Books

The latest books and our PoE&Try competition.

SF's second comings

Another year, another Man Booker Prize for the best British or Commonwealth novel, and another shortlist made up of historical genre works. While this might seem business as usual to us heritage-obsessed Brits, self-described "outsider from California" Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the superlative Mars trilogy, wondered why his own science fiction field wasn't getting any action.

Why, at a time when scientific discoveries are influencing our lives more than ever, is a retelling of the 16th century Earl of Essex's career most deserving of national attention? Why the focus on books that are "not about now in the way science fiction is?". Robinson accused the Man Booker judges of being completely out of touch with what he termed the current "golden age" of British SF.

This did not go down well with the judges: John Mullan of University College London self-defeatingly responded that he had read SF as a teenager - evoking an image of the good old days when heroes smoked pipes under their space helmets - before adding that these days it was a ghettoised genre "bought by a special kind of person".

This frank exchange of views was the latest skirmish in the long-lived war of mutual misunderstanding between science and the humanities that CP Snow famously christened the Two Cultures. But while arts graduate snobbery might be part of the reason that modern British SF can't get no respect, it is also true that publishers do their authors no favours.

In SF, series fiction and trilogies dominate the market. Books submitted for review are thus two times more likely to be sequels rather than introductory volumes, and reviewers are presented with a dilemma: either catch up with the first in the series or else - a more likely scenario - skip the sequel entirely for something more intelligible. But E&T reviewers are made of sterner stuff: what follows are all readings of recent SF second volumes started cold.

Stephen Baxter's Ark (Gollancz trade paperback, £12.99) is set late in the current century, and concerns a desperate attempt to build and fly a starship so at least a few of humankind can escape a slow-moving but inescapable planetary disaster. The title of the previous volume - 'Flood' - gives away the nature of the catastrophe, but it is nothing so modest as shorelines being lapped up by global warming. Instead, vast crustal deposits of water - of the same type discovered beneath China in 2005 - are being discharged onto the surface by unknown means, and Earth is becoming a water world. With the planet becoming uninhabitable, the Rockies-based US government begins its final space programme to seek out another home. Baxter is a stickler for detail, so the resulting starship is based on genuine research, running on the 'warp drive' proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1995. But even so, it still takes decades to travel to the nearest potentially habitable star system and the mission is set up as a 'generation ship'. 

The worsening situation onboard the ship is recounted alongside the loss of the remaining land on Earth, and the surviving humans' various attempts to adapt to a reshaped world, lending the book a relentless pace - and fair demanding a second sequel.

By the time of Gary Gibson's Nova War (Tor, hardback, £17.99) humanity has made its way into space only to find itself a bit-part in galactic politics, a client race of a star-travelling species called the Shoal. The secret of faster-than-light travel is being kept from humans, until a pilot called Dakota Merrick stumbles across an ancient derelict spacecraft and the reason for this suppression. The same technology can also be used as a weapon - having been used to destroy a star at the end of the previous volume. And this is a galaxy convulsed by a hitherto secret war: the Shoal are in conflict with rivals called the Emissaries, whose existence they have not seen fit to confide to humanity. This is action-packed widescreen stuff, although the political machinations of the various alien races involved are a little too human, rather than the opposite.

Multiple stars come under threat in Peter F Hamilton's The Temporal Void (Pan, paperback, £8.99). Set 1,600 years hence, humanity is united in an Intersolar Commonwealth spanning multiple worlds within which death is all but abolished. But all paradises have their serpents: here, it is a sinister Void at the centre of the galaxy. A mass pilgrimage into this encroaching blackness is seen as the correct response by many, lured in by shared dreams of the story of Edward the Windwalker, presented here as a fantasy tale-within-a-tale. But the authorities - led by brain-downloaded immortals known as 'Advancers' - attempt to suppress the Living Dream movement. The emphasis is on scale and mystery, although for the uninitiated the brain-stretching effect is undercut by bathos. Will people still say "you're kidding me?" in the 36th century? Will property developers have made it to the stars?

A more baroque future is delineated in Orbus by Neal Asher (Tor, hardback, £17.99). This is a galaxy where humans are rivalled by hyper-aggressive giant crabs the Prador Kingdom, but both sides find themselves affected by a virus which mutates its hosts to enhance their mutual survivability. The result is virtual immortality, although there are drawbacks. If the virus - known as Spatterjay - decides its continued survival is in any way threatened then it initiates more severe mutation. Our hero is Spatterjay-infected pirate Old Captain Orbus, who finds himself contracted to recover a certain item of Prador technology. In this gloriously batty cosmos, the spaceships look like lampreys with Victorian-effect control rooms and much of the early action takes place in a space station assembled out of the debris of a previous space war.

Makers

By Cory Doctorow
Harper Voyager, £14.99

As an inventor myself, I love reading other inventor's stories. Quite often though, facts can be stranger than fiction. For this reason, I was looking forward to reviewing a fictional book about inventors and their journey.

It started well, with a kind of long needed 'after the crash' inventor's utopia society, mixed with uneasy socialist and capitalist undertones, in place.

There were flashes of genius in the writing, but it was a little flat in places where Doctorow takes you through a labyrinth of minor details, making it a little clustered and distracting, as if two people were writing.

The characters were well studied and plausible, but his description of obese people as 'desexed marshmallows with faces like inflatable toys' and the only Brit 'with rat-like front teeth and bad breath', made me wonder if he was locked in a dark cupboard by a fat British uncle as a boy. 

The 'adult' encounter between the two main characters certainly had my attention
and I feel he picked up well on the fact that you see people at their best and worst when big money is at stake.

Overall, it was not quite mad enough for me, but a good read nevertheless.

Reviewed by Mark Sheahan, president of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors and the British Library's Inventor in Residence (mark@squeezeopen.com)

PoE&Try

Indeed we received such a huge number of entries that many major organisations must have temporarily abandoned R&D in favour of R&M - rhyme and metre. What caught your imagination was not so much the subject but the form of the poems themselves. We invited you to send us clerihews, a short sort of poem, biographical in nature and humorous in intent.

Like the jet engine and the hovercraft, the clerihew was a great British invention, the brainchild of the detective novelist EC Bentley. Indeed, one IET member George Barrett got in touch not with a competition entry but with some apt background on Bentley himself.

E Clerihew Bentley,

Incidentally,

Was the man

Who invented clerihews which rhyme but don't scan.

 

Mr Barrett, an honest man with a long memory, admitting reading this verse in another magazine three decades ago. For this reason he ruled himself out of the competition. And for such a noble gesture, we offer him this newly-minted clerihew:

George Barrett

Resisted the carrot

Of a rather fine set of quotation books as a prize

Which, given our strict rule about originality, was probably wise.

 

What of the rest of the field? Well, there was a wide variation in their choice of subject, some plumping for the historical, others lauding their living heroes.

David Wood penned this paean to one of his dream dinner guests:

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Made history for free.

His prophecy unfurled

The Web's wider world.

 

Not every entry was so flattering. The so-called 'father of the Internet' also inspired this somewhat spikier effort from a past winner John Graham:

Tim Berners-Lee

Failed completely to see

That it really might trouble you

To pronounce "www".

 

We shall of course be passing on Mr Graham's email address to TB-L himself.

Two E&T readers found inspiration in the early days of aviation. This clerihew from Colette Gates packs a lot of history into just four lines:

The brothers Wright

Pioneered manned flight

In 1903, Kitty Hawk, USA,

Proving: Where there's a Wilbur and an Orville there's a way.

 

James Connor dispatched a brace of clerihews, including this:

Wilbur and Orville Wright,

The godfathers of flight,

Constructed soaring things

By adding important bits like wings.

 

His second effort details a pioneer who encountered rather more difficulties getting his inventions to take off:

Sir Clive Marles Sinclair

Was sadly lacking in hair.

And his battery-assisted trike

Didn't go as far as you'd like.

 

This wins Mr Connor several merit points for reminding us all of Sir Clive's unusual middle name but, in such a strong field, still failed to bag him our trio of books. In fact, British knights of science featured heavily. One of the most curious clerihews was about one of the most curious scientific 'Sirs' of his age:

Sir Charles Wheatstone

Lived in a distant street zone.

And because he did not have a car

Thought Putney was a bridge too far.

 

Geoff Whiteman sent this in, and it trades heavily on the fact that the clerihew can play fast and loose with literal truth. But it isn't just nonsense. The oblique reference to the Wheatstone bridge is cleverly made. Besides which Wheatstone was a wonderful character and is long overdue for reappraisal.

 

Turning to our two finalists. David F Kilner showed a great gift for humour and a wide-ranging taste for scientists and inventors from Archimedes to Eric Laithwaite. He also has a fondness for the slightly surreal that fits so well in a clerihew.

His verse about Archimedes concludes:

Left his bath and cried 'Eureka'.

Dined that night on chicken tikka.

Funny as this is, his most entertaining effort was a verse about the founder of

atomic-molecular theory:

Amadeo Avogadro

Liked collecting bits of Lladro;

Also symbols, plain or phallic,

Made in glass from René Lalique.

 

Its crazy mish-mash of references so nearly won him glory. But not quite. Instead Clive D Brand grabs our shelf-full of quotations books. Having sent in 25 different clerihews about 25 different scientists, engineers and inventors, Mr Brand's determination cannot be doubted. Nor can his sense of fun. Here are three of his poems:

Joseph Ignace Guillotine

Invented a killing machine.

His euphoria, it is said,

Simply went to his head.

 

Isambard Kingdon Brunel

Liked neither hill nor dell.

He said, 'A rail journey like that

Has to be really quite flat.'

 

And my favourite:

Christopher Cockerell

In a breeze, lost wife Nell.

She hovered to Girton

'Cos she had a big skirt on.

 

Congratulations to Mr Brand, who can now put down his Big Book of Famous Scientists, Engineers and Inventors and read any of three big books of quotations instead.

Sadly many of the entries were in fact limericks and had to be disqualified. It seems only right to give those poets a second chance. And what more joyous way could there be to spend Christmas and New Year than making up limericks with your family and friends? 

You all know the rhyming structure: AABBA. And I am going to give you a choice of first lines with which to begin your efforts. All entries must start with either 'There once was an old engineer...' or 'A clever inventor from...' and we leave their place of residence up to you.

Usual rules and prizes apply. The competition closes on 16 January 2010. Send your entries to E&T features editor Vitali Vitaliev at vvitaliev@theiet.org. Good luck, and happy Christmas!

Mike Barfield

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