Sunday, 26 April 2015

Science Fiction Enigmas

The first books that got me into Science Fiction were Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. It was the mystery and its scope in all its galactic grandeur that captivated me, and of course how expertly Asimov let it unfold across the trilogy, so that finally we understood the grand plan.

Another grand-master, Arthur C Clarke went one step further with his Rama series, because we never get to fully understand what the aliens want and why their vessels are traversing our solar system. I'm waiting to see the film version (Rendezvous with Rama). This is one of the few series I plan to read again from start to (non)finish.

More recent, Stephen Baxter's Timelike Infinity is masterful at leaving a healthy dose of enigma in our minds about the aliens controlling the wormhole, perhaps inspiring films like Interstellar where, again, as lowly humans, we don't fully grasp the methods and aims of multi-dimensional beings (how could we?).

Orson Scott Card noted that one of the reasons people read science fiction is for the 'wonder factor'. This can work on two levels. First, we can be wowed by understanding and 'seeing' something new. This is what books like Larry Niven's Ringworld do (the film Elysium borrowed from it, at least the visual concept), especially since he had the astrophysics worked out to back up this fantastic concept. This type of wonder has immediate and
spectacular effect, and many scifi films now go for it given the power of computer generated graphics (remember the floating islands in Avatar?).

Second, the wonder can be enigmatic, plausible but never fully resolved, so that we are left to wonder. This possibly works best in books, though Interstellar did a reasonable job of it (in my humble opinion!), though the quintessential film for this type of wonder is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So, in my Eden Paradox series, I wanted both types of wonder in there. But the second is harder to achieve. In the first book, The Eden Paradox, I created two enigmatic alien species: the Spiders, and the Hohash. The Spiders appear pacifist, but as the series went on, readers began asking me about them, because they seemed important, and yet they kept to themselves. By the fourth and final book, Eden's Endgame, pretty much all the readers I was in touch with were asking me what their role was, because they were sure they had one. And they do, a big role, which is not revealed until near the end of the series. But they remain somewhat enigmatic, and are never fully explained - this isn't down to caprice on my part, it's for a good reason, but it does mean we are left wondering. When I meet readers who have finished the series, invariably they still ask me about the Spiders, what will happen to them, and whether there will be any more books...

The Hohash are something else. They are machines, of a sort. Imagine a smartphone allowed to evolve for a billion years, and you might have a Hohash. At first they seem to be mechanical artifacts, but by the second book it is clear they have their own volition, and their own agenda. Another science fiction writer, Gary Gibson, told me the Hohash were the most interesting aspect of the series.

A recent review of Eden's Endgame prompted me to write this blog. Sometimes reviews strike an author, because they show an author his or her work from a different perspective, and sometimes it can be illuminating. I'd never before thought of the Hohash in terms of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, for example, but now I find I can't deny its influence, nor that of Kubrick's masterpiece.

But it also reminded me of the type of Scifi I like to read, books that leave me with a lingering question, that stretches my own mind. I like enigmas... If any readers out there have their favorites of this 'second type of wonder', do let me know.

Thanks to M.E. Gallagher for the review below, which I've left in its entirety.

From Spiders to Hohash...
Eden’s Endgame is a terrific read! In this fourth book of his Eden series, Kirwan takes us on a wild ride that ties together earlier story lines, yet reads well as a stand-alone. As usual, Kirwan’s descriptions place us in his universe: “(Jen) had seen fuzzy images of the Tla Beth, but had never met one before. It floated a couple of metres above a raised dais… with vertical metallic strips rotating around its core; if she tried to reach inside, her arm would be sliced off…

And later, “Kilaney watched as the first few Dropships neared the densely packed field that made him think of a ball of barbed wire… Traveling point-first and at high speed, they were difficult targets, like trying to shoot at an arrow flying towards your face.”

Kirwan populated the Eden series with unique beings, from dog-like Ossyrian physicians to gentle reptilian Rangers. My two favorites figure large in Eden’s Endgame: The giant spiders are spindly as tripods, yet cuddly as koala bears - Blake once joked that they “looked like walking charcoaled hamburgers.” We see the spiders’ tale unfold from benign, mute life-form to major player. Seldom have arachnids enjoyed such good press.

At the opposite end of the “Warm & Fuzzy” category, Kirwan gives us the Hohash. This isn’t the first time we’ve met these flat, mirror-like creatures – but in Endgame, the mysterious Hohash also turn hero. Part Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” part Thomas Hutchinson’s 1946 "Here is Television: Your Window to the World", and part the powerful monolith of "2001: A Space Odyssey", the Hohash embodies Stanley Kubrick’s statement in his 1968 New York Time’s interview.

“It's generally thought that after a highly-developed science gets you past the mortality stage,” Kubrick said, “you become part-animal, part-machine, then all machine. Eventually, perhaps, pure energy. We cannot imagine what a million-year jump in science will produce in life-forms. Pure spirit may be the ultimate form that intelligence would seek.”

Barry Kirwan’s Eden’s Endgame is a rip-roaring adventure that helps us imagine that jump into the future. I give it five stars.

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