FRINGE

"Forget Reality!" Inkstained Nerdy Girl Exclaims

Issue 8 - August 2001

Black Hearts in Ringsend

I remember now why I decided not to follow a career in acting - I didn't think I had thick enough skin to face all the rejections that would be inevitable. (Oh yeah, and I wasn't good enough, but that's beside the point). I still haven't found a job, hard to believe as I find this. Are they all mad? Daft? Don't they know what they're passing up when they print out those standard letters to send off to me? Obviously they don't.

I while away my time applying for every job I could possibly be qualified to do, which isn't a large number, playing solitaire, and reading as if it is about to go out of fashion. There is something pleasant about wandering around Dublin in the summer, stopping in cafes or parks to read for an hour or so, until the inevitable panhandlers arrive. I've never been out of work before, and I've usually been pretty well paid, so watching the pennies is a new experience for me that I must admit I'm not very good at. Either I steer so clear of my wallet that cobwebs start forming, or I go wild and buy myself dinner on the credit card, plus a new outfit, "because I'm worth it".

I'm assured by friends and parents that everybody goes through this once in their life, and that it will all work out in the end. I'd rather know more specific details (eg, when is the end?), but I keep my spirits up more or less. Although if things don't change soon, I might be reduced to writing really really bad poetry, I'm getting the urge to do so more and more regularly these days. I promise I won't publish any of it.

Flora and Fauna

Two books ploughed through at the start of the month were A Case of Conscience by James Blish, and Bios by Robert Charles Wilson. Both set on alien planets, investigating the wonder of a system of life completely different from what evolved on Earth, it was kind of interesting to see how these books, written over 40 years apart, handled a staple theme of SF in different ways.

A Case of Conscience, for starters, had a slightly old fashioned air to it, not least because the idea of alien buildings made out of what is basically pottery gave me a mental picture of condensation on walls, athletes foot, and the old labs at school. None of which, I hasten to add, being anything that I reckon Blish wanted me to think, but my mind hasn't much else to do these days. The plot of the novel, however, is great. Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Peruvian scientist Jesuit space explorer (my favourite type) is on the planet Lithia as part of a team that is investigating the planet to see whether it would be suitable for continuous contact with Earth. Its inhabitants are twelve foot high reptilian creatures with tails, and live life, we are constantly told, as if they had never left Eden. What this actually means seems to be that they don't break any of the ten commandments, war is unknown etc, but the point that most concerns Father Ramon is that they have arrived at these moral guidelines without a religion, that using only rationality, they have come to the same conclusions that humankind needed spelled out to them from above. Apparently, morality (and it is definitely Western morality, Blish mentions that Eastern morals aren't covered) is impossible to get to by rational thought. I am not convinced by this, but have never studied theology or philosophy so I'm willing to let it go for now. So, with a lot of reasoned argument I won't go into, he concludes that Lithia is a setup - the Devil has created it to seed doubts about the existence of God by showing a society which has the same code without needing religion to get it. This is a madly interesting idea, in my opinion, and I've been spending time thinking about it. But the implication of it that Blish dwells on is that my admitting the Devil has created a planet and beings, Ramon is committing heresy - only God can create. It is a nice study of a moral dilemma, and the religious aspect is presented sympathetically for a change. Lithia turns from something idyllic to somewhere dangerous for all, There Be Dragons as it were. Good stuff.

Bios, similarly, features a planet that is dangerous to humans, in this case spectacularly, almost malevolently toxic, leading to some really gruesome death descriptions, with melting flesh and blood-filled eyes. Just the thing for reading over a nice juicy steak. I've been a fan of Robert Charles Wilson for a good few years, many of his books, such as Gypsies and Hidden Place , explore characters who do not "fit in", with great sympathy and understanding. Darwinia was maybe the first of his books that got huge critical acclaim, deservedly. Bios is riding on the back of that reaction, and isn't really up to it, I felt. Competently written, well imagined and described, but I just didn't get into it. Zoe Fisher, the lead character, is a typical creation of his, genetically modified specifically to explore this toxic planet, brought up partly in a special creche, partly in a Tehran orphanage that doubled as a brothel, she is as alone as anyone can get. But then she meets this guy, oh no not a romance, yes a romance, ruining what could have been a perfectly good book. Worth reading anyway? Maybe.

Gödel, Escher, Bach, & me

I don't even know where to start with this. Maybe, title, author, that kind of thing. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter is possibly the most interesting book I have ever read. It certainly took me the longest time to finish it, since the beginning of June I've been working on it. It is impossible to describe it. The publishers, Penguin, have it classified as Philosophy. Book shops usually have it classified under Popular Science. Libraries have it in Psychology. It deals with Artificial Intelligence, Maths, Formal Systems, Computer Languages, Infinite Loops, Johann Sebastien Bach's fugues, DNA, Lewis Carroll, Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, and Zen Buddhism. It has illustrations showing the distribution of obscure phenomenon in physics, scribbles by the author, reproductions of Escher's best known and least known pictures and prints, photos of ants, Magritte's pipe paintings, what happens when you focus a camera on the screen its output is displayed on, exercises on pattern recognition. It is 742 pages long and I'm going to have to read it again to understand half of it.

The layers of meaning contained in the simplest things in this book are amazing. For instance, book 1 is called GEB, book 2 is called EGB, and it took me 640 pages to figure out that they were harmonious chords. It took me even longer to figure out that they stood for the two parts of the book's title, and so throughout the second part I should have been looking for the eternal golden braid stuff. But I've never claimed to be smart.

Some stray thoughts. The Turing test: can you tell that a computer program's conversation is not from a human. Anybody who has had the misfortune to spend much time in AOL chatrooms will realise that many humans don't actually pass this test, and I reckon at least two Big Brother contestants would fail miserably. Most people will have heard of the Eliza program, which imitates Samaritan's counsellors without any real depth but has fooled plenty of people. And gets its spelling right and consistent. Maybe the Turing test program should misspell many words, and accidentally sent private emails to group aliases to fool us properly.

Anyway. This isn't a book to take on lightly. Arm yourself with a good solid desk, so you don't hurt your wrists holding the thing, get a pencil and notebook to keep track of definitions and key ideas, quit your job so you have two months to spare to read it, and away you go. Something to interest everybody...

What The Ladies Say

In the bargain basement section of Hodges Figgis I found a slim juvenile novel by Ursula Le Guin, A Very Long Way From Anywhere Else, which is not SF in even the broadest sense. But it is bloody good. Unlike the romance which ruined Bios for me, this is solely about a romance, between two teenagers who are both too intelligent for the others their age. At least, it's kind of a romance, in that Owen decides that he is surely in love with Natalie, since they couldn't have a friendship between male and female without sex coming into it. It's quite moving, I must admit. And its only 76 pages long, and I paid £1.99 for it, so I'm happy.

I also read two of the three short novels contained in CJCherryh's collection Alternate Realities. "Port Eternity" has a rich woman's pleasure craft, modelled on a Camelot theme and with cloned servants named after major characters in the Arthurian cycle. The craft skips into a strange other reality, ending up being invaded by very strange beings, and then Mordred discovers what his namesake was all about. It sounds unlikely, and it sounds like it should never work, but it does, because Cherryh is such a good writer. Even if I'm still not sure which creatures were invading their ship and which were rescuing them from the invaders.

The second novel in the collection I read was "Voyager in Night", which showed me just how normal the aliens in "Port Eternity" actually were. In the preamble, Cherryh says that she and her editor understood the outcome of this novel differently. Which is one up on me, since I don't think I understood it all. There are characters called, and I do not joke, =<->==<+>=, and </>, although keeping track of them and their personalities was a lot easier than I had expected. Despite not understanding what was going on, there was such great imagery involved, and the human characters were so sympathetic, that I really enjoyed myself reading this. And since the human characters didn't understand what was happening to them either, I can claim that my lack of comprehension was in fact the whole point of the novel. So there.

From sympathetic characters to characters I severely disliked, Barbara Vine's novel The Chimney Sweeper's Boy had only one characters who was at all nice, the others being deeply selfish and blind creations that I felt like slapping several times. Good book, though.

And Elizabeth George's new novel, A Traitor to Memory was a long awaited treat, not as good as her others, I thought, and some politics I felt were too right-wing for my taste (working class is fine, drawing the dole isn't). And there wasn't enough of Havers, her best character. But it was on sale in Dubray books, so I don't begrudge spending my money on it.

Bits

I talked last month about Timehoppers by Robert Silverberg, and how at one point I thought that the plot might involve an attempt to deliberately change the past so that the present would be different. So somebody lent me Timescape by Gregory Benford which involves just that. It was written in 1980, one half set in 1962-1963 in California, the other half set in 1998 in Cambridge. 1998 in Benford's 1980 is pretty different from what it was really like, but this doesn't really detract from the novel - dealing as it does with time paradoxes, it could easily be an alternate reality to the one we ended up living in. This is hard science fiction, done well. I understood the science, more or less, and there were some really nice touches. The main character in 1962, a young physicist called Gordon Bernstein, is so involved in his work that all the other characters in that time line are merely sketched in, the way he sees them as distractions from his work. Most of the characters in the 1998 time line are shown honestly, warts and all. But my main problem with the book is the one of the characters in 1998, who is shown as a stereotypical s**t so much so that he becomes completely unbelievable. We see things from his viewpoint often, and his motivations are on display but not convincing. Maybe I'm wrong, not being a male, and this the way he really would think - anyone able to fill me in? Another problem I had, also with 1998, was the Englishness of the characters. Again, this is only an impression I got, but I thought that there was way too much emphasis on class by all of the characters. It would have been fine from Ian Peterson, who was upper class, but all the English thought about it all the time. Does this really happen? I don't know, but I doubt it. But all in all, a good read, excellent plot and resolution.

The Award for Worst Cover on a book goes to Kim Newman's Bad Dreams, the kind of over the top illustration of a horror scenario that would make you embarrassed to be seen reading it in public if you have any self respect. I'm unemployed and have no self respect left, so I was quite prepared to traipse around Dublin with it mounted on my forehead. It's a really good book, a kind-of vampire kind-of hunting down the family of a playwright, trapping them in dreams that aren't dreams. All sorts of good stuff (or bad stuff, I suppose) happens, the nightmares that are summoned up are really imaginative and accurate, from huge screaming affairs to subtle touches, like one character being told that she wasn't very witty. There's a great part where Anne, protagonist, is trapped inside her father's best known play, dreaming the various possible futures of one of the characters, all radiating out from different endings that he wrote for the play. The whole thing is gory horror done really well, without the verbal diarrhoea of Stephen King, a relatively slim 316 pages, fun all the way through.

If you thought Harry Potter was a publishing phenomenon, have you seen the invasion of the best seller lists by Dave Pelzer? Not SF, of course, he has four books out, three of them detailing his abuse at the hands of his mother and his subsequent rehabilitation, one of them a self help book. I read the first book, A Child Called 'It'. It's short. And the last fifty pages of it are extracts from the other books. Call me cynical and cruel, but he could have got all three volumes into one and still be shorter than your average Tad Williams book. It's also quite badly written. The abuse he suffered was quite horrific, but the tone it is described in is bizarrely bouncy in parts, and stilted in others. He starts a paragraph claiming to describe a general occurrence, and ends the paragraph with specific dialogue. I feel really bad talking this way about what is an important story, I mean I think it is a good thing that there is this published account of what child abuse is like, and I'm sure that for other victims it is uplifting. Somebody told me that she had read it was all made up - I've searched for confirmation of that and have found none, and have found one article stating that nobody claims he made it up, so I believe it is a true story. But. I didn't like it, I didn't think it was a good book.

Harlequin is Bernard Cornwell's latest book, and pretty good it is too. The start of the Hundred Year War, the main protagonist Thomas is an archer in the English army, trying to recover the family treasure that has been stolen: the Lance of St George. Whoever carries it into battle cannot be defeated. Thomas best likes killing Frenchmen, however, and Mr Cornwell best likes describing battles and deaths and blood, and, let's be honest here, I best enjoyed reading those scenes too. It's the first in a series, so I'm looking forward to the sequels, and hoping that they will have plenty of battles as well. With a Hundred Years of war ahead, there should be plenty.

The Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Twice last week I saw a single running shoe lying the middle of the road, and I've been trying to figure out how it got there. Is there a trend for one-legged men to cast aside the signs of global complicity in East Asian sweat shops? A strange new rainfall that should be reported to the Fortean Times? Celtic Tiger consumerism run rampant? Or are they from those kids who wander around with their shoelaces undone, who are too cool to collect a shoe when it inevitably falls off? I'm keeping my eyes peeled for further evidence and will report back.

Publishing news: continuing in the tradition of hard hitting investigative journalism that FRINGE is not known for, I browsed around Amazon.co.uk. Ian McDonald's new novel Ares Express has been out since May, but is not being stocked by Hodges Figgis, although Forbidden Planet have a couple of copies. The fourth book in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, A Dance With Dragons, won't be out until August 2002, and no doubt also won't be stocked by Hodges Figgis. However, Robin Hobb's new novel Fool's Errand is out in October of this year, starts a new trilogy, and sees the return of Fitz, from the Assassin's Quest series.

Big Sandy Planet (With Added Spice!)

I decided to reread Dune for this month's SF Club's Dune night. I've seen the film loads of times, but haven't read the book since I was fifteen, so I needed a refresher. On an almost complete aside, I found that I bought my copy of Dune whilst living in Antigua (hence I remember how old I was when I read it): it was sold in the Shipwreck Shop for A$22, which was equivalent at the time to US$8.25. I was ripped off, I see. Anyway, this makes it the first adult science fiction novel I ever read, having before that stuck to fantasy or kids' stuff. So the story has had a huge effect on me over the years, and it was my first introduction to so many ideas that have been used elsewhere in science fiction. For instance, the implications of sentient machines on society and how we may react to it, a future that is as dystopian and violent as our own, a religion that is manufactured. But the thing about Dune that I had forgotten was that it is also a really good book. I've never read the sequels, so I hunted down copies of some of them, but only got around to reading Dune Messiah, runner up for the Award for Worst Cover in the New England Library Edition. I didn't enjoy it as much, but I did really enjoy the cover. It has guys in Egyptian costumes clutching spears on top of flying saucers! How silly can you get!

The David Lynch film has been hailed by all and sundry as appallingly bad. Certainly it added some bizarre elements that weren't in the book, such as the weapons the Fremen used to generate the Bene Gesserit Voice, and Kyle MacLochlan as Paul Atreides is so completely wrong it makes me squint. On the plus side, it has Sting looking pretty tasty and with very few clothes on, and the Harkonnen grotesqueries are, well, Grotesque.

I haven't seen the TV series, but I think it might be time for someone to make another film of it, and at least have a version where the special effects aren't laughable. Because it is a longish book, maybe the new film should start with the death of Duke Leto, and the solemn kind of voice over giving background. Something has to be cut or else the film will be hideously long. Leonardo Di Caprio is not allowed a part in it, nor is Robin Williams, and I recommend keeping Stephen Spielberg away from it otherwise we'll end up with Cute Kids™ and a race on worm-back. And you'd better keep me away from it as well, otherwise I'll be tempted to add Egyptians on flying saucers...

What's Next

The in-pile at the moment is quite small, next up (already started) is Connie Willis' new novel Passage, Near Death Experiences and what seems like a typical Willis scenario involving a hospital so badly designed nobody can find their way around. Interesting stuff on temporal lobe epilepsy causing religious visions, which I had heard of before but hadn't followed up. Also, Multiple Man by Adam Crabtree, which looks like it hurtles between a history of hypnotism and how this all proves that we can remember past lives. Must... keep... open... mind... And whilst I'm keeping an open mind, I have The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin, which I may need drugs to digest. Anyway, that's all next month, goodbye til then. Comments welcome as always to 199 Charlotte Quay Dock, Ringsend, Dublin 4, or fringe_sf@ireland.com

Copyright © Fionna O'Sullivan, 2001.
Contact fionna@theculture.org
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