Years Of Rice And Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson

Years of Rice and Salt, published by Kim Stanley Robinson in 2002, is the best book that I have read this year.

This book has two important gimmicks. The first is alternate history, the question being how would Chinese and Islamic cultures developed in a world where Europeans are virtually eliminated by the Black Plague. The second is reincarnation. The common thread through Robinson’s seven speculative centuries are the fates of several transmigrating souls. These two features allow the novel’s diversity to be anchored around three solid personalities.

Or solidish personalities, at any rate. You can tell which character is which soul by the letter that begins their name. For example, the K-soul is actively and impatiently trying to improve the world. The B-soul is more contemplative and religious, and is more interested in peaceful living. The third soul is the I-soul, who is curious about everything. Their stories play out in the Forbidden City, in an Islamified Europe and a North America colonised by Asians, during an Indian Industrial revolution and a Samarkand scientific Enlightenment, all the way up to World War between the Islamic world and China.

Clearly there is a lot of going in this book. What makes it work is the excellent characterisation. I like Robinson’s characters, they are most than just puppets who act out speculative scenarios but well-rounded people who are genuinely interesting in their own right.

Robinson writes in a different narratorial voice for each time period. The first section, about a member of the Golden Horde who stumbles into an empty Europe and becomes a slave in China, is modeled after the Journey to the West. Robinson includes the brief synopsis at the start of each chapter, and the questions at the end. The text of the first section also occasionally breaks out into Chinese-style poetry, as well. Robinson’s diversity of voices adds variety, and dare I even say it, verisimilitude to his text.

So if you see Years of Rice and Salt at your local library or St Vinnies, get it. Those of you who don’t like speculative stuff will enjoy the human interest. Such is the variety of this book that it will contain something for everyone.


Move Pitch: Year Of The Mouse

Pinky (Zach Braff) and Brain (Kelsey Grammar) are two laboratory mice who attempt world domination on a nightly basis. When Brain is given internet access as part of an experiment, he hacks into a CIA database and blackmails the US government into organising a meeting between the president (Nicholas Cage) and the rodent duo. Brain further increases his control of the situation by having Pinky run up the President’s pant leg.

The bulk of the film takes place fifteen years later, on a mouse-dominated Earth. Humans provide green power by running in gigantic hamster wheels and the world economy operates on the cheese standard. Our protagonist is Elmira (Halle Berry), an eradicator who hunts mice with mousetrap nunchucks. The film ends with her rescuing the American president and killing a Brain double, only to learn that the real Brain is standing behind her holding her father’s severed head.

The main special effect is that Zach and Braff are wearing felt mouse-suits and acting on giant sets. Everything else is terrible CGI. This film could plausibly be set in the same continuity as Halle Berry’s Catwoman film, and the theme of rodent dominance makes for an easy Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy reference.

Movie Pitch: Squiggle

Mr Squiggle (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the last survivor of an alien planet. His escape-pod crashes into Melbourne where it is mistaken for public art, and he takes a job as an art teacher at the local secondary school. He shares a Carlton flat with an impatient blackboard voiced by Bob Franklin.

After Squiggle is framed for a series of artistic murders, he must delve deep into the Melbourne underbelly to find the real killer. Perhaps inevitably, he ends up working in a dubious tattoo parlor. While tattooing the image of Grumpy Cat on a teenager’s back, Squigle overhears a comment from an inebriated Office Works manager (Noni Hazelhurst) which gives him the contact details of the one person who can help him. Online communication results in the benefactor emailing Squiggle several incomplete line drawings. Only by filling in these gaps can Squiggle find the true killer, exonerate himself and protect his secret identity.

The killer turns out to be a frustrated artist called Humpty (Barry Humphries.) He could have some Batmanesque rationale about how life and death are the only fitting topic for a true artist, and the later is woefully neglected. There should also be a joke about Humpty being the second evilest failed artist in history. The benefactor turns out to be the last host of Art Attack, who Humpty has been keeping captive as an artistic consultant, allowing him an internet connection so that he could steal ideas from DeviantArt. All music by Nick Cave and the Birthday Party.

Movie Pitch: Chit Gets Real

A gritty modern-day reboot of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Chit Gets Real tells the story of Caractacus Potts (Vin Diesel), an eccentric weapons developer who is betrayed by the American government. His vengeance takes the form of a forty-cylinder nuclear army hovertank with boat, submarine, helicopter and even experimental space-shuttle modes. The folding machine guns, laser beams, net-guns, crossbows, smart explosives, and incontinent nanobot swarms don’t get in the way either.

After Potts heroically restores a democratically elected South-American government that had previously been toppled by the CIA, the Foreign Secretary (Leonado Dicaprio) has Potts’ children stolen by Agent Childcatcher (Madonna). Childcatcher sells the Potts children to become child soldiers in Africa. Now Caractacus Potts must rescue his children, expose his government, sing every song from the original film and find a petrol station with enough gas to fill his magical car.

The film ends when Potts must choose between the safety of his car and the needs of his children. The soundtrack will include the Cars’ Drive, Queen’s I’m In Love With My Car, Gary Numan’s Cars and the Beatles’ Drive My Car. Searching for the word ‘Cars’ within your iTunes, and you will likely find more options.

Should Chit Gets Real become a significant success, possible sequel titles include Chit Hits The Fan, Chit-Chit Bang-Bang and Chit Vs. Kitt.

The Space Merchants – Frederick Pohl And Cyril Kornbluth

The Space Merchants, published by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth in 1953, is a satirical science-fiction novel that eviscerates advertising and consumerism. It is a novel that remains culturally relevant, perhaps more than ever.

The world of The Space Merchants is so dominated by consumerism that companies vote for American senators, that advertising agencies actually fight for contracts, and marketing is so omnipresent that it appear on airplane windows. There are those who disprove of this corporatocracy are labelled as ‘Consies’,  a term I’m certain derives from ‘conscientious objector’. Despite the treatment of Consies being based on American Communists, Consies are more concerned with the environment than the economy. Pohl and Kornbluth also mention the Greenhouse Effect, and how economic growth cannot go on indefinitely.

Mitchell Courtenay is a marketing guru entrusted with recruiting volunteers to colonise Venus. Problem is, all reports indicate that Venus is an inhospitable hell-hole. Sabotage leads to Mitchell being stripped of his power and privilege, and joining a Consie conspiracy. Things snowball from there.

Mitchell’s first person narration is entertaining and punchy. I’ve already shared Pohl and Kornbluth’s thoughts on poetry, and there’s plenty of similar material. To be honest, I’m a little envious of how good the writing produced by the two authors are.

I didn’t remember reading any dates in this book, so The Space Merchants manages to avoid doing anything silly like set a space-faring empire in the Eighties. It does loses a point for the antiquated gender attitudes displayed by Mitchell and the other characters, although women’s rights going downhill in the future is depressingly plausible. The only thing about the Space Merchant’s World that doesn’t seem plausible is mankind ever colonising Venus.

The Space Merchants could potentially be made into a very good sci-fi film. In the front-matter Rediffusion Television copyrighted in 1952, but Wikipedia tells me that no film or television adaption was ever made. CBS Radio Workshop also did an adaption. Andrew Nicholl would be the ideal director for a modern movie adaption. I would want The Space Merchants film to be along the lines of Gattaca with a hint of The Fifth’s Element‘s satirical fun.

The Space Merchants is a good book, and more relevant now than ever. Go read it sometime.

Advertising and Poetry

I’m currently reading The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. It is a satire on the advertising industry, in which ad-men must persuade people to take a horrendous trip to an inhospitable Venus.

An interesting perspective on poetry emerges on page 43.

The correlation is perfectly clear. Advertising up, lyric poetry down. There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.

Well, it certainly is a point of view. I really couldn’t say how accurate it is. It’s certainly a rare event when I find a poem I actually like, I’ll say that much.

Doctor Who And The Curse Of Peladon

Doctor Who and the Curse of Peladon is a novel written by Brian Hayles, based on a script that he wrote. The novel was published in 1974, two years after the script was copyrighted.

The Doctor cons his way onto a committee reviewing whether a Renaissance-level planet should be allowed to join a Galactic Federation. The decision process is fatally complicated by a priest who threatens the delegates with the sacred royal beast. Will the Doctor and his companion be able to fast-talk their way out of this one?

The most important thing to know about a Doctor Who book is if it is set during a part of the Doctor’s life that you are familiar with. Curse of Peladon is set during the Doctor’s third regeneration, when he was played by John Pertwee. In this book he’s traveling with a contemporyish woman named Jo.

The prose in this book is heavy with the adjectives, and the action is somewhat over-described. The key example is page is 108, a wall of text describing a combat between the Doctor and the King’s champion. The elaborate verbiage the novel an immersive feel, but it is difficult to escape the suspicion that Hayles is padding out a pretty thin script. As it is, the novel comes out to 142 pages.

The pictures in this book are pretty nifty. They are done in a black-and-white line style. Each one takes up an entire page.

The villainous priest expressed concern that his planet would be exploited as a result of joining the federation, and I really wish that this sort of colonial and economic anxiety was more prominent in the novel. Given that this book was written in the seventies, when many of Britain’s former colonies in Africa were gaining independence, it’s not difficult to see a post-colonial subtext. The reference to a ‘developing planet’ only confirms this suspicion.

Overall, I’d describe this book as okay. I’ve read better books dealing with the complex topic that is Doctor Who. I’d recommend Stephen Baxter’s Wheel of Ice, and or Jim Mortimore’s Campaign before reading this.