Not a BSFA Best Novel 2010 Nominee: Flood by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)

Title: Flood
Author: Stephen Baxter
Pages: 480
Genre: Science Fiction
Standalone/Series: Series
Release: Out Now in Paperback
Publisher: Gollancz

Synopsis

Next year. Sea levels begin to rise. The change is far more rapid than any climate change predictions; metres a year. Within two years London, only 15 metres above the sea, is drowned. New York follows, the Pope gives his last address from the Vatican, Mecca disappears beneath the waves.
Where is all the water coming from? Scientists estimate that the earth was formed with seas 30 times in volume their current levels. Most of that water was burnt off by the sun but some was locked in the earth’s mantle. For the tip of Everest to disappear beneath the waters would require the seas to triple their volume. That amount of water is still much less than 1% of the earth’s volume. And somehow it is being released. The world is drowning. The biblical flood has returned.

And the rate of increase is building all the time. Mankind is on the run, heading for high ground. Nuclear submarines prowl through clouds of corpses rising from drowned cities, populations are decimated and finally the dreadful truth is known. Before 50 years have passed there will be nowhere left to run.

Flood tells the story of mankind’s final years on earth. The stories of a small group of people caught up in the struggle to survive are woven into a tale of unimaginable global disaster. And the hope offered for a unlucky few by a second great ark . . .

The ultimate disaster – the world is drowning and there is nowhere left on earth to go.

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

If I’m being honest I wouldn’t have been reading Flood if Ark wasn’t nominated for the BSFA Best Novel this year. Why? You’ll have to excuse the pun but I thought that Stephen Baxter was going to be dry and academic. I really did, which is my immediate reaction to most heavy SF writers. Though to be far I think that most pure fantasy writers are going to be dry and boring too, seeing as I’m being honest.

But like my assertions on heavy SF and pure fantasy writers in general I was wrong. There is nothing dry about Flood. In fact it’s more than entertaining. It’s educational too. That’s the School of Harsh Truths that Baxter is making us study in.

So it’s theoretically possible that the Earth’s sea levels will increase but what if they increased dramatically? What would happen to the land and the people? That’s what Baxter looks at. Though he keeps his view focused on the top of the tree – those that have the means and power to survive.

This focus does make it slightly surreal as I don’t know any billionaires or their connections so I’m going to have to take it on faith this is what they are like. And I have to take it on faith that some of the meetings between the characters were possible.

But then for all the 6 billion people on this planet it turns out that most of the time it’s a very small world indeed. So it is plausible and even provably that they could connect the way they do.

I must admit to being worried by the opening. Five hostages being moved across Spain doesn’t sound like a my kind of thing but it’s essential to what happens next in the world and their bond and characters really holds the rest of the story together. They provide the perfect picture and opportunity to explore the flooding and how different functions react.

Bizarrely, the science and the mass human reactions feel real but the story does feel just like a story, something that is made up, and slightly unreal. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing and was probably the reason why I enjoyed the journeys of the characters so much but if you are expecting something drier and academic from Baxter then this isn’t a book for you.

Baxter has a wonderfully confident way with narrative. The calendar leaps are well timed and feel natural. He provides dates, estimated sea levels and occasional maps to help place things in context.

And he uses the bonds of each of the characters as a very strong anchor to ground everything else. To be honest humanity on the whole doesn’t come across that well. We are all animals at the end of the day. Basic values can and do go out the window when we have to cater for our own survival.

But we only see glimpses of that. Baxter keeps his focus on a billionaire and his plans to save what’s his. Both his money or at least the influence and the materials that it can buy him and the people he employs that are closet to him.

Summary

Baxter does an excellent job of mixing hard science fact with entertainment. He’s chosen a good mix of avatars to explore the effect that rising see levels would have on the human and non human inhabitants of Earth.

There is a genuine sadness at the fates of some of the characters. The humanity and the human reasoning for the actions of the main characters does make it more thriller than documentary and it worked so much better for it.

Baxter surprised me by taking a serious and potentially realistic scenario and turning into something that makes you wonder what would you and could you do if everything changes just because the water didn’t stop rising.

BSFA Best Novel 2010 Nominee: Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Title: Yellow Blue Tibia
Author: Adam Roberts
Pages: 336
Genre: Science Fiction
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Release:  Hardback out now / MMPB out 13 May
Publisher: Gollancz

Synopsis

Russia, 1946, the Nazis recently defeated. Stalin gathers half a dozen of the top Soviet science fiction authors in a dacha in the countryside somewhere. Convinced that the defeat of America is only a few years away, and equally convinced that the Soviet Union needs a massive external threat to hold it together, to give it purpose and direction, he tells the writers: ‘I want you to concoct a story about aliens poised to invade earth … I want it to be massively detailed, and completely believable. If you need props and evidence to back it up, then we can create them. But when America is defeated, your story must be so convincing that the whole population of Soviet Russia believes in it–the population of the whole world!’ The little group of writers gets down to the task and spends months working on it. But then new orders come from Moscow: they are told to drop the project; Stalin has changed his mind; forget everything about it. So they do. They get on with their lives in their various ways; some of them survive the remainder of Stalin’s rule, the changes of the 50s and 60s. And then, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the survivors gather again, because something strange has started to happen. The story they invented in 1946 is starting to come true …

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

I had mixed feelings about Adam Roberts again. He’s written one of my favourite books ever, Stone. An amazing narrator. A clever story. Totally brilliant. And then I read Salt and On. I say read. It was more read a few pages and put down never to pick up again. I did read them out of order as Stone is his third novel and the other two are this first and second. So he might have started to find his feet then but it does make you weary not to find an authors other books living up to expectations.

Yellow Blue Tibia is his 10th straight novel (though he has written several parodies) so the question is was Stone a one off or does Yellow Blue Tibia contain an amazing narrator with a clever story and is it totally brilliant?

Yes, yes and yes! It is. And the review would be so much easier if I could stop there but I’d better explain myself.

The first thing to say that even though this is in essence a historical tale with a heavy science fiction edge it is so close to reality that I’m seriously questioning how much of it Roberts actually made up.

He’s written the memoir of Konstantin Skvorecky who, along with four other SF writers were gathered together by Starlin to write the story of an alien invasion. The trouble is that several years later their story seems to be coming true.

Told in the first person what is immediately apparent is the character that Skvorecky has. The dialogue is whitty with jovial banter between a strange and eclectic cast all drawn to Skvorecky who’s wanted as an ‘expert’ in his field, which is UFOs rather than translation skills that make up his day job.

Though his journey and life are anything but normal. The progress of his career as a science fiction writer doesn’t seem to grow as he gets older and Roberts has some poignant comments on the genre and what motivates its writers.

But it’s the drawing in to Skvorecky’s Russia and the strange life he leads that carries you along with the dialogue. The plot, as I said, feels real but only in the context of the narrator himself. It is a fantastical tale as Robert’s twists reality. He brings you  fully into his creation.

I was, am probably still am completely drawn in to the ‘what if?’ elements.That isn’t to say that this is a huge tale. It’s a small personal tale of one man who has the power to save Russia from disaster, but can he save himself?

BSFA Thoughts

The biggest compliment you can pay to a writer is to believe their lies no matter how closely they base them on the truth. You have to be drawn in to the characters they create and the lives they end up leading.

And truth and lies seems to be an emerging theme in this shortlist.

The City and The City has a world where two different cities share the same physical space even if the inhabitants have long learnt to unsee and unheard each other.

Lavinia is a retelling of a series of events form a minor character while still sticking closely to all the facts.

And Ark is the continuation of the flooding of Earth is based on an extreme scientific example. And you’ll see from the review of Flood, the basis of Ark, it is very real. Though I hope that Baxter will keep that strong sense of reality in Ark.

Summary

Robert’s has written a believable memoir of a science fiction writer who finds that his joint creation is coming to life several years after he wrote it. His narrator is quirky, challenging and effected by the Great War. Oh and aliens. There are definitely aliens.

And a questioning of reality. But whose reality will you question? The life of Skvorecky or your what you think you know about the Challenger and the Chernobyl disasters?

Roberts has shot right back up my list of must read authors.

Oh and reason the title is what it is an amazing touch.

BSFA Best Novel 2010 Nominee: Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin (Gollancz)


Title
: Lavinia
Author: Ursula Le Guin
Pages: 304
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Release: Out now in Hardback
Publisher: Gollancz

Synopsis

‘Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn’t be given, wouldn’t be taken, but chose my man and my fate. The man was famous, the fate obscure; not a bad balance.’ Lavinia is the daughter of the King of Latium, a victorious warrior who loves peace; she is her father’s closest companion. Now of an age to wed, Lavinia’s mother favours her own kinsman, King Turnus of Rutulia, handsome, heroic, everything a young girl should want. Instead, Lavinia dreams of mighty Aeneas, a man she has heard of only from a ghost of a poet, who comes to her in the gods’ holy place and tells her of her future, and Aeneas’ past . . . If she refuses to wed Turnus, Lavinia knows she will start a war – but her fate was set the moment the poet appeared to her in a dream and told her of the adventurer who fled fallen Troy, holding his son’s hand and carrying his father on his back.

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

This is going to be a strange opening to a review but bear with me. If I see a film of a book it’s unlikely that I’m going to read the book. Why? Because I know what happens. I’ve seen the journey of the characters. What else is there to discover?

I’m more likely to see a film of a book because I’m investing only a few hours to see how faithful the film is or at least how it has chosen to reinterpret the material.

And because of this I have problems with retellings of history especially if I know how the events have played out.

Lavinia is a first person retelling of the last six books of Vergil’s Aeneid. It is a ‘meditative interpretation suggested by a minor character in [Aeneas’s] story’.

And there are lots of merits like the voice of the narrator who manages to be factual, retelling events, but adds that dimension of humanity that are missing from older stories, which focus on the facts of who did what to whom.

Though Le Guin does a far bit of that. She has long paragraphs recounting who is supposed to kill who and when and in what order. And as endearing as Lavinia and her fate is it is hard to feel any compassion or sympathy for her as her fate is sealed and mostly foretold. Lavinia herself is made aware of events through the visits with the poet himself, which are the most powerful scenes in the book for me and where Le Guin shines

As an exercise in breathing life into an epic poem, giving it life and clarity it’s a brilliant achievement. Le Guin manages to add that missing spark and the story is compulsive even if you think you know what is going to happen.

But that compulsion can only go so far for me. I did tire in end. I couldn’t see what else I was going to learn about the characters. I think it does probably come down to the style that it’s retold in and my aversion to history. Long list like descriptions or she does more telling than showing.

And as well crafted as it is it didn’t end up drawing me into the story of Aeneas and Lavinia as much as I thought it would.

I do have a curiosity for the Aeneid though I think that I’d need someone else to breath life into it for me.

BSFA Thoughts

It’s curious. I think Le Guin needs commending for breathing life into a dead tale and raising curiosity. But I’m disappointed by the limitations of the tale she was retelling. You can feel her wanting to stand up more for the character, waiting for her to take charge and not being able to.

Though on the other side people are going to enjoy the fact that she brought new life and managed to read between the lines and bring out all the nuisances and details that she has done.

It could well win but would need a lot of fans of that sort of thing to support it.

Summary

Overall, I found it hard to overcome my need of fantasy and reinvention over history and recreation. It’s an interesting exercise and character study but I’m afraid that it failed to lift Lavinia totally to life. She still feels too trapped in the page that she feels like she is being narrated rather narrating herself.

But Le Guin needs to be commended for her skill in recreation and reinterpretation that is likely to give pleasure to those that like these kind of tales.