Ender’s Game


A couple of year ago, I met and got to spend some time talking to the American author Orson Scott Card. He wrote one of my all time favourite books – Ender’s Game. A science fiction classic, it’s being made into a movie due out later this year, with some heavyweight actors involved including Harrison Ford.

Card himself made a strong impression on me. To be clear, he holds some political and religious views that leave me scratching my head –  he’s fairly conservative and devout in his Mormonism – but as a writer there’s no doubt that he’s extremely talented.

It will be interesting to see how Ender’s Game is translated into a big budget movie – the main character is a small child and yet it’s a book that deals in quite adult themes. Card has apparently said that it’s a substantial rewrite from his book – but he’s smart enough not to mind. Why should he? A film doesn’t replace a book – it exists alongside the original version of the story.

When I met him, we shared a car ride for a few hours during which we talked a little about his book. I didn’t think to bring a copy along for him to sign, but with no prompting he pulled into a strip mall with a giant bookstore, bought me a copy himself and signed it. As I said, a nice guy. Sense of humour too.


Book review: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem. By Neal Stephenson. Atlantic Books, €19

Published in The Sunday Business Post on November 9th, 2008, reviewed by Alex Meehan

As an exponent of the more cerebral variety of science fiction, Neal Stephenson’s books are not for the fainthearted. Readers of his work are more likely to find themselves dealing with complex mathematical and philosophical issues than with the standard cliches associated with the genre.

In Anathem, his latest (and, frankly, huge) book, he takes this approach to an interesting new extreme, delving in depth into the significance of mathematics, architecture, philosophy and reason on the human condition.

Set on the Earth-like planet Arbre, Anathem tells its complex story from the perspective of a young monk, Fraa Erasmus. A resident of the Concent of Saunt Edhar, an ancient monastery-like sanctuary in which science and philosophy take the place of religion – Erasmus is just one of thousands of the ‘‘avout’’ who spend their days cossetted and kept away from the corrupting influence of the outside ‘‘saecular’’ world.

In the concent, the ‘‘fraas’’ and ‘‘suurs’’of the avout concern themselves with ideas and books, rejecting the worldly concerns of the ‘‘extramuros’’, or outside world. Only three times in the history of the concent have violence and war intruded on the community, but each time it has recovered and been reborn. In this way, this subculture has existed on Arbre for 3,700 years, ignoring the rise and fall of governments, the waging of wars and other saecular concerns. As a reaction to the outside world, the avout have become more and more austere, rejecting materialism and technology and cloistering themselves in a world of thought and ritual.

Community members obey strict rules and are not permitted access to the outside world. Against this backdrop, Erasmus takes part in the celebration of the weeklong ‘‘apert’’ festival, an event which happens once every ten years and which sees the fraas and suurs venture outside the stone walls of the community. At the same time, curious members of the saecular world are allowed in to explore.

Erasmus looks forward to his first visit to the world he grew up in but hasn’t seen since becoming an avout. However, hi s plans are thrown into disarray when an alien spacecraft is spotted in the skies above Arbre. The saecular world is unprepared for such an occurrence and, in its pursuit of material gratification, has lost any means of coming to terms with this event. To avert disaster, the saecular and avout worlds need to come to an accommodation, and Erasmus and a contingent of colleagues are sent out into the world to attempt to discover what the mysterious craft is and what its inhabitants want.

From this point on, the plot advances quickly and the story becomes more fast-paced but, in general, Anathemis not an easy read. Stephenson has gone down the route of giving his imagined world and culture a complex vocabulary and structure, making the story obtuse at the outset. There is a point to this approach, as a key part of the story concerns the effect living a secluded life in the concent has upon Erasmus and how his worldview has been effected.

He must go out into the world and explore it from a sheltered and, in many ways, ignorant point of view. It’s through those eyes that the reader also must learn many things about this world.

Anathemis an intense and well-realised story – and, at 937 pages, it’s not a short book – and hardened science fiction fans will probably love it. For those with only a passing interest in the genre, though, be warned – this is no Star Wars-style work of cliche.

Book review: The Last Theorem, by Arthur C Clarke and Frederik Pohl

The Last Theorem.

By Arthur C Clarke and Frederik Pohl, HarperVoyager, €22

Published in The Sunday Business Post on August 31st, 2008, reviewed by Alex Meehan

It’s always tempting to address a writer’s body of work through their most recently published book, and never more so than when the writer in question has recently passed on.

Arthur C Clarke died in March this year aged 90, having started The Last Theorem in 2002.Unable to finish it due to his ailing health, he invited fellow science fiction heavyweight Frederik Pohl to complete the book, although he apparently read and approved the finished draft just a few days before his death.

However, it would be a real shame if this massively influential author’s legacy as a futurist and writer hinged on this final novel.

The Last Theorem tells the story of Sri Lankan protagonist Ranjit Subramanian and his obsession with Pierre de Fermat’s infamous mathematical theorem. In real life, Fermat’s last theorem went unproven for 357 years until 1995, when Andrew Wiles published a proof.

In Clarke and Pohl’s novel, the story begins by introducing Ranjit as the son of a Hindu priest and a student in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. He is obsessed with maths and astronomy, and when he is caught in a compromising situation with his best friend Gamini Bandara, his father disapproves, not because Gamini is male, but rather because he is of the wrong social class.

As a result, Ranjit is temporarily disowned by his family and, in a bizarre twist of events, is kidnapped by pirates and held captive for several months. With nothing to do except think about maths, he hits upon a solution to his life’s obsession – Fermat’s last theorem.

When he’s released and the proof is published, Ranjit is catapulted into a position of global recognition. As a result of his new found fame, he comes into contact with representatives of a shadowy international organisation, Pax per Fidem (Peace through Transparency), keen to recruit his services as a mathematician.

Ranjit can initially find out little about this group until an overnight military attack on North Korea brings them into the light of public scrutiny. Pax per Fidem is the guardian of a new super weapon held in common by the largest of Earth’s nations – silent thunder.

Based on electromagnetic pulse technology, the weapon destroys all electrical devices for hundreds of miles in every direction but leaves people unharmed. When North Korea is effectively neutralised as a nuclear threat, a new period of peace arrives as rogue nations around the world are rendered impotent.

However, unbeknown to the people of Earth, a race of overlord beings known as the Grand Galactics have had their attention drawn to Earth by the unmistakable trace signatures of nuclear explosions.

The book follows Ranjit throughout his life from youth to old age, taking in his involvement in the new world order that emerges as a result of the use of silent thunder, as well as his marriage and subsequent children.

However, the characters around Ranjit are not well fleshed out and, as a result, it’s hard to stay truly immersed in the story.

The Last Theorem is an imaginative and challenging book, but many of its ideas and themes will already be well known to Clarke’s fans. Most, such as the use of space elevators and the question of man’s place in a wider universe likely to have intelligent life, have been dealt with before in previous works, most notably in Fountains of Paradise, Childhood’s End and the hugely influential 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What this book does very well is to take some fascinating science and maths, and make them intelligible. It’s just a shame the story doesn’t carry its technological payload a bit more proficiently.

Book review: Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin

By Ursula Le Guin
Gollancz, €18

Published in The Sunday Business Post on May 31st, 2009, reviewed by Alex Meehan

Ursula Le Guin is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, but with Lavinia she has sunk her teeth into an altogether more literary challenge. Part historical fiction, part fantasy and part literary conceit, La Guin’s latest novel tells the story of a minor character in Virgil’s 2,000year-old epic poem, The Aeneid.

In the original work, Lavinia is a 19-year-old princess who appears briefly, blushing at the prospect of marrying the hero Aeneas. However, in Le Guin’s novel, her story is fleshed out and extrapolated, with Lavinia becoming the central player in a story about politics, mysticism and civil war. Lavinia is the daughter of King Latinus and Queen Amata of the Italian kingdom of Latinum in an era before the founding of Rome.

At the start of the book, King Latinus is thinking of his legacy and of finding a successor. Lavinia is his only surviving child, as both his sons were killed many years previously by mysterious illnesses.

While his kingdom has enjoyed peace for the last 20 years, he needs to secure its strategic position by marrying his daughter off to the right suitor. His wife, Queen Amata has strong ideas on the matter she has become unhinged with grief and has never fully recovered from losing her sons.

She sees her nephew, Turnus, as a surrogate son and is determined to marry her daughter off to him. Turnus is ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Rutuli, and in many ways is a suitable match he is young, good looking and charismatic, if a bit impetuous.

More importantly, King Latinus knows that Turnus would make a good ally for the kingdom of Latinumat a time when there is much political instability in the area.

However, Lavinia is reluctant to agree to the match. She is a headstrong girl and, having grown up in peace time, has no idea of the political trouble brewing on the horizon. Like her father, she experiences visions and hears the voice of an oracle in the family’s sacred grove in Albunea. The oracle tells King Latinus to refuse Turnus’ proposal and to wait for a better suitor.

Meanwhile, a band of refugees from the Trojan War arrive on the shore s of Latinum, and Lavinia has a premonition that she will marry their leader, the hero Aeneas.

Latinum welcomes the Trojans and agrees to marry his daughter to Aeneas, leading to marital conflict with Queen Amata and war with King Turnus, who feels slighted by the choice.

Le Guin is an extremely accomplished creator of imaginary worlds. At 79 years of age, she has been a respected science fiction writer for more than 40 years and she has applied herself to Lavinia’s story with zeal. Latinum comes alive and the ancient Italy portrayed in the book feels authentic.

However, Lavinia is not really a historical novel, and Guin is clearly happy to play around with the rules of this universe.

A central part of the storyline involves Lavinia meeting and talking to a mystery presence in her family’s sacred grove.

This important narrator turns out to be the poet Virgil himself, travelling back in time in ghost form to let her know how events around her are to play out.

Many writers of historical fiction commit the cardinal sin of giving modern sensibilities to their historical characters placing liberal feminists in the dark ages or social democrats in medieval times, and so on despite the fact such ideas would have been unthinkable to those characters.

Le Guin doesn’t do this. The central character is accessible to the modern reader, but enough of the society she is supposed to live in is presented to make the context clear.

Lavinia is expected to marry whoever she is told to marry, and her objection to Turnus isn’t based on any idea of love or personal preference, but rather by a strong sense of predestiny.

In some places the book is unevenly paced the second half is much more enjoyable as the plot speeds up and more happens but overall, it’s a fascinating read.

Lavinia opens a thought provoking window into a long dead world, and offers something interesting from the hands of a writer who is extremely competent and passionately engaged with her subject matter.