The Crucible of Time: a book review


The Crucible of Time by John Brunner (1983)

I recently re-read The Crucible of Time by science fiction author John Brunner (1934–1995). It is one of the last great triumphant-rise-of-human-progress novels where, in spite of all kinds of natural disasters, the inhabitants of a planet drag themselves through thousands of years of scientific development in order to escape their doomed planet (around the 80’s, science fiction became darker and more dystopian, as indeed, many of Brunner’s other novels are). What makes this novel stand out from a rather dull subgenre is that the characters are not human at all, but are some kind of mollusc. When you can get your readers to identify emotionally with a sort of intelligent slug or squid, then you’ve got serious writing talent: “‘But – !’ She sank back, at a loss. For the first time it was possible to see how pretty she was, her torso sleek and sturdy, her claws and mandibles as delicate as a flyet’s. Her maw still crowded, she went on, ‘But I always thought you and Professor Wam were enemies! When I heard you were giving a lecture and she had agreed to reply to you, I couldn’t really believe it, but I decided I had to be present, because you’re both on the other side from my parents. They are crazy, aren’t they? Please tell me they’re crazy! And then explain how you two can be acting like friends right here and now! I mean,’ she concluded beseechingly, ‘you don’t smell like enemies to each other!’

At one level, The Crucible of Time is a strange tirade against religion, having set up a universe in which the religious leaders are, by construction, dangerously wrong. This gives Brunner’s characters some more immediate opponents than the impending disaster itself, but these opponents seem a little too much like cardboard cut-outs most of the time. I was left somewhat confused as to why the universe of the novel contained religion at all. An evolutionary argument was implied, but it didn’t seem to make sense.

The novel (or rather, collection of linked stories) does have some fascinating descriptions of a civilisation that’s built mostly, but not entirely, on biology – in contrast to ours, which is built mostly, but not entirely, on physics. Brunner avoids tedious descriptions by giving animals names that suggest English equivalents. The alien equivalent of a domesticated camel is a drom, for example. The large domesticated water-creatures that perform the function of ships are barqs, briqs, and junqs: “‘Correct! Well, if a mindless plant can find a way to spread beyond its isolated patch, why shouldn’t we? Did it ever strike you that there must have been a first person who pithed a barq or briq, just as there was certainly a first who tamed a junq? Then, folk were confined to continents or islands, and had to trudge wearily from place to place unless they had a drom—and someone, equally, must have been first to ride a drom!’

In a similar vein are words like laq, sourgas, and stumpium (named after the planet Stumpalong). Checking Internet reviews, this aspect of the novel seems to be both loved and hated.

But I consider this novel to be one of the great science fiction classics; it’s well worth a read. See here for a more detailed review and plot summary.


The Crucible of Time by John Brunner: 3½ stars


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Superman is boring

Superman, as orginally described, was invulnerable. Having a hero with superpowers that are too strong makes for a boring story, because a good story needs conflict. There are several ways of handling that, of course.

1. Kryptonite weakens my powers

According to some accounts, kryptonite was invented specifically to make Superman less invulnerable and boring (Paul Fairchild explains why this was a bad decision). Kryptonite, of one kind or another, is a classic solution to the problem of an overly strong superhero which, to some extent, has been used by multiple authors. It can be overused, however. If your superhero is always weak, why have such a character at all? A better variation of this approach is for the protagonist to carry his or her own metaphorical kryptonite inside, as some kind of “fatal flaw.”

2. My powers come at a heavy cost

This is one of the easiest ways for an author to ensure that his or her character does not overuse their superpowers. These superpowers may cause pain, coma, physical harm, or other damage that enforces a break between uses of the superpowers. For example, the psychic Greg Mandel in Peter F. Hamilton’s Mindstar Rising and its two sequels suffers severe headaches when his powers are used to excess. Variations of this approach are used in a number of fantasy novels.

3. My powers disturb or frighten me

A good example of this option is Doctor Who, in the eponymous TV series, who often needs to be talked into taking action. The advantage of this approach is that it produces a great deal of interesting dialogue on why the superpowers are disturbing or frightening.

4. I am still learning to use my powers

This option is particularly common in young adult fiction. It allows the author to have an attempted use of powers either succeed or fail at any point; but this makes sense with a young protagonist. The young magician Pug in Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga is a good example. So is Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie trilogy. To some extent, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings can be viewed as having a combination of (3) and (4). But, however the author does it, I think that some limitation on superpowers is essential for a story to remain interesting. What do you think?


Crosstalk: a book review


Crosstalk by Connie Willis (2016)

I recently read, with great enjoyment, the science-fiction romantic comedy Crosstalk by Connie Willis. This novel is reminiscent of her previous books Bellwether and Passage. Like Bellwether, it is set in a high-tech company (this time, a mobile-phone company), and has the fast-paced craziness of Howard Hawks movies such as Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Like Passage, it has a hospital staircase scene, and explores themes relating to neuroscience and parapsychology.

The social commentary in Crosstalk focuses mainly on social media and the dangers of too much communication. The novel begins: “By the time Briddey pulled into the parking garage at Commspan, there were forty-two text messages on her phone. The first one was from Suki Parker—of course—and the next four were from Jill Quincy, all saying some variant of ‘Dying to hear what happened.’ Suki’s said, ‘Heard rumor Trent Worth took you to Iridium!???’ Of course you did, Briddey thought. Suki was Commspan’s very own Gossip Girl. And that meant by now the whole company knew it. …

To say too much more than that would involve spoilers. The Guardian also liked the novel, but the LA Times did not. I’m giving it four stars.

* * * *
Crosstalk by Connie Willis: 4 stars


True Stories – a book review


True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford

I recently finished True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford – a collection of real gems by a man who can truly write. A selection of essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction works, this book is divided into the thematic sections “Cold,” “Red,” “Sacred,” “Technical,” and “Printed.” The section “Technical,” for example, includes a piece on British engineering, together with a wide-ranging essay on Babbage’s “Difference Engine No. 2,” reconstructed by the Science Museum, London. Babbage never completed this device, of course, and perhaps could not have done so, given the technological limitations of his time. This leads Spufford into a general reflection on counterfactual history, drawing also on the novel The Difference Engine.

The section “Cold” includes several pieces on polar exploration, such as an introduction written for The Worst Journey in the World (a memoir of the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition), and a piece on Ernest Shackleton. I’ve been fascinated by polar exploration since childhood, so I found these particularly interesting.


Grotto in an iceberg, photographed during the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition (image credit)

The section “Red” deals largely with the former Soviet Union. It includes an explanation of Spufford’s fictional documentary book Red Plenty, and the essay “The Soviet Moment,” which is still online at The Guardian: “It was not the revolutionary country people were thinking of, all red flags and fiery speechmaking, pictured through the iconography of Eisenstein movies; not the Stalinesque Soviet Union of mass mobilisation and mass terror and austere totalitarian fervour. This was, all of a sudden, a frowning but managerial kind of a place, a civil and technological kind of a place, all labs and skyscrapers, which was doing the same kind of things as the west but threatened – while the moment lasted – to be doing them better. American colleges worried that they weren’t turning out engineers in the USSR’s amazing numbers. Bouts of anguished soul-searching filled the op-ed pages of European and American newspapers, as columnists asked how a free society could hope to match the steely strategic determination of the prospering, successful Soviet Union. … The loudest and most important lesson of the Soviet experience should always be: don’t ever do this again. Children, don’t try this at home. … Yet we’d better remember to sympathise with the underlying vision that drove this disastrous history, because it is basically our own.

The section “Sacred,” obviously, deals with religion (Spufford is an English Anglican). It includes a critique of Richard Dawkins, a reflection on C. S. Lewis, and a record of travels in Iran. The New Humanist still has online the essay beginning “Allow me to annoy you with the prospect of mutual respect between believers and atheists. … No? No. Because the idea of atheism as an extravagant faith-driven deviation from the null case goes against one of the most cherished elements in the self-image of polemical unbelief: that atheism is somehow scientific, that it is to be adopted as the counterpart in the realm of meaning to the caution and rigour of the scientific method.


Spufford visited the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran (image credit)

Finally, the section “Printed” includes miscellaneous introductions and book reviews, including an introduction to The Jungle Book, a review of the Mars trilogy, and an obituary of Iain M. Banks. This last section reflects Spufford’s wide-ranging interests in technology, exploration, and imagination. For me, at least, it established a connection of sorts with the author: we read the same things; we are brothers.


The last section of True Stories includes a review of the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

See The New York Times and the New York Journal of Books for other reviews of True Stories. I’m giving it four stars overall, although several of the individual essays deserve five. This book was a delight to read.

* * * *
True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford: 4 stars


Climate Fiction

Someone told me the other day about climate fiction (cli-fi). I had no idea that it had become a genre. The difficulty with climate change, of course, is that it is slow. Anthropogenic climate change has been going on for more than a century, and is likely to continue for decades to come. The slowness of the process creates challenges for managing it, and also challenges for the novelist. It is a little like tying the hero to the railway tracks, and then having a train head to him at walking pace from miles away. The hero is doomed, but nothing dramatic will happen for a while. How does the reader sustain interest in the hero’s dilemma?

One solution for the novelist is to speed up the process, most commonly through a scenario involving a shutdown of the Gulf Stream. This would cause massive freezing in the US, a huge increase in Arctic ice, a consequent increase in albedo, and hence global cooling. This scenario has been explored in the film The Day After Tomorrow and in a trilogy of novels by Kim Stanley Robinson – Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). There seems to be a flood of recent novels following in Robinson’s footsteps.

More usually, novelists assume that a particular climate change scenario has happened, and set their novel in the aftermath. This literary approach has existed for a while. The novel may be primarily dystopian, as in The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard (1962) or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003).

Alternatively, the effects of climate change can simply be part of the setting, with the plot of the novel concentrating on other things. Much recent science fiction would fall in this category. A good example would be the “Event Horizon” trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton – Mindstar Rising (1993), A Quantum Murder (1994), and The Nano Flower (1995). However, I’m not sure it makes sense to describe such novels as “cli-fi” – they are simply novels in which climate change forms a significant part of the setting. What do my readers think?

Update: see also this 2016 article by Sarah Stankorb and this website with incredibly annoying background music by Dan Bloom (who claims to have coined the term “cli-fi”).


Lotus Blue: a book review


Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks (377 pages, published 2017)

I recently read, with great enjoyment, the hot new post-apocalyptic novel Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks. I’m a sucker for the genre, and this novel has shades of Dune, Mad Max, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and the works of Roger Zelazny – yet is not derivative. As a fan of the trans-Australia World Solar Challenge, I particularly liked the caravan of solar trucks on the cover. The cover also shows the falling satellite which marks the emergent threat to the world of the novel.

While opening with a solar-powered trading caravan, the novel has a few flashbacks to the three centuries of war that created the dystopian world of the story: “Mighty tankers were on the move, travelling in tight formation grids. Working together, not attacking each other. Not something you saw every day. Those mechabeasts had once roamed wild and free, following their own whims, their own flights of fancy. But something had changed. Something had gotten hold of their minds. Synchronous rhythm locked them into step. For Marianthe, the sight brought on a stream of flashbacks: glory days, when command and strategy spiked through her arteries like a virus. Like a drug. A platoon full of hearts beating in syncopation. You could feel your brother and sister soldiers, know they had your back, your breath, your sweat.” I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but of course that savage past collides with the protagonist’s present, and that’s where the adventure begins.

Some readers seem to have found the world, and the range of characters, somewhat confusing; I thought the level of complexity of the novel was just about perfect. I enjoyed both the characters and the world in which they were set. This book has had a fair bit of revision and polishing before hitting the shelves, and it shows (although a plethora of typos suggests some rather poor final editing). My only real complaint was that, although I liked Star, the 17-year-old protagonist, I would have liked to have seen more of her older sister Nene, the healer (why does Nene just vanish from the story?). With luck, this novel will have a sequel or two.

By the way, a blog post I read recently suggested that the protagonist of a young adult (YA) novel should:

  • Be aged between 15 to 18 years old (Star is 17)
  • Be autonomous from his or her parents (Star is an orphan)
  • Embark on a journey which has to do with coming of age or some sort of rite of passage (Yes, she does)
  • Learn something about who he or she is (Yes, in spades)
  • Have a ‘voice’ that readers can relate to (Yes again)

So OK, this is a YA novel, although it has not been specifically marketed as such. What that means is that it suits the age range from 14 up to and including adult (as opposed to, say, Great North Road, which is written for adults only). Having said that, for the benefit of parents of younger readers, I should point out that there is some bad language, but that the only mention of sexuality is 25 words on page 3: “Remy. Star should never have slept with him. He’d been hanging around her ever since, as if she would ever make the same mistake again.” And Star has quite a clear sense of what is, and is not, the right thing to do.

For me, this novel ended with a “Planet of the Apes” moment, since Cat Sparks has set part of the novel in the vicinity of her home town of Canberra, Australia. Calling one of the fortress cities “Nisn” was a clue I missed first time around – but I could hardly miss the reference to the Brindabella Range. I also finished this book with a strong sense of wanting to read more from this author. Lotus Blue was one of the best books I’ve read this year.


Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks: 4 stars


The Three-Body Problem trilogy: a book review


The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin

I recently read (in translation, of course) the popular The Three-Body Problem science fiction trilogy by Liu Cixin. These books explore the idea of first contact, and touch on several topics that I have posted about before (such as the Fermi paradox and the 3-body problem itself). I enjoyed reading them (the first two books more than the third). It was fascinating to read a Chinese view on some of the issues explored.

The novels are somewhat darker than classic Western science fiction, largely due to the shadow cast by the Cultural Revolution. But given the possibility of aliens like the Borg, the Daleks, and the Vang, perhaps interstellar optimism is just naive. And apparently, most contemporary Chinese science fiction is even more pessimistic than that of Liu (one of the characters in the first novel comments on this).

It seemed a little strange that Liu accepts the speed-of-light limit on space travel, but allows faster-than-light communication (which other authors have called an ansible). After all, both relativity and quantum mechanics forbid such a technology. Still, any depiction of truly advanced technology is going to read like fantasy, and the plot did require an ansible (although partway through the trilogy, the speed-of-light limit seemed to vanish even for ordinary communication).

These books (at least the first two) are well worth a read. Wired magazine also posted a review last year, and Nature had an interview with the author.


The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin: 3.5 stars