Science Fiction Roundup

One world is never enough in these four novels.

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By John Clute
Sunday, July 6, 2008

THE STONE GODS By Jeanette Winterson | Harcourt. 207 pp. $24

It takes a while for Jeanette Winterson to address head-on the grave task she has set herself in The Stone Gods, which is to mourn the end of a planet very much like Earth. Her initial problem is a simple failure common to many literary writers who think that, because science fiction is speculative, and not securely grounded in reality, they don't really need to put together a plausible story. When she does delve into "science," some pretty boneheaded explanations -- "Everything on Planet Blue is at the experimental stage. All these life-forms will evolve and alter" -- fog the air. But Winterson eventually gets her sea legs.

We begin on a planet called Orbus, which unmistakably resembles our own, and soon move to a second planet, the newly discovered Planet Blue. Orbus is a dystopian place where thought control is exercised through advertising and reality shows. For reasons not very clearly articulated (because Winterson cannot be bothered to make Orbus very lifelike), the powers that be wish to colonize Planet Blue. Billie Crusoe, a secretly rebellious female (this is relevant later) government persuader is told to make Planet Blue irresistible to the masses, but she refuses, momentarily jamming the wheels of the juggernaut of state, and must herself flee to Planet Blue.

There her incompetent fellow cosmonauts destroy Planet Blue's dinosaurs so that humans can live in peace, inadvertently causing an ice age, which kills everyone. But a new, male Billy Crusoe now awakens, stranded on Easter Island in the late 18th century, and The Stone Gods comes suddenly to life. As Crusoe slowly becomes aware of the devastation caused by the erection of the island's famous stone gods, Winterson's storytelling turns magically lucent and shapely.

Billy dies there in his mangled paradise, at the heart of the killed world. The rest of the novel transports us to something like the near future of our own planet, which is in all essentials identical to the society we first met on Orbus. All comes round. Each of us is a Crusoe repeatedly stranded on an island, with death as the end. The message of hope and the message of despair are the same: We come back and we do it again. "Everything," Winterson says at the very end of her savage circular parable, "is imprinted for ever with what it once was."

IMPLIED SPACES By Walter Jon Williams | Night Shade. 265 pp. $24.95

The title comes from architecture: Implied spaces, or squinches, are parts of a building not necessary in themselves but required to make other parts of the structure work. (Before you place a dome on a rectangular base, for example, you have to fill in the corners; the filled-in area is a squinch.) In Walter Jon Williams's good-tempered novel about the building and destruction and joyful rebuilding of artificial worlds inside the walls of Dyson spheres (giant hollow spheres that surround stars and capture their energy), squinches are the parts of these vast game-like artificial worlds that are implied by, but not actually part of, the original design.

The protagonist, Aristide, ancient but svelte and witty, ranges through these worlds mapping squinches as a kind of hobby. But Aristide -- like all humans he is rejuvenatable and has his personality backed up in several artificial intelligence memory caches -- is also one of the original designers of this designer solar system, and his guided tour of what he has helped build is purposeful. In explaining Aristide's ultimate motives, Williams traverses almost every convention in modern science fiction's armamentarium -- wormholes, predecessor species, faster-than-light travel, the singularity, artificial intelligences, pocket universes -- to describe the play-oriented human race that may succeed our own, if we don't terminate ourselves first. Fortunately, in Implied Spaces Earth has been left to recover without us, while we cavort in Aristide's game-worlds.

Given the exuberance and high color of the tale, it should not spoil the prospective reader's pleasure to know, first, that everything works out, and two, that the greatest squinch in the gerry-built universe that we inhabit is, of course, us.

ESCAPEMENT By Jay Lake | Tor. 383 pp. $25.95

Escapement is a complex bridge joining Mainspring, the first volume of Jay Lake's Geared Earth series, to a climactic sequel or sequels to come. The underlying concept of gearing comes out of Steampunk, a term used to describe stories set in an alternate 19th century in which science and mechanics work differently, and there is some chance that World War I will not spoil the game in the end. The rigid physics that govern Lake's solar system are literally visible in the heavens because the planets revolve on actual gears. A vast 100-mile-high wall girds Earth's equator, the top of which is a vast track that gives the planet traction so it can climb its orbit like a several-trillion-ton funicular climbing a circular mountain.

Three characters -- two of them women, both believably indomitable and triumphant in a hierarchical world run by men -- criss-cross the northern hemisphere of this bifurcated Earth on quests Lake has no intention of explaining until the next volume. One of the women is an unlettered but conspicuously brilliant scientist; the other is a librarian with a radical social conscience; the third character is a bluff sailor who does the kind of plot-advancing things one might expect of a bluff sailor. It is no joke to say that their constantly intersecting paths are highly geared. Nor is it a joke to say that, caught in the inexorable pacing that his story and his world demand, Lake can be a bit overdetailed in his clocking of the movement of this very long novel.

But the delight is in what's seen en route, as Lake has configured his world-dominating empires, one British, the other Chinese, with huge and devoted attention to the last detail. The delight of the next volume -- prefigured with unrelenting clarity in Escapement's final pages -- should be the discovery that the destination adds up.

THE HIDDEN WORLD By Paul Park | Tor. 317 pp. $25.95

The Hidden World caps, justifies and properly closes Paul Park's Great Roumania quartet, whose first volumes are A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline and The White Tyger. It is a great book. After a few deliberately jagged narrative spasms in the middle volumes, which slow heroine Miranda Popescu as she moves toward the intensely complicated truths unveiled here, The Hidden World finally reveals the true and dazzling world she had entered at the beginning of the series. In that world, Britain has sunk beneath the waves and the sun orbits the Earth, magic is real, the dead walk, Roumania is a central power, and our own world has been created by a crone to hide Miranda. Extracted from the relative safety of western Massachusetts by perhaps the most complex, poisonous, entrancing, unforgivable villainess I have ever encountered in a tale, Miranda endures extraordinary travails as her destiny -- for she is something like an heir to the Roumanian throne -- clamps itself to her.

The last pages of The Hidden World are as complex as life itself. ยท

John Clute is a reviewer, editor and author whose forthcoming books include "Canary Fever: Reviews" and the third edition of "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction," which will be published online.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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