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Monday, December 28, 2009

Faren Miller reviews Kit Whitfield

Reviewing Kit Whitfield's first novel Benighted, I called her a promising newcomer, even if her introduction of lycanthropic activities as an important element in modern life (with a long history) didn't quite manage to convince me. But now she follows it with In Great Waters, a superb fantasy that substitutes merfolk for werewolves and employs both historic figures and her own variations on the mindsets of late-medieval England to great effect.

In his first five years, the merboy later known as Henry (it used to be "a sound best rendered by the word Whistle," reflecting a dolphin-like form of communication) is the runt of his tribe, a poor swimmer with his bifurcated tail and frequent need to surface for oxygen. Other youngsters mob him and call him "stranger," his mother has to rescue him from situations where the others would be safe, and eventually even she seems to tire of him — taking Whistle up to the shoreline and leaving him there to fend for himself.

Small and grayish but intelligent and possessed of an inhuman strength, this lad has some things in common with Pratchett's Nutt, and retaining his early memories only makes him more miserable. On land, he manages to survive for a couple of days by eating mollusks, but then he seeks human help. He gets more than he bargained for, passing into the hands of a man with long-range plans for using him as a political tool. England's royalty consists of "deepfolk"/"landfolk" hybrids and the latest dynasty seems weak, with an aging king, foreign queen, incompetent crown prince, and daughters regarded as no more than marriage fodder. There's room for someone new.

At first, Henry can only struggle in what seems like a wholly alien world. Early attempts to dress him lead to hysterics, and even after he's accepted the inevitable he doesn't like it, for "in the sea it was always cold, and his garments were a blindfold for his body. Shoes were even worse... flexible traps...." Despite these woes, he develops an interest in the true forms of landfolk: "Flat-chested men and swollen-chested women, as with the tribe, but the jellyfish-skirted women concealed under their clothes two plain legs like the men." He knows he's not one of them, but gradually (during a period of harsh training laced with a little covert sympathy) learns to cope and even finds one potential human friend of about his own age.

In Book Two the attention shifts to Anne, a princess. She's young herself, still trying to understand the ways of court, the differing natures of her remote parents, and what her role might come to be in a world dominated by wars fought mostly on land, amid a welter of treaties and betrayals. Crippled with the "flexible legs" that run in her family, and with the added weirdness of a slightly luminous blue face, she should feel more at home in the sea. But her first official encounter with the court of their kin out in the bay — "thirty, forty, a whole choir" — is unsettling:

They were massive, larger even than her father, and as they approached, one of them swam out of the dark and stared straight into her face. There were black eyes, tiny sharp teeth, a small, flattened nose, and Anne leaped in the water, too shocked to react.... Sharp-nailed fingers reached out, and she heard the deepsman cry out: Face, deep face.

(Her facial type is an adaptive trait, in the lower depths.)

Before their plot threads intersect, we follow Henry and Anne through several years where both struggle against circumstance but with very different views of the landsmen's religion. At first the whole story behind the image of Christ crucified confuses and disturbs Henry, particularly when it's linked to the notion of sin: "Having done his best not to be stupid for as long as he could remember, Henry could not see any reason why a dead landsman who looked nothing like him should be accusing him of doing bad things." He'll remain a skeptic. Born into a more troubled world, Anne swiftly takes to the concept of a Prince of Peace, and she finds personal joy in some aspects of the faith: "Christ had said to man, You are the salt of the earth, and Anne had listened. When she prayed, she could taste it: God, the flavour of every thread and scrap of the world."

While Whitfield's strong sense of character gives life and complexity even to the schemers, arrogant power-mongers, and borderline maniacs who collectively make life for Henry, Anne and other relative innocents more dangerous than any ocean current swarming with sharks, her two young protagonists stand at the heart of the book. Still it's not just their tale. She interweaves the story of their trials and maturation into a mixture of real and imagined political and cultural history (both English and in a larger European sphere) that manages to be thoroughly compelling, even without the drama of those later revolutions.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the December issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Brian Aldiss

by Graham Sleight

Most of the time when I write this column, it's clear enough what to write about and where to start. With Alfred Bester, you need to talk about The Stars My Destination; with Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness; and so on. With Brian Aldiss, surely an SF writer of comparable stature, there are so many books to choose from — and, in particular, so many kinds of books to choose from — that there are dozens of different selections of his works that could be discussed. With regret, I've passed over his many mimetic novels such as Life in the West (1980), his seminal history of SF, Billion Year Spree (1973), and the brilliant memoirs such as Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith's (1990). I'm concentrating instead on books that are SF of one kind or another — although those are still stunningly various.

I started reading, in fact, in a slightly out-of-the-way place: the collection of linked stories Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (1960), also published (with slightly different contents) as The Canopy of Time (1959). In either form, the book contains several of Aldiss's most famous stories, like "Who Can Replace a Man?" and "Poor Little Warrior", but Galaxies Like Grains of Sand also contains linking passages that attempt to knit the stories into a future history covering many millions of years. These linking passages owe a lot to Wells and, more particularly, to Stapledon:

The machines understood each other. The machines evolved. For millennia, they took on complexity, created new genera and phyla, developing sensibilities, capacities, blindnesses, such as the world has never dreamed of. They increased in size; they verged on the infinitesimal.
One phylum became parasitical on others, its species developing special talents for draining molecular power from larger machines. The parasites rapidly introduced themselves into every kind of moving object, eventually to render them without function, or to goad them to madness, as the gadfly used to goad summer cattle.

But Aldiss is doing something more than just depicting a cosmos-scale view of future history. He intersperses these passages with the strivings and dilemmas of individual humans (or robots or aliens), and so never lets you forget that for every abstract noun in the linking passages, there are a thousand individual stories. Take as an example the second story here, "All the World's Tears" (1957). It begins by following "J. Smithlao, psychodynamician," as he flies out "to administer a hate-brace" to Charles Gunpat. Gunpat, we assume, is an immensely wealthy man. His estate stands alone in a landscape otherwise devoid of humans; but, as Smithlao comes into land, he sees a human figure approaching it on foot. He assumes it must be a "wild man". There turn out to be two threads to the story: Smithlao's appointment with Gunpat, and the wild man's encounter with Gunpat's daughter Ployploy. Ployploy is thought of as "mad" by most of society — a society that runs on logic and order. She and the wild man meet and seem to have something in common; but, because she is not permitted to mate, his touch kills her. In some respects, it's a story done many times in SF — order and conformity versus individualism — but it's elevated by several things. Firstly, Aldiss's writing is so much better than what we're used to in SF. He knows enough about the way literature has depicted this kind of romance in the past to give Ployploy and the wild man's encounter a kind of archetypal nobility. Second, his use of Smithlao as viewpoint character and ironic commenter on the Ployploy story makes it much less simplistic than it would otherwise be. (The last line of the story, after Smithlao has thought of a smart riposte about the whole saga, is "It would be a wonderful point with which to rile Charles Gunpat the next time he needed a hate-brace." Smithlao and Gunpat's world will continue and Ployploy's will be forgotten. Smithlao's response to Ployploy's story is detached and ironic; as readers, we have to ask ourselves what we think of that detached irony.

Other stories in the book offer similar layers of irony and revelation. In "Who Can Replace a Man?" (1958), human-created robots argue (in a very funny robotish way) about how best to serve humans in a world now almost devoid of them: I at least was strongly reminded of a lot of the best bits of WALL-E (2008). Aldiss wants to use fiction as a vehicle for talking about grand, abstract ideas, but he also wants to tell the stories of individuals. It's in the gap between these two that the irony so characteristic of his work is generated; if you have both the omniscient and the human-scale picture, the latter is always going to have less information about the true state of the world than the former. The struggles of Aldiss's protagonists are often made more poignant by our knowledge as readers of how much bigger the frame story is.

Both of these tendencies are visible in Aldiss's first great SF novel, Non-Stop (1958). It's prefaced by a brief note saying, among other things:

An idea, which is man-conceived, unlike most of the myriad effects which comprise our universe, is seldom perfectly balanced. Inevitably, it bears the imprint of man's own frailty; it may fluctuate from the meagre to the grandiose. This is the story of a grandiose idea.

To the community, it was more than an idea: it became existence itself. For the idea, as ideas will, had gone wrong and gobbled up their real lives.

The idea, in this case, is an SF staple: the generation starship, a huge vehicle that has taken so long to travel between stars that those on board at the end of the voyage no longer remember its original purpose. Again, it's not the idea itself but its execution that shows Aldiss's originality. His protagonist, Roy Complain, starts off as a hunter in the "Greene tribe," which knows little about its environment. Gradually, he discovers more about the true nature of the world — through the process Peter Nicholls has labelled as conceptual breakthrough. It seems especially important to me that, in Non-Stop, that knowledge isn't comforting. Complain might well have been happier without knowing all the things he learns about his position in the universe. Aldiss's universe always has those, like Gunpat, who live by comforting lies.

I don't want to make Non-Stop sound dry or abstract, though. The bulk of it is taken up with an adventure story, and an exciting and suspenseful one at that. Complain's odyssey through the ship is grimly realistic and costly. One feature of Non-Stop especially worth noting is its final pages. Aldiss has always had an instinct — rarer and rarer as bloat has set into SF over the last few decades — that a story should keep revealing itself right up to the end. So the last dozen or so pages of Non-Stop are filled with revelation and explanation. In other circumstances, this might be dismissable as "infodump"; but here, because so many bizarre parts of the story are rendered explicable, the reader is grateful for it. And then, on the very last page, comes one of the most memorable images in the whole of SF, a logical culmination of what has gone before and also a demonstration that what's happened in this story is irrevocable.

Much of Non-Stop takes place in the jungle-like environment of the overgrown "ponics" infesting the ship. It's not too outlandish to suggest that Aldiss's fascination with this kind of environment comes from his time as a soldier in Burma, or that these experiences find even more intense expression in Hothouse (1962) (expanded from The Long Afternoon of Earth: lots of Aldiss books have variant titles). It's set on a far-future Earth locked into facing the sun: the lit side is dominated by a single huge tree, inhabited by human descendants who scramble around its bark to survive.

More than any other book, this is the one that showcases Aldiss's protean inventiveness. The creatures and entities of his world keep coming: traversers, burnurns, berrywhisks, termights. Each has its place in the elaborately imagined world, and each contributes to its unique atmosphere: the "green light" we're everywhere reminded of, and the humid stink of the jungle. The story itself is another young man's quest that winds up revealing the nature of the world, and includes a memorably fraught sea-voyage. But in this case, Aldiss finds himself subverting SF expectations even more than in Non-Stop. His protagonist, Gren, doesn't use the knowledge he's gained to transcend his world or make it a better place. He refuses the stars and stays home instead: a far more human ending than the usual SF-hero-who-earns-being-a-godling.

That said, there is at least talk of godlings in the next book on my list. Aldiss was one of the central figures in the ferment of experimentation around the Michael Moorcock-edited New Worlds in the 1960s, and several of his novels from around that time show how much he found the magazine's concerns in tune with his own. Representative of this phase of his work is Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (1969), a book that reads now more than most Aldiss as a response to its times. (In this respect, it has something in common with HARM (2007), with its scathing commentary on Guantanamo Bay.) The book's epigraph is General Curtis LeMay's famous quotation about bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age; its premise is that near-future Europe has suffered a bombing of hallucinogens that renders a once familiar landscape unstable.

The book follows a man named Colin Charteris through this disintegrating world; he becomes a kind of messiah to some. As if to enact his fragmenting consciousness, the narrative of the book is broken up too by typographical games and poems. These poems aren't merely to crystallise a particular mood or moment; they also offer alternative perspectives on some of the book's characters and events. An obvious parallel in many ways is Delany's Dhalgren (1974), with its own formal games and its marginalia commenting on the main text. But Aldiss goes further than Delany, both into Joycean wordplay and into making parallels between his imagined world and the hallucinatory experiences that were so important for so many people then. Barefoot in the Head reads now as an epitaph on the '60s and a scorning of the powers (especially the military-industrial ones) that corroded those years.

Aldiss's shorter work, as collected in the career retrospective Best SF Stories (1988, reprinted 1989 as Man in His Time), shares with Barefoot in the Head a kind of playfulness not always present in the novels. For instance, "Confluence", a story largely told through a dictionary of an alien civilisation, is hard to imagine working at anything more than its eight-page length. "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" is a perfect little vignette of a robot boy failing to grasp his lack of humanity, subsequently made famous by the Kubrick/Spielberg film A.I. (2001). "The Saliva Tree" is an exuberant extended homage to Wells and the scientific romance tradition. "My Country 'Tis Not Only of Thee" is, like Barefoot in the Head, a blistering response to the Vietnam war that asks how we'd feel if it really were happening in our backyards. There are a dozen other stories as good and as different here.

Aldiss spent much of the 1970s engaged in fields other than SF, producing books like A Soldier Erect (1971) and A Rude Awakening (1978). But he returned to science fiction with the Helliconia trilogy, comprising Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983), and Helliconia Winter (1985), and subsequently assembled as an omnibus. At this point, a confession is necessary. Normally, my reading for this column gets spread out over weeks or more, and so I have the chance to digest each book before moving on to the rest. But I read the Aldiss books listed above over the course of ten days or so while stuck in bed recovering from a broken leg. Reading the Helliconia books back-to-back in this way was a very different experience from my first encounter with them, where I had a year or more's break between each volume: more concentrated, and making clearer the implacable architecture of Aldiss's vision. The planet Helliconia has a complex orbit around two stars that gives it a "Great Year" of 2,592 Earth years. As the planet becomes warmer, it becomes more congenial to the human population; but during the long winter, the alien phagors are in the ascendant.

Each of the three novels has a very different atmosphere. Spring begins with the wintry story of Yuli, another of Aldiss's young men out to make sense of the world, in this case against the depredations of the phagors. Only slowly do the effects of the planet's warming become apparent. Summer is lush, elaborate, filled with court intrigue and the renaissance of humanity. Winter, inevitably, is grim, but with human defiance (in the shape of the hero Luterin's story) burning bright. Throughout, the planet is watched over by the Earth-crewed space station Avernus, providing again the kind of omniscient perspective that recurs again and again in Aldiss:

[The scientists on Avernus] charted not only the movement of human populations, but also those of the phagorian populations, both white and black. Every advance or retreat was transformed into an an impulse which would eventually make its way across the light-years to the globe and computers back in the Helliconian Centronics Institute on Earth.

From the window of the station, the team could observe the planet below, and the progress of the eclipse, as it spread a grey narcosis over the oceans and the tropical continent.

But beneath this all-seeing eye are a set of stories of, again, individual survival and continuity. In conversation, Gary Wolfe suggested that the texture of Helliconia owed a great deal to the family sagas of Thomas Hardy, and I think this is right, both in the specific case, and in making the more general point that Aldiss always lets his wide reading outside the field leak into his SF. He begins and ends the trilogy with quotations from Lucretius's De Rerum Natura on the inescapable nature of change. Aldiss's central concern may be change: how it happens, how humans affect and are affected by it; how difficult it is to perceive fully when you're in the middle of it; what it means to live a good or full life in the middle of change. Helliconia is Aldiss's fullest and most thoroughly worked-out exploration of these ideas.

The final thing to say about Aldiss is that the books I've discussed here are very far from being the end of the story. Looking just at SF and fantasy, I could just as easily have talked about Greybeard (1964), Frankenstein Unbound (1973), The Malacia Tapestry (1976), or HARM (2007). There's the sense, even after such a long career, that he may still have something astonishing left to say.

This is one of many reviews from the December 2009 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, Brian Aldiss (Signet, 144pp, pb) 1960.

Non-Stop, Brian W. Aldiss (Faber and Faber, 252pp, hc) 1958. Cover by Peter Curl.

Hothouse, Brian W. Aldiss (Faber and Faber, 253pp, hc) 1962.

Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia Brian W. Aldiss (Faber and Faber, 282pp, hc) 1969. Cover by Erró.

Best SF Stories, Brian W. Aldiss (Gollancz 0-575-04210-9, 328pp, hc) 1988.

Helliconia, Brian Aldiss (Voyager 0-00-648223-6, xvi + 1070pp, pb) 1996. Cover by Peter Goodfellow.

This review was first published in the December 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

december cover

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

All Energy Is Borrowed: A Review of Avatar

by Gary Westfahl

All right; the special effects in James Cameron's Avatar are indeed dazzling, and one can regard the film as ground-breaking in demonstrating, more so than any other recent film I know of, that computer animation can not only hold its own against live-action film but might actually replace it. Yes, 500 million dollars invested in the latest technology does enable a filmmaker to make twelve-foot-high, blue-skinned aliens generated through performance capture just as sympathetic and involving as skilled actors filmed in the ordinary fashion. Still, after filmgoers have emotionally experienced those aliens' agonies of defeat and thrills of victory, some will feel compelled to actually think about the story that has enthralled them for almost three hours, and they are the ones who will feel less inclined to celebrate Cameron's achievement.

Prior to the film's release, the internet buzz was that Avatar was a ripoff of Poul Anderson's classic novelette "Call Me Joe" (1957), and admittedly there are some significant similarities: both stories involve paraplegic men who assume mental control of artificially created alien beings designed to survive on harsh alien planets, decide that they prefer being active aliens to being handicapped humans, and eventually choose to be aliens all of the time. But Anderson's novelette took place on Jupiter, not a distant world named Pandora, and featured a newly created sort of intelligent being introduced to an environment without intelligent life, not an enormous humanoid crafted to resemble, and mingle with, members of an indigenous intelligent species. Thus, even if its basic concept is not entirely original, the film does take it in a different direction. Yet the film also recalls Anderson's work in a broader fashion: one of that author's many talents was filling his alien worlds with memorably distinctive flora and fauna, as indicated by one evocative passage from "The Queen of Air and Darkness" (1971): "Blossoms opened, flamboyance on firethorn trees, steel-flowers rising blue from the brok and rainplant that cloaked all hills, shy whiteness of kiss-me-never down in the dales. Flitteries darted among them on iridescent wings; a crownbuck shook his horns and bugled." Here, although the larger, dinosaur-like creatures that inhabit Pandora are mostly things that we have all seen before, Cameron additionally provides his world with many smaller and subtler forms of bizarre alien life — such as tiny purple lizards, floating fluorescent wisps, and spiraling plants that contract into a bulb when touched — that represent precisely the sorts of extraterrestrial life that Anderson might have envisioned and described.

Anderson is not the only science fiction writer that this film brings to mind: its larger-than-life warsuits, manipulated by soldiers inside of them, are reminiscent of predecessors ranging from the fighting suits of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) to those in the Gundam Mobile Suit anime series (1979-1980), and a key subplot, depicting how members of the Pandoran race, the Na'vi, form a lifelong mental bond with large flying creatures that they then ride upon, seems lifted right out of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (1968) and its many sequels. Still, the science fiction story that most closely resembles Avatar has to be Ursula K. Le Guin's novella "The Word for World Is Forest" (1972), another epic about a benevolent race of alien beings who happily inhabit dense forests while living in harmony with nature until they are attacked and slaughtered by invading human soldiers who believe that the only good gook is a dead gook. In sum, recalling the old Hollywood axiom that stealing from one source is plagiarism while stealing from several sources is research, one can say that James Cameron's Avatar is well researched. Or, as Cameron might defend himself, quoting one of his platitude-spouting Na'vi, "All energy is borrowed, and someday you have to give it back."

When you follow in the footsteps of giants, though, you may also replicate their mistakes, and this enormous exercise in borrowing-and-giving-it-back is particularly striking in the ways that it echoes both the virtues of Le Guin's story — a richly developed alien ecosystem and culture — and its major flaw — a one-dimensional portrait of an implacably evil military commander which engenders a one-dimensional and unpersuasive message about saintly savages being oppressed by scientifically advanced warriors. The problematic and uncharacteristic didacticism of her story was recognized by Le Guin herself in the "Afterword" she wrote for its original appearance in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), wherein she complained that in creating the story she had been forced by her muse to "moralize," even though "I am not very fond of moralistic tales." Of course, while Le Guin was writing, the still-raging Vietnam War was very much on her mind, and "The Word for World Is Forest," like Avatar itself, invites consideration as a parable about that conflict. Yet emotions that were appropriate in 1972 can seem anachronistic in 2009, and while one might posit that all filmmakers who matured during the Vietnam War must someday deal with that subject in their work, Cameron is entering the game rather late in his career, which makes his state-of-the-art film seem curiously old-fashioned in one respect. Bluntly, a character like Cameron's Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who calls the natives "roaches" and is eventually observed grinning in glee as he kills yet another alien, might have been acceptable thirty years ago, but he must be regarded today as nothing more than an outdated and offensive stereotype; Vietnam was one thing, but whatever else occurred in Iraq, there were no psychopathic American colonels fiercely dedicated to the genocidal slaughter of its citizens. (And a brief reference to "shock and awe" tactics cannot conceal the fact that this film is all about Vietnam and has nothing to do with the Middle East.) One might posit, perhaps, that this film was intended as Cameron's belated apology for Aliens (1986), a film that appeared to glorify all-out war against beings that didn't look like you — which might explain why he summoned Sigourney Weaver, the chief alien-killer in that film, to here play Dr. Grace Augustine (whose very name announces graciousness and nobility), a compassionate scientist who opposes military action against the aliens on this world.

As another similarity, Le Guin's story, like Avatar, is moralistic about not only the oppression of native peoples, but thoughtless destruction of the environment as well. In this case, the violent elimination of the aliens on Pandora is primarily motivated by a desire to gain access to rich deposits of a valuable gravity-defying metal (and hey, if you want to demonstrate your complete contempt for scientific plausibility, you might as well call this impossible, McGuffin-like substance "unobtainium"). We are told that in the twenty-second century, humans have already despoiled their own planet — "there is no green there" because "they killed their mother" — and Earth is later described as a "dying world." The hoped-for happy ending to Avatar is that the human race might be stopped before they can utterly ruin a second planet. If these environmental concerns seem more contemporary than condemnations of the Vietnam War, they are ultimately just as clichéd, and the best commentary on the merits of this theme is provided by Cameron himself: when the alien-inhabiting Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is first being instructed by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in the wise ways of her people so as to earn acceptance into her tribe, he responds to one of her lectures by thinking, "I hope this tree-hugger crap isn't on the final." Soon, however, Sully has swallowed all of her tree-hugger crap hook, line, and sinker, and knowing that "the wealth of the world is all around us," and that there is a "network of energy that flows through all living things," Sully is properly indignant that the human settlers on Pandora would strive to destroy the Na'vi's sacred tree to do some mining, and he joins his adopted people in resisting their efforts.

If these stale sentiments do not seem as offensive as those in the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still (review here), that may simply reflect the fact that Cameron has placed them in a more intriguing setting and chosen actors more talented than Keanu Reeves to deliver them. What is disturbing is that Avatar marries its argument against ravaging one's environment to an argument against scientific progress itself. The film's position could not be clearer: Living off the land in a forest is good; living in a protective metallic shelter filled with scientific devices is bad. Killing animals with a bow and arrow is good; killing them with machine guns is bad. Riding through the air on the backs of pterodactyl-like creatures is good; riding through the air in futuristic helicopters is bad. Using scientific methods to turn you into an alien is bad; hoping that a magical goddess in a tree can perform the same trick is good. The only value of machinery is that, in a pinch, natives are allowed to temporarily employ guns and grenades in order to destroy the people who brought them and restore the planet's preindustrial tranquility. And this has to represent the ultimate irony of Avatar: James Cameron has spent half a billion dollars on the most advanced technology available in order to argue that we all need to abandon advanced technology and return to the simple lifestyles of ancient Native Americans and other noble savages. Well, if that's the way you feel, Mr. Cameron, why don't you abandon filmmaking and go live with the natives in Papua New Guinea, where you could assist them in staging the rituals that help to make their simple lives so much more satisfying than ours?

Cameron also conspicuously stacks the deck in arguing for the benefits of living naturally: when Sully first enters the Pandoran forest, the film acknowledges that nature is filled with both wonderful and terrible things when Sully is almost killed by two gigantic predators and by smaller dog-like animals. However, once the Na'vi resolve to teach Sully about their idyllic lives and benign philosophy, these dangerous animals completely vanish from sight, the forest is re-envisioned as a lush paradise, and the only perils involve the Pandoran habits of running madly along narrow tree branches and leaping across chasms (which would logically result in most natives dying from fatal falls well before they reached adulthood, but hey, this is a movie, and having them move with more reasonable caution would be much less exciting). Then, just when you have entirely forgotten that this wondrous forest was ever home to horrible monsters, all of them abruptly reappear — because it's revenge-of-nature time, and now they are the good guys since they are trying to kill humans instead of aliens.

A related irony is that the philosophy being espoused in this movie — give up your scientific devices, simplify your lifestyle, find happiness in everything that is natural — was once epitomized in the phrase, "Small is beautiful." Yet in Avatar, more often than not, large is beautiful. As if convinced that audiences would only feel they were getting their money's worth if everything was big, big, big, Cameron has focused his creative energies on one enormous construct after another: huge warplanes, towering fighting suits, twelve-foot-high aliens, monstrous trees, dinosaur wannabes, an immense waterfall, huge floating mountains . . . . After a while, your mind becomes numb, these objects no longer impress, and you long for more of the aforementioned little touches of the outré that were observed earlier in the film. Frankly, Cameron should have spent more time on rainplant and flitteries instead of flying tanks and thundering triceratops. (Yet this tendency toward gigantism may also be a subconscious byproduct of undertaking to make an incredibly expensive film that surely represents one of the most mammoth projects in the history of cinema; indeed, so many people contributed to this production that, for the first time I can recall, the closing credits did not place every name on its own line, but crammed related names together into paragraphs. Clearly, it would have taken much too long to list them all in the usual fashion.)

If there is a theme in Avatar which is not entirely threadbare, it lies in the notion that it will someday not only be possible, but even desirable, to give up one's natural identity and assume an artificial identity. Traditional narratives often argue that people should accept who they really are and should not try to be something they are not, as illustrated by stories like the Twilight Zone episode "The Trade-Ins" (1962) and the film Seconds (1966). But here, Jake Sully comes to reject his real life as a partially paralyzed soldier and embraces a new unreal existence as an athletic alien: mentally returning from one experience in the forest to his human base, he says that "Everything is backwards now. Outside is the real world; back here is the dream." Crafting and inhabiting a dream world, then, is being celebrated, not chastised. It might have been more interesting if Avatar had posited that all of the Na'vi, not just a few agents like Jake Sully, were originally created by human scientists as convenient devices to explore a hostile alien world, although they soon went entirely native and were inspired by the new environment to develop their own distinctive culture and beliefs; this would have made the entire race the embodiment of a human dream and might have made the unlikely pleasures of the Pandorans' lives, and their evident mimicking of the practices of pre-technological humans, a bit more palatable.

In addition, the process of profitably reinventing oneself undoubtedly had personal relevance to James Cameron, since Avatar represents his return to feature film directing after a twelve-year hiatus, and there is evidence that he regarded the task as his own rebirth as a new kind of film director. Prior to being formally accepted as a member of the tribe, Jake comments that "Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn a place among the People." I wasn't keeping track of every single date in the small print at the bottom of Jake's video reports, but I believe that Jake's initiation and second "birthday" was exactly, or almost exactly, the two-hundredth anniversary of Cameron's own birthdate of August 16, 1954. And while I would not be enthusiastic about seeing another film like Avatar, Cameron's record as a director indicates that he rarely chooses to repeat himself, and he may be capable of next producing a film that would blend the technological breakthroughs of this one with a more original and meaningful story — that is, if Avatar is successful enough to earn him another 500 million dollars to play with.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays -- Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell -- the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by James Cameron

Written by James Cameron

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonzo, and Dileep Rao

Official Website: Avatar Official Movie Website

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory continues to be amongst the most interesting of the newer writers to emerge in the past decade, and he's rapidly becoming one of the most unpredictable. His early short fiction, which someone (I think David Hartwell) described as "neurological hard SF" was often stunning in how it could seamlessly make SF concepts a function of character, but it wasn't long before stories like "Unpossible" and "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" began revealing a broad engagement with influences ranging from superhero comics to children's books. By his own account, Gregory's first novel Pandemonium was something of a mash-up of his favorite icons from the last half-century of pop culture, from O.J. Simpson to Philip K. Dick, and his second novel The Devil's Alphabet is something of a mash-up as well, but of a completely different sort. To be sure, some of the pop culture allusions remain — the working title of the novel was Oh, You Pretty Things, from the David Bowie song whose vaguely Nietzschean lyrics offer some foreshadowing of one of the novel's themes — but the mash-up here is mostly a matter of form and genre. On the one hand, the novel hovers around the sort of evolutionary hard SF of novels like Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, complete with theories of intron expression and retroviruses, invoked here to explain a sudden outbreak of radical somatic transformations that overtook the residents of a small Tennessee town a decade ago (like Pandemonium, the novel is set in a kind of alternate present, taking place in the summer of this year). On the other, it returns to an earlier kind of evolutionary SF that we'd seen in novels from van Vogt's Slan to Sturgeon's More Than Human, in which the focus is more on the pariah status of the victims than on the biological puzzle, and on the inability of the larger society to cope meaningfully with the implications of the event. But then again, it's also a homecoming tale about a young man (unaffected by "the Changes") who has escaped his rural origins for a life in Chicago, but who is drawn deeply back into his childhood community, and his family, by a tragedy. Finally — and this is what drives the novel's main plot — it's a small-town southern Gothic murder mystery. No one can accuse Gregory of being a one-note author.

The tragedy that draws Paxton Martin back to his hometown of Switchcreek, Tennessee, is the apparent suicide of his closest childhood friend Jo. Like most of the town's residents, Jo had been transformed by the earlier outbreak, which has since been labeled Transcription Divergence Syndrome or TDS, although never adequately explained. A quarter of the town's population died, and the survivors began undergoing a succession of bizarre alterations: argos, whose bones lengthened until they grew to enormous height; betas, whose skin developed a wine-colored, seal-like texture; and charlies, who grew grotesquely obese to the point of near-immobility. Jo had become a beta, and Paxton's father Harlan, a preacher from whom he has long since been estranged, had become a charlie. A few, like Paxton, were unaffected. Initially, Paxton merely plans to attend Jo's funeral, but soon he grows suspicious that the suicide may have in fact been a murder, and he's forced to come to terms with his own past when the local residents, including his friend Deke and the town's shrewd but manipulative mayor Aunt Rhonda, persuade him to pay a visit to his ailing but immense father. Complicating matters further is that his father, like some of the other aging charlies, has begun producing, through rather grotesque boils in their skin, a strange secretion called the vintage, which seems to function as a kind of empathy drug for Paxton — who finds he can't bring himself to abandon his father again — and as a super-pheromone for the younger charlies, some of whom want to harvest it for the drug trade. Furthermore, reports appear that TDS has begun to reappear in other parts of the world, which draws the unwelcome attention of the government back to Switchcreek, largely left alone as an isolated curiosity until now. With a murder to solve, a father turned into a kind of living meth lab, most of his friends transformed into monsters, and the feds closing in, Paxton has his work cut out for him.

And so, to an extent, does the reader. While Gregory does an impressive job of keeping all these plates spinning without losing his narrative's coherence, there is still a sense that a bit much is going on all at once, and that some of those plates are starting to wobble. The SF theme, for example, seems to veer from questions of epidemiology (though it's supposedly non-contagious) to ideas apparently borrowed from George Gaylord Simpson's theory of quantum evolution, but then late in the narrative a suggestion is introduced that evolutionary paths from alternate universes may be involved as well. It's probably a wise decision on Gregory's part to avoid introducing a brilliant scientist who figures all this out, but as soon as our curiosity is piqued about these questions, his plot requires that he draw our attention back to the murder mystery (which does get solved), or to the rather complex and touching relationship between Paxton and his father, or to the dangers of a local drug trade, or even to the small-town politics of the town's self-appointed godmother Aunt Rhonda. The larger question, of what eventually might become of these evolutionary exiles as they move into second and third generations, seems to move us back into Theodore Sturgeon territory, and it's fortunately a territory that Gregory has mastered well. The novel's quiet ending, in a snowbound South Dakota winter, is haunting.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the December issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

The Devil's Alphabet

Daryl Gregory
(Del Rey 978-0-345-50117-2, $15.00, 384pp, tp) December 2009. Cover by David Stevenson.


© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.