Flawed Research Indicated Nine Goats Eaten

Issue 13 May/June 2003

A Month That Flew

This month's excuse for being late: I still feel like I'm resting on my laurels after finally getting last month's FRINGE onto the web when I (eventually) said that I would. Firstly, I would like to apologise to all readers in Helsinki for the amount of snow we got at the start of April, obviously all my fault for writing about how winter was ended. I now know better than to challenge the Weather like that. I won't do it again.

My announcement of the competition for a title for FRINGE was greeted with a surge of apathy that left me reeling, with a grand total of six entries, five of them from the same person. Entered into a hat, and drawn by myself posing as a lovely assistant, I can reveal that Martin McGrane is the lucky winner. After negotiations over what his prize may be, he has selected a somewhat informed tour of Helsinki and a signed copy of the no. 14 bus timetable. You too could be this lucky!

There's been some confusion about the mailing list I mentioned last time. I am not going to email out copies of FRINGE, I am just going to send out a mail when I publish a new issue. On that topic, I can tell you now that there will not be an August issue, as I will be too busy doing other things in July, but September's issue will see me back from Finncon and a report on that. October's issue will have a report from Rancon in Stockholm. I'm not going to any of the Irish cons this year, I can't afford it.


If you haven't read any Tim Powers, then it is difficult to precisely describe what sub genre his books fit into. (And if you haven't read any Tim Powers, you should be ashamed of yourself.) They are fantasy, that much is easy to say. They are close to magic realism, in that they take place in the real world, or at least a world that is recognisable as our own. I would call them modern urban fantasy, except that not all of them are modern, not all of them are urban.

What Powers does that makes his books some of my favourites is take the world that we know and put a twist on it, without actually changing any of the facts. You can finish one of his books, and then go outside and see exactly the same things you saw before, but with a different interpretation. In Expiration Date for instance, the behaviour of street drunks is explained because they are less-than-sentient ghosts - their smell is because they have still the habits of life, eating and drinking, without the insides to process that intake. In The Stress of Her Regard, the antipathy felt towards Percy Bysshe Shelley by most of his contempories is not because of his atheism, but the natural revulsion that humans feel towards vampires.

Declare, which won a well-deserved World Fantasy award, sees him take on the mystery surrounding Kim Philby. A mystery, I should confess, that I was very hazy on before now. Most of us would know Philby's name, he was one of the circle of Soviet spies working in British Intelligence in the 50s and 60s, who defected and then died in obscurity, under suspicion and out of usefulness. In an interesting (and extremely useful, for a lazy reviewer like myself) Author's Note, Powers explains what it was about Philby's life that he felt needed explaining in his own particular style. Philby spent 2 days in drunken inconsolable grief at the death of his pet fox in 1962. Why? Obviously because the fox was an incarnation of his own domineering father, back from the grave. How did he escape with barely a scratch from the car he was in was attacked by a Russian artillery round in 1937? He was wearing a coat of his father's (fact) that protects the wearer from harm (Powers).

Despite what I've said above, this book isn't really about Kim Philby. He is in it, and details of his life emerge, but he isn't the main protagonist, and we don't much care what happens to him. The protagonist is Andrew Hale, born in the Middle East in 1929, brought up in the Home Counties by his ex-nun mother, sponsored in some obscure way by the British Intelligence services. In 1941 he is officially taken aboard by James Theodora, to work for the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, a secretive branch of the Special Intelligence Services. His first assignment is to be recruited by the Communist spy network and set up as a radio operative in occupied Paris.

Paris is where he meets and falls in love with Elena, a kind of tiresome romantic thread that runs through the book, but also where he discovers the counter-rhythm. The way I found to best understand this: think of the way that the Fremen walk across the sand in Dune so as not to attract the attention of Spice Worms. In Declare, this counter-rhythm is the pace used by the gypsies to escape attention, and the way that Hale discovers is the best to use to transmit his radio messages, and the trance he slips into when he does so is when he starts to hear thoughts that aren't his own.

From wartime Paris to post war Berlin, and Hale is now on a mission to observe a Soviet operation to bury an asteroid at the point where East meets West. Not just any asteroid. This asteroid marks the edge of the territory controlled by Russia's Guardian Angel, a djinn "kidnapped" from the Middle East shortly after the birth of the Soviet Union, and a creature that needs to be destroyed for the USSR to fall.

Skip forward again, to Turkey in 1948, and Hale is leading an expedition to the top of Mount Arafat to try and destroy what is popularly believed to be the remains of Noah's Ark, but in reality is a colony of djinn. Hale seems to have an affinity with the djinn, he can make himself seem one of them, and although the mission fails, Hale survives.

And a final skip forward. 1963. Hale has to finally complete the mission started in 1948, force Philby to defect to the USSR, and ultimately secure the collapse of the Soviet Union. To do so, he has to convince the Russians that he has turned traitor, despite the fact that they now know he was acting as a double agent in Paris during the Second World War.

So, we have a fantasy spy thriller. "Gripping" doesn't even begin to describe it. Geeky girl thrills at radio communication networks and codes aside, there are all the elements that make a thriller a good read, executed by a talented author. Plus there are the fantasy elements. We can't even start to guess at the real motives of Philby until they are actually revealed, although perhaps my babbling so far has given some clues. The characters are well drawn, even Hale who starts off as the blank young man we are supposed to identify with, becomes rounded and human.

If I can be forgiven from launching into personal and possibly maudlin stuff now. Spending hellish years as a teenager in a small West Cork village, thrillers (especially Cold War thrillers) used to strike me as the ultimate escapism literature: the distance between their nervy drama and talk down the village pubs about milk quotas made them seem far more remote than books about elves and dragons. So alien, in fact, that I gave up reading them. In a very strange way, Declare made the thriller more approachable and more real for me. A thriller, but to make me feel at home, lots of stuff about fighting a supernatural race of beings. Call me strange: everybody else does. But read this book.

The Alien Alien

What might be called a trope running through science fiction is the exploration of aliens that are so alien, we cannot even begin to understand them. It is a trope that I like a lot - given how we cannot reliably communicate with gorrilas and chimps, species closer to our own than any other, never mind other mammals, and never mind the fact that we often cannot communicate with each other, I'm not into the Star Trek view of the universe that gives us ability to learn alien languages within minutes or, at max, days, and then happily communicate with only the odd "I do not understand this Earthling concept of Hate" thrown in. Try learning Finnish, and then see how long a time it will take you to learn to communicate with aliens.

A whistle stop tour of books and authors I think best touch on this area. Robert Silverberg in a large chunk of his work, but especially see The Alien Years and also its inspiration, HG Wells's The War of the Worlds. C. J. Cherryh - almost all of her books deal in some way with being alien from what surrounds you, whether from other humans who grew up in a different context from you (another pet topic of mine) to her Foreigner series, where a human emissary deals with an alien race that has no idea what it means to "like" another being. Maureen F. McHugh writes a lot about communication breakdowns, human to human, solely to do with language and cultural barriers - it felt real even before I started living in Finland.

Stanislaw Lem's Solaris is deservedly ranked amongst the best books exploring this topic, and I finally got around to reading it this past month. Solaris is a planet that orbits twin stars, long ignored by scientists as being unlikely to contain life due to the gravity fluctuations inflicted on planets in bi-solar systems, and the irregular nature that its orbit would possess. Until it is noticed that something is evening out those fluctuations and irregularities, and a scientific stampede takes place to discover the reason. Life is discovered on Solaris, life of a sort, life so extraordinary that many cannot decide whether it is life at all. The ocean that covers the vast majority of the planet's surface is controlling the planet's orbit. As well as creating structure and machines, the ocean contacts the visitors after a fashion, mimicing some of their actions, but ultimately it seems that the two species will never be able to communicate.

When Kris Kelvin arrives on Solaris to continue studying the ocean, he finds the scientific station in disarray, his predecessor dead of an apparent suicide, his other two colleagues hiding from him and each other, and strangest of all, something that seems to be his long dead fiancee. Other creatures wander the station, with only one place that they could have come from.

Possibly the oddest First Contact story of all, like the best Science Fiction Solarisuses a gripping plot to explore what it means to be human, or more properly, what it means to be a person. It is slightly dated as far as the setting is concerned (the science station is distinctly 1960s Soviet in design), and the way that the scientists communicate with each can sometimes feel a little stilted and old-fashioned, from a time when formality was the norm. However, considering that it was written over forty years ago, what is most impressive is that I cannot call to mind another, more recent, novel that explores the same ideas that the ending of Solaris does.

Vappu - the Finnish Drinking Holiday

The 1st of May is celebrated in Finland in a way unlike anywhere else in Europe, and is alarming, to say the least, to the unsuspecting foreigner. The general idea, drinking yourself into a stupor with only the flimsiest excuse for doing so, is similar to St. Patrick's day, but the naturally reserved Finns throw themselves into celebrations with an enthusiasm that puts the Irish to shame.

As well as a workers' holiday, it is also traditionally the day that students finish their year, and used to be the day that the schools broke for summer holidays as well. The holiday kicks off at 6pm on 30th April, when the statue of the naked woman by the harbour in Helsinki is 'hatted'. Senior secondary school students graduate with a peaked cap, white velvet with a black band, and a larger version of this is lowered onto the statue. Everybody at this point waves their own hat in the air, and are then allowed to put them on and start celebrating (although I noticed that there were very few people who hadn't already started).

So at this point, the unsuspecting foreigner is surrounded by hundreds of people, of all ages, wearing almost identical hats and now waving bottles of champagne. The other strange thing is the overalls that the students wear. Each university school or faculty supplies its students with a different coloured set of overalls, useful for keeping their clothes clean whilst sleeping in a ditch, which are then ornamented with numerous badges and patches. People exchange pieces of their overalls with friends in other faculties, so that you see people wearing mainly yellow overalls with one pink leg and a navy blue cuff, for instance. It looks bizarre to say the least, but makes for a colourful crowd.

Last year at Vappu I was barely arrived in Finland and knew nobody, so wandered bemused through the crowds of increasingly drunken Finns before heading early to bed. This year, my friend Matilda (hi Matilda!) promised me that I would be experiencing Vappu in the Finnish style. I started worrying about my hangover. After witnessing the hatting, where an old school friend of Matilda's was one of the people suspended in the air holding the hat, and where I discovered that the quarter bottle of sparkling wine I had hurriedly picked up the previous evening was Finnish and quite revolting, we went on to dinner with some more of Matilda's school friends. The previous year the dinner had apparently been riotous, coming close to fisti-cuffs with other diners. This year was restrained and civilised by comparison, the restaurant being slightly too chic for singing drinking songs and throwing salt cellars. Drinking songs being compulsory for a good Vappu night out, we retired to a nearby park, and conducted with a pompom, serenaded passersby.

Next to a pub, with more singing and more drinking. Then a call from two cast members of the musical - they were down by the sea taking a swim, did we want to come along. Nubile twenty-year-old men taking a swim being something I find hard to resist, we traipsed down there, through Kaivopuisto park where the school kids were doing their underage drinking and being carted away to hospital by what seemed like the score. At the end of a wooden pier I was confronted by a very large, very drunk and very wet young man I had never met before: "Fionna! If you want to take a swim, we have towels!" I looked at the ice floes bobbing against the boats and politely declined. The insanity of Finns knows no limits.

Why I will never be a travel writer: lashing rain and gale force winds put me off heading into town at an insane hour the following morning and having a picnic in the park. I must be getting old. Apparently it was "the most fun", Matilda told me over the phone, shouting to be heard over the sounds of wet plastic tenting flapping in the background. Uhuh. Maybe next year it will be sunny.

In Brief

I first read a review of Sabriel by Garth Nix on usenet back in about 1997, and a full six years later I finally found a copy of it. This is what adolescent fantasy should be. Simply written, beautifully imagined, intriguing - I adored it. Sabriel's father Abhorsen is responsible for patrolling the gates of Death to make sure that no creatures enter the land of the living that shouldn't. Until he goes missing, probably trapped in Death itself, and she must take up the tools of his craft. Set in a variant of Scotland, it's a world that I would like to hear more about. The character of Sabriel is convincing, and her dawning sexuality is done well. Philip Pullman eat your heart out.

Shadows Fall by Simon R. Green should be a television miniseries. A town where myths and stories go to die when nobody believes in them any more, governed (more or less) by Father Time, the setting is by far and away the best thing about this book. The plot is fairly average, in my opinion, and a little tedious so I won't go into it. The writing itself is... clunky. Green may once have heard about the writer's maxim to "show, not tell" but he doesn't follow it. The characters are mainly caricatures, and also interchangeable. The most irritating part, however, is the inconsistencies in plot lines and characterisation. For instance, Polly has been trapped in her own house by ghosts of her own making for years now, portrayed as lonely and fractured and friendless. She is rescued, somewhat briskly, by Our Hero, and immediately goes to visit her dearest friend Suzanne whom she has spoken to on the phone every day for all those years - not so lonely, fractured and friendless, then. I struggled to finish it, and certainly didn't care about the ending.

I felt the same way about the first Elizabeth Moon I read, Sheepfarmers Daughter, many years ago. I hadn't touched any of her other books since, until a title caught my eye and I warily bought Speed of Dark. A story of an autistic coping in a near-future world, as well as a very accurate portrayal of employment in a large corporation, this is a surprisingly good book, which left me thoughtful and pleased. It won't set your world on fire, but it is well worth reading.

Stone is the first book I have read by Adam Roberts, who seems to be Alastair Reynolds' main competition for the title of Hot New Thing in British SF. It suffered by being read between Declare and Sabriel, but is still worthwhile. A well-imagined future universe, almost entirely crime free, it is narrated by Ae, possibly the only murderer in the human universe. Good space opera, good plot, lots of fun.


I didn't get enough Letters of Comment for a column, so I will save up the few that I have for next issue. Notice how I am not sayng "next month" any more. I don't think we can expect FRINGE to be regular at all, I have too many other things happening in my life. It will still be published, not to be abandoned again, but writing it to a deadline is proving impossible. Hopefully this won't upset too many people - though it would be flattering if maybe one person would get upset. But it's a hobby, not my life, and is prioritised as such.

I didn't get to see everybody I hoped to see on my recent trip to Ireland, and of those I did see some of them I didn't see for long enough. Such is the life of of an ex-pat, and I will toss my head and look hard done by, and maybe even tragic. Next trip home will be immediately after FinnCon, so the first week in August, and the August Sci-Fi Club meeting. Hope to see people there!

Copyright © Fionna O'Sullivan, 2003.



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