Containment by Christian Cantrell

    Containment is a tightly plotted novel about the colonization of Venus.  The word ‘tight’ is apt for so many other features of the novel: the rigidly controlled birth rate on the colony; the career path options and training; the space which is comprised of linked pods; the air problem; the 110,000 plants which produce oxygen; and the use of limited energy.  We are constantly reminded that Venus is the least hospitable planet in the solar system.

The author revels in writing this novel.  In chapter nine he fluently and convincingly presents the case for colonizing Venus as opposed to Mars.  Cantrell’s use of science and technological research tools makes the habitation on Venus plausible but he is not above, like Cam, using duct tape to patch together disparate scientific genres.

The main character of this novel is Arik.  The way Cantrell develops his genius, this solver of problems, is wonderful.  Although I find some areas of Arik’s ignorance somewhat inexplicable, given the whole childhood and youth he had to ask them, I am right there with him as he struggles to understand the environment and the people he is trying to save. He is so dominant his wife, Cadie, just doesn’t lift of the page with the same power.

In contrast to so many off-world novels the baser instincts do not run riot.  The threat to their existence is much more profound and I was caught up in the tension concerning the ‘dead air’; tenuousness of the continued existence of the colony; the urgency in finding a solution; and the battle with hierarchy of individuals who try and contain and subvert his understanding.

My only complaint, which I offer very diffidently as I blame my comprehension, is that I am still mystified as the to the mystery behind the door.  Yet, even though I stumble at the last hurdle, I am thoroughly sure that I would recommend this book, Containment. Maybe someone might direct me to the paragraph that holds the last key to a full understanding of the connection between Venus and Earth.

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Four Good Titles .. but

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz and Gridlinked by Neal Asher are all well worth reading.

Autonomous is the best of these novel. I loved the premise that for the several heroic characters the fight was against Pharma, who withheld life-saving treatment from the poor and the dispossessed (and there are a lot of them!) Jack is a terrific character and Threezee is very convincing.  Mel, the AI raised as a human, research scientist is the best of the lot.  The author waltzes us through drugs and supplements which enable humans to function at extra-ordinary levels.  However, then there is the Pharma hitmen, Eliasz and his sub-ordinate AI, Paladin.  The author is interested in exploring the affair between the two but in so doing gives Paladin so much power that the piecemeal process of their hunt for Jack is not credible.  I really really liked this book but the physical hunt, several chase scenes, through he dives seemed a tad unnecessary.

The Prefect most appealing element is the development of the character, number-cruncher, earnest Thalia Ny, the off-sider to the hard-bitten, law-enforcing, sad Dreyfus whom, even after we learn he had a mind wipe so as to cope with overwhelming grief, remains a cardboard cutout personality.  The science-fiction environment is created with loving detail – sometimes excessive detail, this is the real strength of the novel, though the AI seems to be unaccountably thin in defense and the villains, the psychotic mind warping Aurora and the traitor, run rings around a much larger, better equipped opponent.  Whereupon Dreyfus darts about the system, chase scene in space drive, in a variety of vehicles hunting the physical Aurora and trying to understand motive. The predicament of Ammonier, who continues in a role of authority, was ridiculous.  The reference to other problematic groups/individuals including the conjoiners, the Ultras and the clockmaker heavily point to the series.  The best sci-fi concept occurred during Dreyfus’ ethicial conversation with the Beta manifestation of Delphine, the uploaded memories of the alpha (real) being.

Boneshaker begins with a fabulous scenario of a willful adolescent heading into danger, a heavily polluted quarantined part of the city, in search of his family’s old home.  His mother, the wonderful Briar, sets off after him and has to enlist the assistance of black market traders.  The edgy characters both Briar and Zeke meet are the strength of the novel, Rudy, Aadan Cly,Swakhammer, Miss Angeline and Lucy.  The Blight, the bad air, is a good character too until it is given the additional attributes of not only being the basis of addictive Sap but has the ability to turn humans, only humans, into unstoppable zombies.  And much of the novel is taken up with chase scenes with moments of rest, panting in masks, as the real humans are driven underground.  The end is clever but here again is such an effective enemy one unconvinced by human survival.

Gridlocked likes indulging in description of amazing technology too. The interesting consideration in this novel is how direct association with AI leads to loss of personality, intuition and flexibility. Hero, James Bond like, Ian Cormac must surrender his direct link and rely on an android. While he is coping with his withdrawal he is fighting both the crazed criminal Pelter and his crazier android, Crane, and the old enemy, Dragon, wants help against the Maker.  Lots of running around exchanging fire and surviving the impossible.  The latter part of the novel is definitely not as good as the beginning and the thawing Cormac goes back into frozen personality mode even without the AI link.

My ‘but’ arises because in each of these novels whole populations are dispensed with willy-nilly with neither stain nor a wrench on the characters of those that do and those that witness. Reyonlds says is the most clearly ‘just over a thirtieth of the whole citizenry .. thank our stars we are talking about millions and not tens of millions… the citizenry will get over it and move on with their lives choosing to forget …’  I find this approach to death, violence and torture which is evident in all of these novels risible and not supported by any human experience.  it is video game writing.  Even Jack and Mel in Autonomous give themselves a little shake and get on with their careers.

Non-Stop and Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

Our Science Fiction Book Group elected to read Brian Aldiss in February.  Few of us had read him before although he was, in 2000, made a Grand Master by Science Fiction Writers of America and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004.  Looking at his huge out put of writing was daunting and we decided upon Hothouse. The book was enjoyed for its voluptuous description of aggressive plants and the female characters; the latter were, given it was written in 1962, refreshingly positive and active.  Never-the-less the derring-do lay with the male character, Gren, who undergoes a series of experiences which infuse his ambition with knowledge but in the end Gren chooses to live a smaller, immediate life to that of space travel.  The book is structurally really flawed and many characters and plot lines are messily deserted and the finale arrives at a impatient gallop within the last five pages.  It turns out that this book is a compilation of a series of stories which were edited to reduce its length; and thus some of its sense. Non-Stop (S.F. MASTERWORKS)

I personally wanted to give Aldiss another shot and, using a pin, ended up with Non-Stop which was written in 1958.   Another wild vegetable environment though this one is more in the plantation style.  The ponic plants are the food and building material of disparate groups of tribes who war with each other.  They live small brutish lives constrained by rules as restrictive as their diet.  However, the hero (anti-hero) Complain after the kidnapping of his wife, a whipping and colour madness leaves his village in the company of three other disaffected men following the priest, Marapper, in the search for the controls of the ship.  For Complain gradually accepts he is marooned on a vast space ship.

Non-Stop is, as in Hothouse, interested in the awakening of the mind; Complain is violent, impulsive and egotistical but these traits are increasingly moderated by learning and by love.  In this novel as he did in his other he disposes of characters in a cavalier fashion, introduces exotic opposition in the form of telepathic moths and rabbits and intelligent, vicious rats.

As in Hothouse there is an ‘outside’ intelligence which attempts to manipulate and control the ‘dizzy’ tribes which live on the spaceship which is kept orbiting the Earth while the humans on the ground decide what to do with them as they have become ‘degenerate’.  The latter part of the novel is a swipe at anthropology and experimentation which is overcome by the ingeniousness of life. Some of the plot devices are poorly framed but this novel was amusing and the verdant quality of Aldiss’  wild plant environment was particularly engaging.  However, I have been sufficiently exposed to his preoccupations concerning loss of innocence through knowledge, wilderness and wild humans, colonization and the redeeming qualities of love that I am not inclined to read any more.

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt by Joan D. Vinge

I was astonished when I read this book, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt; I had to keep turning to check that the copyright was indeed 1978.  Joan D. Vinge has here a smoothly written novel which  packs more into its 197 pages than some of the tomes that boast in excess of 500 pages.

I am not sure if I liked the plot more than the characters or the characters more than the plot; okay I loved them both. Outcasts of Heaven Belt (Heaven Chronicles, #1)

A group of spacefarers travel to the Heaven System to re-establish links with the human settlements  from which they had been cut off for hundreds of years.  The planet of Morningside sends the best of their people in a hugely expensive, the population diverted much of their surplus to this one project, spaceship in the hopes of establishing trade routes and learning from this pinnacle of a civilization.  They are totally unprepared for their reception; attacked, vilified and pursued for salvage.  Far from being a sanctuary Heaven is plunged into its own version of the dark ages.

I was engaged by the way the captain of the Morningside spaceship, Betha Torgussen, struggles with her urge to pay back the violent attack because she also has responsibilities to her crew, what is left, and her planet.  I am fascinated by the social organisation she and Clewell represent which is in contrast to the limited, limiting structures, depressingly similar to many still in vogue in our twenty-first century, that exist on the planets of within Heaven Belt.

Her crew is supplemented when Ranger rescues a spaceship from the desperate planet of Lansing and this gives us insight into the inequalities that have arisen in the system since the collapse caused by competing interests and ideologies; inequalities so profound all of the planets are in danger of having their human life being destroyed (and takes down other life with it … another familiar scenario).  A further inadvertently acquired crew member is Wadie Abdhiamal, a consummate politician, with a grasp of the bigger picture in the Heaven system and a personal knowledge of many of the key players.  The great part about this book is that his clever solutions, manipulations, in conjunction with Ranger’s superior technology and Betha’s moral impetus, are really clever.

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt is about collisions, personal, social and technological; and explores the options of how they can be avoided.  The novel satisfyingly ends with possibilities. Oh, and did I mention the cat, Rusty?  I am not a lover of cats but this one, paddling in weightlessness, is captivating.

Definitely time to read a couple more by this author by this author, who is still alive and writing.

 

 

Journal of the Flood Year by David Ely

 Journal of the Flood Year is races the reader through a gripping story.  The protagonist is the dour and obessesive William Fowke and the story is told entirely from his perspective.  Through a series of journal entries that detail his views and conversations we share with Fowke his gradual disillusionment in the veracity and ability of his government.

William Fowke is a monitor, a ranger, who’s task is to record and report on the state of the Wall, a huge dyke, the creation of which has expanded the American land mass by millions of square kilometres.  Fowke is passionate about the Wall, his fifth entry is an ode to its extra-ordinary construction as he sits atop the granite 150 metres above the land while the Atlantic smashes against the other side.  So when he finds seepage that indicates that the Wall has a flaw he will not cease agitating his superiors to come and fix the problem.

His determination to get action only has negative effects and his career, his ‘marriage’ and his freedom are taken from him. Fowkes’ refusal to stop trying to get action to save the Wall leads to a loss of citizenship rights – no longer one of the included, punishments and indoctrination camps; we start to see that there are more flaws in this rigid, stagnant society than just in the Wall.

The only reason Fowkes is able to escape and continue his mission to save the Wall is through his relationship with Julia.  It is a relationship started in a random Telesex interaction.  This is  another very peculiar aspect of Fowkes society; human contact is only through the medium of machines so touching, sex and birth are taboo and disgusting to Fowkes and the other included.  Ely conceived this concept in 1992 and the awful thing is, with the current news about AI sex toys, is it does not seem as strange as it should do.  Robots, murids and ursids, are the indefatigable police and enforcers in Fowkes world and they are frightening because they are immune to any appeal.

A clever story though  the curmudgeonliness of William Fowkes, with his serial escapes, does wear a bit thin at times.  The aim now is to read another David Ely though I note with interest that there is an eighteen year gap between this, his last novel, and Mr Nicholas written in 1974.

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

I am sitting here with a battered copy of Thin Air by Michelle Paver.  My husband picked it out off the bookshelves in Manchester Airport and held it out for my approval.  He is not a keen reader and he is cautious about selecting books but I thought this one would suit him very well.  I knew he would like the setting, the Himalayan Mountains, as he has hiked in Nepal and I knew Paver was an excellent writer as our son had avidly read, as did I, all of her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.

Husband did not surface from the book until we were almost in Dubai.  He enthusiastically extolled the ability of Paver to depict the bitterly harsh environment and the pressure it put on the climbers.  ‘Oh, and the mystery was good too.’  Before I make time to read it we were in Australia and husband handed it with great fanfare to my brother-in-law.  He was another happy customer and thought the description of the physicality of the climb painfully realistic.  I packed Thin Air to come with us on a sailing boat in the Whitsundays but, influenced by husband’s rave, another crew member snaffled the book from where I left it on the table and is was again out of reach for several days.  Guess what?  Yet another great review. ‘She really grabbed me by showing how the altitude made feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia more intense.’  Crew member made a note of all of Paver’s other novels for future reading and then reluctantly handed me the book.

Thin Air was salty and misshapen but the story that leapt out of those stained pages was enthralling.  I was fascinated by the expedition members.  They were so dependent upon each other, and upon the sherpas, but machismo, prejudice, dishonesty, superstition, and jealously blight their relationships as it did that of the expedition in 1907, almost thirty years previously.   Kangchenjunga is the aspiration and nemesis of two tragic expeditions.  Paver’s story is stunning.

Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter

 

I have been mulling over Noumenon for a while.  I was really engaged by the book, which was written in a smooth style with an extensive use of conversation, read it quickly and I thought about the story afterwards. (Some books have less permanence than bubbles.) It is upon reflection that many elements in story seemed problematic.  At times I felt that I was looking through a microscope, an intense and absorbing look at character or action or the environment in the space ship, but at other instances in the novel the action and sense was blurry.

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The story begins with the combined resources of Earth electing to send a mission to a discover what it is ‘that blocking the starlight in LQ Pyx’. It is anticipated that that the voyage will last 2,000 years and this influences the decision to send a convoy of nine ships which crewed by clones of the most appropriate people, 100,000 in all, who will, in space, be replaced by clones.  In this novel a whole city is sent into space.  It is a fascinating concept.  I liked the way that each ship became specialised and, essentially, a guild; the location was enforced by the colour of clothes.  I was not so convinced by the idea of daily ‘commutes’ for education or leisure between the ships.  And there are many times in the story when one is only aware of a very small area and very few characters; it is like being inside one small company which makes the ‘city’ concept redundant.

The story is about ‘C’ who begins as a robotic personal assistant and evolves into the AI and the heart and soul of the convoy.  I was astonished, and not entirely convinced, by the last minute tinkering by Reginald Straifer. The AI is the constant as the humans die and are replaced.  Yet this closed environment is neither stable nor liberal; the author explores a number of difficulties arising from the isolation, the pigeon-holing, the lack of belief, conflict and illness but sometimes at the expense of building engaging characters.

I was enthralled by the description of the encounter with the ‘encrusted star’ and thought Lostetter created a magnificent spacescape and I like the human interaction with it.

I thought the Warden and the creation of an exploited mining population, shades of Rome’s use of slaves in its lead mines, was the weakest section of the novel.  It does give Rail, was the aptness of the name deliberate, an opportunity to proclaim in a moving and passionate speech the unique quality of an individual, even a cloned individual.  But it was a rather clunky arrangement.

The most thought provoking section of the novel was about the return to Earth.  Nothing occurs as expected.  Indeed, devoting a quarter of a science fiction novel to what happens after the mission is completed is unusual, and the analysis of the lack of alignment between those that left and those that stayed leaves enough gaps for the reader to imaginatively enlarge upon the difficulties.  I think too that we meet the most interesting character in Esper.

Do I recommend Noumenon?  Yes, I do.  I will definitely read it again.