The same old story. I’m off doing things — actually writing up new posts — so you get old posts.
This one gets dragged out now as a setup for a future title I might cover.
This novel, incidentally, was known as Chaga in its original UK release.
Raw Feed (1996): Evolution’s Shore, Ian McDonald, 1995.
This novel reminded me of several other sf novels: the image of men living in a vast jungle populated by vegetable-like creatures reminded me of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, the image by a alien flora taking over the Earth is reminiscent of Thomas Disch’s The Genocides (a novel I’ve never read) and H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and the theme of mankind pushed by alien agency into the next step of evolution evokes Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. (I suppose the Big Dumb Object could be said to bring up memories of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama which I’ve also never read). In fact, Irishman McDonald seems not only a humorous writer but a glib (not in a good way) writer. I suspect he’s read many of the same things I have from Omni articles on clay as the origin of terrestrial life to an explicit allusion to the “Big Dumb Object” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction . I base this on a book ad in which he stated he practiced “sampling”.
This book is full of trivial asides from the opening Gaby McAslan experience in varying Coriolis forces while crossing the equator (not actually possible but a repetition of a popular myth) to a statement on people from the Plains states marrying early (perhaps from a sociological article McDonald read?) to trivia on Auschwitz inmates composing opera to the several – too many, in fact – movie allusions (though, to be fair, this novel is only set 6-15 years in the future approximately). However, though I suspect McDonald adds these things from his mind as handy story padding, he usually puts them in at appropriate moments.
Like Childhood’s End, this novel derives most of its strength from the tension of what the Chaga offers: a complete transformation into something unhuman or a society freed from material want and political suppression? I like the Chaga offering simply a new environment for African culture (a culture perhaps uniquely suited to take advantage of it).
However, I think the novel suffers form a couple of weaknesses in its Chaga story. First he Western nations seem rather oblivious to the inexorable if slow onslaught of the Chaga and see it only as a source of new medicines, weapons, and materials (though this smugness is criticized by some Africans). Second, in McAslan’s journey through “buckeyball jungle”, she sees tribal and gang wars so it seems – material wants satisfied or not – wars will be fought amongst the Ten Thousand Tribes of the Chaga (unless you buy the notion people only war for resources which I don’t). The Chaga was marvelously strange and enigmatic (an artifact? an alien? a symbiote? a lifeform evolved in space or a tool designed to develop a “panhumanity” for the stars?). Other weaknesses were the unpleasantly ambitious character of McAslan — explicitly acknowledged as ruthless, selfish, and self-righteous.
I liked the Kenyan setting very much. It and the Kenyan characters seemed quite real. One thought occurred to me in regard Havan and his hacker gang. Fourteen years ago, in the age of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the element of a Third World gang of hackers would have been the center of a story. Here they are a minor element. Another change in fashion since 1980’s sf is the fall of futures where Japan dominates. Now China is often mentioned as a future power. This also may be one of the few novels where the UN (which Irishman McDonald sees as a neo-colonist tool of Western nations like America) are villains. Usually sf is internationalist and likes the UN.