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Books
by Robert K. J. Killheffer

White Devils, by Paul McAuley, Tor, 2004, $25.95.

The Zenith Angle, by Bruce Sterling, Del Rey, 2004, $24.95.

Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam, 2004, $25.

A FEW months back I re-read John Brunner's classic eco-disaster novel The Sheep Look Up (reissued in 2003 by BenBella Books). It had been twenty years since I first read it, and I was struck by its intensity, the passion and urgency with which Brunner addressed the environmental concerns that had become an insistent cultural theme in those days (and remain so in ours). I was surprised by the firm, even extreme, position Brunner took on the issues. He hedged no bets and pulled no punches. This was the sf novel as eco-political tract.

What different days those were—1972, the activist energy of the '60s still glowing like embers on the world's hearth, sf in the midst of its golden age of social consciousness, tackling subjects like war, racism, gender relations, colonialism. Those years gave us Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room! (1966), Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and "The Word for World Is Forest" (1972), Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974), Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" (1972) and The Female Man (1975).

Heady times.

I grew up reading this radical, visionary stuff, and sometimes I miss the heat and the energy—the full-throttle engagement with the issues, the unabashed challenging of the status quo—that marked some of the best sf of that era. Of course, sf writers continue to address the socio-political issues of the times, but the times have changed, and with them the style and tone of sf's handling of such topics. Social issues rarely form the center of sf novels today, the way they did in The Sheep Look Up—matters like the corporate domination of the world economy, the extinction of endangered species, and relations between rich nations and poor often shape the background against which the action takes place, but seldom become the focus or driving force of the action itself.

Take a look, for example, at Paul McAuley's latest novel, White Devils. McAuley began his career with well-crafted space operas (Four Hundred Billion Stars, Eternal Light), and he has made his greatest impression so far with the epic far-future trilogy Confluence, but his more recent novels (The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World) have had a near-future setting in which some grappling with today's social problems becomes almost inevitable. White Devils takes place about thirty years from now in an Africa that's in even worse shape than it is today. It suffers from the widespread war and post-colonial dysfunction that afflict much of the continent now, and that instability has made it the favorite locale of experimenters on the further fringes of genetic engineering.

Young, idealistic Nicholas Hyde works for Witness Green Congo, digging up mass graves and documenting atrocities from the still-simmering Congolese civil war, but the first "hot scene" he's called to investigate turns out to be the work of something other than sadistic soldiers. Hyde's team has hardly begun to study the scene before it's attacked by a band of hairless white ape-like things, monsters with an unnatural ferocity, speed, and "bony or cartilaginous plates" under their skin that could only be the product of laboratory engineering.

Nick survives the attack, and saves a baby from the massacre site, which makes him suddenly a minor celebrity in the world media. But Obligate, the multinational corporation that effectively controls the Congo, doesn't want the truth about what happened to Nick's team to get out. They're blaming rebel soldiers and eliminating all the evidence of the "white devils"—including anyone who knows more than they should. Only Nick's media profile keeps him safe long enough to escape from the Congo in pursuit of the secret of the white devils, which he's determined to discover and reveal to the world.

McAuley's got a talent for openings, and the first several chapters of White Devils grab hold so well that they just about propel the reader through the rest of the book. And that's good, because somewhere in the middle the plot goes a bit slack. The first half of the book maintains a keen sense of plausibility—the attack by the white devils, the glimpses of life in the Congo, the science of gene splicing and cloning, it's all handled with convincing detail that overcomes the predictability of the corporate-coverup scheme. The second half of the book, however, spends all too much time on cartoonishly malevolent characters like the foppish safari entrepreneur Raphael and the Christian fundamentalist mercenary Cody Corbin. Still, there are scattered throughout some very fine moments, such as the encounter with Raphael's ragged, pitiable engineered saber-toothed tiger—a perfect encapsulation of the inevitable gap between genetic engineering's promises and its products.

Scattered throughout also are observations on a wide variety of social issues—the neo-colonialism of multinational corporations, America's obsession with guns, the enforced conformity of corporate culture. None of these issues becomes the center of the novel, but the commentary can be quite cutting nonetheless:

The camp is such a wonderful advertisement for Obligate's philanthropy that there are rumors it will be made permanent…. The refugees work for a guaranteed minimum wage, stitching Obligate's Lotek sneakers and clothing, assembling slates and phones, carving Rainforest toys and masks, and rolling Rainforest cigarettes…. The camp provides everything but the dignity of self-determination for its inhabitants; none of the video diaries or documentaries mention the crippling rates of alcoholism, abortion, and suicide, the skirmishes between rival gangs, or the occasional, brutally suppressed riots.

Even when it's as clear in its condemnation as this, though, the treatment of social issues feels different from that of The Sheep Look Up and the novels of that time. It's not just that the issues remain firmly in the background, glimpsed like bypassed train stations as the plot moves steadily along. Despite Nick's determination to resist Obligate's pressure and get the story of the white devils out, the predominant mood of the novel is one of resignation. In the very first scene, Nick's boss tries to dampen Nick's hopes of tracking the perpetrators of atrocities: "This isn't a murder investigation," he tells Nick. "We're not here to bring anyone to justice. All we can do is speak for the dead. Document how they were murdered, try to find out their names and their stories, and if nothing else give them a decent burial."

That's the feeling we get about all the evils on display in White Devils—that the best we can hope to do is play witness, to document the horrors, not to prevent them. Maybe that's the awful truth. If so, then although the world McAuley depicts seems not nearly as grim as Brunner's, White Devils is a much bleaker book.

*     *     *

With his previous novel, Zeitgeist (2000), Bruce Sterling moved away from the unquestionably science-fictional into less easily definable territory, and in the process he established himself as one of the sharpest chroniclers of the contemporary cultural landscape. The Zenith Angle continues that transformation. It might not be science fiction at all—and yet, imbued as it is with Sterling's characteristic density of ideas and his fondness for the geeky details of computer networks and security issues, it certainly feels like some kind of sf. As Neal Stephenson did in Cryptonomicon, Sterling evokes the true strangeness of the technologies that are with us right now, and makes our own world seem more than a little alien.

The Zenith Angle begins (after a brief prologue) on September 11, 2001, with cyber-security expert Derek Vandeveer ("Van") happily ensconced as the VP for Research and Development at the New Jersey telecommunications company Mondiale, making "a weird amount of money" as Mondiale rides the tail-end of the dot-com boom. His astrophysicist wife, Dottie, commutes to her lab in Boston, and they've got a new baby and a Swedish au pair to help take care of him. Van's got all the funding and equipment his computer-nerd heart could desire. Life is good. And then he watches the planes hit the World Trade Center towers.

Caught up in the post-attack horror, Van joins the Coordination of Critical Information Assurance Board, a new commission set up by the National Security Council to plan the government's computer security measures. Dottie takes a job at an observatory in Colorado, and the demands of Van's new position make it nearly impossible for them to see each other. Mondiale's stock implodes in a scandal of fraud, taking Van's wealth (and much of his remaining innocence) with it. In a few short months, Van's life has fallen apart.

The bulk of the plot revolves around Van's attempt to repair a malfunctioning spy satellite, and the high-tech espionage that he uncovers in the process. But the heart of the novel lies in Van's emotional journey back from the rage and disillusion that engulf him while he's in Washington—and in the electrified screeds Sterling packs into every crevice of the narrative. Sterling expertly captures the feelings, the language, and the style of the dot-com boom, and just as capably conveys the shock and devastation wrought by the Bubble's sudden crash. "It was hard to believe—Van would never have imagined it—but Mondiale, the mighty Mondiale, was dot-bombing…. This brave, heroic, visionary, cutting-edge company—the bear market was beating it to death like a cheap toy piñata."

As Van slides from jejune optimism into depths of anger, self-doubt, and despair, and then works his way back to a wiser state of relative happiness, Sterling takes every opportunity to drop in nuggets of penetrating observation and opinionated rant on a variety of issues—superheated rhetoric reminiscent of his Cheap Truth days.

On computer science: "Computer science was a fraud. It always had been. It was the only branch of science ever named after a gadget."

On terrorism: "Terrorists didn't fight wars. The whole point of terrorism was to kick a government so hard, in so tender and precious a spot, that the government went nuts from rage and fear. Then the machinery of civilization would pour smoke from the exhaust. It would break down. Back to the tribes and the sermons, the blessed darkness of a world without questions."

On the truth: "No, kid, the truth does not win. For a couple of quarters the truth gets somewhere maybe. If everybody's real excited. But never in the long run, never…. The common wisdom always wins. Consensus, perception management, and the word on the Street. The markets, kid, the machine."

The cumulative effect of these analyses—incisive as they are—is a sense of resignation not unlike that in White Devils. "It didn't matter how good you were, how smart you were," Van reflects. "Nobody ever 'fixed' computers. You just threw the old computer out and got another one. Any genuine reform was impossible." Sterling likens the wild dream of the Internet boom to the space race of the '60s, with emphasis on the bitter aftermath. "It was a tremendous, wrenching effort in pursuit of the sublime. People aiming for the Moon, touching it for a golden moment, and being left with massive bills and rusting gantries."

Like McAuley, Sterling may be revealing hard-learned truths here. And he may well have given us the definitive novel of the dot-com disaster, his generation's cultural mid-life crisis. But it's difficult not to wish for something, even a hint, to balance the pervasive sense of exhaustion and retreat. Perhaps it's too soon—perhaps we'll have to wait for the hangover to pass before we can expect to see another burst of idealistic energy, another pursuit of the sublime. Let's hope we don't have to wait very long.

*     *     *

Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, Forty Signs of Rain, centers on the preeminent environmental issue of our times—global warming, the perfect analog to pollution in the '60s and '70s—and it's a surprising, even peculiar book. It's frightening, as any consideration of impending catastrophe must be, but in a quieter, more theoretical way than a conventional disaster story. For one thing, the disaster doesn't fully strike during the course of the story. (This is the first volume of a trilogy, so things will probably get worse in the next installment.) More importantly, Robinson isn't so much interested in stoking our fears as he is in rallying us to action.

The book begins a few years in the future—five, ten, hard to say exactly—and the signs of climate change have grown somewhat more insistent, but life in the United States (and most other places) goes on essentially unchanged. The U.S. government continues to respond as it does today, downplaying the evidence, emphasizing the uncertainty of scientific prediction, opting for cosmetic half-measures over any ambitious program to address the problem. The first chapter opens with the humdrum domestic routines of the Quiblers—Anna, head of the Bioinformatics Division at the National Science Foundation, and her husband Charlie, climate advisor to Senator Phil Chase, currently working from home while he takes care of their toddler son, Joe. There's lots of talk about the awful consequences of climate change, both at the NSF and in Charlie's work for the senator, but it's clear early on that Robinson is not interested in the melodrama of a standard disaster novel.

Forty Signs of Rain is more concerned with examining the culture of science in the U.S., and why it has failed to produce the political action that its research clearly supports. In fact, the novel can be read as Robinson's analysis of that problem, and his prescription for change. Anna Quibler and, more stridently, one of her program directors, Frank Vandewaal, argue that scientists, and organizations like the NSF, need to become more activist, more opinionated, more outspoken in debates on public policy. "All that basic research, all that good work," Anna muses, reflecting on the history of the NSF, "and yet—thinking over the state of the world—somehow it had not been enough. Possibly they would have to consider doing something more."

Frank puts it in much stronger terms: "The world is in big trouble and NSF is one of the few organizations on Earth that could actually help get it out of trouble, and yet it's not. It should be charting worldwide scientific policy and forcing certain kinds of climate mitigation and biosphere management, insisting on them as emergency necessities, it should be working Congress like the fucking NRA to get the budget it deserves.…"

Like Sterling, Robinson fills his text with mini-lectures, and not only on climate change. His riffs cover topics such as evolutionary psychology, traffic jams, the widening gap between rich and poor, game theory, the challenges facing the development of medical therapies from biotechnology. And his commentary hits as hard as anything in White Devils: "[The administration's] line was that no one knew for sure and it would be much too expensive to do anything about it even if they were certain it was coming…so they were going to punt and let the next generation solve their own problems in their own time. In other words, the hell with them. Easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit."

There's no whiff of resignation in Forty Signs of Rain—unless it's in the fact that Robinson recognizes that the unfashionability of '60s-style activism may be the most significant challenge to enacting significant change. Where Brunner wrote with unrestrained prophetic fire, Robinson knows he's writing at a different time, in a much different cultural context. So he proceeds more cautiously, building up slowly to his call for scientific activism, acknowledging all along the arguments and instincts that might make it hard to accept.

Surveying the capsule history of the NSF on its web site, Anna notes a program from the 1960s called "Interdisciplinary Research Relevant to Problems of Our Society," and her first thought is, "What a name from its time that was!" But then she pauses to reconsider. "[C]ome to think of it, the phrase described very well what Anna had had in mind.… Interdisciplinary research, relevant to problems of our society—was that really such a sixties joke of an idea?"

With such steps, Robinson seeks to rehabilitate the activist spirit that gave us The Sheep Look Up and works like it—and, more importantly, gave us the Clean Air Act and measures like it. And Robinson makes his case without neglecting the other necessary aspects of a satisfying novel. His characters are convincingly idiosyncratic, and their emotional lives receive almost as much attention as their intellectual musings. The cracking of Frank's bitter cynicism is all the more moving because Robinson accomplishes it without devaluing Frank's dedicated rationalism. Forty Signs of Rain is a fascinating depiction of the workings of science and politics, and an urgent call for us to pull our heads from the sand and confront the threat of climate change. We should listen.

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