Science fiction

A major operatic rediscovery: Birmingham Opera Company’s New Year reviewed

This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time. One of the most thrilling aspects of the Tippett revival has been the discovery that his late masterpieces seem to have been fitted with a four-decade time-fuse. Works that prompted bafflement in the 1970s and 1980s, and then sat there for years looking like duds, are suddenly acquiring their targets. A quarter of a century after Tippett’s death, they’re blinking into life, locking on, and detonating in huge, psychedelic sunbursts of precision-targeted beauty and truth. Once you treat Tippett’s characters as people rather than symbols, the rest falls into place In the case of Tippett’s last opera New Year,

A cabinet of curiosities: You, Bleeding Childhood, by Michele Mari

Michele Mari is one of Italy’s most eminent writers. A prize-winning novelist, poet, translator and academic, he is hardly known to anglophone readers, but that is about to change. You, Bleeding Childhood, a collection of 13 stories written over a period of 30 years, offers a portal into Mari’s surreal, unsettling world: a place of childhood memories, obsessions and a passion for literature and science fiction.         Mari inhabits Borges’s labyrinthine territory. His prose style shares the gleaming formality of Nabokov, but he’s his own man, nonchalantly mixing high and low culture: the literary canon and classic comic books, Dante and pulp. The book gains something in translation: an afterword

The balance of power between humans and machines

The twin poles of the modern imaginarium about technology and society can be represented by two masterpieces of popular culture. In James Cameron’s film The Terminator (1984) and its sequels, a global computer system called Skynet becomes sentient and proceeds to try to exterminate the human race by means of time-travelling Austrian bodybuilders. In Iain M. Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels, by contrast (beginning with Consider Phlebas, 1987), a space-faring humanlike species has created superintelligent machines, known as Minds, which automate all the labour of production, leaving people free to pursue artistic activities and extreme sports. As our tech-bro overlords race to create proper AI, then, the present question is whether engineered

Among the giants: Titanium Noir, by Nick Harkaway, reviewed

Roddy Tebbit is a quiet, tidy professor researching lake algae. His calendar is largely empty and his apartment has no family photographs. A colleague remembers him as ‘shy to the point of being rude’. Why somebody would put a bullet in his skull is unclear, yet this is how the cynical gumshoe Cal Sounder discovers him at the beginning of Nick Harkaway’s slick novel Titanium Noir. We soon find out that the dead man’s unremarkableness was deceptive. On the mortuary slab he easily clears seven feet end to end, and though he has the face of a man in his mid-forties, his driving licence puts him in at the start

Travels in time and space: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel, reviewed

It’s a bold writer who confronts a major historical moment such as a pandemic before it’s over, but Emily St. John Mandel has a claim to fictionalised outbreaks. Her 2014 novel Station Eleven presciently envisioned a devastating flu. That book was televised by HBO and became a major hit, and this latest touches on the same ground. As J.G. Ballard proved, revisiting a subject – as a painter might – can be a fertile approach in speculative fiction. Sea of Tranquility initially adopts a time-leaping structure reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which itself sprang from Italo Calvino’s masterpiece If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller). In 1912, we meet

The cryonics game

Cults, the desert, natural disasters. Artists, bankers, terrorists. Cash machines, food packaging, secret installations. Mediaspeak and scientific jargon. Crowds and capital. Language and death. Just as it used to be possible to play Ballard Bingo with the work of the late 20th century’s other great literary monomaniac, so Don DeLillo’s themes have remained astonishingly consistent in the 45 years since Americana, his first novel, appeared. The unswerving focus has a lot to do with why, like Ballard, he has so often been charged with prophecy: in cryptic gallows comedies such as White Noise and The Names, with their sinister wonder-drugs and murderous language cults, or the spacey and frigid Mao

What Sci Fi novels can teach us about uncertainty

In times of great uncertainty – and Eurovision humiliation aside, 2021 surely qualifies – many are tempted to examine ‘speculative fiction’ from the past, to understand the present. 1984 has had a good year, and seems much less dated than anything actually from 1984, such as Wham!, The Karate Kid or Roland Rat. Huxley’s Brave New World is now the standard rebuttal to Orwell – with Forster’s The Machine Stops, in at least a respectable third place. But what of the pulpier end of the market? Those privately educated literary figures were not the only ones peering into the future before The Last War and it can be illuminating to

Here in Texas, Hell has frozen over

Austin ‘If I owned Texas and Hell,’ General Phil Sheridan famously said, ‘I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.’ Although the weather was unusually warm for the season in central Texas we guessed something was up when, in broad daylight with hawks about, our normally crepuscular attic mice risked running down a porch pillar and gathering the spilled seed from bird feeders. They vanished completely days before the snowstorm struck. Sadly, some of our birds were not so prescient. We watched a bewildered Audubon’s warbler, which could no longer fly, hopping about in the snow. Either it had lost the main flock continuing south, or good weather had

Out of this world | 28 March 2019

Like someone who has bought a first computer, then reads the manual from front to back but never actually gets around to switching the thing on, Robert A. Heinlein appears in his late fifties to have come across a how-to book about sex. Thereafter an instant expert, he wrote novel after novel brimming with it, much of it laughably theoretical and, well, wrong. Famously, to those who managed to get through an interminable book called The Number of the Beast (1980), he describes a kiss in the voice of a young woman: ‘Our teeth grated, and my nipples went spung!’ Nor were these the only breasts and nipples under discussion.

‘They’re finally going to play my music’

According to his friend and fellow-composer Ernest Reyer, the last words Berlioz spoke on his deathbed were: ‘They are finally going to play my music’. It has taken time, but he was right. A century and a half later, Berlioz 150 is the watchword of the hour. That is as it should be. Berlioz was a devotee of the ancient world (‘I have spent my life with that race of demi-gods’), where it was believed that at the moment of death one might be granted foreknowledge of the future. Why has it taken so long? In his native France there were plenty of reasons. As a forceful, witty but sardonic

Close to the bone

Does J.G. Ballard’s ‘disquieting equation’, ‘sex x technology = the future’, still hold? Not in Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel, which imagines a society better described by the formula ‘the future = technology – sex’. There is no procreation in it, and any manifestation of sexuality is a crime. Its inhabitants have left Earth for a space station, a hi-tech prison only the rich can afford, moving away from ‘a lunar landscape of jagged rocks, treeless mountains, or scorched dirt’, the scene of endless wars fought by child soldiers, where ‘technology is seized by those who kill best’. Both the ruined old world and the AI-ruled new one are frightening, and not

Angel and demon

Read cover to cover, a book of essays gives you the person behind it: their voice, the trend of their thinking, their tastes and the nature of their engagement with the world. So, here are two, one from each end of the human spectrum. Think of Milton’s Archangel Raphael, intellectually wide-ranging, lucid, informative and fair, and you have Francis Spufford. Think of his darkly glittering Satan — vivid, passionate, partisan and fatally persuasive — and you have Martin Amis. Read these books together and you have, in essay terms, a Miltonic whole. These are collections of what might be called ‘pre-loved’ pieces, not originally designed to cohere, so they have

No pain, no gain

It is an unexpected pleasure when fiction has a soundtrack to accompany the work of reviewing. H(A)PPY is ‘best enjoyed in conjunction with Agustin Barrios: The Complete Historical Guitar Recordings’, Nicola Barker advises before her text gets underway. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a gimmick. But Barrios’s music strikes a deep chord with the rebellion at the heart of Barker’s 12th novel. Born in the 1880s, the Paraguayan’s playing was ridiculed because he preferred his guitar strings to be made of steel rather than fashionable gut. His dissonant art, like Barker’s today, could not be accused of courting admiration. The ‘sad-happiness’ of Barrios’s music is what comes to destabilise

No end in sight

Are you a deathist? A deathist is someone who accepts the fact of death, who thinks the ongoing massacre of us all by ageing is not a scandal. A deathist even insists that death is valuable: that the only thing that gives life meaning is the fact that it ends — an idea not necessarily embraced by someone about to be murdered on video by an Isis fanatic. But what is the alternative? There has never been one, which is why until recently no one needed to coin the term ‘deathist’. But now many tech entrepreneurs and scientists take a different view: death, they say, is simply an engineering challenge.

Snap, crackle and pop

As you go into the new Wellcome Collection exhibition, Electricity: The Spark of Life, you might have in mind a sentence from Mary Shelley’s original electrifying novel Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus: ‘I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.’ A copy of the 1831 edition of her book, with its startling anatomical frontispiece, awaits you, among many other wonders. The exhibition, a collaboration between the Wellcome, the Teylers Museum of Haarlem and the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, is packed with electrical instruments, together with models, artefacts, books, film loops and

Cheating death

2016 was probably the year even the most optimistic of us — those who can genuinely square the new populist politics with a bright future for truth-seekers, scientists and rational thinkers — gave up on the possibility of time travel. Surely, on every rally stage there should have been at least one white man from the future (it’s generally a white man for the simple statistical reason that if you’re a woman or a non-white man and go travelling in time, there’s only about 0.2 per cent of recorded history where you won’t materialise to immediate shouts of, ‘Quick, Paw, fetch the best whupping switch — and a cage’), wild-eyed,

Low life | 5 January 2017

On the Monday before Christmas, the black dog came around again and I couldn’t get out of bed. I lay all day staring at the wall. Depression has little to do with sadness, I think. It’s blankness. The same thing happened to me about 15 years ago. I was like a prize gonk for the four or five weeks it took for the Prozac to work, which it did, and since then I’ve managed to foster and sustain all the illusions I need to keep me buoyant. I couldn’t get out of bed on the Tuesday either. I was adrift in outer space. But I knew I must pick up

The heavens are falling

The dystopian novel in which a Ballardian deluge or viral illness transforms planet Earth has become something of a sub-genre, and Clare Morrall’s astute and vigorously imagined novel follows on from the best of them, such as Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and (most recently)Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship. Intriguingly, the future that Morrall imagines very much resembles the past. Following 50 years of climate catastrophe, and the spread of the population-depleting Hoffman’s disease, the only hope for humanity’s survival is to find ways of ‘living with the weather’, or learning ‘skills that don’t depend on failing technology’. Her heroine, the 22-year-old Roza Polanski, ekes

Man of many worlds

By the kind of uncanny coincidence that would tickle his psychogeographically minded friends Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, Michael Moorcock’s publishers have recently moved offices to the same corner of London occupied by his latest novel, The Whispering Swarm; and just as their rather swanky embankment premises are called Carmelite House, so does the religious order provide Moorcock with one of his key characters. It is a Carmelite monk who leads the book’s teenage protagonist, one ‘Michael Moorcock’, from an ABC teashop to a mysterious enclave just off post-Blitz Fleet Street. There, behind a ‘battered oaken gate’, the precocious journalist and budding science-fiction writer is introduced to ‘Alsacia’, a secret

The trailer for the new Star Wars film suggests it could be the best yet

If the Fast & Furious team made Casablanca 2 (‘Morocco Drift’) it would be a more artistically credible, better acted, and more entertaining movie than Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Vin Diesel’s Victor Laszlo may have gained an impressive set of guns fighting for the Czech resistance since we last saw him – shame, too, about the hair loss – but at least he wouldn’t spend even one second of the film talking about ‘midi-chlorians’. In his decision to revisit the Star Wars universe and create a trilogy of prequels, George Lucas looked upon the epic vista of his cinematic triumph and decided to open-cast strip mine