Reviews #7 - Fusing Hydrogen

It is a common phenomenon in any artistic field - a new artist comes along and produces early work of stellar quality. But as their career develops, they cannot maintain the level of performance. In general, the artist gets better at the technical aspects of their work as they get older, so they must also be losing something along the way. This something includes such thing as inventiveness, energy, freshness and emotional drive and lots of other similarly vague aspects. This applies to writing as much as any other field of artistic endeavour.

On the other hand, there is the school of thought that suggests that it may be the reader who becomes accustomed to the works of the writer. The implication being that the quality of the author’s work does not diminish - just the appreciation of it. There is a way to test this - read the works in a non-chronological manner. There are exceptions, but I have found that in most cases there is a real change in the writer as they get older.

The works of John Shirley are an interesting case in point. Last time I wrote of the power and emotional impact of one of his earliest novels. Immediately after, I read his latest work - Silicon Embrace. The contrast is striking. Silicon embrace, while still an interesting novel, lacks any real punch. It is a story of alien interference and human spiritual awakening told with a degree of humour. The aliens have arrived and they and the government (of course) have got together in area 51 (of course) to plan how to make their presence known to the people. All the abductions and sightings are a deliberate policy to soften up the public (of course). Unknown to the aliens, humanity has some spiritual surprises waiting. This is an entertaining and interesting novel - well worth the read - just don’t expect the power of the early work.

Wetbones is the other recent John Shirley novel that I have read in the last couple of months. This is one of his straight horror novels. Probably half of Shirley’s output has been horror, but it has never been to the great heights that his more cyber oriented work has. Therefore, he has less to lose as the freshness goes, but more to gain as his technical skills grow. The basic story is about people with psychic control powers who gain sustenance from pain. Where Shirley has an edge in this genre is the realism with which he portrays the depths the human spirit can sink to. His time living on the streets obviously aids him in this. Wetbones is certainly chilling stuff.

I have made the observation before, but it bears repeating. Paul McAuley has a habit of coming along after the big rush at the height of a fashion and capping it off with a masterwork. A few years ago, his Red Dust came at the end of a rash of stories about the colonisation of Mars. Pasquale’s Angel came along as there was an upsurge in the popularity of alternate history stories. Now he has produced a nanotechnology and VR novel called Fairyland. As usual it is an excellent story with a unique slant on the type of story. I hesitate to call it cyberpunk because McAuley’s prose style does not really fit the pattern, but the setting of a war ravaged Europe, a virtual community and a broken down EuroDisney occupied by nano-altered life constitute somewhat familiar territory. Do not expect the usual simple character types however - as always McAuley’s characters are strong and complex. I suppose you could say that McAuley has done it again - he has produced another great but different novel in a fashionable area. Does that mean he is coasting - doing the same type of work over and over? Maybe, but what a way to do it - I prefer to say that he is an excellent writer producing at the top of his form.

I went to a talk given by Robert Forward at LA-Con. He described some new space based technology he was developing which used difference in magnetic fields to generate power in orbit. There had even been a test of it on a recent shuttle mission. He also took to opportunity to promote his latest novel Camelot 30K. When I came to read this book, I was very interested to find that the opening chapter describes in some detail how this new technology is used to propel the characters in the story to where the action happens. There was even enough detail for me to tell where Forward’s latest work, as given in the talk, had out-dated the novel. This is Science Fiction so hard that you can hear the cogs meshing and the sparks flying. The rest of the story concerns a group of humans investigating an alien civilisation on a large object in the Oort cloud. The humans are of no real interest, they are just there as a plot device to describe the species and their society which have the most improbable, but scientifically possible, method of distributing themselves around the universe. It is a remarkable piece of inventiveness on Forward’s part - worth reading as a supreme piece of scientific puzzle setting and solving if not much else.