Life, the Universe and Everything

Life, the Universe and Everything
By Douglas Adams

In my note on The Restaurant at the End of the Universe I said how it rounded the original story arc of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy off. Which means Volume Three in the Trilogy of Five has to start things up again, and it does so with a mostly self-contained story about a violent gang of robots gathering together the various keys to the Wikkit Gate that will release the planet Krikkit from its Slo-Time envelope, an event which may result in the destruction of the universe.

Despite this fairly basic plot the novel itself is, as usual, an episodic, ramshackle affair that left me confused at various points as to what was going on. How did Arthur get transported to the Cathedral of Hate? What was Hactar up to? I had to do a lot of page-flipping to keep all this straight.

That said, there are some great characters and ideas introduced. The camouflage of SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem), the Campaign for Real Time (a response to pesky time travelers), and best of all Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, whose deathless mission is to insult every single living being in the universe (Arthur, at least in the American version, is “a jerk . . . a complete asshole”). These almost make up for there being a lot less Marvin to enjoy.


By Veronica Roth

Sophocles’ play Antigone has been adapted countless times over the past two-and-a-half millennia, being the archetypal tale of individual conscience versus public conformity to the law.

Veronica Roth, author of the popular Divergent series, has reimagined the old story once again, this time set in a future city that has narrowly survived some kind of global apocalypse. In order to maintain genetic stability the frightened new world strictly controls the process of reproduction by disallowing natural procreation and restricting the making of babies to the resurrection of clones made from the archived “ichor” (DNA) of deceased citizens.

The names as well as the outline of the plot have stayed the same. Antigone (“Tig”) is the willful daughter intent on salvaging the ichor of her brother Polyneikes, who has died in an attempted coup against their uncle Kreon’s authoritarian government. Kreon has forbid “extraction” of Polyneikes’ ichor, but Antigone has her own ideas. Or, as she puts it: “F— Kreon’s decree.”

Roth finds a number of interesting connections between ancient Greek political debates and issues in our own time. Of course the patriarchy is still in business, but also operative is the intertwining of notions of inheritance and genetic doom with classical ideas of fate. And finally the ending is something that’s really new, even offering a sliver of hope if not on earth than in the heavens.

Why Don’t You Love Me?

Why Don’t You Love Me?
By Paul B. Rainey

Most of Why Don’t You Love Me?, a serial graphic novel, is about as far from science fiction as you could imagine. A man and woman share a loveless trainwreck of a marriage. Claire is a stay-at-home alcoholic and can’t even take care of herself much less the two kids. Mark works for a company that does web development, but he doesn’t understand anything about the job. In fact, he seems to think he’s really a barber . . .

They’re a dysfunctional family, but it’s weirder than that. Then, at the exact halfway point in the story, there’s a global event that sets a restart button. Or causes a wrinkle in the fabric of the multiverse. And Mark slowly breaks out of a bed that’s shaped like a cocoon into a brand new life.

It’s hard to say much more about the story than this, in part to avoid spoilers but also because it’s hardly clear even to Claire and Mark what’s going on. Suffice it to say that Paul B. Rainey’s cramped and cluttered visual style is the perfect complement to a strange domestic tale of social order breaking down into isolation and chaos. Then a quick re-read is necessary to put it back together again.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
By Douglas Adams

“Volume Two in the Trilogy of Five” rounds the original story arc of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy off pretty nicely. We’ve gone from the end of Earth (destroyed to make room for a hyperspace expressway) to the end of the universe, in the form of a restaurant called Milliways. Then we literally start all over, as Arthur signs off with the Prosperoesque gesture of chucking his copy of the Guide into a river. (The TV series was even better, with Louis Armstrong singing us out with “What a Wonderful World.”) Did we need anything more?

Apparently this was Adams’s favourite book in the series. I find it uneven. Milliways is a bit disappointing, though it seems an obvious inspiration for Monty Python’s vision of the afterlife as a Vegas floorshow. The rock band Disaster Area is dead on arrival. But the creation myth of the Golgafrinchans, a superfluous third of humanity that settled the Earth two million years ago, is just the kind of thing I love Adams for. That and the lord of the universe living in a shack out in a swamp somewhere, his only company being a grumpy cat.

There are no rules, according to Adams. Not even narrative rules, as he freely zaps us from place to place and time to time with little regard for continuity. Of course, that also means that there can never be an end. There’s always a button to be pressed for a reset, teleport, or leap into some further improbability.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
By Douglas Adams

My own introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the 1981 TV series, but by then it was already a franchise, having started life as a radio show.

I thought the TV show was the greatest thing ever, and couldn’t stop laughing at Marvin the Paranoid Android (though I thought of him as more of a Depressed Robot). What struck me on this re-reading is how fast it flies by and Adams’s flights into absurdity or surrealism. Like Arthur’s limbs detaching while Ford turns into a penguin in improbability space, the falling whale and potted petunia, and the five hundred “entirely naked women” dropping out of the sky in parachutes.

It’s a work that plays a lot like a series of Monty Python skits, with innumerable bits that get stuck in your head and that I think fans can practically recite verbatim. This time around it wasn’t all as good as I remember, but seeing humanity being put in its place in the cosmos, and that place being somewhere well down the pecking order, gives it the feeling of a sort of anti-wisdom literature.

“Science has achieved some wonderful things, of course, but I’d rather be happy than right any day.”
“And are you?”
“No. That’s where it all falls down, of course.”

That’s not Marvin speaking, but Slartibartfast. Or it could be any one of us.

The Terraformers

The Terraformers
By Annalee Newitz

Terraforming a planet takes a long time and costs a lot of money, so it’s no surprise that the Verdance Corporation has a keen eye on its bottom line in refashioning Sask-E for human settlement, which means selling oceanside lots to people looking for authentic Pleistocene real estate.

The Terraformers is a book that takes a long and not always engaging view of this process, being made up of three main narrative sections with breaks of 700-900 years between them. The plot feels a bit like one of those build-a-civilization-from-scratch videogames, but Newitz uses it to address various interesting questions relating to environmental stewardship, responsible capitalism, and the definition of personhood. This latter being an important point where one of the main characters is a talking moose.

Cold People

Cold People
By Tom Rob Smith

Alien invasions can take strange turns. In Cold People a space fleet of bossy visitors arrive and immediately give humankind an ultimatum: relocate to Antarctica in 30 days or be destroyed. After a month of madly rushing south, a new society is formed on the icy continent, and with that new society a new sort of human as well.

Life in Antarctica isn’t easy, though the diet and exercise regimens turn out to be quite healthy. The scientists, however, think they can do even better and have developed a plan to rapidly evolve a breed of Homo antarcticus specially equipped to survive under the most extreme conditions. After twenty years, their experiments start to bear strange fruit. But in the struggle for survival our parahuman descendants may not all be on our side.

Any explanation of what the aliens are up to will have to wait for a sequel, but the cold people we get here are interesting creations and the action makes good use of their weird abilities. The best part of the book though is the way Antarctica is presented as an alien environment, no less fatal for being here on earth.

The Inheritors

The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story
By Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford

I’ll confess I’d never heard of The Inheritors before now, which underscores how it took a couple of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century to write a book that’s this big a mess.

Out walking one afternoon, our ironic hero Arthur, a Grub Street hack and journalist, meets a strange and beautiful woman. She tells him she is from the Fourth Dimension and they are planning a takeover of our world. Or not really a takeover, since she is an embodiment of “the Inevitable”: the mechanical operation of grand historical forces that will sweep the old order of shabby aristos like Arthur aside so that the Dimensionists can inherit the earth. Arthur, of course, falls in love with her, but she sees him only as a loser to be used and then discarded. Which is what she proceeds to do.

Another confession: while it plays with some SF tropes of the time, it isn’t really SF. The Dimensionists are more like a garden variety secret society. The only matters of interest are the way the development of Greenland – bringing the light of progress and civilization, an ennobling “idea,” to the benighted natives of the place – is obviously a stand-in for what was being done to the Congo, and how contemporary the suggestion of a vast conspiracy combining government, the media, and global finance is. Indeed, Arthur himself might almost be a prototype of today’s shock blogger, his sense of his own loss of standing and relevance leading to his becoming a brain-dead megaphone.

So there is some good stuff in here, but it’s not worth digging through a soppy romance and confusing political potboiler for.


By Bradley Somer

Extinction begins in an odd way for an SF novel, with lots of lovely nature writing as we’re introduced to a park ranger named Ben out on his own in the great outdoors. But little by little things open up, only to reveal how they are closing down at the same time.

Specifically, what’s closing down is planet Earth. Overcome by environmental collapse and pandemics, humanity is heading for the door. Meaning they’re getting on spaceships and colonizing other planets. Meanwhile, Ben is staying behind to guard the last bear standing, a mission that gets difficult when a team of hunters enters the picture.

Extinction reads like a fable in the form of a survivalist adventure story, with the fate of the bear evoking the experience of our own end times. This is particularly so given the pervading sense of isolation and alienation that Bradley Somer cultivates. The wilderness has become a place, and inner space, where, as one character puts it, one learns “what alone really feels like.” It’s a depressing fate we’ve brought upon ourselves.