ensures all the many legs are properly lined up on each side, and with a flourish, rips the spine from the brainless bio-artifact. It’s death spasm causes the legs to contract, neatly sewing a huge wound together in a split second.

8. Windows running on your clothes, and displaying in contact lenses, in Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbow’s End”.  Vinge can’t call it Windows of course, but calls it “Symphony”. Your clothes are embedded with threads acting as powerful microprocessors, and they are able to send information to contact lenses. Augmented reality – you want the low-down on this neighbourhood? Just google it and the info scrolls across the top right of your field of vision.  Communicate with your computer by sub-vocalising or just thinking what want to say,

9. The means to broadcast sound direct to your aural nerve – the “friend” device as seen in Stephen Baxter’s “Ark”.  Developed before 2020, the device renders earphones obsolete. A small instrument in your pocket, or your mobile phone, broadcasts sound in perfect hi-fi direct to your brain.  It’s a side issue in Baxter’s story which is about rising waters flooding the whole earth.

10.  The monomolecular spray-on hosiery in Iain M Banks’ “Against a dark background”. Others have said there are more ideas on one page of an Iain M. Banks novel than in whole books by other others. Here, he proposes a monomolecular covering for the female leg that looks great and feels great – spray on tights, in effect.

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

I picked this up in a charity shop in Aberdeen: I’ve been in that shop a dozen times and bought nothing. Then, I go in on a rainy September morning, on the way from one meeting to another, and find not one, not two, but three books. I’m reading all three at once; this one I have finished already.

“Dark Eden” explores what might happen a few generations down the line, if a very few people – in this case, just two – found themselves having to scratch a living having landed with little or no equipment on a deeply unsuitable world. Stephen Baxter covers similar ideas in his “pendant” short stories “Earth II” and “Earth III”. Heinlein touches on it in a brief aside in “Time enough for love”.

Beckett neatly side-steps the science. It is not necessary to explain the biology and geology of his strange sunless world, quite literally enlivened by bizarre geothermal trees. But we’ve seen the life on geothermal vents on the seabed – such things are more than plausible. His forests are islands full of life and light, in a sea of darkness, snow and ice. In the story, the protagonists travel from one such island to another, to make a new life where there is more game, more space, more resources. It is an ancient story, going back a million years on our own world.

Where the story excels, is in dealing with human relationships. It deals head on with the very serious consequences of inbreeding several generations in from just one man and woman. Many of the population have cleft pallettes, hare lips and club feet – and are looked after by their healthier, luckier siblings. Truly a dark Eden, but with the warm light of compassion only now starting to flicker. The primitive society that has formed from the original couple is matriarchal, and the heroine can see that the time for this is ending, and that “the time of men” is coming. The hero, John Redlantern, as well as being a visionary, a Moses who leads his people through the wilderness, is also the first to commit murder, a destroyer of tradition and stability, and also inherently self-centred – it’s all about him.

Wikipedia describes the novel as “Social science fiction” which may not be flattering. But, “social science” is all over the story. Many important ideas are discussed. We see how hunter-gatherers can lay waste to swathes of forest over generations. We see how a matriarchal society can work where there is plenty – but how such a society begins to break down when resources are scarce. We see the effects of inbreeding. We see the importance of tradition in retaining knowledge in a society where there is little or no learning.

What I liked is that this is no dystopia: though things are going wrong, though things are changing, from beginning to end, there is a positive dialogue with what is happening and what has happened. In a genre where so often we find stories focusing on the negative – the very dark but excellent work of Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds are just two examples – it’s refreshing to see a positive outlook.

Dune, by Frank Herbert

It is quite odd, re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, to see his ideas  – written down in the early 1960’s and ahead of their time then – in relation to how we stand today in relation to Islam.

Dune, at one level, is a sweeping space opera, an adventure where two noble families battle for supremacy in an imperial setting – but set in a strange and far future.  Imperial politics are what they usually are – but are also subtly controlled by a shadowy and all-powerful female priesthood, the Bene Gesserit.  Interstellar space travel is controlled exclusively by the Guild of Navigators – and they accomplish it only by use of a difficult to obtain mind-altering drug.  This drug is made from a strange spice available in one place only in all the universe – the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.  The novel is the story of two families fighting for control of the spice.

But at another level, Dune explores the culture of desert Arabs, and draws heavily on Islamic ideas such as jihad or holy war.  I don’t think a publisher would touch it if it was written today.  Indeed, even writing such a work would put you at risk from those who see Islam as completely beyond or above discussion – much less actual criticism.

Whilst is is broadly sympathetic to Islam and to desert culture, we see parallels drawn between the rise of the prophet, and the rise of Frank Herbert’s central character Paul Muad’Dib, and the holy war or Jihad that Paul Muad’Dib is so keen to prevent.  He sees it in visions and dreams: war, suffering, warriors and fighting, spreading out unstoppable from Arrakis, across the known universe.  And it is the last thing he wants.

As a writer though, two things to note: firstly, Dune as pure story seems much less sophisticated than later science fiction, and second, there is some wonderful mixing of metaphor and adjective, which I record here.  The central character Paul – at this point just fifteen but the son of a Duke – and his mother are marooned in the desert after a plane crash, and “…he inhaled, sensed the softly contralto smell of sage climbing the night…it had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paint brush. There was a low humming of light…”

I was charmed by the idea that moonlight could be heard, or that the smell of sage could be contralto, or stillness, unuttered.

The Sparrow, by Maria Dona Russell

Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – a good and readable Sci-fi story. That is praise enough, in the end, in a world where readability and good English seem to matter less and less.

I write that, but I’ve just finished Stephen King’s classic novel “The Stand”. Stephen King is an icon amongst wannabee writers. In all of “The Stand”there are perhaps two or three adverbs. 28 pages into “The Sparrow” and one of the characters is doing something”expressively”. Hmm.

Whilst ostensibly writing sci-fi, she has used sci-fi memes to enable a discussion of such eternal matters as celibacy, pride, marriage, and relationship. Her Jesuits seem believable to me, though her space vehicles and her aliens are perhaps less convincing, and beg more questions than they answer. It’s an interesting point; after all, what is fiction for but to stimulate the discussion of ideas?

Her Puerto Rican priest Fr. Sandoz is the central towering figure; gaunt, hugely capable, prideful, strong. Yet he is utterly destroyed, ruined, by his appalling experiences on the alien world. It was his pride and strength that helped destroy him. He is healed and restored to wholeness in the end, not by the working of grace, nor even by human compassion, but by robust and stern treatment from his superiors at the Society of Jesus. This I find unconvincing – but I believe in grace.

Alpha Centauri is one of the very nearest stars to Earth. That humankind should receive radio signals from intelligent lifeforms from somewhere as relatively close as that, implies that the universe must simply teem with intelligent life around almost every star (in keeping with the ideas of older writers like Poul Anderson or even more modern authors like Stephen Baxter.) But she has not taken this idea forward.

The relativity and ballistics seem fine at first glance. Her space vehicle gets to Alpha Centauri in about 18 years (as seen from Earth) but time dilation makes the journey time about a year as seen from on board. The engines of her space vehicles remain as undescribed as those of Iain M Banks, and are even less convincing thereby. To accelerate at 1G up to light speed, and then decelerate again, as one must to reach Alpha Centauri in less than decades, implies quite remarkable fuel consumption. There are some interesting gaps in her engineering, but in the end her book is not about engines and aliens, but about people and human relationships. An astonishing work and I’m glad I found it.

The Treaty of Seattle

(loosely and colloquially translated from the original Russish)

About that time, there was Treaty of Seattle, which marked end of long and bitter war, between Chinese on one side, and almost everyone else, on other side.  Some called it third world war.  Was last world war.  Major nations of world fought alongside our ancestors against China.  Long term effect of war was to re-ignite democracy in Russia and strengthen weakening culture in rest of world in last decades before start of Diaspora.

Though nuclear weapons were used, and some cities were destroyed, war was never “apocalypse” predicted in the literature and media of the world at that time.  It began some fifteen years earlier after aggressive and sudden Chinese moves into Russian territory.

At same time, Chinese miliary moved south towards continent of Australia.  Were very heavy losses at first – in first six weeks of war, ancient city state of Singapore had fallen, and all Russia east of Lake Baikal was in Chinese hands.  But all that ground was taken back over course of war.

Advance of Chinese brought political chaos across all earth, collapsing political unions and causing other minor wars.  Recent work by historians shows that discoveries in Antarctica, and what happened as a result (see Yekatarinburg offensive, Libby-Sheffield engines, Antarctic Discoveries) were rather more important to victory than once thought.

Human cost of Russo-Chinese War was over 4 million Russian and alliance dead, 30 million Chinese dead, and destruction of some Russian and Chinese cities. Also, Chinese Confucian culture was destroyed forever.

Following war, came launch of Russian starship Yekatarina Velikaya.  Exact date we can no longer be sure of, due to small differences between Standard years and Earth years.  But we believe this was around one hundred years after first man in space Yuri Gagarin.