Everyone has heard of the Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. We’ve seen how he used them to create stories based around paradoxical interpretations of these laws, including a trilogy of intriguing science-fiction who-dunnits. Now Isaac has passed his torch onto Roger MacBride Allen, through the graces of the Byron Preiss sharecropping factory.
Inferno is part of a planned trilogy, the sequel to Caliban, which introduced the eponymous ‘No-Law’ robot, as well as a series of robots that obey a variant of the classic Three Laws, the four New Laws. These give robots more freedom of action, as they depend on co-operative activities rather than the Three Laws’ imperatives. In the same manner as Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw/Elijah Baley novels, Inferno is a who, or perhaps what, dunnit.
The Inferno of the title is a world simmering on the edge of conflict between Settlers, new colonists from Earth, and Spacers, the robot-dependent descendants of the original terraformers. With the planet’s terraforming beginning to fail, the scene is set for political crisis and civil war. Inferno explores the cusp: the murder of the planet’s Spacer governor. In the ensuing turmoil the finger of suspicion points at Caliban, and Sheriff Alvar Kresh, together with Caliban’s designer, must untangle the webs of conspiracy, whilst keeping the fragile peace.
There are a lot of share-cropped novels about, and the Estate of the late Dr Asimov has a lot to answer for — with the Robot City and Robots in Time series filling the bookshop shelves. Most writers seem to use these simple pot-boilers as a tool for paying the bills, but Allen has interesting ideas and strong views, and uses them to raise Inferno above the general sea of mediocrity. His earlier novel Orphan of Creation explored the linked moralities of animal experimentation and human slavery, in a tale of living fossils. Inferno asks a new question: what responsibilities do we have to slaves we’ve created? The co-operative nature of the New Laws may be an answer, but remain chains of a different sort.
Inferno isn’t classic Sf, but it is decent midlist writing, suitable for that long train journey or a Spanish beach. After his The Hunted Earth diptych, Roger MacBride Allen has become a name to watch in the Hard Sf field, and Inferno won’t have done his career any harm.
John Clute and Peter Nicholl’s award winning The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction is possibly the best book written about science fiction. There’s one problem: it’s 1400 hundred pages (and more than 4 lbs) of bookcase filling small print. Luckily for those of us who’re running out of book space this new, expanded, multimedia edition fits neatly onto 5 inches of silver plastic. A CD-ROM has been promised ever since the book came out in 1993, and Grolier’s multimedia edition of the encyclopaedia is well worth the wait.
Unlike many CD-ROMs The Encyclopedia is easy to use. Installation is quick, and it runs well on any multimedia PC. Once you’ve installed it, it’s as easy as clicking a mouse button - which is something you’re going to do a lot of as you explore this CD-ROM!
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s main title screen lets you start your explorations with a tour of six of science fiction’s main themes: space, time, the alien, technology, the human mind, and science fiction itself. Each theme is introduced by a well designed digital movie, and by a series of filmed interviews with famous authors. Whilst the movies are slickly produced extravaganzas best shown to impress your friends, the interviews are well presented, and show something of both the character and the thinking of some of science fiction’s best known figures. Once you’ve watched the interviews, you can explore some of The Encyclopedia’s articles, before delving into the maze that is its bulging archives.
Each article is full of hypertext cross references that lead you around the CD-ROM. You might start off tracking down an obscure Heinlein novel only to find yourself reading about Big Dumb Objects (which turn out to be ringworlds, Dyson spheres, and other mega-structures, and not a Jim Carrey character), after a few detours via Kafka’s influences on Absurdist science fiction, Entropy and the new wave and James Blish’s literary criticism. You won’t get too lost, as Science Fiction keeps track of every where you’ve been in a history file. If you find something that you’ll want to go back to again and again, you can build up a collection of pointers to articles that you can then save for future reference.
You don’t have to explore The Encyclopedia from the article browser. A time line takes you through nearly 500 years of science fiction - taking in both Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein and Michael Crichton’s modern myth, Jurassic Park. There are plenty of links from this to one of Science Fiction’s most impressive features: the book browser. This contains synopses of over 300 of science fiction’s best known books, as well as links that compare novels that deal with similar themes or subjects. Most entries are illustrated with the book’s cover (a mix of UK and American editions), so that you’ll know what “Buddy Holly Is Alive And Well On Ganymede” looks like before your next trip to Forbidden Planet.
With over 4,500 articles, browsing through Science Fiction is going to lead to a lot of eye and finger strain. Help is at hand: a powerful search facility lets you track down each tiny snippet of information. Just type in your query, click on a button, and a list of relevant articles appears (we found 32 references to a certain David Langford).
There’s so much more information on this CD-ROM than in its print predecessor, that it’s probably best described as a whole new edition of The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction. Certainly, with several of the editorial team hard at work on the forthcoming The Encyclopaedia Of Fantasy, it’s probably the last edition we’ll see for a few years.
Well researched, well designed and packed full of information,Science Fiction: The Multimedia Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction is a must have for the wired SF fan. For the rest of us, it might just be a good reason to buy that computer we’ve been thinking about. And if you’re still not sure, the CD-ROM is also cheaper than the book (by a whole penny).
The Hugo award winning Jim Burns is one of Britain’s best known science fiction artists. His smooth organic curves and photo-realistic style have made him one of the industry’s most sought after cover illustrators. We caught up with him in the art show at Intersection, the 1995 World Science Fiction Convention, and asked him about one of his most recent works: the striking cover for Colin Greenland’s Seasons Of Plenty.
As Jim says, normally “the author has no input at all - other than the fact he wrote all the words I derive all my inspiration from, of course”. Unusually, he and Colin discussed the book and the cover. “A really nice way to work.”
Colin’s major contribution turned out to be part of his own wardrobe. Jim needed to refer to some real leather, and remembered seeing “Colin in a black coat, swanning around conventions”. A phone call later and the long black coat was in the post, ready for Jim’s daughters to model for him. Colin Greenland wasn’t suprised by Jim’s request; “most artists aren’t a bit interested in talking to you, but Jim borrows your clothes”. When it was time to send Colin’s coat back Jim had a problem - “the kids were reluctant to part with it!”
Jim hadn’t read any of Colin’s work before he started work on the cover of Seasons Of Plenty, “most of the science fiction I read these days is the stuff I illustrate, so Colin was a gap in my reading” He started with the first book in the series, Take Back Plenty,. “I took it with me to Crete and read it on the beach. A good book and a place like that - it’s pretty idyllic.”
Once Jim had read the manuscript of Seasons as well, he started work on a series of sketches, culminating in a study of the main character, the feisty Tabitha Jute. Colin Greenland was impressed, “There are any number of versions of Tabitha, but this is the first that was really her”.
Satisfied with his leading lady, Jim started work on the picture. It was ” the largest painting I’ve done in a long time - most of my paintings are a lot smaller, usually two and half to three times cover size.”
The original was on show at Intersection, with some changes from the version on the book cover - Jim’s been working on it since to give Tabitha’s alien bodyguard “more character, more agression”. One of the most unusual aspects of the picture is the strangely textured cyber-baby Xtasca, with its glowing red eyes and blue-black skin. As Jim says, “it frightens children!”
So is Jim happy with the picture yet? He’s certainly a perfectionist. “No picture is ever really finished - I’m never completely satisfied at the end of the day”, but as he’s constantly in demand for new works, he’ll probably never have the time. “Jobs can get a little onerous - but that was one of the least onerous jobs I’ve had in a long time”.
Colin Greeland is equally happy with Jim’s cover art and for once you can be sure the picture fits the author’s conception of his characters. There’s a copy of the picture on the wall over Colin’s desk: “I’m looking at the characters whilst I’m writing the third volume - that’s the kind of visual aid authors just don’t usually get!”
Originally published in SFX in 1995, and illustrated by a copy of one Jim’s sketches of Tabitha.
Peter Hamilton is vying to be one of the big names in British SF, and with this big book - well over 900 pages long - painted on the big canvas of classic space opera’s wide-screen baroque, he may just have made it.
It’s the end of the 26th century. The human race has gone to the stars, and now inhabits more than 800 worlds, plus an unknown number of asteroids and space habitats. An uneasy peace exists between the genetically engineered Edenists and resolutely unaltered Adamists. Intelligent biological starships, voidhawks, and their mechanical cousins leap between the stars in a matter of seconds, “swallowing the void” in artificial wormholes. It’s definitely not an Iain Banks utopia out there: resources are still scarce, and wars are fought, with people dying screaming in the cold hard vacuum.
Hamilton sets the scene by throwing us in at the deep end. It’s the middle of a nasty little war, and a flotilla of starships is taking a star-killing secret weapon and its creator on a pre-emptive strike. Light years from the nearest star, in a scene worthy of Industrial Light and Magic’s most expensive effects, the ships are ambushed, ravaged, and left for dead.
Three tales lie at the heart of The Reality Dysfunction - each big enough to be a novel in its own right. The first starts several years after the ambush, when a voidhawk comes home to an Edenist habitat orbiting Saturn to mate in the rings and die in glorious flames. Its captain’s children will become its children’s captains. One forms a stronger than normal bond with her living ship. In the years to come, the human Syrinx and her voidhawk Oeone are destined to become legends.
Elsewhere, in the shattered ruins of an archipelago of alien space habitats, Joshua Calvert is hunting for artefacts, trying to strike it lucky, so he can rebuild his inheritance: his dead father’s starship Lady Macbeth. When he finds the flash frozen body of one of the Ring’s builders, his fortune’s made, and he can fulfil his dream of becoming a starship captain.
Lalonde is a new world, a fresh start for those who’ve left Earth’s teeming arcologies far behind - and a Botany Bay for transported criminals. It’s a low-tech agricultural world, where farmers carve a living out of the rain-forest. Unfortunately for the latest batch of colonists, their little jungle village is destined to be the epicentre of the end of their world - and possibly 800 other worlds as well.
While Joshua Calvert is learning what it means to be a starship captain, and Syrinx is finishing a term in the Confederation Navy, something strange is happening on Lalonde. A group of transported street kids has triggered what might be an attack by a renegade scientist armed with nano-technological weapons. Or is it an invasion of alien bodysnatchers… or perhaps it’s just demonic possession.
As Hamilton wraps these three tales around each other, we start to see the big picture: why the aliens of the Ruin Ring died, and what the eponymous reality dysfunction that drove them to suicide means to the embattled colonists on Lalonde. As the story builds to an explosive climax, a priest, an investigative journalist and handful of children are the only people left to tell the galaxy at large what has actually invaded the human Confederation, and to guide our heroes and heroines into the inevitable volume two.
The Reality Dysfunction is a worthy follow up to Hamilton’s three successful Greg Mandel novels. Its mix of star-spanning intrigue and men with big guns will give the American space operas a run for their money, and the climactic cross genre slide into horror is a brave move that succeeds spectacularly. There are another two books to come in this series, The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, and I can’t wait for the next one. - even if it is going to be this big!
Once heralded as one of SF’s best young writers, Somtow Sucharitkul changed his name to S.P. Somtow, and discovered dark fantasy - and fame and fortune. The Pavilion Of Frozen Women is his first short story collection, ten finely crafted masterpieces of dark fantasy.
Each eye-witness story treads the fine line between the fantastic and the real horrors of the world. In the title story, an Amerindian photo-journalist finds herself sucked into a whirlpool of death and mystery, as she tries to investigate the death of an acquaintance in an icy Japanese winter. The real darkness here isn’t the series of mysterious deaths, nor the malevolent bear spirit - it’s the legacy of thousands of years of racism in both East and West.
At the heart of the collection are three powerful tales of the undead, careful explorations of the places where zombies and theology meet. A family disintegrates against a backdrop of the LA riots, a hard-boiled Roman detective cracks an entertainment fraud, and a small boy wanders across a war torn America: each story liberally salted with zombies and voodoun.
But it’s with a non-genre tale that Somtow really grabs the reader. “Fish are Jumping, and the Cotton is High” is a story of summer in the deep south - and a terrifying view through the eyes of a serial killer. The twisted psyche of the narrator slowly reveals itself, and drags you through his heart of darkness, refusing to let you go, even after you’ve read the final words.
There’s a touch of macabre humour in Somtow’s updated fairy tales. It’s not difficult to see Hansel and Gretel’s witch as an LA pimp, but when the Pied Piper of Hamelin turns up to collect his pay (with interest) you’d better watch out for a sting in the tale.
Somtow’s carefully tailored prose is a breath of fresh air in a world of pot boilers and mass-produced bestsellers. This is one of the genre’s finest writers at his peak, proving that there’s still life in the old short story.
In February 1918 the fates of nations hung in the balance. The Allied powers faced Germany across a tattered no mans land, knowing that Russia had left the war, and now all Germany’s might was ready for the final push. But this isn’t the world we know, where flesh and blood died in the stinking mud. Here the quick and the undead will decide the fate of nations, man and vampire fighting alongside each other in the trenches, whilst a very bloody Red Baron rules the skies.
Kim Newman, Britain’s master of high weirdness, has embroidered his vampire tapestry once before with Anno Dracula, a tale of revolution and murder in a Victorian London where the Prince Consort just happens to be one Vlad Dracula. The Bloody Red Baron is a welcome return to this unusual alternate world (where historical characters mix with those lovingly stolen from popular fiction), 30 years on. After the revolution, Dracula has fled to Germany, and now wages war on his rationalist Western foes.
The key to victory may lie hidden in the Chateau du Malinbois, home of the fabled Richthofen Flying Circus. It is here that diabolical experiments have created something new and dangerous, something that is making mincemeat of the allied aces that make up the Condor Squadron - among them a certain Bigglesworth.
This is not your traditional alternate history, nor is it a pot-boiler vampire slasher. Newman seizes both genres firmly by the scruff of the neck, and bangs their heads together, to give us this thoroughly enjoyable romp. Each short chapter is folded around an exquisite vignette - Dr Moreau dissecting vampires in the trenches, Edgar Allen Poe allied with Franz Kafka against the might of the German bureaucracy, a vampire Winston Churchill drinking the blood of a Madeira-sozzled rabbit - a series of set pieces that build slowly into a climactic dawn patrol over the Western front.
The Bloody Red Baron is a thoroughly enjoyable read, a blood soaked page turner that keeps you laughing as you play spot the character with Kim Newman. All Quiet On the Western Front was never this much fun…
Even though she’s so stubborn and selfish that you want to knock some sense into her, Tabitha Jute is the modern Alice. Beneath the hard bitten space captain is the eternal innocent, struggling to keep a grip on her crumbling wonderland. She kept her head above water in the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning Take Back Plenty, stealing the colossal starship Plenty out from under the noses of mankind’s alien masters.
It is a different story in Seasons. Tabitha is in control of everything at last, taking Plenty on mankind’s first trip to the stars, a pleasant 18 month jaunt through hyperspace to Proxima Centauri. But Plenty is an alien ship, a place where nothing is what it seems. People start disappearing into its mysterious caverns, no one really knows where the ship is going, and a mysterious woman has stolen Tabitha’s best friend, the artificial intelligence that was her tramp freighter. Tabitha can’t cope anymore, and as she loses almost everything Greenland charts the disintegration of Plenty’s loose gathering of misfits and adventurers, from initial euphoria, through disillusionment, to final outright war.
This is space opera updated, full of complex themes and light touches brought together by the deft hand of a modern master. It’s the science fiction equivalent of a rave, and Greenland is the DJ, mixing and scratching images and ideas from old fifties novels, and adding his nineties beat. Unfathomable aliens and comic humans share the limelight with cyberpunk posthuman constructs and holographic Cheshire cats, while a poet, a doctor and a judge discuss the meaning of life in a starship that might just be a space-travelling brain. In a climax full of fire and light Plenty arrives at a destination, somewhere. Tabitha’s story doesn’t end here and her final tale remains to be told.
Seasons is a powerful and extremely readable novel that will only add to Colin Greenland’s reputation as one of Britain’s best science fiction writers. If you’re after science fiction that still gives you that old sense of wonder that you thought had died with E E ‘Doc’ Smith, then this is the book for you.
We’re all familiar with the machines that both make up and manufacture our 20th century world. The engines of industry are large and visible. Now take a step into tomorrow, where a box in the corner of the room provides all your daily needs. Tomorrow’s engines of creation are going to be so small as to be invisible: the nanotechnological dreams of the young American scientist K. Eric Drexler. Nanotechnology is the science of molecular machines: molecules moulded into devices that can manipulate individual atoms. If Drexler is to be believed, nanotechnology promises a future of unlimited plenty and almost eternal life. His is a possible future that could exceed the boundaries of even the wildest science fictional speculations.
Ed Regis is a science writer fascinated by the fringes of science and technology. His previous book, Great Mambo Chicken And The Transhuman Condition, was a voyage through the wilder Californian extremes of science - from cryogenically frozen heads to the strange edges of advanced robotics. With Nano! Regis is focusing in, pointing his journalistic microscope at the developing science of molecular nanotechnology. Like his fellow science journalist James Gleick, Regis uses the tool of biography to explore the history of a science. In the acclaimed Genius Gleick used Richard Feynman’s life to illustrate the development of quantum electro-dynamics, and so, with Nano! Regis explores the short history of nanotechnology in tandem with the life of its prophet and theorist, Kim Eric Drexler.
Drexler’s life forms the centrepiece of Regis’ book: from his early days as part of Gerard O’Neill’s space study group, to his testimony before a US senate commission. In his exploration of the young scientist’s motivations (Drexler is not yet 40), Regis returns again and again to the Club of Rome’s pessimistic futurological study The Limits To Growth. Here is the heart of Drexler’s dreams - a desire to save the world from stasis and decay. But nanotechnology isn’t an instant techno-fix, and Regis isn’t afraid to show the dangers of the technology, amongst them the possibility of a world eating swarm of rogue nanomachines.
In the best of journalistic modes, Nano! is happy to look at the ideas of Drexler’s critics as well as his supporters. The controversial nature of nanotechnology means that Drexler has many vocal critics across many different fields. As Regis and the critics point out, there are many physical obstacles to the development of nanomachines. Regis uses the criticisms as a basis for a plea for more research into the problems and their possible solutions. Drexler’s conflicts with heterodox science make interesting reading, and their resolutions and explanations cast light onto the mechanisms that drive the physical sciences. Of course any modern day work of scientific journalism, especially one dealing with the physical sciences, can’t escape the obligatory reference to Richard Feynman. In Nano!, however, Feynman’s place is deserved, as in a nine-days wonder 1950s speech, Feynman challenged scientists to think about constructing atomic scale devices; a speech that twenty years later encouraged Drexler to publish his early nanotechnology speculations.
Regis’ Nano! is an entertaining look at the development of what could be a truly revolutionary science, one that has inspired many recent works of Sf, by authors who span the alphabet: from Poul Anderson to George Zebrowski. The book is a worthy overview of a complex topic, giving a solid grounding in the scientific background of nanotechnology, and the interested reader can then take the next step into Drexler’s own works: the polemical The Engines Of Creation and his textbook of molecular nanotechnology, Nanosystems.
There’s a tradition in British science fiction of the cosy catastrophe. In these tales the world ends with a whimper, not a bang. With Kairos, James Tiptree award winner Gywneth Jones gives us her version of the great British disaster novel. Originally published in 1988, this is the 1995 rewrite of Jones’ third adult science fiction novel.
It’s the day after tomorrow, and Britain is dropping out of the first world into the third. Somewhere out there the Third World War is being fought, but no one really seems to care. The police are out of control, and the underclass are struggling to survive. BREAKTHRU, a right wing religious group, thinks it has the answer: a new drug, Kairos. Unlike most psychedelics this one can really change the world, rewriting reality through a miracle of quantum physics. Now, with Kairos, BREAKTHRU plans to rebuild the world in its own image. But too many different people have taken the drug, and the world is starting to fall apart at the seams.
In Jones’ home town of Brighton a group of drop outs and anarchists find themselves caught up in a conspiracy of angels and puppies. Otto Murray, her son Candide and her estranged lover Sandy Brize must each journey across a fractured England under a fractal sun, pursued by BREAKTHRU’s gilded apocalyptic children, seeking both each other and Candide’s kidnapped dog. Finally in an abandoned research laboratory near Coventry Sandy must confront the power of the Kairos she’s taken, and attempt to knit the tattered world back together again.
Kairos is one of those brave novels that transcends the boundaries between science fiction and mainstream. The science fiction reader can delight in the broken Britain as an obvious homage to Michael Moorcock’s seminal Jerry Cornelius tales and M. John Harrison’s The Committed Men, whilst the literature student can deconstruct Kairos as a guide to the mental geography of England after Thatcher. Jones’ novels are never easy reads, but her powerful prose and dramatic bleak landscapes mean that Kairos rewards the effort it demands.
Raul Endymion is about to die - again. Sealed in an orbiting box, waiting for the quantum flicker that will kill him, he’s passing the time by telling us his story. It’s a tale of messiahs, of endless chases, of fallen worlds and a river that snakes across the stars. It’s also Simmons’ long awaited sequel to the award winning Hyperion Cantos (a single novel published in two separate volumes: Hyperion and Fall Of Hyperion).
One of the defining SF novels of the late 80s, the Hyperion Cantos built itself on the foundations of Keats’ epic poetry, combining it with a twist of The Canterbury Tales and a leavening of space opera. A motley crew of pilgrims braved the barely tamed world of Hyperion, hoping to face the fabled Shrike, only to discover the AI-planned end of all things. Its two volumes ended with the fall of a star spanning civilisation - and the salvation of the human race. Five years later Simmons is ready to reveal what happened next.
It’s nearly three hundred years later, and it’s time for Raul’s first (unjust) execution. Saved at the last minute, he finds himself in turn about to save the messiah. But the messiah is an eleven year old girl, who’s not yet ready for the task, and the armies of a repressive neo-Catholic theocracy are waiting to manipulate her. Raul must help Aenea flee across the stars, and seek lost Old Earth along the star-hopping river Tethys. As they cross ocean, desert, forest and sea, they are pursued by a duty-bound soldier-priest trying hard not to doubt the necessity of his mission, yet ready to risk repeated deaths for his masters’ cause. Each new world brings Raul and Aenea closer to the truth behind the theocratic Pax, and Father-Captain De Soya closer to scepticism.
There’s an epic quality to Simmons’ prose that adds to Endymion’s simple chase plot. As we follow Aenea across the worlds, hints and clues help us realise that this is the stuff of myth and legend, where mortals are caught up in struggles between capricious gods. But this time the gods are of our own making, and Raul and Aenea might just be able to make a difference.
Endymion is full of enduring images: burning orbital forests, urbane starships, death on a duck hunt, a dying poet living out his last days in the ruins of his youthful dreams. Simmons’ evocative descriptions catch all the nuances of his chosen tomorrow. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, Simmons’ writes paragraphs that force you to re-read them again and again, until you’ve overdosed on some of the best writing in modern SF - this is a book to prove to the sceptic that the best science fiction is as good as the best mainstream works.
Like its predecessors Endymion is only part of a larger work. Four hundred pages of running away leave us on the threshold of discovery. We’re almost ready to tie the threads together, when we run out of book. Even so, the ending is right. Our heroes are safe, and Simmons is somewhere out there grinning, promising us more story, hinting at new adventures just round the corner. Like addicts we’ll be waiting for him to deliver. As long as it isn’t another 5 years…