Ares Express

By Ian McDonald, 2001, Earthlight, ISBN 0-684-86151-8

Any book with a protagonist named Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th has got to be good, especially when she knows she’s in a story.

In Ares Express, Ian McDonald returns to the rather dreamlike distant future Mars of his earlier Desolation Road (1988). This is a welcome return for all those who enjoyed DR, and AE will not disappoint, although AE is a separate work and only one character makes the crossover between the two.

It’s a fantastical romp through a richly detailed and surreal landscape, strangely believable for all its magical touches. Martian humans are little changed from ourselves, living ordinary lives beneath the barely understood gaze of the Artificial Intelligences that drove the terraforming of the planet. Sweetness is the child of railway engineers, the pilots of the vast fusion-powered trains that link together the disparate cities and communities of the planet. She’s a dissatisfied child for all the pride and arrogance of her clan, for females do not pilot the trains, instead it looks like she’s to be married off into the Stuard clan and a life in their stainless steel kitchens.

Fortunately for the reader, Sweetness isn’t likely to take to this particular destiny without some rebellion, and when she realises that she’s featuring in her very own story, she’s off at right angles to the tracks and into a series of mishaps and lucky escapes that lead her into a search for her dead twin (who lives in mirrors) and ultimately a struggle to save the very fabric of her universe…

McDonald writes vividly. His prose in itself is reason enough to read the book, bringing the strange world to life and entrancing the reader at every step. Sweetness’ own knowledge that she’s living a story might put off those who are not fond of such indulgences, but on McDonald’s Mars, where reality itself is subject to manipulation, it fits right in among all the other weird and wonderful events and beliefs and magical technologies.

Delightfully written, pure escapism – this is one of the best books I’ve read for quite some time. Go and lose yourself among the vast trains, uploaded demi-gods, reality-twisting AIs and insane Cults on McDonald’s Mars.

Uses for conceptual art (1)

This post was inspired by a visit to the Tate Modern a week or so back. I’m not particularly sophisticated when it comes to the visual arts, I tend to make judgements purely on an aesthetic level rather than an intellectual one. This might not be the best attitude to take to a gallery specialising in a form of art which is often better understood by thinking about it rather than just looking at it, and can be quite bizarre and ugly on a superficial level.

There are many pieces on show that are pretty to look at, but I felt that these were outnumbered a bit by the stranger stuff. I have to confess that I became rather tired of looking at strange objects piled in seemingly random collections and reading blurbs which over used words like “referential”, “concept”, “commentary” and “money for old rope”.

The problem with a certain selection of work is that you have to be a bit of an arts geek to stand a chance of “getting it”, as it’s meaning can only be seen in relation to it’s referents or to a certain school of thought in the art world to which it is a comment upon or an extreme example of. Much of this kind of art seems to be the equivalent of a thought experiment given form, and while this might make one of the cognoscenti pause and think “how clever”, it just serves to puzzle or frustrate the less knowledgeable visitor.

Some of the more politically orientated pieces held my interest a bit more, for instance the work of Sarah Lucas, some of which drew inspiration from the portrayal of women in popular culture, and can be seen as a visual expression of the artists views and a comment upon the culture in which they live. At least I can look at this and begin to understand what sort of framework the piece exists in.

The real treat in the end was the people watching. In order to stop feeling like a bit of a Philistine who was rather missing the point, I stopped paying a great deal of attention to the art and started watching the reactions of the people looking at it. There were plenty of blank looks and creased brows along with the thoughtful nodding and semi-informed commentary. Possibly the most amusing moment was watching the reactions of a collection of people gathered round a screen showing a video of a man in a silly mask and a pair of boxing gloves when he stopped punching himself in the face and started to masturbate. Several of them had children with them, and they’d obviously missed the adult material warning signs on the walls outside the room (possibly assuming them to be exhibits). The exodus from the room was accompanied by the sound of middle class indignation, almost a work of art in itself.

One thing that you are reminded of when wandering through the Tate Modern is that artists were producing bizarre sculptures and unusual pictures long before the current fuss over “conceptual art” and the Turner Prize ever hit the headlines. I have found that the media circus each year over the Turner prize is often more interesting than the entries, and was pleased to find a similar approach helped me get plenty out of a visit to the Tate Modern.

The Praxis, by Walter John Williams

Published by Earthlight in the UK

I just finished reading this the other day, bought with some of the book tokens I got for Christmas, and as it was such an enjoyable read I felt obliged to give it a bit of hype, despite the fact that most of what I say below has been said before.

I’d encountered some fairly good reviews of this (see below for some links) before I picked it up, but I’d been meaning to get it anyway as I’ve enjoyed WJW in the past. It’s a Space Opera in the classic sense, complete with galaxy-spanning decadent empire, aliens, planet-busting weaponry, dramatic space battles, and most of what you’d expect from such a work.

The aliens who thousands of years previously had established the empire and it’s code of ethics (the Praxis) by ruthlessly conquering everyone else – humanity included – have been dying out gradually, and the death of the last member of the race occurs during the book, triggering all sorts of events best left out of this brief commentary. The story follows two human characters, both of whom are fun to read about and I found myself interested in both of their fates. The pace doesn’t really pick up until the last half/third of the book, but when it does the action comes thick and fast and I found myself up late reading the last sections.

Although The Praxis doesn’t really break any ground in terms of innovative plot structure, amazing new technology or particularly well rounded aliens, it’s a fine example of it’s type. It’s the sort of book you’d expect to see from an accomplished writer like WJW who’s decided to sit down and pen a classic space opera, and as such is highly readable and I recommend it for those times when the future shock is getting too much and you’d like to get back to the old days of ray guns, rocket ships and adrenalin. It’s the first book in a sequence too, so there’s the next in the series to look forward to once you’ve finished off this one.

Other reviews available online include:

  • A Post on rec.arts.sf.written by Charlie Stross here.
  • A review at Infinity Plus here.
  • And a short review in the Guardian here.

Walter John Williams has a website.

The Two Towers

On a lighter note, I went to see this last night – fantastic! I’m not going to attempt to review it here at the moment, suffice to say that if you enjoyed Part 1, you’ll enjoy this. Get to your cinemas!

Die Another Day

Note: this might contain spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen the film.

I think that I’m getting too old for Bond. Went to see the new one last night and have to say that while it was fun, it was also disappointing. Now I know that one shouldn’t expect too much from Bond movies, but still.

At first I found it a little difficult to pin down exactly what it was that I didn’t like, I just left the Cinema with a feeling of disappointment. I certainly found that the film didn’t quite carry my attention, although that might have had something to do with the irritating group of teenagers who kept whooping whenever Halle Berry appeared on the screen. I think that the film suffers from trying to compete with the modern action movie, where constant fast-paced action sequences and flashy effects take precedence over scene setting and plot development. From what I recall of the Bond films from earlier decades there was often a lot of scene setting along with the action, and what action there was wasn’t always of the breakneck variety prevalent in today’s action movies. This can probably be partly explained by the capabilities of new technology (not to mention the enthusiastic desire to use it as much as possible), but it doesn’t always make for a good film. DAD was basically a series of intense action sequences spliced together with a small amount of banter and a bit of background, and I think that it suffered from trying to follow this model. Leave it to Vin Diesel. Please.

I also suffered a lapse in my suspension of disbelief faculty, which can take quite a lot given the amount of SF I read (although that can often make it a more rigorous faculty, but that’s a different subject). Bond movies pretty much have to contain a plethora of cool gizmos, but the car’s invisibility mode… I know, I know – in the past there’ve been lots of similar things, but this got to me. The improvised windsurfing escape also boggled a bit, as did the fact that the aeroplane managed to survive it’s trip though Icarus’ beam of concentrated sunlight (well, maybe it just clipped the edge or something). The sheer quantity of ideas caused a bit of overload too.

Brosnan makes an OK Bond, although I always find his delivery of the trademark quips a little unconvincing. Maybe it’s just growing up with Connery and Moore, but those two could both pull this aspect of the role off far better than either Dalton or Brosnan. He gets higher marks on the sophisticated amoral killer persona. I happen to like Dench as M and Cleese as Q, Dench gets that exasperated-with-but-fond-of relationship with Bond just right, and Cleese is, well, Cleese, and I suppose that if you like him then you’ll like him in this role.

Over all DAD gave me the impression of being an action movie trying to be a Bond movie. This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt this about the more recent offerings, and I think that there’s something about the whole franchise that doesn’t quite work for me outside of the context of the 60s and 70s. Having said that, I’ll probably go and see the next one (apparently Brosnan has agreed to do another), and I’m sure that it will proove to be an entertaining couple of hours. Despite my gripes, the film is watchable and entertaining and has some good set pieces (I enjoyed the sword fight), but I don’t rate this as classic Bond. Go watch it, and make up your own mind.