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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (annus novus)

Goodness me! Is it that time already? Where did the year go?

Stephen Baxter traditionally writes SF on the grand scale. As a result he often descends into total incoherence when he attempts to describe the completely indescribable or tries to eff the utterly ineffable. But every so often everything comes together and he produces something quite brilliant. One such book is his novel Evolution.

As the title suggests, the novel deals with the evolution of humanity over a period of some hundreds of millions of years ranging all the way from the deep dark past to the deep dark future. Such a vast canvas cannot possibly have a single viewpoint character (unless you want to consider aspects of humanity in the abstract to be a character in its own right, which I do not) and so the narrative of evolution is necessarily told in a series of stories and vignettes that are set at various significant moments along this huge time stream. It’s a perfectly valid and well recognised literary technique – if James Michener had ever decided to write science fiction, Evolution is the novel he would probably have written (actually I think you could make a very good case that he almost did write it! Several times…). Nothing else in the science fiction canon comes close to the stupendous vision of Baxter’s huge novel except possibly the vast, cold speculations of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker. In a very real sense, Evolution is Baxter’s Stapledonian novel, perhaps it can even be thought of as an homage to Stapledon himself.

Sixty-five million years ago a small mammal known to future scientists as Purgatorius scratched out a precarious living in the shadow of the dinosaurs. The catastrophic meteor collision that wiped out the dinosaurs (along with 95% of all other life on the planet) gave Purgatorius its great evolutionary opportunity. We actually witness the impact of the meteor through the eyes of one of these small mammals and we follow her descendants as they struggle to survive in a harsh new environment.

Her family adapt themselves into tree dwellers. But then, over millions of years the forests start to diminish for various climatological reasons and the tree dwellers are forced out of their comfort zones. They come across vast grasslands where evolutionary pressures encourage the development of a dim sapience and where their distant descendants will later create the first towns and cities...

The development of sapience ultimately leads to a dependence on technology which reaches its apotheosis in the building of self-replicating Von Neumann machines that colonise (and eventually entirely consume) the planet Mars before they leave the solar system in search of further planets to assimilate…

Meanwhile humanity continues to evolve (or devolve, depending on your point of view). Geological and climactic changes lead almost to the extinction of the primate family and eventually they return to a less than sentient form as the usefulness of intelligence is called into evolutionary question. In the final chapters we learn the fate of the very last primate, the very last "human" (whatever that means in such a context) some five hundred million years in the future when all the lights go out.

Some of the highlights along the way include episodes involving sapient dinosaurs, the story of  a primate who witnesses the final extinction of the dinosaurs, the eventual fate of the last of the wild Neanderthals, and the curious far future evolution of a symbiotic primate/tree relationship with the resultant abandonment of sexuality and gender differences. It’s a wild ride and an exhilarating one and Baxter never loses control of his material. It is this tight control that makes Evolution his superbly brilliant masterpiece.  

The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means are two related novellas by John Scalzi. They were originally published as audio books by Audible, but print editions were later produced by Subterranean Press. They are rather dark stories by Scalzi’s standards and they represent quite a departure for him (though if you look closely I think you can find hints of their mood in Scalzi’s Lock In novels).

At some indeterminate time in the future, something rather odd has started to happen to people who die. Anyone who dies a natural death remains completely dead. But anyone who is murdered vanishes from view only to reappear naked and alive at home in their bed. No explanation for this phenomenon is ever given – we simply have to accept that it happens and then sit back and watch as Scalzi very cleverly explores its ramifications. The first such ramification is the rise of the profession of dispatcher. These people are licensed killers in the employ of the state. Their job is to kill (dispatch) people who are about to die a natural death (from illness, for example) so that they can survive and have a second chance to avoid the grim reaper. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher. These two novellas tell his story.

Both stories can be thought of as urban fantasy mysteries, detective stories of the old school if you like but with the added twist of a redefinition of the new nature of death. In the first book, one of Tony’s colleagues has disappeared, leaving behind signs of foul play Tony ends up reluctantly helping a detective by showing her some of the shady underground ways that Dispatching can be used to turn a (dis)honest penny. The second story turns the situation on its head and this time it is Tony Valdez himself who is under threat and in danger of dying.

The cleverness of these stories lies in the ingenuity with which Scalzi explores what might happen to a society that lives with the reality of his initial (extremely silly) premise. On the other hand, Scalzi does not write deep and meaningful prose. There is nothing under the surface of these ultimately rather shallow stories to tempt you to come back to them again. They are undeniably very clever, undeniably quite grim and undeniably extremely gripping and satisfying reads – but once you reach the end and find out who dunnit and how and why it was done, I suspect you’ll be perfectly happy to put the books back on the shelves and never feel the urge to pick them up again.

There tend to be two kinds of "western" novels. The first views the old west through rose coloured glasses and presents a rather romanticised view of the way things were. The second is much grittier and more realistic and it doesn’t pull any historical punches. I much prefer the second kind, and one of the best of them is Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man which was first published in 1964 and which has remained pretty much constantly in print ever since, a fact which, I think, speaks for itself.

As an aside, they made a movie of it in 1970. It starred Dustin Hoffman. It’s not a bad movie, but it doesn’t have the depth or the insight of the novel. Perhaps that accounts for the novel’s longevity and for the corresponding ephemerality of the movie.

Little Big Man tells the story of Jack Crabb who, we learn at the beginning of the book, was the only survivor of the battle of the Little Big Horn. Of course we have to wait to the very end of the story before we find out just how it was that he managed to survive the massacre because it is impossible to understand his survival without first knowing the details of his upbringing – and those details are really quite fascinating.

When he was just ten years old, Jack Crabb was taken and raised by by a small band of Cheyenne Indians. He grows up in the tribe. He wears animal skins, he marries four Cheyenne wives, and he learns to eat and enjoy dog flesh (at one point a dog is killed in his honour and the delicacy is served to him as a special feast with its paws still attached and peeking over the rim of the bowl).

Later, he leaves the tribe and returns to "white" society where he feels he more truly belongs. Despite having spent his formative years with the Cheyenne he cannot completely identify with them. As he tells us in his opening sentence, "I am a white man and never forgot it". Nevertheless, despite these protestations, he remains very much a man of two cultures equally at home in the society of native Americans as he is in the society of their white conquerors. He returns again and again to the Cheyenne (not always voluntarily). This experience of living two different kinds of life in two different societies gives him a unique insight into the American expansion into the far west of the country, its cruelty and its sometimes surprising kindness. What Berger (Crabb) is describing is a clash of cultures (perhaps à la C. P. Snow?) neither of which, in the final analysis, has any real understanding of the other. As a result, each despises and attempts to exploit the other. Only Jack Crabb, because of his unique upbringing, is able to have a foot in both opposing camps and he is therefore sometimes able to act as the interpreter and explainer of what he sees going on around him, thus managing to bridge the gap that separates both sides.

That makes it sound as if the novel could be rather stodgy and perhaps a bit too introspective for comfort, but nothing could be further from the truth. Crabb is a very down to earth character, not to say quite crude on occasion. But there is an air of verisimilitude in what he reports. He himself may not always understand the wider context of what he sees (and he is not much given to introspection anyway) but he is more than willing to tell us about it in great detail. The resultant description is often very funny as well as profoundly insightful, though this last mostly just comes out in the wash. The point is never laboured.

Crabb himself is a very Zelig-like character in that he meets and interacts with many of the iconic figures of the Old West – Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, Sitting Bull and, of course, General George Armstrong Custer himself among others. He’s not averse to presenting these people to us, warts and all, and that too makes for fascinating reading. There are no heroes in this novel and no real villains either (though some of the characters do flirt with villainy). There are only portraits of people attempting to live their lives in a time of catastrophic change that threatens both their lifestyles and their beliefs. The novel is a tour-de-force of historical analysis as well as being a rattling good yarn.

For many years, Julian Stockwin has been writing a series of novels that chronicle the naval career of one Thomas Kydd in the age of fighting sail. We first meet Kydd in 1793 when the press gang takes him away from his life as a wig maker in Guildford and forces him to serve before the mast as a sailor in HMS Duke William. Twenty three novels later, Kydd has risen to the rank of admiral and has taken part in many an important naval conflict along the way…

Anybody who writes in this genre must always expect to be compared to Patrick O’Brian whose Aubrey/Maturin novels are the definitive classics of the field. Usually there is no comparison – few writers come anywhere near O’Brian’s mastery of the subject. But Julian Stockwin is the exception that proves the rule. He is very, very good indeed. I would put his novels at least on a par with C. S. Forester’s Hornblower stories, and that is very high praise indeed. It puts Stockwin joint second place, just behind O’Brian himself.

Stockwin’s characters don’t fit as easily into their historical milieu as O’Brian’s do – every so often there are hints of less than contemporary attitudes – and Stockwin completely lacks O’Brian’s sense of humour. I don’t think there’s a single joke in his entire oeuvre. On the other hand, he immerses his hero in real historical events, something that, by and large, O’Brian avoids. So, for example, in one novel we see Thomas Kydd fighting as part of Nelson’s fleet at the battle of the Nile. This is a definite strength because it allows Stockwin to indulge in an historical and political analysis that is not available to O’Brian. So it goes.

If you feel the need to immerse yourself once again in the age of fighting sail, and if you’ve read Patrick O’Brian’s novels so many times that your eyes have worn the print off the pages, allow me to recommend Julian Stockwin to you.

Stephen Baxter Evolution Orion
John Scalzi The Dispatcher Audible
John Scalzi Murder by Other Means Audible
Thomas Berger Little Big Man The Dial Press
Julian Stockwin 23 novels Hodder and Stoughton
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