Monday, December 28, 2009

Regression within Progression: A Review of Colin Harvey's "Winter Song"

Several critics have pointed out a similarity between Poul Anderson's The Long Night Series and Colin Harvey's first novel for Angry Robot, Winter Song. I certainly thought of Anderson, who happens to be one my favorite pulp fiction writers from my youth in the fifties, but I did not go there immediately. Instead, I was reminded instantly of the landfall novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover Landfall), L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Fall of Angels, and the novels of Iain Banks and Larry Niven. There may even be a hint or shall I say a scent of Asimov here (more on this later). However, curiously, I found the most resonance in a comparison between the science fiction novels of Modesitt and Harvey's; I felt this resonance or perhaps echo not because of content but because of the tone. Modesitt's novels fascinate primarily because of their firm grasp of the way things work: politics, economy, and science. I felt that same attention to world-building in the myriad of details that Harvey sprinkled within the text to intimate or to suggest that a larger canvas, a more complex super-structure of culture, was operating somewhere behind the action of the characters of his novel on the icy world of Isheimur.

The novel concerns a space-trader from the planet Avalon by the name of Karl Allman, who while crossing the Mizar B2 system, is attacked by three Traditional ships. The Traditionals are un-enhanced humans, whereas Karl is a hybrid, an augmented human. With his ship damaged and dying, he ejects into space encased in a "quivering blue jelly, three metres high, and stuffed full of nanos." Before he goes, the ship's computer downloads a plethora of information into Allman, which creates one of the major conceits of the novel. Allman enters space no longer a single entity; instead, he is two beings: one personality is Karl; the other is the ship's computer's download of information, a sentient entity occupying Karl's body and forming its own personality. And whereas Karl is unconscious and asleep at landfall, the other entity is alive and becoming conscious.

Karl floats toward Isheimur, a terraformed world settled before the falling of "the Long night," by Icelandic peoples, seeking to maintain their cultural identity. Two centuries have passed since their arrival and Karl does not know whether any of the settlers have survived; however, the planet is his best bet for survival and he aims for it and lands in a fury of flames. Thus we "fall" into a medieval culture, which for the most part has forgotten modern life. There are computers called "oracles" and a form of the world wide web but for the most part Isheimur is a pre-Christian medieval society, governed by Gothis.

Karl falls to earth near the village of Skorradalur and is discovered by the Gothi Ragnar. Ragnar and his men bring the burnt and unconscious Karl back to the village, unperturbed by the fact that a spaceman has fallen onto their world. This fact is one of the unusual factors of the novel. Even though the settlers have regressed to a primitive state they are cognizant of spacemen, computers, and modern weapons. While they believe in the Norse gods, ghosts, shape shifters, and holy men, they also rely on computers to supply them with parts for their equipment and information. This schizophrenia is one of the major themes of the novel and Harvey consistently develops it throughout his tight narrative. Schizoid behavior underlies the cultural structure of the planet and the personality of the inhabitants.

Once Karl lands, he loses consciousness and the other entity that inhabits his mind, the artificial intelligence from his ship, takes center stage. The natives christen the other being, Loki, and thus begins the schizophrenic struggle between the two beings encased in Karl's body.

During his stay Karl hears of a legend of an ancient ship called the Winter Song and decides to set off on a journey. However, Ragnar declares that Karl is indebted to him and must work off his debt. Karl escapes and Bera, an orphan and dependent of Ragnar, accompanies him; together they uncover several secrets about the colonization of the planet.

In conclusion, I was duly impressed with Winter Song. The prose is direct, strong, and serviceable; the characters are clearly drawn, the world of Isheimur completely realized, and the narrative convincing and satisfying. Ultimately, I was struck by the complexity of the novel. Its complexity, however, does not arise from the plot; it is rather simple. Instead, it is the magnitude of detail that supports the world-building. Harvey has succeeded in creating a fascinating planet with a unique environment, exotic fauna and flora, a medieval culture with its social constructs, traditions, and structures, and three humanoid species, not to mention several off-world cultures.

Finally, at the beginning of this review I suggested that there was a scent of Asimov here and in the preceding paragraph, I said that the "prose is direct." There is a point, a sore spot as it were, that I want to make. There seems to be a tendency in speculative fiction these days to attack the serviceable prose. This same criticism has also been directed against Asimov; however, I for one find the more fantastic the voyage the more material, direct, and clear should be the prose. This is a lesson I learned from studying the surrealists and I think it applies in speculative fiction. Harvey seems to follow the Asimov model. That is he describes the most fantastical things in a clear precise way; he uses short declarative sentences to tell a most outlandish tale.

As a result I found Winter Tale quite convincing and entertaining.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"As Above, So Below," a Review of James Lovegrove's "The Age of Ra"

Carl Jung believed firmly in the ancient expression, "as above, so below," from the alchemical text, The Emerald Tablet. For the follower of ancient hermeticism this expression holds the key to all the mysteries of the universe. Jung used the formula to explain the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind, whereas Hermes Trismegistus, the author of The Emerald Tablet, saw it as a key to open the magic inherent in the world.

The ultimate meaning of the adage is that the macrocosmos is mirrored in the microcosmos and that God is the same as man.

James Lovegrove uses this formula as the organizing principle of his tightly-crafted novel, The Age of Ra, to create two worlds: earth far in the future, where the Egyptian gods have defeated all other gods and divided the earth into warring factions, each aligned with a god from the pantheon; and the pantheon itself, with all its petty struggles and jealousies.

Lovegrove, therefore, tells four tales with four parallel arcs within this format: (1) the story of the gods and their movement in the pantheon; (2) the personal tale of the godly struggle between Set, Osiris, Isis and, Set's wife, Nephthys; (3) the war between the worldly factions and their struggle for dominance; and (4) the personal struggle between Lieutenant David Westwynter, a British soldier, and his younger brother Steven.

Ultimately, the novel is about fratricide and sibling rivalry, both on earth and in heaven.

The novel begins as military science fiction. David Westwynter and his paratroop unit drop behind enemy lines in the Arabian desert to rendezvous with an American unit. The British Commandos, commanded by Westwynter worship Osiris, whereas their American counterparts follow Horus. Together the two factions are waging a secret war against the Nephthysians.

Lovegrove is a good writer and he immediately establishes the rules. The novel is told from the point of view of David Westwynter; it is a tightly-constructed narrative with a no-nonsense prose style. The British commandos are an elite fighting group and we are on solid military science ground here, following the team to the rendezvous point. However, Lovegrove quickly lets us know that he is not writing a standard military science fiction novel. Our first clue is that the men carry Ba weapons and the battle locations are ancient locations, re-animated to a future context. And by the end of the chapter, the mummies arrive.

Even though Lovegrove clearly employs elements of myth, horror, and science fiction, the novel doesn't feel like a post-modernist romp. Instead, it reminds me of the movies and novels I liked as a kid. More particularly, the story of David Westwynter and his brother Steven is reminiscent of films like "Beau Geste," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and "The Four Feathers." The difference here, of course, is the blending of three speculative tropes with the traditional British romantic novel of the early twentieth century: military science fiction, Egyptian mythology, and horror (more specifically--the mummy as horror).

The strength of the novel lies in its traditional underpinning and Lovegrove's thorough understanding of myth. To give just one example: David Westwynter rebels against his rich upper-class British family and joins the army when his younger brother dies in a sea battle. After his capture and escape from the Nephthysians, Westwynter is rescued by freedom fighters from Freegypt. The leader of the fighters is a young woman, who tells him that they are followers of the Lightbringer. The Lightbringer is an enigmatic man, who wears a mask to hide his disfigured face. After the protagonist meets the charismatic Lightbringer, he decides to join the Freegyptian's cause to throw off the rule of the gods and to abandon his allegiance to Osiris and England. This is the stuff of British romantic fiction. One novel that I read over and over as a kid was Thomas Costain's The Black Rose. In that novel a young Anglo-Saxon lord flees Norman rule to win fame and fortune in Cathay, find true love, and return to England. A similar plot is working here.

However, this is not to be interpreted as a criticism of Lovegrove's novel. If you like historical adventure stories, with a touch of the British Empire, à la Kipling and Costain, then this book is for you. Additionally, Lovegrove follows the Aristotelian verities throughout to create a well-written, tightly constructed novel.

The only criticism that I have of the novel is that the gods receive short shrift. However, they are so annoying in their childish displays that, ultimately, I was glad to be rid of them.

In the final analysis, The Age of Ra is a tightly-crafted novel, loyal, to the Aristotelian verities, a strong narrative, with well-developed central characters, and a nod to British adventure stories of the forties and fifties.