Monday, 8 December 2014

Isaac Asimov - The Gods Themselves (1972)

The Story

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ASIMOV is a big name, but I don’t know how many people have read his work beyond the Foundation series and the copy of I Robot with Will Smith on the cover. Maybe a lot? But he rarely comes up in scifi conversations, unlike Clark and Dick.

The Gods Themselves was written a bit later in Asimov’s proverbial game. By the time it was published, Asimov was already a fabulously popular author who had quit academia to write full-time. The book itself was one of the first after a decade-long stint of writing primarily scientific nonfiction and definitely shows his disenchantment toward academic politics.

As with a lot of Asimov, the characters in this story are less important than the premise, not because he isn't interested in people, but more that he is interested in human society as a creature in itself. The book revolves around humanity’s accidental discovery of a new form of energy manipulation as a result of a tiiiny amount of interaction between two ‘parallel’* universes. 

*Note: In Asimov’s understanding, there is a difference between the idea of a ‘parallel’ versus an ‘alternate’ universe. A parallel universe implies that another universe (possibly with completely different universal laws i.e. life might not be carbon-based) is simply existing alongside your own universe, and that it is not necessarily connected in any way except in the way that it also just simply exists. In contrast, an alternate universe implies a connection between the space-time continuum of both. That is to say a world where Hitler didn’t exist versus one where he did, or where there are no shrimp. This is by far the more popular trope, because it is still recognisable within our sphere of experience and the other, simply, isn’t. An example of a parallel dimension could be the 'demon dimensions' in Buffy and Angel, or Lewis Carol's idea of Wonderland - places where shit is just generally different. 

This interaction between two parallel universes, both with radically different natural laws, is able to cause a shift in the subatomic structure of a certain kind of metal, making it increasingly radioactive. And BAM, just like that, suddenly humankind has an infinite source of energy.

The book is divided into three parts and set during a period in Earth’s not-to-distant future. Humankind, as a result of the infinite energy provided by the new 'Pump Technology', has solved most major world problems and has even set up a lunar space station as the initial step out into the stars.

The story hinges on the actions of three outcasts as they attempt to study the repercussions of Earth's new phase of technology. Peter Lamont, an Earthman, is searching for answers to how Pump Technology was 'really' invented. A Lunarite called Selene finds herself entwined in the political manoeuvrings between Earth and the newly independent Lunar Station. And finally, there is Dua, an enigmatic creature in the dying parallel universe who discovers a horrific secret.

The Tasty Bit

One of my favourite things about a great scifi story is that it’s not necessary to recreate Star Wars for it to be a masterpiece. Aliens, space travel and Jetson-like gadgets are sort of like dragons and elves, a lot of the best fantasy doesn't have it. 

In The Gods Themselves, Asimov creates a single new technology, an infinite power source. It’s a fantastically useful technology of course – but it’s still just the one. He then sends the new tech into his world (technologically similar to our own) and watches as it sets the entire story of humankind on its ear.

One of the most fascinating things about technological progress of humankind is that all it takes is one useful thing and the entire world – society, economy, political reality – everything changes. We’ve made all kinds of efficient adaptations to it, but we are still using the steam engine to get power for our cities, iPads, cars and air conditioners to this very day.

And no one can ever foresee how far and fast the world will move in these situations. Thus, it’s great to see Asimov’s characters struggling to find new ways to even think about the repercussions of the new technology. They have absolutely no idea, and neither do I so it’s a great way to follow a highly complex story.


My one problem with Asimov is that he can be a bit dry. His characters are very human, but a bit lacking in emotional reactions. His stories aren’t really about how people deal with each other. But frankly that’s fine because he makes up for it in unique story lines and bloody interesting puzzles.

He is also the best sciencesplainer that I’ve ever come across. It may be pseudoscience but I’m fairly sure I know exactly what he’s trying to say, and that's really rare 'cause my maths and science skills are nil. 

After hating his Foundation series, it was a massive relief for me to fall back into my general adoration for the man with The Gods Themselves.

The book has some rough edges, but is well worth a read.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Garth Nix - Sabriel (1995)

Cover image by Leo and Diane Dillon.

The Story



I interviewed Garth Nix recently for The Big Issueand came to the same conclusion that I often come to with prolific writers. They're like swans; they seem all glidey and smooth on the surface of the water, but really their little legs are whizzing away like motors underneath. Nix must be off with the actual fairies to come up with the bizarre settings that he does, but he doesn't even give a hint of it in person. It was all terribly mysterious. 

Sabriel is the first book in a rough series of (so far) four books. Nix sets the story around a rift between two universes. The Victorian Gothic country of Ancelstierre is populated by prim and proper schools, automobiles, and, almost definitely, no magic. On the other side of the rift is the perilous dark ages style land of the Old Kingdom where absolutely anything (but probably not anything nice) can happen. 

Our protagonist, Sabriel, is the daughter of the Abhorsen, a sort of necromancer-priest of the Old Kingdom whose task it is to hunt down revenant spirits and ghouls and return them to the realms of Death. 

Sabriel wakes up in an uneasy state one night in her Ancelstierran private girls' college. Emerging from her room, Sabriel discovers a ghoulish visitor wandering around the schoolhall with a package and a message. The ghoul (actually a ghoul), passes on the message that her father is stranded in the realms of Death. He had sent it to deliver the tools of the Abhorsen's trade: seven bells ranging in size, and a sword scored with runes. 

A remarkably cool, calm and collected character for a fantasy tale, Sabriel decides to leaves her life of safety in Ancelstierre to trek across the desolate, undead-infested Old Kingdom in search of her father and unravel the mysteries behind his disappearance. 

The Tasty Bit

The treacherous nature of death magic is probably one of my favourite fantasy tropes. Sabriel feeds this theme back in a number of ways, each of them terribly satisfying. 

Necromantic magic in this book involves the use of a special set of bells to raise and bind dead spirits. And while musically-induced magic is a fairly standard concept in fantasy, Nix's use of bells is, to me, more reminiscent of the old Catholic exorcism ritual of 'the bell, book and candle', which casts unclean spirits back to the realm from whence they came. 

In popular culture, the exorcism ritual carries with it the possibility of setting dark and demonic forces free from their confines. The person exorcising the demon is at most risk, because exorcisms come down to a battle of wills (an iconic example being The Exorcist), with one mind seeking to overpower the other. 

In Sabriel the psychological battle isn't so much with the evil spirits that she faces so much as the implements of the exorcism themselves. The seven bells, when wielded by a necromancer, can summon spirits from Death, bind them to a task or set them back to sleep. But the bells each have personalities of their own and dislike being used. If the necromancer's willpower falters, the bells' directive (they have names like waker, walker, sleeper, binder) will take control of the necromancer's mind. Losing control of the bells results in the necromancer being forced to do things like walk themselves into Death, or raise something that is best left slumbering. 

Sabriel is a great standalone book. 

Don't get me wrong, its sequels are solid and definitely worthwhile, but they don't necessarily add anything to the mystique of the world that Nix has created. And it's the mystique that makes this book so easy to devour, the world has a multitude of aspects that remain inexplicable yet at the same time seem deeply significant. Nix weaves these significances together into a complex reality that forever eludes your grasp, but keeps you searching for more. 

Other Stuff
According to Nix, the popularity of Sabriel, and The Old Kingdom series as a whole, was a bit of a slow burn. It did modestly well in its initial release, but where other books fell to the side and were forgotten, Sabriel was remembered and passed on (and down, and up, and back again) until it hit the New York Times best seller list with a million sales.

The latest book in the Old Kingdom series, Clariel, has recently come out. Not that I'm recommending post-2000 literature you understand. Just mentioning, you know, out of completeness. 

Friday, 24 January 2014

E. R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

The Story
The Worm Ouroboros could be considered the first book of the fantasy genre, it was written in 1922 and uses the old classic myths as templates but tempers them with Arthurian drama and Gaelic superstition. It's a little rough in places and can switch between the old descriptive style "cunning and brave Odysseus knew how to defeat the giant..." to a more modern style of dialogue and pace. 

The Worm Ouroboros is an adventure story filled with impossible quests, sieges and naval battles, honourable deeds and treacherous acts. In shortit is an epic (at 512 pages), in a format reminiscent of The Odyssey

In the world of The Worm Ouroboros, a war for complete dominion over the Earth is underway. The origins of the war lie far behind the book itself, born of old battles, betrayals and the death-throes of long-eradicated kingdoms. The warlords of Demonland, Pixyland, Witchland, Impland and Goblinland now battle for revenge, for the honour of slighted allies and to administer 'justice' for old crimes. 

The names initially seem… childish, but they work fine when you realise that they are actually all human. 

At the beginning of the tale, we meet the three golden lords of Demonland: Juss, Spitfire and Goldry Bluszco. Their adversary, King Gorice XI of Witchland, known for his treacherous nature, sends forth a herald to issue an ultimatum: that the lords of Demonland acknowledge him as their high king or he will invade. Infuriated by the rude proposal, Lord Goldry Bluszco challenges the Witch-king Gorice to a wrestling match and kills him.

Having lost the duel and his life, the spirit of the Witch-king flees his dying body and possesses the body of his own son so that he can retain leadership of Witchland. Aching with injured pride, he immediately begins to plot his revenge on the honourable rulers of Demonland, and in particular Goldry Bluszco, the man who killed him. Gorice, now inhabiting the body of his son (conveniently named Gorice XII), goes to the top of his great alchemical laboratory and, using fell magic, he conjures the primordial world serpent, Ouroboros, forth from the bottomless ocean to kill the three golden lords of Demonland. 

Two of the Demon lords, Juss and Spitfire, are saved from Ouroboros by a talisman that Juss wears, however the great worm manages to capture Goldry, spiriting him away to a land on the far side of the ocean, dragging him up an immense mountain and imprisoning him there atop a great tower.

Thus the epic is set in motion, Juss and his companions must travel to the end of the earth to recover their brother Goldry, but as they embark on their journey, the armies of Witchland strike and a great war erupts as the Witch-king Gorice XII moves to dominate all the world in their absencesoon the great kings of Demonland will have no kingdom to return to. 

The Tasty Bit
OK so the tasty bit of this story is barely a whisper behind the big bang of the Witch-king's summoning. The real event is the great change that the summoning of Ouroboros wreaks across the world. 

So you know, Ouroboros is a great world-serpent that is found in a number of cultures. It is often represented by the image of a snake in the shape of a circle holding its tail in its mouth. It was first found drawn on an ancient funerary slate in ancient Egypt, but has counterparts in Scandinavian, West African, South American and Greek mythology. Ouroboros is often seen as a symbol of eternity, infinity, union and self-destruction. 

When Gorice of Witchland summons the serpent forth, Eddyson's characters become stuck in a sort of personality loop. Like pieces in a great chess game, they move across the world trying to win their battles, but slowly it become obvious that they are walking the same patterns and making the same stupid mistakes again and again, like fairy tale creatures. 

The world changes as Ouroboros rises, becoming a strange, dreamlike environment, and from this point the characters are unable to grow, unable to change, unable to learn. Thus Ouroboros becomes the core around which the entire story revolves—the symbols of the great serpent, eternity and self-destruction, permeate Eddison's world.

The Verdict
I'm a true lover of Shakespeare, so the stylistic language that Eddison useswhich is neither fully Shakespearean nor old English, not Germanic, Arthurian or Welsh, but a mixture of them alldoesn't bother me all that much. Once you get into the swing of the faux-archaic style, the poetry and movement of the words are actually quite lovely. 

With that in mind, it took me two months to finish reading this book, something that hasn't happened to me since I last tried to read Wallace's Infinite Jest. I suspect that the rhythm of the book had something to do with it. The movement of the characters and plot ebbed and flowed strangely, and I didn't break into the rhythm until I was around 200 pages in. 

I am, however, a sucker for alchemy and alchemical accoutrements, mythical creatures and cool baddies, which this tale has in bucketloads. The book will make you work hard, but I would say that it's very-much worth it.  

Recommendation when reading: take each character at their word, they don't have any subtlety to their natures. 

Other Stuff
Good news is that The Worm Ouroboros has been re-published recently by Gollacz's Fantasy Masterworks, so it should be fairly easy to find. It's a neat old image on the cover too, an 1876 gouache painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. 

I haven't read any other Eddison as yet, but I'm open to recommendations!