Friday, July 25, 2008

Stranger in Our Skies

One of the longstanding tropes of science fiction, going back at least to Robert A. Heinlein's Universe, is the giant slowship that forgets its culture and history in the course of the centuries-long journey across the depths of space between stars. However, Eric Flint and David Freer have taken a new view on this hoary old concept with their new novel Slow Train to Arcturus.

Rather than make a one-time journey to a single destination, Flint and Freer postulate that a slowship would find acceleration so precious that it should not be wasted at the end of the voyage. Instead, the main ship would continue to travel indefinitely, while individual habitats would be detached from it, slowed and permitted to be captured by potentially life-bearing stars. There the colonists would have the option of living in their habitats indefinitely if the star's system had no habitable planets, and will have access to the wealth of the system's sub-planetary bodies for space-based industry.

Or at least that was the theory when the Slow Train was sent from Earth sometime in the twenty-second century. It was supposed to simultaneously give a number of separatist groups a new frontier to which to escape and get some of humanity's eggs out of the single basket of the Sol system. But things relatively go as planned.

But Krentz and his colleagues from Miran don't know any of this when their astronomers detect the strange vessel moving into their system's space. They only know that this is an artifact, and that it was not built by any civilization of theirs. Naturally, they are both concerned and curious, so off they go in a spaceship of their own to rendezvous with this stranger and find out what is going on.

But things go disastrously wrong when they make their initial contact with a habitat that turns out to be violently xenophobic. Suddenly Krentz is thrust onto his own resources and into even stranger habitats.

Thus Flint and Freer also delve into another longstanding trope, one that science fiction shares with several other genres: namely, the adventure in the alien society or lost civilization. But the unique nature of the Slow Train makes it possible to visit not one but many such societies in rapid succession.

Some the reader will recognize immediately as commentaries upon certain present-day societies, such as a certain notorious dictator with the bouffant hairdo and the shades. Others seem to be the realization of the fantasies of certain more extreme elements of our own society. But amidst all the humor of cultural misunderstanding and sly cultural commentary, including a very recognizable geek inventor who had the misfortune to be born in a technophobic society, there is a very real consideration of just how well such a scheme would work long-term.

For as it turns out, every one of the habitats we meet is experiencing severe difficulties maintaining the technologies that are essential to their long-term survival. Some, such as the Neo-Nazi group we first meet, seem to have given up altogether and devolved into a war of the all against the all. Others, such as the Matriarchial Republic of Diana which provides ample opportunity for trenchant commentary on relations between the genders, are making an effort to maintain their habitat but are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up the knowledge base, and in particular a population of people with the necessary skill sets to repair the more complex machinery.

Thus, without ever harping openly upon it, Flint and Freer raise yet another age-old question of science fiction -- how large of a population base does one need in order to maintain a technological civilization? And how long can a small group, even one that set out with more than adequate supplies for a long voyage, keep complex systems working when it is not possible to replicate the system of interlocking technologies that originally created them?

Which of course brings us to yet another familiar old trope of science fiction -- the colonial world that reverts to earlier stages of technological development, perhaps even losing civilization altogether and forgetting that it did not originate on the world upon which it now finds itself, or even that it is living on a spherical world spinning in space around its sun, rather than a flat world with a bowl of sky in which hang bright lamps that light and go out as day follows night.

However, Flint and Freer have managed to weave all these ideas together and infuse them with a freshness that is at least partly the result of the alien viewpoint of Krentz, through whose eyes we first see humanity's greatest technological achievement, not as a triumph, but as an intruder not entirely welcome into the skies of a people who assume that of course every organism that reproduces sexually will start as a male, then transform into a female upon full maturity.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Harry Potter -- One Year Later

How the time has flown -- already it's been a year since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hit the shelves. It was a time of particular excitement because it was going to be the very last one, the final time for Harry Potter fans the world round to gather in eager anticipation of a brand new volume in the adventures of the boy wizard. The last time for big themed parties at libraries and bookstores, and generally the last time that we would reach this fevered pitch of anticipation, because after this there would be no more.

Now, a year later, a certain amount of the excitement has worn off and we can begin to look back at the Harry Potter phenomenon with a degree of perspective and ask just what was its significance. Some things are obvious, such as the record-breaking sales statistics that catapaulted a relatively obscure single mother into the ranks of the world's richest women. Others are more debatable, particularly when one begins to move into questions of quality and literary merit.

There can be no question about the Harry Potter books being engaging, for they were books that children read willingly, even begged to be able to read. Children who had previously regarded reading as an onerous chore had come to look upon the Harry Potter books with eager anticipation, and upon acquiring them would even read them multiple times to capture every nuance of the often intricate plotting. The Harry Potter books also crossed generations in a way seldom seen for children's literature, with adults reading with the same eagerness as their younger counterparts. Although some grown-ups were chary of being seen to read a children's book and would take off the dust jacket of the hardcover or wrap paper around the paperback to hide it, a surprising number of adults proudly showed off their choice of reading matter.

The Harry Potter books also broke new ground in terms of the substance of children's books. It had previously been regarded as a given that children would not read large books, and many authors had to deal with longer books being broken into multiple parts to keep them within what were regarded as hard limits on length. But when Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire weighed in at nearly twice the usual length for a children's book and young people still devoured it by the crateload, publishers began to re-evaluate their assumptions.

The Harry Potter books also broke new ground by allowing the storylines to grow with the characters. Many children's fantasy series feature relatively static characters who face the same sorts of challenges in book after book. Even if the characters' achievements and losses from earlier books carry through into later ones, the types of problems they face generally remain at the same age level. By contrast, Harry Potter and his friends face ever escalating problems in each book, delving into steadily deeper issues of good and evil. In the first few books, the dichotomy is simple enough to almost seem simplistic -- Voldemort is evil because he's evil, and that's that. Harry being downtrodden and suddenly discovering that he's a star is treated as pretty much a plot device, and left at that.

But by the fourth book, we begin to move into more complicated territory, in which Rowling begins to plumb the nature of love and loyalty, themes that will run throughout the remainder of the series and prove to be the foundations of the most powerful magic of all. Even the character of Voldemort becomes more complex and nuanced, and we begin to see more human motivations for his fall into depravity, moving him beyond the menace that is a menace because it's a menace.

However, we may question whether we are seeing a lasting phenomenon. Will we continue to see new children take up the Harry Potter books with the same eagerness now that there are no further volumes to whet our appetite and encourage us to re-read the earlier ones in order to be ready to catch all the subtleties of the latest installment?

Skeptical critics have pointed out that the Harry Potter books really don't break that much new ground in terms of storytelling, and that much of their storytelling is merely the artful rearranging of standard tropes. Yet the tropes are often so common for the simple fact that they speak to deep and basic things within us, with the resonance of the familiar. And truth be told, many of the greats of literature have made their place in the canon by works that are in fact derivative of various precursors now remembered only by specialists. For instance, every educated person in the Western world knows Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, yet only a few dedicated scholars recall such authors as Arthur Brooke, William Painter or Matteo Bandello, all of whom wrote earlier versions of the doomed couple's romance. Shakespeare's genius lay in changing the theme and impact of his story, taking what had previously been a condemnation of youthful refusal to listen to the advice of elders and turned it into a story of the redemptive power of young love.

In the final reckoning we will only know whether the Harry Potter books have lasting literary merit when they have lasted. Which means we need to wait a few decades and see if new generations of children take up the series with the same delight, or if they come to regard it as a stodgy old thing only their parents and grandparents would want to read.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

King's Shield is Out!

Yes, it's official: The King's Shield the third in Sherwood Smith's Inda series, is available.

It is also definite that there will indeed be a fourth book in the Inda series, and its title is going to be Treason's Shore. Barring unexpected delays, it should be coming out during the summer of 2009.