Moving Pictures (Discworld, #10)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

It’s been ages since I read a Discworld novel and the urge came upon me recently to reread this, which I’ve not read in years. It’s got a number of firsts: it’s the first “Wizards” book, in that Ridcully is now Archchancellor and the faculty that we go on to know and love make their first appearance; and it’s the first appearance of Gaspode the Wonder Dog who would go on to pop up again a number of times.

The story is a pastiche on both the film industry in Hollywood and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, as terrible things awake at Holy Wood Hill, when the last guardian dies and try to worm their way into our reality, via the medium of the clicks. It’s a lot of fun, and as funny as early period Pratchett should be, with more fun to be had playing spot-the-reference to both film and Lovecraft. It’s perhaps not the most memorable of Discworld novels, but there’s still a lot to enjoy, especially for more long-standing fans, who can see see favourite characters, including Detritus, in early roles.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552134637
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1990

Study War No More

By Joe Haldeman

Rating: 3 stars

I love the idea of this anthology. It’s the sort of thing science fiction does well, taking a theme and spinning out ideas of how it could play out; in this case, the theme is alternatives to war. Haldeman himself famously served in the Vietnam war, which led to his subsequent position on the matter, and here he has asked a number of well-known writers to provide their thoughts.

Harlan Ellison opens the collection with the very odd Basilisk about a soldier broken by war, and the hostile reaction he faces from those he had been trying protect when he gets home, and how that changes him further. I’m not entirely sure this matched the brief, but it was a powerful and affecting story in its own right. Ben Bova’s The Dueling Machine is a decent story in which aggression can be channelled through duels which are fought in a form of virtual reality, with no harm done. Until someone figures out how to kill from within the machine. Poul Anderson’s A Man to My Wounding provides a caution to those who argue that the politicians who send people to war without being in any danger themselves should be the ones on the front line. A decent story with an interesting idea that feels a bit dated now.

Commando Raid by Harry Harrison starts out as a traditional war story, with a commando group planning and executing a raid on a village in a remote country that could be an analogue for Vietnam. When the twist comes, it’s a blinder that totally flips the whole story round in a neat manner. Curtains by George Alec Effinger has an interesting idea at its heart, that soldiers and armies act as performing artists and the quality of their performances determine how much the opposition can respond. Interesting, but it was a little too silly for my tastes. Mack Reynolds’ Mercenary took the idea of warfare and moved it from the national stage to the corporate, with corporations settling disputes on the battlefield. This one seemed to go on forever, and didn’t even have a great pay off as far as I was concerned.

Rule Golden by Damon Knight is a story I’ve read before and one of the more interesting ideas, as first contact leads to a desperate race around the world before the authorities catch up. This one is nice but felt a little dated – it’s hard to imagine how the protagonist and his alien companion would fare trying to travel around the world without alerting the authorities today. I’m not sure I got The State of Ultimate Peace about (I think) a war leader who finds himself converted to a pacifist. This one didn’t seem hugely coherent to me although since the protagonist wasn’t in a great state of mind, that may have been intentional. Isaac Asimov’s contribution was odd and didn’t, I felt, entirely fit with the rest of the anthology. It was an essay rather than a story and it was about why he felt that computerisation of taxes and telling the government more about us was ultimately beneficial. I fear that the Good Doctor may be somewhat appalled to see the ways that the wealthy manage to evade (or is it avoid?) their taxes, even in this highly computerised age. And lastly, we come to Haldeman’s own contribution, a story about a wealthy industrialist who bends his mind to ridding the world of nuclear weapons and then spends most of his fortune, and a very long time, achieving it.

So a good collection for the most part. Definitely more hits than misses and a very interesting theme to build an anthology around. It would be interesting to see a new collection with modern writers come at the same sort of thing, to see what new ideas have been spawned in 40 or so years since this one was put together.

Book details

ISBN: 9780708880548
Publisher: Orbit / Futura
Year of publication: 1977

Stories of Your Life and Others

By Ted Chiang

Rating: 4 stars

This book was loaned to me by a friend who was saying that Story of Your Life isn’t nearly as good as the film it spawned (Arrival) and that she disliked the rest of the stories too. I thought the film was pretty good and had vague memories of liking Ted Chiang when I’d heard his stories in podcast form. Having now read the collection, I have to completely disagree with my friend – I loved this collection. For me it has echoes of golden age SF in both positive and negative ways – the ideas are sometimes immense, but the characterisation is correspondingly lacking.

I thought Tower of Babylon was a lovely piece, where the weirdness in the world is slowly revealed, ending with a massive revelation, that somehow completely fits with the world as we have come to know it. It involves the building of a giant tower in Babylon that reaches up to Heaven and the miners brought in from Elam to help penetrate the vault of Heaven.

Understand was an interesting piece about intelligence amplification, and the different directions it could go. I must confess that I was expecting a bit of a Flowers for Algernon thing but Chiang took the story in a different direction to what I was expecting. Division by Zero was also a strong piece, with some really good characterisation, I thought, about what happens when one of the fundamental pillars of mathematics is discovered to be unsound. The title story focussed more on the linguistic side of the story than the film, but I thought it was strong, and it still had the same narrative device of the protagonist’s child.

Seventy-two Letters again had some really neat ideas in it – combining some ideas from Victorian naturalism, before the real explanations were understood with name-powered golems. I liked the world-building in this one a lot, with little things like pickled mermaids and unicorn horns in the British Museum thrown in to make it very clear that this isn’t our Victorian era. The Evolution of Human Science is a short piece for the science journal Nature, toying with the idea of what humans could learn from post-human science.

Hell is the Absence of God is one of the stories that I first encountered in audio form. It’s a great story, taking as its core conceit the idea that god and angels are real and they visit the mortal plane randomly, leaving miracles – positive and negative – in their wake. It’s also completely horrific, leaving me with a strong desire to rebel against this apparently uncaring and arbitrary deity.

The final story was Liking What You See: A Documentary, and was probably my favourite story in the collection. Told in the style of a documentary, the central idea is that brain manipulation has reached the point where we can cure various conditions and has been extended to broad-scale (reversible) alternative alterations. One of these, calliagnosia, is the inability to detect attractiveness in faces. There are a number of lovely things here, from the community that gave all their kids ‘calli’ to try and make them better people, to the beauty industry hiring PR firms to fight against a student body in a US college arguing for it to be made compulsory to study in that college. This one had me going backwards and forwards on which position was better and I still keep coming back to the ideas in it.

This book has done nothing but raise my impression of Chiang as an author. His ideas come thick and fast, and he develops and analyses them well and often in some depth. Definitely worth reading as long as you don’t mind the ideas taking top billing over characterisation.

Book details

ISBN: 9781447289234
Publisher: Picador
Year of publication: 2002

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