From an intellectually gripping tale to a new character who's likened to Harry Potter, there seems to be a breath of fresh air in Sci-fi writing.
The last theorem by Arthur C Clarke and Frederik Pohl (Harper Voyager)
Cyberabad days by Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
The developing world mostly occupies the margins of science fiction and fantasy. The occasional Uhura finds her way on to the bridge, but there is rarely any consideration of how she came to science or whether her perceptions of colonised planets differ from those of the Yale boys who surround her. That’s the old positivist paradigm of science as unidirectional progress: the future will see everybody coming to resemble citizens of the most technologically advanced nations.
The late Arthur C Clarke was rather more sophisticated than that, and his long residence in Sri Lanka left him respectful of, for example, the mathematical traditions embedded in ancient religions. So the Sri Lanka of his final novel, The Last Theorem (co-written with another veteran, Frederik Pohl) is not annihilated into uniformity by technological progress.
Tradition, family loyalty, architecture and cuisine endure, even in the life of that most modern of citizens, Ranjit Subramanian.
Subramanian’s lifetime quest to solve Fermat’s final theorem intersects with Earth’s First Contact with an alien race and with the machinations of some jingoistic American militarists.
So far, so intriguing. Clarke was—and Pohl remains—a master storyteller, so Subramanian emerges as a complex, engaging character, as does the cast around him. The tale is intellectually gripping, but reads as effortlessly as an airport thriller.
And yet, take Subramanian out of Sri Lanka and he could be any smart maths geek raised in Kansas (or Betelgeuse) who ends up saving the world. Only the externals would change. The aliens are—of course—ruthless and paternalistic, but ultimately give foolish Earth the wake-up call it needs to handle the planet more respectfully. And science moves always forward, bringing progress to all.
Except it doesn’t.
Where we live, we see sangomas texting away on cellphones and scientists revisiting Hoodia as a slimming aid, while the most desperately poor of street children watch The Bold and the Beautiful on shop-window TV. Old and new knowledge recurve and intertwine, moving backwards, forwards and sideways simultaneously.
It’s the gorgeous, terrifying texture of that world in India that Ian McDonald unpicks in Cyberabad Days. McDonald is as solid a storyteller as Clarke and Pohl, although the episodic structure of his book makes it a little harder to know individual characters. In his part of the subcontinent, dateline 2047, avatars are the most convenient way of speed dating (though it’s women demanding dowries), genetic engineering battles with system links as the best path to immortality and everyone, but everyone, follows the latest soapie.
When aliens arrive in the fragmented, warring states of the subcontinent, the question is how—and in what form—humanity can survive: not simply the human race, but the sense of being human. And the solutions are not found in science alone.
McDonald embeds both futuristic and archaic answers in the lives of his characters. Reading both books lays out not only two future Indias, but also some of the past of speculative fiction’s love affair with progress.
The Stranger (The Labyrints of Echo Book One) by Max Frei (Gollancz)
The most lethal impact of the Harry Potter pandemic is undoubtedly the way it weakens resistance to bad fantasy writing among the young. (That is, literally bad writing: the plots can enthral, but the sentences limp and stumble like injured Quidditch players.)
But another dire side effect is that every reviewer who knows nothing about the genre feels obliged to liken new titles to Harry. It happened with the Night Watch series, and now the folks at Kirkus—who ought to know better—are at it again with another Russian import: Max Frei.
“If Harry Potter smoked cigarettes,” they burble, “and took a certain matter-of-fact pleasure in administering tough justice, he might like Max Frei.” And here’s blog website Fantasy BookCritic: “Think Harry Potter meets Dr Seuss.” That one, at least, clues us in on the reviewer’s normal reading level.
Max Frei is the hero—and pseudonymous author—of The Stranger, the first of a 10-volume fantasy series that, since the first volume appeared in 1996, has sold millions of copies in Russia. The real author—in the only commonality with the Potter series—is a woman: visual artist Svetlana Martynchik, whose words are translated by Polly Gannon.
On Earth, Frei is a loner, loser and insomniac dreamer. Magically transported to Echo, capital of the Unified Kingdom—where life expectancy is counted in centuries and the very stones are imbued with magic—he is recruited as a night officer for the secret service, which handles unnatural crimes and the unauthorised use of high-level magic.
He longs for Earth cigarettes, acquires a couple of metre-long cats (the normal size on Echo) and, between Rabelaisean meals at the local hostelry, rises through the ranks on the strength of his fresh-eyed intuition about the cases.
He’s also in his late 20s, so no schoolboy wizard. This first volume at least belongs in the far older literary tradition of fantasy employed to satirise reality.
The barbs aimed at slow-moving bureaucracies and rivalries between long-dead factions (plus the comic buffoonery of a plodding uniformed branch) point to the book’s Russian origins. Echo’s rationality about sex and aging highlight more universal targets.
The satire is gentle, sparking smiles rather than guffaws.
In books first written in other languages, the translation matters. Gannon has chosen to give Frei a far older voice than readers might expect. He sounds not like the redeemed twenty something slacker he is, but more like an elderly aristocrat reminiscing over the port. This, together with the book’s episodic structure, sometimes stalls the reading.
On the plus side, Martynchik’s artist’s eye builds the city of Echo with intricate Gothic detail worthy of a New Weird writer such as Jeff Vandermeer, and this reviewer kept wishing for a narrator’s voice with similar edge. That said, I’d certainly read more volumes, to see where Martynchik plans to take us.
The Stranger is fantastic literature, not a pop-hit commodity. Rather than Harry Potter, think Jonathan Swift crossed with Kafka, but expressed in the baroque tones of Jack Vance, and you’ll be a lot closer to where it fits.