Galactic North and Other Recent Science Fiction

Paul R. Potts

The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of a handful of films starring David Bowie, may he rest in peace. You’ve probably seen him in Labyrinth, but he appeared in a number of movies, including The Last Temptation of Christ, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and The Prestige. It might be time to have a Potts House David Bowie Film Festival.

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

I have in my sweaty paws a copy of Alastair Reynolds’ story collection Galactic North. Amazon still lists this paperback as only available for pre-order, but my local Borders bookstore somehow got a copy on the shelf. After reading the two excellent novellas that comprise Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, I knew I’d want to read this one.

I’ve been waiting quite a while for this book. I’m a fan of pretty much everything Reynolds has published, to one degree or another. He writes a kind of dark space opera for the most part, heavily tinged with cyberpunk and horror. I like his writing style, although he’s prolific, and collectively the Revelation Space books have become pretty weighty. If you decide to read them, I advise taking breaks between volumes. The recent standalone novel Pushing Ice might be a better starting point. Galactic North also wouldn’t be a bad way to get accustomed to the Revelation Space universe before jumping into Chasm City.

I’m on story number four — they are all long short stories or even novellas. These stories fill in some of the back-stories of Clavain, Galiana, Remontoire, Freya, and other characters from the Revelation Space universe. But it’s a big, messy universe, with relativistic time dilation, so there is no danger that Reynolds will give away all the mysteries anytime soon.

I should clarify by reiterating that Reynolds writes space opera. In particular, the Revelation Space stories and novels are filled with intrigue and revenge and assassinations and alliances and betrayals, as well as nanotechnology, brain implants, weird and frightening weapons, artificial intelligence, and cold-sleep. He seems to pay homage to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, as well as to Gibson, Sterling, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and others too numerous to mention. The Revelation Space universe is not uncharted, virgin territory, but Reynolds definitely has his own spin and his own atmosphere. His stories are ultimately character-driven, a bit like they Joss Whedon’s Firefly is both a science-fiction western and a very human drama.

While I read Galactic North, I’m also eagerly waiting for the American edition of The Prefect. Borders tells me he has yet another book in the pipeline, House of Suns. So far I know nothing about either of these except their titles.

Books I’m Anticipating

I’ve been waiting on several other books as well, so I might as well mention them. John Scalzi’s The Last Colony is coming out in paperback, and his book Zoe’s Tale is also in the pipeline. Scalzi writes in the style of mid-career Heinlein, to a certain extent, although he’s carved out his own particular niche in the military SF sub-genre, and keeps his stories very tightly edited, which I admire. Anyone (it seems) can write a thousand-page space opera, but a tight 300-page novel like Old Man’s War impresses me in what it doesn’t say; it lacks a lot of wasted words. Old Man’s War is up there with Haldeman’s The Forever War. Both these novels prove that a story doesn’t doesn’t need to be extremely complicated or wordy to be a good read.

I’m also awaiting the ailing Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, certain to be one of the best of the Discworld novels to date.

I’m still anticipating the arrival of Greg Egan’s novel Incandescence in an American edition from Night Shade Books. Night Shade Books, has also been driving me crazy by repeatedly pushing back the publication date of the Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson, Volume 5. I got sick of waiting for the American paperback edition of Incandescence, so I ordered a copy of the Gollancz (British) edition instead, which has shipped and should be in my mailbox soon.

Matter by Iain M. Banks

On impulse, a month or two ago I picked up Matter by Iain M. Banks, which is still available only in hardcover. It was decent enough, but it seems like I have started to have less and less respect for “soft” science fiction. The difference between hard and soft science fiction generally boils down to whether you allow breaking known physical law. Not stretching it, or extrapolating, but breaking it. This usually means that hard science fiction does not allow faster-than-light travel, and interstellar travel has to take into account relativistic time dilation.

Writers like Stephen Baxter introduce loopholes, like wormholes. But Baxter’s books, at least his earlier ones, at least try to extrapolated from current speculation by physicists, and pay lip service to the complications in causality that show up if you allow faster-than-light travel. In recent books, Baxter has chosen to play tennis with the net down, so to speak, allowing ghosts and psychic projection and time travel and all manner of other wish-fulfillment.

Anyway, Matter. It is “soft” science fiction. It has neat aliens, but I really dislike the ending, and so I can’t really recommend it. I’ve heard good things about Banks’ other Culture novels, so I’ll try another one. His standalone novel The Algebraist is on my to-read pile, but Matter is going in the giveaway pile.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

Let’s see, while I’m at it I should also mention that I read Charles Stross’s novel Glasshouse on the trip to Las Vegas. I wouldn’t rate it his best work — I think he’s best when he’s writing in a looser, more humorous style, like The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue, or the linked stories-made-into-a-novel book Accelerando, or his excellent short stories in Toast. Glasshouse is a little grim, and will also probably go on the giveaway pile.

I also polished off David Brin’s Kiln People, which was very clever and funny and enjoyable but far too long and which, I feel, also did not end well.

How does a parent like me with a full-time job and 3 kids find time to read? The answer is that I don’t find very much. I manage to get maybe 15 minutes a day to myself, and so it takes me a relatively long time (usually two weeks or more) to finish a book. But I’m also usually chipping away at a half-dozen books at once, and I switch between them to keep myself interested. I read very quickly, which helps make up for my limited reading time, although the downside of reading very quickly is that my attention sometimes wanders. That’s a sure-fire way to lose track of what is going on, particularly in a Wolfe novel, but that’s again a topic for another day.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976 film)

While I’m at it, I bought one interesting film, a Criterion Collection edition of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

I’m a sucker for psychedelia. I did not know it at the time, but apparently this is the film that Philip K. Dick wrote about, in disguised form, in his novel Valis. Valis is fiction, but also semi-autobiographical. Dick said, in an interview:

I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and thought it was one of the finest films — not just science-fiction films, but one of the finest films I had ever seen. I thought it was incredibly original, incredibly provocative, rich in ideas, beautiful in texture, glorious in its overall conception. It was enigmatic. In no way is the film VALIS the plot and theme of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but the idea occurred to me that a science-fiction film, if well done, could be as rich a source of knowledge and information as anything we normally derive our knowledge and information from. The film tremendously impressed me; I just loved it. My use of the film VALIS is my homage to The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to see that.

Anyway, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a weird film, just the way I like ’em. I’m not going to claim that viewing it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, but it is interesting, and really of its time, a manifestation of that psychedelic period in film that I find so fascinating. It’s a must for hardcore Philip K. Dick fans, of course, but also for David Bowie fans. Bowie just disappears into the role of Thomas Jerome Newton. It’s a little uncanny to watch.

I liked it, flaws and all. My wife Grace hated it. She wants to start recording a film review show, Potts and Potts. She’s thinking a videotaped segment to run on Community cable; I’m thinking a podcast might be better. I’ve definitely got a face for radio!

May 22, 2008 and June 25, 2016
Ann Arbor, Michigan

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