Monday, October 20, 2014

the last book I read

Fremder by Russell Hoban.

Fremder Gorn is having a bit of a peculiar day. When we meet him, he's floating though space without spacesuit or helmet, the freighter Clever Daughter that he was on a few seconds before having spontaneously dematerialised from around him. By chance he gets rescued by another passing ship, and needless to say the authorities are keen to know what happened, and how he escaped.

Fremder is a flickerhead, someone fitted with a cranial implant that enables him to be the conduit for a sort of hyperspace drive that allows ships to traverse huge interstellar distances in next to no time. While accidents do occasionally happen they don't usually leave any survivors, so Fremder is a source of considerable interest, not least to giant supercomputer Pythia, who conducts an interrogation to find out what Fremder has been up to, particularly the stuff he doesn't even know about himself.

Fremder is also of interest because of his ancestry: son of Helen Gorn, the inventor of the flicker drive, along with her brother Isodor. Both of them died by their own hands in mysterious circumstances, in Helen's case a couple of months before Fremder was born (some sort of incubator being presumably involved for the remaining time).

It turns out that not only is the thing implanted in Fremder's head not quite the bog-standard flicker implant (it's got some special properties), but also that Pythia isn't the giant supercomputer he thought she was - the truth is somewhat more weird, and explains why at the end of the book Fremder finds himself on board Clever Daughter II heading for the same co-ordinates as before. Can he escape again?

This is the fourth Hoban in this list, which equals the record jointly held by Iain Banks (with and without the M), Lawrence Durrell and William Boyd. It's quite "hard" sci-fi in places, in contrast to Riddley Walker which was post-apocalyptic, and Kleinzeit and Come Dance With Me which are set in recognisable versions of contemporary London, but it's still as quirky and charming as any of the others. It's somewhat more oblique in its approach to its subject matter, and a lot of the sciencey stuff is hand-waved away, but it still packs a lot of density into 184 pages. It's probably not as good as Riddley Walker, but that's a pretty high bar.

For all the trademark Hoban idiosyncrasies there are some common themes here: most science fiction works that require people to travel between star systems (rather than just orbiting their own planet) are obliged to cook up some form of hyperspace drive just to compensate for everything being interstellar distances apart and the trips taking many thousands of years otherwise. So you've got the warp drive in Star Trek, the Millennium Falcon making the jump to light speed, the ill-fated gravity drive from Event Horizon, and the flicker drive here. Similarly, there is a long history of fictional teleportation systems, and what happens when they go wrong, from Stephen King's short story The Jaunt to The Fly.

No comments: