My memories of when I used to subscribe to the science fiction magazine Interzone in the 80s and 90s are largely of two types of stories. The magazin...more
My memories of when I used to subscribe to the science fiction magazine Interzone in the 80s and 90s are largely of two types of stories. The magazine had a penchant for a brand of rather gloomy anti-cyberpunk futurism (especially in the 80s, with Britain under Thatcher's iron heel when everything looked bleak, and era which also gave rise to such wonderfully dark comics as V for Vendetta and Crisis) of a sort that made Jeff Noon's books look positively utopian (I'm sure Noon must have had stories in IZ, come to think of it, but I can't remember any). The second sort were dazzlingly high-concept explorations of the interface between technology and society, and where ever hastening scientific and technological progress might be taking us as a species.
This is where I first came into contact with Australian author Greg Egan, an Interzone regular and prime purveyor of this latter type of story. Egan's 1997 novel Diaspora is a superb example of his work. It starts toward the end of the 30th century when humanity has split into different strains – as software entities living rapid yet immortal lives in virtual reality, or interacting with the physical world inhabiting robotic bodies, or a few 'fleshers', humans who doggedly remain attached to their biological reality. An unforeseen astrophysical disaster causes some of the digital personalities to send out copies of themselves to explore the universe in search of somewhere safe from potential annihilation from cosmic accidents.
This is not just an updating of Stapledon's Last and First Men or Wells' The Time Machine to the information age, where biological evolution continues seamlessly into electronic, but an exploration of what it means to be human, to be conscious, to be intelligent. Is the only way to be human to remain in direct contact with the physical world and live a life measured in decades, or can a piece of software that is at least as complex and possessed of its own drives and personality and autonomy, that wants to survive and learn and has morals and ethics be also considered human? As the environments in which humans live are artificial anyway, is living in an entirely virtual world any less valid?
Along with a story that presents these issues, Egan takes us into areas of multi-dimensional maths and wormhole physics that stretch the readers' minds just as much, all told with a clarity and skill that makes Egan one of the finest and most important writers working in SF today.
The RPG I am currently running with my group, in which the players take the parts of British civil servants working for a secret department of the Sec...moreThe RPG I am currently running with my group, in which the players take the parts of British civil servants working for a secret department of the Security Services which is tasked with protecting Her Britannic Majesties Domains and Protectorates - and, incidentally the world - from all manner of unspeakable, tentacled monstrosities from beyond space and time. HP Lovecraft called them The Old Gods, others have called them the Many-Angled Ones, but they are multitudinous and ever hungry for human souls (or quantum thought patterns, as modern terminology has it), and almost always possessed of some deranged cult that feels summoning them to our world is a good idea. Add to this the aspects of the espionage genre that Charles Stross has woven into the novels on which the game is based and the authors make full use of here, and you have a fun game that can be played as any mix of Lovecraft and le Carre that you wish.
The characters are not superheroes, or even necessarily heroes, just ordinary people who have been inducted (often forcefully after being involved in an Incident) into the dark secrets that hide behind our modern, wipe-clean world. Magic has always existed, of course, but the utterance of complex grammatical and mathematical summoning structures (or spells and incantations, if you prefer) was always hit and miss until Alan Turing developed both the computer and the algorithms that made the process a little safer. Hence there is a substantial emphasis on IT and CD (Information Technology and Computational Demonology), with gadgets like the specially adapted Apple product (nicknamed the NecronomiPhone) being a must have for any smart Laundry operative.
The system used is the classic BRPS (Basic Role-Playing System, usually pronounced 'burps'), a nice simple metric that leaves most of the emphasis on role playing rather than dice but offers a good solid backbone for the mechanical aspects of the game. It is also a natural fit for this setting; having been developed from the original Call of Cthulhu RPG system the players should feel right at home as their characters' sanity begins to ebb away when they encounter all manner of squamous, cyclopean terrors.(less)
Foreword - Dave Eggars 3 Introduction - Zadie Smith 4 The Guide to Being a Groupie - Lisa Gabriele 2 Things We Knew W...more3.5 stars overall Individual ratings:
Foreword - Dave Eggars 3 Introduction - Zadie Smith 4 The Guide to Being a Groupie - Lisa Gabriele 2 Things We Knew When the House Caught Fire - David Drury 4 The Pretenders - Chuck Klosterman 4 How To Write Suspense - James Pinkerton 3 Stuff - JT Leroy 4 Saint Chola - K. Kvashay-Bayle 4 I'll Try Anything With a Detached Air of Superiority - The Onion 3
A moderately interesting collection, but more of a mixed bag than I'd expect from anything claiming to be a 'best of' overview. The stand-out stories were the David Drury, JT Leroy and Kvashay-Bayle, respectively about the prejudices expressed against a family that doesn't fit in an exclusive community, a homeless girl findng unexpected artistic comfort and a young teenage Muslim girl coming to terms with her place in American society just before the Iraq war. Chuck Klosterman's reportage on the modern phenomenon of the tribute band was funny and insightful, and Zadie Smith intro was an excellent little essay on finding a balance between required and experimental reading, as well as finding one's voice as a writer.
Both the Onion piece and the James Pinkerton story were vaguely amusing but rather slapstick in their approach to satire while Lisa Gabriele's tale of a rebellious teenage girl read like a college creative writing exercise. Both this and 'Saint Chola' used a second person narration, but here it seemed somehow to distance rather than include the reader.
There was something oddly backward-looking about this collection on the whole; all the fiction or memoirs dealt with looking back to childhood or adolescence, while Klosterman's piece is partly about nostalgia and the Onion's oddly old fashioned - although possibly as it is a satire of those awful New Yorker articles that do actually read like that.
I also have the 2004 collection, so am interested to see how that compares.(less)
Air takes place in the near future, in a poor village high in the remote mountains of a fictional central Asian republic. Just as the village gets its...moreAir takes place in the near future, in a poor village high in the remote mountains of a fictional central Asian republic. Just as the village gets its first joint TV and internet connection, a global test takes place for a new technology that allows every human being on the planet to access the web directly without the interface of a computer or machinery or any kind. Publicity for the test – only heard in the village at second hand from the nearest town – says that this technology, Air, will change the way everybody lives. In the few minutes that the test is active life is changed forever for Mae, fashion guru to the women of the village.
This allows Ryman to examine the impact of technologies that are often talked about as having the potential to level the playing field, to more easily bring information to those that have not had it in a world where information is the basis of power and wealth. One one level he uses this to do the classic science fiction job of using the future as a mirror for the present – the Air technology representing the effect of the World Wide Web – and how claims of empowerment are often made false by the forces of established commerce and unthinking cultural imperialism.
Ryman, however, goes much further than this. He uses the events to create a conversation between past, present and future, and explore the complex relationship they have in all of us, ultimately suggesting that if in our headlong rush into the future the we lose sight of our past it will leave us as impoverished as as if we dig in our heels and refuse to accept progress at all.
For me, this book reinforced just how good a writer Geoff Ryman is. The sense of place and culture he evokes is superb, quite alien no doubt to most readers and yet rendered utterly real and personal by the well drawn characters and their social interactions. He makes huge themes approachable by exploring them on a personal level, as they affect small, everyday lives. This is also excellent science fiction, although it does not necessarily fit with Ryman's recently stated aim of making a science fiction that was meticulously realistic “hard SF”; there is something archetypal about it, something mythic. In this collision of past, present and future, of East and West, of Have and Have-nots, Ryman has given us a fable for the cyber age.(less)
Following on from The Traveler, which was a promising thriller combining some interesting philosophy with a decently written adventure, this s...moreOh dear.
Following on from The Traveler, which was a promising thriller combining some interesting philosophy with a decently written adventure, this second volume takes that groundwork and flushes it down the toilet. The plot becomes ludicrous, the attempts at philosophy become badly thought out individualistic rants and the writing has somehow become painfully bad. Seriously to the point that it doesn't read like the same author. I'm not saying that The Traveler was Dostoevsky, but this is awful. The writer even seems to have lost some knowledge; in the first book he appeared to know his technology, and made excellent use of it both for his comments on the surveillance society and in terms of plot, but here it becomes the kind of badly constructed techno-thriller pseudo-scientific guff you tend to find in bad Tom Clancy knock-offs.(less)
An interesting, well paced thriller featuring the usual secret societies that control government and the loner who finds out that he is the scion of a...moreAn interesting, well paced thriller featuring the usual secret societies that control government and the loner who finds out that he is the scion of a rebel faction that can bring them down, but with some interesting philosophical points that pull it above the average.(less)