Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Near Future Fiction: Two Novels

I've taken time out from highfalutin social theory to read some science fiction. So a visit to Hanley Library at the weekend found me check out a couple of books: Heaven's Shadow by David S Goyer and Michael Cassutt, and Descent by Ken MacLeod. They are both examples of near future fiction - the former set five years hence, the latter between 10 and 30 years from now. Sadly, that is where the similarity ends. .

The Goyer and Cassutt effort. Where to begin? I'm afraid to say it's an awful book, so what follows will be replete with spoilers. In 2019 two ships, one American, the other a Russia/India/Brazil collab race each other to reach a Near Earth Object. But upon landing and following a series of eerily-timed eruptions from the asteroid's surface, it becomes apparent that our NEO is a UFO. Jeepers! The intrepid crews find a passage to an interior that switches on at their presence. And what greets them is a rapidly evolving biological environment. Why do plants begin growing? What's that pyramidal structure in the distance? Is that something pupating in those hexagonal chambers lining the wall?

Up until here the story is passible, albeit one in which a cliche stands behind every sentence. It quickly goes south from there. One of the chambers is growing something, something alive! It comes out, sheds a layer of skin and takes a breath. The creature is human! But not just any old homo sapiens - she's the dead wife of the leading character! Rather than piquing my curiosity, this was more a roll eyes moment. The long and short of it is the alien civilisation behind the ship are post-biological beings who can manipulate the quantum structure of the universe. It turns out that sentient creatures create impressions in the sub-atomic foam and these, more or less, constitute our souls. What the aliens, or 'the architects' can do is read the space/time grooves and fashion appropriate bodies for them. However, there is a malevolent force abroad in the galaxy that wants to systematically scrub this information and, you guessed it, only humanity is the species that can thwart it. Not, it seems, millions-of-years-old super-civilisations.

There's nothing wrong per se with afterlife themes in science fiction. But when it has been done before, the words imagination, flare and aplomb come to mind. See Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy, for example. What I find most objectionable about Heaven's Shadow is not so much the plot or dreary writing, but the narrative structure of the book. You see, Goyer is a screen writer, video game storyteller and sometime director. Gassutt is a TV writer and occasional SF novelist. And after five minutes with this book, you're struck by how desperately it begs to be made into a movie. Unnecessary tension, unlikely disasters, improbable cliffhangers - they pile up on one another in a gangly, unreadable mess. To think there are two more books in the sequence after this too. Ugh. File Heaven's Shadow as 'Phil has read it so I don't have to'. You'll thank me for it.

In a different league altogether is Ken MacLeod's Descent. Right, I'm going to embarrass myself now. Ken, if you're reading this you might want to look away. As far as I'm concerned, Ken is the finest exponent of near future fiction writing anywhere. His work has a warm, sharp, dynamic quality. He is our most contemporary writer too. No one else has the knack of seizing the present and shaking it until social and technological trends spill all over the place. What his novels do is track them to all possible destinations, be they banal or profound. And, of course, for us lefties there's lots of Trotty, trainspotterly references too that somehow add to the urban glamour of Ken's writing.

As the cover implies, Descent is about UFOs. Sort of. Unlike this review's other book, I'm not going to spoil a single thing. Except to say it involves lots of conspiracy construction and unravelling - Ken has great fun playing with alien abduction, men in black and cover-up tropes. This world is heavily surveilled by drones and netbots, but think more social media's voluntary self-surveillance than Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sure, the powers that be might be monitoring too. But they could also be objects scrutinised by rival elites, revolutionaries, or their own. Sounds messy? Yes. Yet Ken's exploration of a world in foment as it segues from neoliberal depression to Keynesian expansion is absolutely flawless, and everything ties up with a little bit left to the reader's imagination.

Near future fiction is a tricky genre to pull off because real world developments habitually threaten speculation. Yet Ken's novels, even the stuff he published in the 90s, remain endlessly contemporary and just slightly beyond our time; out of reach but all the more tantalising for it. Descent is an excellent novel and an excellent way into Ken's works. If you see it, pick it up or download it and leave the likes of Heaven's Shadow well alone.


SarahABUK said...

I think (if you haven't already read it) you would enjoy Chris Beckett's Marcher.

Anonymous said...

"This world is heavily surveilled by drones and netbots, but think more social media's voluntary self-surveillance than Nineteen Eighty-Four. "

so what you're saying is that in the future expect a kind of authoritarianism, but with a happy face, where smokers and fat people and any one else with socially unacceptable characteristics will find that they've been edited out of the human race. but, don't worry, i'm sure, the league of celebrity posers will come along and save the world.


Anonymous said...

"Sure, the powers that be might be monitoring too. But they could also be objects scrutinised by rival elites, revolutionaries, or their own."

I do hope that the conclusion of this book isn't that these new authoritarian technologies trap us all, and ultimately we are all just human beings etc etc. Because the new technologies will be monopolised by the ruling elite and if say, a rogue state, tried to develop one that spied on say the USA, the USA would have the means to crush the nuisance, the rogue state would not!!!

Yes, people will skip merrily into this new authoritarian age because authoritarianism won't actually change most peoples lives in any way. As long as you conform you won't have anything to worry about and most people conform!

But let's not pretend that under this new authoritarian technology will will all be equally oppressed, because we bloody well won't be!!!

Anonymous said...

actually, phil, i do have a serious question. what happens when more and more of human experience becomes more and more easily quantifiable? especially when the collection and distribution of this information is more and more being done willingly on a voluntary level? does it mark a new phase of abstract labour, and is perhaps, the real issue not so much one of state surveillance, but rather, how all this data is being monetized? are we training ourselves to become ever more perfect subjects of capital?


SarahABUK said...

Les - I think you might enjoy David Eggers' The Circl'.

Ken said...

I was enthused enough by the article to step to my local library. About 5 sections labelled "Fantasy" to only one of "Science Fiction". Is this just a handy device for librarians or are there real differences between these genres? Is one more likely to be "progressive" than the other. Terry Pratchett was in the fantasy section. I would see him as a satirist but many of the books were big, ran to three volumes and appeared to be sword'n'sorcery flummery.

Ken said...

Many thanks for the kind words, Phil. As you guessed, I think some of them are too kind, but I'm very pleased you enjoyed the book and got its central ideas so well.