Category Archives: Books

Rogue Moon

Included in the SF Masterworks series, Rogue Moon, published in 1960 by Russian SF writer Algis Budrys, is considered to be part of the ‘New Wave’ of SF in the 1960s and 1970s, which was more focused on literary experimentation than hard science.

An alien object has been found on the dark side of the moon by America and a transporter built to materialise volunteers on the moon who then go in to explore what it is. Unfortunately, this results in a very quick and painful death, and retrieving any information on what is in there and what killed them is proving to be very difficult.

An extraordinary kind of person is therefore required who can face death again and again without being driven insane by the experience, in order for science and the human obsession for domination over the unknown to continue its inexorable path forward.

There are only a few central characters in Rogue Moon, with the main focus on the relationship between the obsessive and rigidly self-controlled scientist Edward Hawks, and the daredevil risk taker Al Barker, who in his own way is also very self-controlled, defensive, and consumed by the need to find a meaning.

The writing is very different from, for example, Arthur C Clarke’s, with the science not as exact and more fanciful, and the alien object on the moon being more a personification of death rather than a solid place or thing to be explored. The characters’ personalities and reactions to one another and the stress they encounter in facing the up to now impenetrable barrier of death are the driving force of the novel, rather than detailed descriptions of the lunar surface or the alien structure. When Hawks, accompanied by a Director at the company they work for called Vincent Connington, visits Barker and his girlfriend Claire, the situation is very reminiscent of the style of dialogue used in novels such as The Great Gatsby. There is a brittle, fake face put on and each of them, apart from Hawks who refuses to be dragged into these games, and they dance around one another in a series of subtle mind games and affected indifference or machismo.

This is a very different book from what I was expecting. Having read Clarke and Hoyle, who were both scientists, I was expecting most of the action to take place on the moon, with an explanation of what the thing is that is up there. This is merely a tool however for Budrys to explore human psychology in the face of such extreme testing. It explores Barker’s personality, which teeters on the edge of having a death wish and needing to prove something to everybody, particularly himself, and Hawks’ cold ambition to unlock the secrets of the alien artefact that clash with the fact that he has to send to many men up there to die in order for him to do this. This is a study of death and how humans approach it, as well as a study of what being ‘you’ actually means. The transporter used to send people to the moon destroys the original object, and sends a signal to the moon to recreate the object from moon rock by rearranging atoms, as well as forming a second identical object on earth, which means that two versions of the same person with the same memories are alive at once, but neither of them are the original person that went into the machine. The actual deaths that take place within the alien maze or whatever it may be are barely described at all, being irrelevant to the overall objective of overcoming death – but whether it is actually overcome at all is highly subjective.

A central theme of the book is things not being exactly what they seem – so a person transported to the moon isn’t the person that left earth, and the alien object cannot be exactly defined by observers, being described as possibly existing in more dimensions than previously experienced, and remains as unknowable at the end than it was at the beginning. Claire is a character made up by a character, who flirts and pushes people’s buttons in order to get a reaction from them, and who is described by a love-struck Connington, who himself gets ahead by also finding people’s weaknesses, as being ‘an elemental – the rise of the tides, the coming of the seasons, an eclipse of the Sun… Such creatures are not to be thought of as good or bad… Woe to us who would pursue them on their cometary track.’ He wants her because he can’t have her, and elevates her from being human to an unknowable force of nature. There is a constant want for more than life currently gives, yet most people aren’t sure what they actually are looking for.

The idea of memory is also a main theme; the making an impact on another person’s life. Hawks’ heartless experiment where he candidly tells Barker that he will kill him many times in a wide variety of ways is juxtaposed with a gradually blooming and tentative love story between him and a woman who gave him a lift. Barker, who is accused of ‘courting death’ by Hawkes, when killed the first time, is horrified by the impersonality of it: ‘…it didn’t care, I was nothing to it!’ he says. The team on the moon who set the volunteers on the path to the alien object are all copies of identical people who are living their lives down on earth, with their families and friends. Despite having all of these memories, they aren’t really that person, and are mere shadows on a far away moon that have to come to terms with building their own form of existence as a separate version of what once was.

This is a difficult book to get a grasp of, as humanity, love and death and what they mean to each of us can be completely different. It is a book of many layers and no answers. Whether a reader likes the book or not I think depends on what they want from their science fiction, but I think it works well to show that not all SF has to be rigidly scientific in its structure, and based on hardware in space. I think you can read into this novel as much as you wish to, there are numerous little details which can be mused upon. For example, Barker’s house is built on the edge of a sheer drop down to the sea, with the road leading to it a death trap for the unwary driver, yet Barker takes the turns at 50 miles an hour and Connington, despite having to inch his way around the bends with help from Hawks, refuses to walk up to the house which would be easier, but which would mess up his boots.

When Claire eventually leaves with Connington, they smash all of the plate glass windows across the front of the house, which earlier reflected multiple copies of Claire as she lay by the pool manipulating the men around her. A rebellion against the fake faces put on by these people or Claire not being able to stand the sight of herself? Why does the alien structure kill people for facing lunar north, or raising their left hand above their shoulder, or at all? At every turn there’s something to snag the interest of those who wish to read deeper.

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Kraken – China Miéville

Kraken, released in 2010 and winner of the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and Locus awards, is a vision of a seething, living London that has a far darker and mysterious side than many of its inhabitants know. Where Neil Gaimon’s Neverwhere sees people fall through the gaps into an alternate London, China Miéville’s hidden London is all around if you know what to look for. Hundreds of cults and gangs worship and practice their own doctrines, with people working at the Thames barrier preparing themselves for their apocalypse when the sea will rise and reclaim the land, whilst other cults model themselves on extreme fascist ideology or pray to animal gods.

One such god that is worshipped is the kraken, a beast from the deepest oceans, but one has been caught and preserved, floating in a tank of formaldehyde in the Natural History Museum. Billy Harrow, a curator at the museum, helped preserve the kraken and leads visitor tours where it has become the main attraction, but one day the kraken and its tank are no longer there.

So who has taken it, how, and why? These are mysteries Billy thinks will be handled by the police, but not even they are what they may first seem. Billy ends up being kidnapped and is thrown into the other London, where he is viewed as a prophet by the church of the kraken, but is also hunted by a gang boss who can mobilize all of the bounty hunters, freaks, thugs and centuries-old psychopaths of London in order to find him.

The apocalypse is coming, and everybody can feel it building. The world is going to burn, say the Londonmancers, who can manipulate the city around them and look into the future, but who is causing it? Billy, with help from Dean, a soldier from the kraken church who splits from it to save his god, must weave a path around the city, staying ahead of his pursuers, in order to unravel what happened to the sea monster. In a city where people have enough power to distort reality, or burn places so thoroughly that they literally never existed, it is a journey into the far reaches of imagination.

Miéville has described his own work as ‘weird fiction’, and has been grouped with other writers such as Mark Charan Newton, Jesse Bullington and Jeff VanderMere into a ‘New Weird’ subgenre of fantasy and sci fi fiction. This has been described by VanderMere as being urban, secondary world fiction that takes a real world model to riff off using fantasy and science fiction elements. If you take this definition, Kraken is an excellent example, as Billy finds out that the inanimate London he thinks exists is alive in a sense, where a Londonmancer can cut open a flagstone on the pavement to read London’s guts underneath, or morse code messages can be passed across London through the streetlights, and even the different boroughs of London have their own political leanings.

Some elements can be familiar – the assassins Goss and Subby that work as a pair and strike terror into all with their horrific savagery and otherworldly gifts, are very similar to Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar from Neverwhere, the paper planes that can follow a target are used in the film Spirited Away, the gangs of London sound similar to The Warriors, and a plot point from The Prestige is used, but they all are far more bloody and brutal. The central belief of the kraken as a god is so out there, it is difficult to understand how on earth this devotion came about, but this book delves into how important belief can be to some people, whilst others give up their free will to serve as mutilated slaves. An apocalypse is coming, but which one? The underworld of London turns out to witness not one but two foretold endings, from different religions, so how can you be adamant that yours is the one that’s right? You wouldn’t want to miss it though.

Kraken is a very strange book that is a claustrophobic mix of magic, greed, belief and power that takes the ordinary and cracks it open to show the slime, blood, and mystery within.

The Drowned World – JG Ballard

Published in 1962, The Drowned World is JG Ballard’s second novel, which is set in a world reverting to its prehistoric nature. Post-apocalyptic in style, this relatively short story follows Dr Robert Kerans, a biologist who is part of a team researching the ongoing changes in a flooded London. Solar radiation flares changed the Earth’s atmosphere, melting ice caps and creating a world which is mostly uninhabitable. Vast swampy lagoons now form the landscape, with most of London far beneath the surface of the water and just the topmost floors of some buildings visible.

Kerans lives in the Ritz, in a specially climate-controlled pod, whilst the once highly glamorous furnishings of this famous hotel rot and decay in the heat and humidity, useless to everyone. He is supposed to be monitoring the flora and fauna of the environment, but his urgency is fading as he becomes more and more inward-looking. The scientific team are called back north to where most of the remaining population are now living but he, a reclusive woman called Beatrice Dahl who spends her time frozen in her once upper-class existence, reading old copies of ?, and fellow scientist Dr Bodkin, refuse to leave and they settle in the lagoon as it regresses into a neo-Triassic period.

It’s a very dreamlike experience, and it seems to go against what you imagine to be their innate survival instincts. The food they have will run out eventually, as will the fuel powering the generators which are keeping their climate-controlled rooms conditioned. Yet they are becoming increasingly affected by the landscape, with strange dreams plaguing their sleep. This suspended existence continues for a while before it is shattered by the arrival of Strangman, a pirate leading a band of bounty-hunters looking for the lost treasures of the civilised world. It’s a very powerful interruption, where the characters were slowly losing themselves in the landscape, their ‘evolved’ natures draining away as crocodiles and giant iguanas slowly cruise their way between the waterways, Strangman is a completely alien presence. Despite the strength of the sun he is startlingly white, a colonial-type figure who wants to dominate not only the three people who are left, but also the landscape itself, dredging the flooded cities to find old masterpieces of sculpture, …. resolutely surrounding himself with these treasures and eventually draining the lagoon to find what’s left in the once majestic buildings of London.

Kerans and Strangman eventually clash, as Kerans and Bodkin are horrified by this wanton destruction and plundering of their world, but who will prevail, nature or humanity?

As a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction this is a really interesting idea, usually it’s a virus of some sort that wipes people out like in Frank Herbert’s The White Plague, or a nuclear-type disaster such as Walter M Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I found it a shame that it isn’t discussed how people are living now most of the world is uninhabitable, and the apocalypse itself is seemingly fading into the past, so it’s a very narrowly-focused book. However, this does suit the increasing self-imposed isolation of Kerans, Dahl and Bodkin who all seem indifferent to their future, or the future of the human race. Have they resigned themselves to the end or merely adapting to their landscape?