Sunday, February 25, 2024

Reviews of Brian Stableford's work, in his memory

Brian Stableford died yesterday, February 24, 2004, at age 75. I will have a fuller obituary elsewhere soon, but I thought to compile a number of reviews of his work I did, for 3SF magazine and for Locus.

The Omega Expedition (from 3SF, April 2003)

One of the most ambitious, coherent, and philosophically interesting Future Histories of recent years comes from the pen of Brian Stableford. This project began with his 1985 non-fiction book The Third Millennium, written with David Langford. In 1986 he published the first story set in that milieu, and throughout the 90s he published a quite a few further stories, set from the very near future to centuries ahead. 

He has capped this achievement with six novels: Inherit the Earth (1998), Architects of Emortality (1999), The Fountains of Youth (2000), The Cassandra Complex (2001), Dark Ararat (2002), and finally The Omega Expedition (2002). Most of the novels are expansions of earlier short stories. The central theme of the entire project is "emortality": the realization of the dream of indefinitely prolonged human life. The books and stories sketch a future in which human life is nearly destroyed by the Plague Wars of the 21st Century, and in which the entire ecosystem undergoes a nearly terminal crash. But from the ashes rises a near utopia: nanotechnology allows for greatly extended lifespans, while various biotechnological innovations rescue the biosphere. A variety of strategies for true "emortality" arise, including genetic changes, "cyborgization" -- integration of mechanical devices into the body, and even "chimerization" (based on the completely different biology of a different planet), which will allow people to adapt their bodies to radically different environments. But as The Omega Expedition opens, there is a long-term threat to this utopia, in the form of the "Afterlife", mindless beings that eat anything organic in their path. As it turns out, there is also another much nearer term threat.

The action in the book turns on the unfreezing of Adam Zimmerman, one of the key figures of the early 21st Century, a man obsessed with immortality, who finally had himself frozen with instructions that he be awakened when immortality was possible. The main viewpoint character, however, is Madoc Tamlin, who is awakened as a sort of trial run for Zimmerman. Tamlin had been kind of a "fixer" for a member of the ruling elite of the 22nd Century, and he was apparently frozen as punishment for some crime he can't remember. He soon learns that he has been roused by one faction of 31st century emortals, people who have their physical development arrested before puberty. Before long the other factions are involved as well, but then the small group of reawakened sleepers and advocates of various forms of emortality are kidnapped. 

From this point the main thrust of the novel revolves around the threat of devastating war, and a brave attempt to avert this war. But instead of action, we get lots of talk, arguably too much. I will say, though, that I found the talk interesting and quite thought provoking. Stableford uses this platform to discuss the meaning of life, the definition of intelligence, and how to make truly extended lives worthwhile. So, though the book is a bit static, on balance I found it absorbing and a very worthy capstone to an impressive feat of extended speculation.

Dark Ararat (3SF, December 2002)

Brian Stableford has spent some time working out an interesting "future history" based mostly on advanced biotechnology. In a number of stories, and a planned six novels, he has told of a 21st century under increasing ecological stress, eventually wracked by Plague Wars which threaten the survival of humanity. Biotech created the plagues, but biotech also created the solutions, which include practical "emortality" (arbitrarily extended lifespans) for humans, and a genetically engineered biosphere that will allow Earth to survive without ecocatastrophe.

Dark Ararat is the fifth novel in the series, and sort of an offshoot. At the beginning of the 22nd century as Earth seemed to face certain disaster, a series of generation ships were launched. One of these ships has arrived after hundreds of years at a new planet. Biologist and TV personality Matthew Fleury is awakened to find that things aren't going quite as planned. The crew of the ship, adapted over generations to onboard life, wants to drop off the colonists and continue traveling. But the first wave of colonists is not sure this new planet can be made habitable. And one of Fleury's colleagues has just been murdered. It is his job, along with a policeman revived along with him, to both investigate the murder, and to investigate the biological mysteries of the planet.

Not surprisingly it is the scientific mystery which dominates. Life on this planet is organized around a very different encoding molecule to DNA, and one result of this is that most organisms are some form of chimera. There are also hints of possible intelligent life, and there are hints that this chimerization may result in another form of emortality. Fleury investigates all these things, at the same time giving us a neat tour of the strange planet, while he and the policeman somewhat perfunctorily solve the murder mystery. The eventual scientific explanation is rather clever, though on a few grounds I was underwhelmed. One shortcoming may lie with me: I couldn't quite grasp all the scientific details. Another is quite common in my experience of Stableford: his portrayal of human relationships, especially romantic ones, is very distanced, and it is hard to get inside his characters. Finally, the wrapping up is very rapid, and perhaps too convenient. Still, it's in many ways a neat book – good SF for SF's sake.

From Locus, June 2002

Brian Stableford's "Taking the Piss" is a very amusing story about advances in bio-engineering. Stableford extrapolates from recent genetic modifications to animals to have their bodies create useful substances (I seem to recall that scientists have managed to get silk from sheep's milk). It turns out, in Stableford's future, that some biological engineering is best done using human hosts. This becomes a low class job, for folks such as Darren, the aimless young man who narrates this story. But the human body is a complex thing, and the specific proteins created from a certain genetic modification can be quite different from person to person. When Darren's engineered urine turns out to create something unexpected, he is potentially quite valuable. As such he is a target for industrial espionage, and also perhaps a national security asset. Stableford wraps some interesting extrapolation in a clever and quite funny story of competing economic interests.

From Locus, September 2002

January's issue of The Silver Web is their fifteenth. Editor Ann Kennedy chooses a decidedly slipstreamish mix. My favorite story this issue is Brian Stableford's "Oh Goat-Foot God of Arcady", which is mostly straight science fiction, with a (possibly metaphorical) intrusion of fantasy in the appearances of the title being, Pan, to the main character, a woman musing on her upcoming marriage to a man who is interested (and why?) in the possibilities of using genetic engineering to create human/animal chimeras. The tale is slyly told, and the mixture of the appearances of Pan with the conversational unfolding of the story behind the possible creation of chimeras works strikingly well. 

From Locus, February 2003

Brian Stableford does biological speculation as well as any writer. His latest is "A Chip off the Old Block", in which young Stevie turns out to have a potentially valuable genetic feature. But who owns his genes? Stevie becomes the focus of a bidding war, complicated by the fact that his mother and father are going through a divorce. This is a first rate look at not so much near future scientific progress as at the unexpected social consequences of such progress – and the laws surrounding it. 

From Locus, January 2004

Brian Stableford's "Nectar" is another of his stories set in a near-utopian future in which human lifespans have been enormously extended, and in which children (for that and other reasons) are very rare. Sara is an adolescent, one of only a few nearby. She gets fitted for an ornamental attachment -- a quasi-living rose. But it unexpectedly attracts not just butterflies, but shadowbats, a very new creation: more artificial life used as body art. She tracks down the old man who designed these particular creatures, hoping simply that he can fix them so they won't bother her. But her visit leads to more momentous discoveries, and changes. More solid work from one of the most consistently interesting writers of hard SF.

From Locus, July 2006

Plenty of solid reading in the August Asimov’s. The novella is a wild alternate history/fantasy from Brian Stableford, “The Plurality of Worlds”, in which a spaceship (or ethership) is constructed in late 16th Century England, for Queen Jane (presumably Lady Jane Grey survived). The five man crew are Thomas Digge, John Foxe, and three more familiar names: Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and Edward De Vere (Earl of Oxford, and perhaps the most fashionable current alternate Shakespeare). The possibility of making a spaceship in the 16th Century rather implies a different cosmology, and so this story supposes: the ether turns out to be breathable, and the planned trip to the moon results in an encounter with some very odd creatures, and a trip to a much farther star, where the humans learn something of man’s insignificance. 

From Locus, October 2006

Weird Tales continues a very strong year with an issue full of enjoyable stories. It opens with a long, gleefully mordant, story from Brian Stableford, “The Elixir of Youth”, in which a winemaker’s two sons fall out over the title potion. One ends up dead in a cask of wine, his body full of the elixir, which does remarkable things for the wine. But it does much worse things for the psyches of those people who find out about it: the winemaker and his surviving son, their liege lord and his heir, and so on. 

From Locus, February 2007

Brian Stableford’s “Dr. Muffet’s Island” (Asimovs, March), is a sequel to last year’s “The Plurality of Worlds”. In this one Francis Drake, having been branded a madman for his story of his adventures in space in that story, is attempting to find a large island in the central Pacific, based on a map drawn from space. But to his surprise he finds a British ship already there, with a small colony, and in particular a scientist attempting to breed spiders. All turns out to be related to schemes of a group of “celestial spiders”, enemies of the insect people from the previous story. It makes for enjoyable and outré storytelling … and likely more to come.

From Locus, February 2008

And Brian Stableford’s “Following the Pharmers” is a particularly good piece about a genetic engineering-dominated future. Radical genetic engineering is viewed with suspicion, both by the law and by the corporations (“Big Pharma”). The narrator is a small-time “pharmer”, living alone and cultivating psychotropic drugs. His privacy is threatened by a new neighbor, an activist who wants to change the rules, to force humans to become “masters of evolution”, to rectify the sloppiness of natural selection. She presses the narrator to help her – but he has a secret, involving his own past career, and his lost wife, and he is dangerous to push too far – not necessarily by his own desire.

1 comment:

  1. Stableford will be deeply missed. I appreciate all his scholarship on early French SF. I can't say I completely appreciate the fiction of his I've read but I might not have read all the best stuff yet. I've read The Halcyon Drift (1972), The Florians (1976), and Journey to the Center (1982).

    Man in a Cage (1975) is on the burner for this year in honor of his passing. It seems like it will tick all Joachim Boaz boxes!