A selection of reviews from our monthly newsletter. These are sorted by the author's or editor's last name. Click on the name at the top of the page to take you to the section or just scroll down the page.
Brian Aldiss & Roger Penrose
Alan F Alford
Kevin J Anderson
Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin
J G Ballard
Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
Peter Blake & Paul S Blezard
Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson
Peter V Brett
Michael R Brush
Michael R Brush and S G Mulholland
DISTRICT 9 by (film review)
An interesting film that is about a race of aliens who appear over South Africa and get forced to live in slum-like
conditions. Many years later the munitions corporation, Multi-National United, is contracted to forcibly evict the
population. The person in charge of this, Wikus van der Merwe is then exposed to a strange alien chemical. The film
is gritty and realistic, and none of the actors particularly famous, which makes a refreshing change.
I remember the advertising being comprehensive for this film – posters all over the place, such as on phone boxes, and a rather good trailer, thus leading to quite a lot of hype. I expected a bigger budget film but this has been done on a relative ‘shoestring’ compared to most modern movies. The aliens are very realistic and believable with no bad CGI in sight. It starts off being shot as a documentary-style film then becomes more conventional later as the plot and action picks up. Wikus is a believable pathetic character as he is forced by circumstances to change his view towards the aliens and even come to rely on them.
Be warned, this is a gritty film which doesn’t shy away from violence, but it is nonetheless a very good film which leaves a strong impression in terms of the way it is filmed and the strong themes present throughout. Recommended.
FORBIDDEN PLANET: 50TH ANNIVERSARY TWO DISC SPECIAL EDITION by (film review)
Sometimes in life you see bargains and pass them by, later regretting your error, and sometimes there are bargains
that you just *cannot* pass by and you go for. Seeing the DVD of the 1956 classic FORBIDDEN PLANET - one of my
alltime favourite SF movies (there are only a handful of SF movies worth watching once let alone twice) - advertised
on Amazon for the ridiculously low price of £3.97 post free was such a time. The 50th Anniversary two disc version with
extras including ‘lost’ scenes cut from the released version! How could I resist? My VHS tape was looking very grainy
and faded so a couple of clicks later I sat back, having ordered it and looked forward to sitting down in a few days time
to rewatch a great movie though I puzzled somewhat over what was going to fill 2 discs.
The disc duly arrived 3 or 4 days later and I sat down about midnight with a bottle of Shiraz looking forward to enjoying the movie once more. Ah! Problem! Which disc has the movie and which one has the extras? Well, let’s just start with one of them. A black and white clip started off the disc – excerpts from THE INVISIBLE BOY, a movie made a year or so after FORBIDDEN PLANET that I’d heard of because they’d used Robbie the Robot in it. Oh, well, worth watching the bits with Robbie in it I suppose…. But, no, it was the complete movie based on a story by Edmund Cooper!!!. I hadn’t switched it off in disgust so it couldn’t have been that bad. To be perfectly honest, there were a few excruciatingly embarrassing bits. Next up was something called “Watch the Skies” which turned out to be a TCM Special on SF movies featuring George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron to name just three, talking about SF movies – surprisingly very sensibly!. A fascinating documentary that lasted an hour. Oops, still more ‘extras’ but it was now nearly 3am and time for sleep. And I still hadn’t seen FORBIDDEN PLANET!
Evening two, Shiraz 2 and disc 2 – good old Will Shakespeare’s only SF movie! Well, no, he didn’t actually write it – Irving Block and Allen Adler wrote the story but Will sometimes gets unwarranted credit for it despite the fact that he didn’t even know what a robot was.
Although the sound was mono, it is now remastered into 5.1 Dolby Digital and the picture was 2.40 widescreen – almost the way it was shown in cinemas (originally 2.55). Superb picture and how glad I was to throw out my VHS tape! One slight disappointment – the version originally shown in cinemas was 98 minutes long according to Imdb – this DVD is 94 minutes. What’s missing?
My third session at this DVD revealed a complete episode from the TV series THE THIN MAN. This episode, “Robot Client” from February 1958 also features our old friend Robbie the Robot but plotwise it was transparent and the whole thing was very dated. But it was nice to see it. Other extras were THE MGM PARADE TV series, “Exploring the Far Reaches of FORBIDDEN PLANET” plus several cinema trailers of THE TIME MCHINE and other SF movies of the 50s. And don’t forget the ‘lost’ scenes and extra footage!
All this for £3.97????? Go buy!!!
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) directed by Garth Jennings by (film review)
This is, of course, the film version of the popular Douglas Adams books of the ‘70’s, brought a little more up to date
and with just a little bit of poetic licence. It keeps the musical themes so memorable from the radio and TV series,
keeps the quirky humour of the characters and set-pieces, and is quite an enjoyable journey. Arthur Dent’s ordinary life
is thrown into disarray when first developers appear to tear down his house and secondly his best friend Ford appears
to be an alien warning of impending doom. They escape and meet many colourful characters, including the
incomparable President of the Universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Arthur goes on a quest to find himself and true love,
as well as the ‘meaning of life’.
Martin Freeman plays Arthur well. He is a bit younger than I had imagined Arthur – in slightly trendier pyjamas and not so much of a stereotypical Brit – hopeless and nerdy. The love triangle between Trillian, Arthur and Zaphod is padded out a bit more in this version. I was not sure about this - it worked ok but at times seemed about to turn the film into a bit of a romantic slush and probably won’t appeal to traditionalists. It also meant Zaphod was in effect reduced to a jealous love rival. Sam Beckett plays Zaphod well enough – zany and over the top, but I remember him being a stronger, more adventurous character in the books. The two heads were a bit odd, more like two faces so there was no interaction between them, and the fake one looked incredibly bad. I was also not too happy with Ford Prefect – he is thoroughly modernised in his look and behaviour here, and he becomes a bit hopeless and not as outgoing or with all that much to do. I enjoyed his carefree style from previously, and felt he was just not as strong a character here. There are lots of famous voices and cameos in this who are all rather amusing – the choice of Stephen Fry in particular to add his velvet tones to the narrator was inspired, and his part helps along those not so familiar with the premise.
Visually, I found the film excellent. The scene-changing mechanisms are good, the effects and characters work together well and make this overall an enjoyable film. There is a good sense of the magic that made the books and series so popular. Things do date over time so some might say that the modernising was necessary, for instance using so much CGI. I am a bit of a traditionalist myself in some things, but I can understand that, in these days of LORD OF THE RINGS/ Harry Potter, HGTTG had a lot to do to keep up within the genre.
League of Gentlemen: Apocalypse (2005) directed by Steve Bendelack by (film review)
The three series of this television comedy show, League of Gentlemen, have been a huge hit, and inevitably of
course, the makers turned their thoughts to a film adaptation. With popular TV shows this sometimes works, sometimes
falls flat on its face. LOG; APOCALYPSE is surprisingly quite successful. The novel plot of the characters taking their
makers hostage is a plus point as their world starts to fall apart once the creators have turned their attention to other
worlds, in this case a historical romp. Things gradually disintegrate into a war between characters from the relevant
shows as the creators try to make sense of what is going on and resolve things.
The film has more of a constant structure than the TV series, which worked as a series of sketches, albeit with ongoing storylines, and the film also is at times darker, even more serious than its TV counterpart. The TV series did grow darker in tone as it progressed so this could be seen as a natural progression.
What was surprising to me was that they didn’t depend on the popular wellknown characters, such as Tubbs etc. The stars here are the not so well-known Geoff Tipps, Herr Lipp and Hilary Briss Still, they are ‘brought to life’ and their characters developed to good effect, which I appreciated – there are even quite poignant moments in the film such as Herr Lipp coming to terms with himself.
As I have found in later days of the TV series though, it is hard to distinguish whether it is comedy or horror, which means laughing feels uncomfortable!
The common problem of appealing to fans and non-fans is evident here.
There are plenty of references for the film fan to pick up on, such as THE SHINING, etc. While many films tend to put these references in, to get a cheap laugh for instance, it is done with considerably more style here and didn’t feel too cheesy. The film also does what plenty of others have done before - used lots of cameo appearances from various TV stars. These things would appeal to nonfans of the series, thus presumably widening the appeal of the film.
Overall then, as a fan I enjoyed it, but found it getting too dark to be laugh-out-loud. I am not sure a non-fan would enjoy it, though if they enjoy a film with lots of cameos and film-references, there will be no problem. I would recommend they try the TV series first to get a sense of the premise.
Planet of the Apes quintet (’68-75-ish) - Franklin J. Schaffner etc by (film review)
This is a classic series of films – every one has elements to be recommended in it, and none is a complete dud.
The first in the series is the original film, PLANET OF THE APES, in which Taylor (Charlton Heston) lands on a planet and gradually starts to realize that things are not all as they seem, with apes in charge and humans subordinate.
This is far superior to the modern version which came out a couple of years ago, if only for the greater emotions shown in this older film (wonder, anger, awe, all shown by Heston to great effect). The scene at the end is one of the most famous movie sequences in history, but watching it for the first time in its proper context means it lost none of its intended power.
The next film is BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES following on from the first film as the underground survivors fight back against the apes.
Things start to become more sinister now. A good film but I did not enjoy it as much as a couple of the others.
ESCAPE FROM… tells the tale of how the apes started their path to power as they travel back in time to when humans were the superior race, while CONQUEST OF… carries on this story as the apes (taking over from cats and dogs as pets) fight back against their masters. Intellectual and exciting, but again this was one of the weaker ones. I just got a bit bogged down by all the dark subject matter – not much light-heartedness here.
Everything gets more aggressive still in BATTLE FOR… where the apes battle each other as well.
It was interesting, in ESCAPE FROM…, to see the apes as the protagonists and the ones who capture the audience’s affections, which is rather different to the two films preceding. The constant excellent imagery in the films appealed to me. For instance in the second film, BENEATH…, the mutant humans are dwelling in the ruins of New York City which becomes slowly apparent to the watcher as well as the characters. The third film introduces the idea of a circular time line, where the apes Cornelius and Zira go back in time to set the stage for the ape conquest of Earth. By the end of the fifth film we have got back to how things were at the start of the first film - apes in charge, humans defeated.
Using the same actor Roddy MacDowell, as Cornelius and then Caesar his son, who leads the ape rebellion, lends a continuity effect to the series. He does a terrific job in the series, keeping the audience’s sympathies although he is destroying their race. I watched this series over a short space of time as I was interested in how the story develops, and I would definitely recommend it. The first is the famous one but they all have interesting elements.
STAR TREK by (film review)
Having grown up with the Star Trek franchise and various films, there’s always a little sense of excitement, rather like
with a new Bond film, when they release another movie, and this looked to be a real refresh of the franchise.
It features the beginning of the story of the characters from the original Star Trek series - Kirk, Spock, Bones et al - how they met and ended up doing what they do. The film kicks off with the birth of Kirk set against the demise of his father, and then shows him entering Starfleet twenty years later and being known as a trouble maker. At this point he is under Spock’s command, and they are not on friendly terms, but as disaster strikes on Vulcan the film starts pulling itself together, with the help of a familiar face from the future.
The plotline was ok. I’ve read a few reports about gaping plot holes here, bad science there, but this *is* Star Trek, so who expects anything to be perfectly explained? What I liked about this film is the reimagining of the characters. I felt the young actors who played the famous roles (especially Chris Pine as Kirk, and Zachary Quinto as Spock) were outstanding. The movie’s visuals and CGI effects were well done, which was to be expected considering the rather huge budget – a big step away from the effects used for the original series (it does look odd when the SF bits look more futuristic in their younger years than when they are established). Abrams, the director, had a tough job on his hands having to please the hardcore fans, general public and the studio, but I think he has done well here with what is a watchable, even appealing film with well-drawn characters and good performances from the young actors, and plenty of visuals and action scenes to be getting along with.
WESTWORLD and FUTUREWORLD (1973/1976) Michael Crichton / Richard T. Heffron by (film review)
These films first came to my attention when mentioned in a BSFG meeting about a year ago, so I watched
WESTWORLD to see what all the fuss was about. It features a ‘futuristic’ amusement park where people can choose to
live in Roman World, Westworld or Medieval World, where they live in a kind of virtual reality, surrounded by other
characters played by androids. They eat, sleep, fight, etc., as if the world was real. However, as tends to happen with
anything involving robots, something goes wrong and the robots start to run amok… It is clear to see the influences on
such films as JURASSIC PARK (another ‘theme park gone wrong’, and by the same author!) and TERMINATOR. The
bad guy of the film is a gunslinger robot, played by the excellent Yul Brynner (of MAGNIFICENT SEVEN fame, and
famously spoofing his character in that film here), who stalks his victim in a way just like TERMINATOR years later,
with fixed gaze and determined walk. The two heroes of the film are interesting in the way they develop – the
hopeless naïve newcomer (Richard Benjamin) really comes into himself during the course of the film as he learns how
to evade the murderous robots.
FUTUREWORLD is set a few years later as the theme park (Delos) reopens to the public. Two reporters (played by Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner) are among the first in, to report on the park. But they find themselves playing detective to uncover the sinister secret plot going on, to work out what exactly is going on behind the scenes at Delos.
This film suffers slightly from the sequel syndrome – the pacing and tension of the first film are gone – it has changed from a sinister SF movie into more of a detective story. The two leads are fair enough, but the script is not that great, and they always look slightly bemused. Yul Brynner features again, but in a gratuitous cameo, seemingly designed more to appeal to his fans than to feature him in any real sense. Still, I did enjoy the film, it plays on the idea again of ‘a theme park gone wrong’, and the sort of theme of a conspiracy featuring a big corporation rears its head too. The idea of shooting and using robots as you wish to, is played on lots too.
These two films play on the attraction of escapism – you can escape form the real world for a bit, shoot everyone to our hearts content (real people cannot die in this world) and play cowboys and Indians or whatever appeals. The plots are a little loop-holey – it is best to ignore any obvious errors in the thinking behind the theme parks, and let the film carry you along. The suspense at the end of WESTWORLD is brilliant, as the gunslinger stalks his victim, and this is definitely the better overall of the two films. Both heartily recommended. Vicky Cook
MOON OVER SOHO by Ben Aaronovitch
This is the second book of the series that began with RIVERS OF LONDON published in January of this year. Although
it's not absolutely necessary to read the first book in the series before you start, it does help a great deal. Many of the
characters that have carried over from that book are in situations as a result of that story that aren't explained here.
That said, many of the new characters aren't very well developed here either. Taken as a classic police/detective
novel with a fantasy twist, this works fairly well but there isn't any more to it.
Phillip Grant is a Detective Constable and apprentice wizard in the Metropolitan Police. He investigates cases that have supernatural causes and deals with incidents among the more magical citizens of London. His father was a famous jazz musician to those aficionados of the Soho scene of the 40s and 50s. He made a few records that are highly prized and hard to find nowadays: so when Philip investigates a series of deaths of jazz musicians that just stepped off stage, he can recognize the tune from the 40s that lingers in the air. The search through the jazz clubs of Soho also reveals a bizarre trade in hybrid people/animals that make Dr. Moreau look wholesome.
There's a lot that doesn't work properly here.
The characters that were built in the first book seem to have disappeared into a fog of background or just been left out altogether. Some of this is explained by injuries sustained but they are still trotted out to explain bits of plot or take Grant to somewhere he needs to go to keep the story running. The only attempt at a new character is Simone who seems to be there only to give Grant a sex life and ‘spice up’ the story in that way. There are many others, including Grant's parents, who seem to wander in and out of the story without really leaving a mark. It could be that these characters will persist and be expanded upon later. There's an evil wizard who, at the moment, is just someone in a mask but looks likely to become a series villain.
The odd thing is that there were so many functional characters in the first book that it makes this look like someone else wrote it. I hope the series picks up after this but, judging by this entry, I'm not going to count on it.
RIVERS OF LONDON by Ben AaronovitchThis is the first novel of a series of fantasy/detective novels set in present day London. On one hand it has an apparently realistic version of the Metropolitan Police Force with its procedures and politics and on the other there is a view of London that drifts between the surreal and the fantastic. The author manages to pull this off mostly by having as little connection between the recognisable everyday members of the force and the weird stuff as possible.
THE HANGING TREE by Ben Aaronovitch
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this popular and wonderfully humorous series, it is an urban fantasy set in
London. PC Peter Grant is a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police Force but he is also a trainee wizard, the first in
fifty years. He and Inspector Nightingale (his mentor) are expected to deal with any crimes the Met reluctantly accepts
may have a “supernatural” element. Some of the magical beings in London are incarnations of the various rivers of
London (hence the series title).
In this book, a suspicious death of a rich young woman in an expensive apartment in Hyde Park would not normally concern PC Grant. However, he owes a favour to Lady Tyburn (one of the more powerful Rivers) and as her daughter was present, Lady Ty wants her daughter protected. As Peter digs further into the case it becomes clear that the death links back to an old enemy, the Faceless Man and Peter is in grave danger as he tries to solve the case.
After book 5, which took place in the countryside, this is a welcome return to London where PC Grant (and it seems also the author) is back in his comfort zone. PC Grant’s “voice” – his hilarious and wry observations of the supernatural Londoners and the conventional police who have to grudgingly accept and deal with them is one of the great joys of this series. In particular, the characters of DC Guleed and the long-suffering DCI Seawoll are excellent and amusing. The story rattles along at a fast pace and plot strands from previous novels are brought nicely back into this narrative, so the overall series story arc progresses as well as the individual case in this book. I also like that there are some interesting new characters introduced who are clearly going to be important in the future books and who nicely expand the possibilities for story development.
The author also has allowed Peter Grant to grow, both personally and magically. He has gained power and experience although he clearly is not strong enough to take down the Faceless Man by himself. That confrontation is clearly intended to ultimately involve his master, Inspector Nightingale. Here however, is the one niggle I had with this book as I definitely felt that the author kept contriving unlikely circumstances just to keep the Faceless Man and Nightingale apart. That being said, for the many fans of this series, this is an excellent addition. If you haven’t tried this series before, it is well worth trying. Fans of Jim Butcher or Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus novels will definitely find much to like.
THE HEROES by Joe Abercrombie
This story describes the few days immediately before and afte, as well as the three days of the battle in the valley of
Osrung between the Northmen and the Union. In it we meet again a number of the characters depicted in Joe
Abercrombie’s first three books (THE BLADE ITSELF, BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED and THE LAST ARGUMENT OF
KINGS) as well as a host of other characters.
THE HEROES is, as are the books named above, full of well defined characters and dirty, gritty violence all of which are an essential part of the storyline. Amongst these persons is ‘Black Dow’ the Protector (King) of the North who stole his throne from the ‘Bloody Nine’ who in turn won it by killing Bethod the first King of the Northmen.
Such is the ‘Bloody Nine’s reputation that in spite being dead (or ‘returned to the mud’ in the parlance of the North) he plays a pivotal role in the battle. Other key characters on the side of the North include Bethgod’s younger son, Prince Calder, who isn't interested in honour; all he wants is power, and he'll tell any lie, use any trick, and betray any friend to get it, just as long as he doesn't have to fight for it himself. Curnden Craw described as the last honest man in the North, who has gained nothing from a life of warfare but swollen knees and frayed nerves. He hardly even cares who wins any more, he just wants to do the right thing.
On the other side, key characters include ‘The Dogman’, an old companion of the Bloody Nine, who is the chief of the Northmen fighting for the Union; Bremer dan Gorst, a disgraced master swordsman and formally the Union’s King’s First Guard who, obsessed with redemption and addicted to violence, has sworn to reclaim his stolen honour on the battlefield, far past caring how much blood gets spilled in the attempt, even if it's his own; Marshal Kroy who is the Union’s commander in chief (when Bayaz, the ‘First of the Magi’ lets him) and three politically appointed and mainly incompetent divisional commanders.
Despite its title the book does not glory in war but rather shows its futility, demonstrating that it is often used as a political tool to gain a short term advantage which is frequently squandered, as it appears to be in this case. In fact the heroes of the title are not any of those fighting in the battle, although they could be, but are a ring of standing stones crowning a hill around and on which much of the action takes place.
THE HEROES is a dark tale, but strangely compelling, enjoyable and well written, progressing at a fast pace. I look forward to future books from this author.
WHITE MARS or THE MIND SET FREE: A 21st CENTURY UTOPIA by Brian Aldiss & Roger Penrose
There are two ways of writing a novel about a utopia: the more common is to demonstrate it as a going concern by
having a native of it explain things to a visitor (as in Thomas More’s original). Almost unique is to show the utopia
being set up, which is what Aldiss does.
The setting is a Mars lightly colonised by humans in the 2060s, when its 6000 inhabitants are suddenly cut off from Earth by Earth’s financial collapse. Quickly abandoning money, the colonists debate over how they should govern themselves, how their society should be structured, how lawbreakers should be treated, and similar problems. So the novel is partly an examination of what makes a utopia. Clearly, no form of government will satisfy all of the people all of the time, so part of the problem is deciding how dissenters should be treated.
The elderly Tom Jefferies is the main architect of these Utopian attempts, and also one of the novel’s two major narrators. The other is Cang Hai, a young Chinese woman who becomes Jefferies’ adopted daughter. (I must mention that the colonists include representatives o f just about every colour and culture on Earth, reminiscent of the old 1950s cliché o f a starship being sent out crewed by ten people from ten different nations. I didn’t believe it then and, despite Aldiss’s explanations, I don’t believe it now.) There are, alas, too many characters here, mostly minor, so it’s impossible for the reader to remember who’s who, and almost the only personalities, which come across, are those of the narrators.
An important thread of the novel (which provides its title) is the belief by most colonists and the authors that Mars must be protected from commercial exploitation and preserved for science, similar to Antarctica.
In particular, Mars must not be terraformed.
This is a novel containing clever plot twists, fascinating details of life in the domes, some drama, many references to that great utopian H.G. Wells and, unfortunately, too much impassioned argument about science and utopianism. It’s difficult to know how much influence Roger Penrose has had here, though he’s probably responsible for an extended section concerning the search for a subatomic particle called a smudge.
So WHITE MARS is a most worthwhile subject and a grand saga of Martian colonisation, which is extended, in summary form to cover the whole 21st century. It contains dozens of larger-than-life characters and a wonderful sub- plot concerning Olympus Mons. Without giving away too much I’ll tell you that utopia is eventually achieved, though in a very unexpected manner.
WHEN THE GODS CAME DOWN by Alan F Alford
Alan F Alford has joined a growing band of authors who are putting into doubt the basic message that religious
organisations are trying to perpetuate. As people are becoming better educated and the flow of information is
becoming more easily accessible, the dogmas of the church and some of the fundamental premises of Archaeology
are coming under attack. To the modern reader it is obvious that civilisation did not spring into being fully formed as
was taught in schools some fifty years ago but took a much longer process of evolution. Also that so-called pre civilised
man had a much better understanding of the world about him than was given credence.
The modem bible, which has undergone many revisions since the Authorised King James version, has been edited and altered so that it is a long way from any source materiel. Many of the myths and legends in the old testament were recorded from much earlier oral traditions and have no doubt been corrupted through the telling, or as Alan F Alford would have believe, that the theology of the old testament was constructed on half-truths and in some cases outright lies.
When gods came down presents an interesting hypothesis that modern religion is a dumbed down version for the masses of a much older religious truth. Also that earth was seeded by meteorites from a celestial body that exploded, eventually giving rise to the legends of ancient mythological gods who fought battles in the skies and came down from Heaven to Earth. Where the real truth lies nobody really knows but as Archaeology uncovers finds that do not fit into the comfortable niche that has underpinned our understanding of the rise of the human race more and more speculative hypothesis with surface. Some of the present ‘outlandish’ claims of other authors may yet turn out to be the bedrock of our future understanding, and long forgotten knowledge that has been lost or suppressed may still surface and give support to these claims.
This book must join the growing volumes of well-researched theories that are well worth the time to read for the interested reader.
SCATTERED SUNS by Kevin J Anderson
This book is pretty much the most anticipated book in my reading year - I know for a lot of folks, the sixth Harry Potter
book has brought near ecstasy, but not me. I like space opera. My favourite book of all time is space opera (DUNE by
Frank Herbert), and this series so far has been excellent space opera. So you can imagine my feelings when I received
this fourth and latest instalment in The Saga of the Seven Suns. And the one thing I can say to anyone about this
series is that it is getting better and better as every book comes out.
The battle has now been joined once and for all. Since Mankind launched the Klikiss Torch turning a gas giant into a new star and destroying the Hydrogue colony living within the planet, the Hydrogues have been attacking the ekti (fuel for space ships) harvester mankind has placed around the gas giants of many systems. And so far all efforts by Earth's military have failed to have any effect on the Hydrogues.
Mankind's ally, the Ildiran Empire has at least scored a victory although at a very great cost, with only a suicide attack being successful.
In recent times the Hydrogues have been becoming more belligerent, and have started attacking planets, wiping out both Ildiran and Human worlds, as well as attacking Theron, the home of the sentient World Forest - one of their ancient enemies.
Worried by the lack of success to report, Earth authorities have launched a campaign against the Roamers, a loose-knit group of human clans who live on the fringes of the main human empire (the groups have until now been on at least a tolerable relationship). This course of action at least giving the authorities the victories they need so desperate to report to the people.
And all this is not mentioning the Faeros (beings living within stars - enemies of the Hydrogues), Wentals (elemental water beings, also enemies of the Hydrogues), the Klikiss robots (insect-like robots made by a long dead race of insect-like beings), an Ildiran breeding program designed to produce a telepath capable of communicating with the Hydrogues, and a Civil War occuring within the Ildiran Empire.
This book is immense, both in terms of size (700 plus pages) and in scope - there is just so much going on. But it also manages to include all of these divergent plot strands without seeming overwhelming. It helps that the chapters are short (this would be so much harder to read with lengthy chapters) and the constant scene changes help drag you through the book.
The action here is simply incredible, this is a totally absorbing book.
The scale of this book is so huge, and yet as the action is told from the perspectives of individuals on the various sides of this conflict, the scale of it actually seems comfortable.
This series has everything, we have a first contact situation (or three), plus a major war between space faring species, political intrigue and betrayal, human settlers trying to make their way on new planets in good old frontier tradition, and even a love story or two going on in the middle. What more could you want? This is excellent.
Kevin J. Anderson is one of the top SF writers around today, and this book is further proof of his talent.
A VISION OF FIRE - BOOK ONE OF THE EARTHEND SAGA by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin
Gillian Anderson will of course always be known for her role in The X-Files (yes, that Gillian Anderson!), but she has
since moved on to become a quite highly regarded stage and screen actress. In collaboration with established writer
Jeff Rovin she now makes what the publishers describe as her “thrilling science fiction debut” with the first volume in a
Saga of as-yet unspecified length. In point of fact, it may well be that Rovin has provided the majority of the writing
while Anderson's contribution is largely confined to providing her supposedly prestigious name to be put on the cover.
(See Ansible #328.)
It tells the story of how child psychologist Caitlin O'Hara is called in when the teenage daughter of India's ambassador to the United Nations becomes severely disturbed after her father survives an assassination attempt. O'Hara discovers that other cases of disturbed teenagers have occurred in such unlikely places as Iran and Haiti, cases which appear at first glance to be different although certain points of similarity are to be found. Eventually a connection emerges in the form of a kind of possession by a spirit force seeking escape from a fiery cataclysm and O'Hara also becomes affected. This volume ends with her having discovered something of the nature of this mysterious influence which seems to arise from a civilisation of the remote past in the Antarctic, but a full understanding will, obviously, not emerge until it is explained in the later volume(s).
Meanwhile, a highly secret and very powerful Group hidden within something called the Global Explorer's Club is pursuing its own agenda and clearly knows already a lot more of what is involved than O'Hara has yet discovered.
This is all a lot less thrilling than they would have us believe. The writing is pedestrian and the overall style and structure of the book are strongly reminiscent of a mainstream novel where the general lack of originality might be less noticeable. The characters spend a lot of time just talking and thinking about things instead of actually doing anything and trips to Haiti and Iran are described in unnecessary detail which contributes to the sense that it has all been padded out beyond the length the story is naturally capable of supporting. Learning more of what the shadowy Group are seeking to achieve might have made it more interesting or even exciting, but again that may have to await later opportunities for revelation.
There is perhaps some scope for subsequent volumes in The Earthend Saga to redeem the shortcomings of this one, but the signs are not hopeful.
DARK INTELLIGENCE by Neal Asher
DARK INTELLIGENCE is the first volume in the new Transformation series of novels by Neal Asher and is a very
welcome return to his popular Polity universe. In it we meet again a number of characters that featured in some of his
previous novels. These include Amistad, a scorpion war drone who through extensive upgrades to its AI systems has
become the warden of a Polity protectorate planet, Masada. This is the home of the Weaver, the only sentient
Gabbleduck (or Atheter), one of the previously thought to be extinct ancient races who occupied the galaxy long
before humans evolved. Much of the action in this book takes place there. Amistad had been given responsibility for
the dark (evil) AI, Penny Royal, whom in the previous Polity novel THE TECHNICIAN it was believed he had
rehabilitated by removing its eighth and evil state of consciousness, but is this true?
Penny Royal features strongly in this book and is feared and hunted by the other major characters for her past actions. Before capture by Amistad she was infamous for granting wishes, for a price, that not only met what was asked for but went far beyond. One thing though, Penny Royal always keeps her word.
The other major characters are:
The newly resurrected human, Thorvald Spear who was killed by Penny Royal during the Polity vs (alien) Prador war which ended over a century before the start of this novel.
Isobel Satomi who ran a successful crime syndicate in the Graveyard; the no man’s land between the Prador kingdom and the Polity before negotiating with Penny Royal for more power.
Sverl, a renegade Prador Captain Father, another of Penny Royal’s customers, who hides from both the Polity and his King in the Graveyard.
Blite, who is the owner and captain of a spaceship. He is duped into smuggling Penny Royal off Masada and chauffeuring her on her travels.
In addition there is a rich cast of supporting personnel.
In DARK INTELLIGENCE Neal Asher amply restates the excellence of his storytelling by skilfully entwining the story line of each of his characters into a very strong narrative that is set within a detailed and believable universe. This is an excellent book and an equally excellent start to a new series.
THE DEPARTURE by Neal Asher
Neal Asher here begins what is promised to be a long-running series featuring “The Owner of the Worlds”. This first
Owner novel is set mostly on a hugely over-populated
Earth in the mid-22nd Century. A totalitarian world government calling itself The
Committee has taken complete control and maintains and exercises its power through
every cruelty and atrocity that can be imagined. Onto this scene comes Adam Saul, a genius with a head full of
computer implants which enables him to bring down The Committee and destroy its powerbase.
The background to this narrative is hardly original, portraying as it does an extrapolation of current world trends such
as over-population, unequal distribution of resources and the kind of totalitarianism which leads to suppression of a
majority of the world’s population. These ideas have been explored before by numerous contemporary writers, as well
as others at least as far back as George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. Even the idea of mind/computer
interfacing has been seen before, although Asher takes it to a new level, one so high as to seem at times barely
On the whole, the book comes over as rather shallow and hastily contrived. Adam Saul had appeared from nowhere
two years earlier, with no explanation either of where he came from or what he did during those years.
Once he gets going as the proverbial one man wave of destruction the action is relentless and at times events are
almost obscured in a fog of blood and body parts, but the overall structure is completely one-dimensional with no
depth to it at all. The book ends with him having become the self-styled Owner and about to embark on whatever
course of action subsequent volumes in the series will recount. Meanwhile a subsidiary plot concerning a Mars colony
had seemed largely irrelevant until it becomes apparent at the very end that it might after all assume some
importance in what is to follow.
Asher has produced some excellent and highly-praised work in the past but it is hard not to feel that he has let himself
down here. Later volumes may be better as the series beds in, and it may become possible to look back on this as an
effective introduction to what is to follow. On its own though, not very satisfactory.
BUY JUPITER by Isaac Asimov
Originally published in 1975, this is a collection of Asimov’s lesser reprinted stories. Thus, within these pages you will
find gems, not easily available elsewhere. Unfortunately, not all jewels are valuable. Over the period covered here,
1950-1973, Asimov was prolific. His work appeared in many, eclectic places - not all of it was fiction. Also, a story that
was thought good in the 1950s would not necessarily stand up to modern competition. Of much more interest, are the
biographical notes that accompany the stories themselves, detailing when and why each was written and also some o f
the other events that were going on in Asimov's life at the time.
In general, these pieces are short in length containing just one idea and without the room to develop characters too any great depth. Some have been written, just to get a pun in the last line, such as "Shah Guido G" which tells o f the demise o f the space station inhabited by the rulers of Earth.
Very few o f the stories are memorable. I had read this collection many years ago, and only two were familiar. "Button, Button", a time experiment which, although successful, fails because the parchment the rare signature was written on, appeared too new. And the title story, "Buy Jupiter" in which the planets are used as galactic advertising hoardings.
This collection will only really appeal either to the Asimov completists, or to those interested in Asimov's biography.
ATOM by Steve Aylett
This is probably the latest trend. The next big thing after cyberpunk. Think of a more genre - oriented Jeff Noon and
you're on the right track. OK so the genre is the gangster novel (think of a futuristic Damon Runyon) but definitely
genre This thing positively reeks with style and flair. Pity it doesn't care much for plot and character.
The plot (such as it is): - Taffy Atom is a PI (probably stands for Private Investigator but could just be Private I). He has a goldfish that could scare off sharks (no matter what kind of heavy artillery they might be holding) and an outer office that could put the fear of God into a hardened criminal. He has been employed to find Kafka's brain by a local gang boss. Or is that a local gang boss's brain by Franz Kafka? Another gangster want's to find this brain simply because his rival wants it. There are more complications.
A bizarre comedy. Look out for the strange weaponry that look more like plot devices that mechanical ones ("Rather than actually stripping the subtext from the blast site it converted the wave range into a living Updike novel").
TOXICOLOGY by Steve Aylett
A collection of short pieces extended from the book of the same title published in 1999. Not all of these would qualify
as stories - "If Armstrong Was Interesting" is a list of the things the astronaut might have done rather than follow the
script, "Bestiary" is a set of 26 definitions - one for each letter of the alphabet.
Aylett's regular style is something like Damon Runyon rewritten by William Burroughs in a world after cyberpunk. This collection of oddities includes other things that depart from that, but still show the overall style. There are still "Beerlight" stories but you will also find a couple of Wodehouse parodies (imagine Wooster as a bungling killer) and something else based on Kafka. The length (or lack of it) makes it difficult to get much out of these (only one of twenty-six pieces covers more than ten pages) but there is real style to the lack of substance.
THE VOICES OF TIME / THE TERMINAL BEACH by J G Ballard
First published in 1962 and 1964 respectively, these are two collections of Ballard's early "inner space" stories.
These were stories that broke the mould of SF - as shocking and different in their way as cyberpunk was thirty years later. They show Ballard as a technophobe, concerned with the effects upon mankind of the runaway development of science and technology during his own formative years of 1940 to 1960, from nuclear tests to computers.
In compelling near future stories such as "The Voices of Time", "Deep End" and "The Terminal Beach", scientists or obsessives (much the same thing in Ballard's view) patrol a small section of an under- populated world, noting strange and possibly subjective effects upon themselves. Only occasionally is the setting truly science fictional - Mars in "The Cage of Sand", a world subject to alien invasion in "The Watch Towers", a future that has abandoned clocks in "Chronopolis".
Even the starship project in "Thirteen to Centaurus" is a multi-generation mock-up, firmly based in a hangar on Earth. My own favourite, "The Garden of Time", is a fantasy view of entropy.
Also in these collections are the exquisite "The Illuminated Man", an early version of THE CRYSTAL WORLD and "The Reptile Enclosure", which will put you off ever going to the beach again.
Ballard's clear, unemotional style is still startling and undated, forty years on. Required reading. And, for the bibliographically-minded amongst you, THE VOICES OF TIME was originally published in (he US in 1962 and then in the UK in 1963, with some story changes, as THE FOURDIMENSIONAL NIGHTMARE. Later in 1985, with a few more changes, it appeared in the UK under its original title. This is the 1985 version.
CREATION MACHINE by Andrew Bannister
This book as well as being the first stand-alone volume in a trilogy, is the author’s debut novel. It is set in an area of
space that is known as the ‘Spin’ which is described as being a thickly populated region containing 94 planets looped
in complex orbits around 21 suns. It is about 30 light-days wide. In addition, it is split into 4 distinct and separately
moving astro-geographic parts. While, as is indicated by the book’s title, the area is obviously a highly artificial
construct, no suggestion is provided as to how its stability is maintained.
Throughout most of the book the action alternates between two apparently unconnected storylines. In fact, on reaching the end I did not find any strong connection between these strands. The first of these follows Fleare Hass, a fighter of a failed dissident group, ‘Society Otherwise’, which has been defeated by the brutal and oppressive industrial dominated ‘Hegemony’ in which her father is a leading figure. Her narrative starts with rescue from imprisonment in a desolate monastery on a remote and inhospitable planet by a friend who has been turned into a cloud of sentient nanites. After escaping they meet up with 2 other survivors from ‘Society Otherwise’ and flee across the ‘Spin’ to a cluster of fallen planets known as ‘the Catastrophe Curve’.
The other strand follows Alameche Ur-hive, a senior member of the government of the brutal and despotic empire of the ‘Fortunate’ which rules the 6 planets of the inner region of the ‘Spin’ known as the ‘Cordern’. What happens in this section covers a plot to control a mysterious object thought to be one of the machines used to create the ‘Spin’ and hence having the potential to become a highly destructive weapon. Nowhere in the book is there any contact between Fleare and Alameche.
What did I think of the book? I’m ambivalent; to me the story of Fleare has too many dislocations. I kept thinking how and why did they get to that point. In contrast the inhumane tale of Alameche was more coherent. Towards the end of the book, new characters existing in computer simulations are suddenly introduced and these are critical to the apparent resolution of the ‘Creation Machine’ problem, but in a way that left me unsatisfied.
Did I like and enjoy the book? Well it was readable and moderately enjoyable but did not, in my opinion, live up to the standard I expected from the endorsements made in the publisher’s press release. That said, Andrew Bannister clearly has great potential as he has very good ideas and has created interesting characters and settings. Perhaps this is one of those books that grow on you on rereading. Also perhaps the next book in the sequence will reveal more detail and all will be made clear.
IMPULSE by Dave Bara
IMPULSE is book one in The Lightship Chronicles and is set in a galaxy recovering from a civil war that finished a
hundred and fifty years ago. This took place between the ‘First’ or ‘Corporate’ Empire and a group of secessionist
planets that wanted to leave that Empire. A decade before the action described in this book ‘the Historians’ a ‘Church’
group arrived in Quantar and Carinthia, two planets that had been on opposite sides in the war. Offering the gift of
lightships (interstellar craft) they persuaded these planets to join with Earth in a ‘Union’.
Just before the book starts a lightship, the Impulse one of three existing lightships, has just returned badly damaged from an exploratory trip to a neighbouring star, Levant. Lt. Peter Cochrane, son of the Quantarian Grand Admiral is quickly pulled off his planned first trip in the new lightship Starbound, promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander and transferred to the Impulse. The first problem to face him is that the Impulse is crewed by Carinthians and there is still some residual antagonism between them and Quantarans. After repair this ship is to return to Levant to investigate the circumstances of the attack. To further complicate things an historian accompanies all lightships and has overriding authority and access to technology that is not shared with the crews.
On return to the Levant system, the Impulse is attacked by both First Empire technology but also by something called ‘Founder’ technology. It appears that several hundred thousand years before the current period there was a human star empire that was destroyed by a mysterious enemy. Earth humans supposedly are the descendants of a lost colony of this empire. After surviving these attacks and while exploring this founder technology in one of the ship’s shuttles, Peter and his friends are stranded when the Historian on the Impulse shanghaies the ship and leaves the star system via a wormhole. It turns out that there is a schism in the ranks of the Historians. Fortunately the Levant system rulers are friendly and before you know it Peter is engaged to its co-ruler.
As you may gather the plot and characterisation is rather convoluted. I’m sorry to say that I did not find either the technology or plot believable. In addition the actions of the main characters especially Peter’s are, in my opinion, naïve, clumsy and do not meet the standards one would expect of persons in their position. A more experienced author may have produced a more satisfying tale. Jim Pearce
ELVES ONCE WALKED WITH GODS by James Barclay
ELVES ONCE WALKED WITH GODS is the first of a trilogy by this prolific author. The many species of Elves (called
Threads) have lived in an unnatural harmony for over a thousand years on both their original home world and Calius
where this story is set. About 10 years before the present date they are forced to flee their home world to escape from
the demonic Garonin leaving about 100,000 behind to be slaughtered. Takaar, the elf who created the harmony and
lead the resistance to the Garonin, is blamed for the loss and has fled into the jungles of Calius.
Malcontents are working to destroy the harmony established by Takaar. On its formal repudiation, Elven society immediately and violently fractures with each Thread taking revenge for perceived slights and inequalities. Human mercenaries have been brought in to help re-establish the pre-harmony ruling Thread but, using magic, brutally take over and establish their own rule. In desperation, controversial steps are taken to recall Takaar from his exile; but will he be of help or a hindrance as in the 10 years since he was last seen he has gone mad?
As was to be expected of this author the book is competently written and moves along at a high pace with its many narrative strands being seamlessly woven together.
That said the plot did not grip nor the characters engage. I did not become interested in what was happening to the elves, either as a race or as individuals, until the end of the book when the story started to grow on me. Do I want to read the next part of the story, perhaps? Would I buy a copy? No.
RAVENSOUL by James Barclay
The Raven are back! The band of mercenaries for hire were last seen in DEMONSTORM and appeared to have fought
for the last time, but Barclay resurrects them for this one last battle. The star of the show is the ‘Unknown Warrior’, also
known as Sol, who is one of the last remaining members of the Raven left alive after the events of the last book. He is
paid an unexpected visit one night after several years spent grieving for his lost friends, and has to overcome his
disbelief to help reform the band and fight against the latest invaders, who appear to be even more dangerous than
the demons from before. It becomes apparent that he must make the ultimate sacrifice to save the world as he knows
As far as the plot of this book goes, from what we know of what has gone before, all the characters sacrificed themselves so the re-appearance in this book seems to take away some of the impact of this sacrifice somewhat. However, one can really imagine the fans cheering as their heroes come back one by one, and reunite to face even bigger, better bad guys! The author has an obvious fondness for his characters which is appealing when reading the book. At the same time he does not lose complete sight of the plot and the reader is drawn along with this.
Barclay writes well, so non-regular readers of his work will find the humour entertaining and the sufficiently fast pace will keep them interested, even if it all starts getting a bit metaphysical and surreal towards the end.
I enjoyed the book but it is one for fans really. Those who, unlike me, have read some of the others in the series will get the references to what has gone before, but this is a bit of a problem for newer readers. Maybe a list of Raven members and a summary of what has gone before might have been more helpful.
It is worth a read though and tempted me to read some of the earlier books in the series.
ABARAT II: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR by Clive Barker
In the first book of the Abarat Quartet Candy Quackenbush was swept from her home in Chicken Town to the strange
world of Abarat. In this world, time is a place. Imagine a sundial where, instead of numbers around the edge, there are
islands. Each island is permanently at a particular time such as noon or two o’clock or midnight. All the people who
live here are strange. None of them look human. Candy has made friends with Malingo, an orange-skinned geshrat
who she freed from the slavery of the wizard Wolfswinkel. Candy has made enemies. She is also being pursued by the
minions of Christopher Carrion, Lord of Midnight. In this volume, Candy makes new friends and discovers she has
magical powers although she doesn’t know how they work. She also discovers that the reason why she has arrived in
Abarat and is having problems, is because the soul of a beautiful princess was hidden next to her own soul on the
night that she was born.
It is difficult to know who this book is aimed at. It is the kind of fantasy that youngsters would love, with all the weird characters. It is filled with over 125 full colour pictures created by Clive Barker. It would make a wonderful animated film. It is printed on thick, glossy paper so that the volume is heavier than expected. This and the price would probably put it out of range of many children, although it would make a superb present. At the same time, any adult prepared to get in touch with their inner child will also find a lot to delight them.
THE ESSENTIAL CLIVE BARKER by Clive Barker
I don't know how to classify this book. It's not a "best of' collection or a set of short stories. I wouldn't think of it as an
adequate introduction to the writer's work. I'm not even sure why it was published.
What you have here is a set of short sections from several very large novels taken to illustrate how Clive Barker writes. There is only one complete story here and that (In the hills, the cities) is less than 40 pages long and available elsewhere. If anything this seems to be an attempt at a text book for literature students. There are pieces of autobiography and commentary on how and why this was written. The fiction itself seems to be there only as illustration of the point. One for the student or the fan.
LONGTUSK by Stephen BaxterThis is book 2 in the Mammoth trilogy, and sequel to SILVERHAIR.
ORIGIN by Stephen Baxter
Here at last is the long-awaited (by me at any rate) final volume in the Manifold trilogy which began two years ago
with SPACE and continued last year with TIME. Actually, it is not a trilogy as such, but a set of linked novels
describing the destiny of humanity in a series of histories taking place in the Manifold of an infinite number of
alternative universes, as seen through the eyes of the same three lead characters. Consequently it is not at all
necessary to be familiar with the earlier volumes to be able to appreciate this one, notwithstanding the fact that it ties
the whole series together.
The series is informed by the question of alien life in the Universe and the Fermi Paradox - “ if they exist, why aren’t they here?” What we learn in the final chapters is that the ultimate descendants of humanity have ensured their own evolution by reaching back through time and seeding the universes of the Manifold with various versions of mankind’s early proto-human ancestors as they begin to evolve on different alternate Earths. As a result, no other intelligent life has had an opportunity to develop, although the previous story TIME showed what might have happened if it had.
It is a grandiose concept, and one which reinforces Baxter’s status as one of the foremost, and certainly one of the most audaciously imaginative, writers in the SF world today. He simply goes from strength to strength.
Unfortunately, the best of the book is all concentrated into about the last hundred pages. Remember the opening of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY: the tediously drawn-out section with the ape-men and how you long for it to finish so that the proper story can get going? Four-fifths of this book is like that, describing the lives of different species of primitive men and the struggles of a handful of human castaways to survive amongst them, not always successfully. I must confess to have been somewhat at a loss to understand the importance of all this and the justification for devoting quite so much time and effort to it. It has some relevance to the overall structure of the trilogy, but not that much.
It is because of this that I am only giving the book four stars instead of the five which it ought to deserve.
Nevertheless, that is a good mark and the book is well-written and worth reading, the more so if you pursue the whole Manifold series.
RESPLENDENT (Destiny’s Children Book Four) by Stephen Baxter
Baxter’s fourth short story collection is announced as the latest Destiny’s Children volume, thus concluding another
massive four-part trilogy. More than that, it continues the process of tying the series to previous books including
TIMELIKE INFINITY and VACUUM DIAGRAMS in a million-year history of mankind’s war for supremacy over the alien
Xeelee – a war which ends with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Not, however, a complete history – it would
surely require dozens, if not hundreds, of volumes to cover such an immense span of time. Instead, a series of
snapshots is provided, briefly illuminating various events some of which seem more significant or important than
others. The stories range from straightforward action to weird metaphysics and cover a wide range of themes such as
contact with alien lifeforms, super-tech, epic space war, genetics, virtual reality and immortality - all subject to typical
human weaknesses and failings.
However, the people involved seem for the most part to be lost, submerged beneath the technical requirements of the situations in which they find themselves. There is a sketchy framework of comments to link the stories together, ostensibly provided by one Luru Parz, an immortal who appears in the first and last stories but scarcely at all elsewhere, and it is hinted that she has guided the progress of human history throughout. Apart from her, however, there are hardly any memorable characters to stand out or to be recalled as the architects of great events. In fact, reading between the lines, it becomes apparent that in the far future individuality has had to be ruthlessly suppressed, human beings becoming little more than a resource to be used as required to promulgate the millennia-long wars which have to be won if humankind is to achieve anything resembling survival. And for what?
Taken as a whole, this Destiny’s Children series seems bitty and disjointed. In part, this may be due to the fact that such an enormous span of time cannot be covered other than by viewing little fragments here and there, but even so it lacks a sense of cohesion – there is no single continuous thread which one can readily follow from beginning to end. This lack of structure is also apparent in this volume: with the exception of the last story in the book, written to complete the collection, these stories were variously published over a six-year period and although they have been revised for this publication it still shows.
This is, nonetheless, quite an impressive collection, hard technical SF at its best, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.
STONE SPRING by Stephen Baxter
‘Doggerland’ is the name semi-officially given to a stretch of land which once linked northern Britain to what is now the
Netherlands. About 6-8000 years ago, it was inundated by rising sea levels, which may or may not have resulted in
part from a comet impact, and it now lies beneath the North Sea. It is this land that Stephen Baxter has chosen as the
setting for his latest book, the first volume of the Northland trilogy.
He draws a picture of a fertile land, largely forested, with plentiful game to be found both on land and in the sea, ideal to support a population of huntergatherers.
The story is told mainly from the point of view of a group living on the north coast of
Doggerland, showing signs of a nascent civilisation but one without domesticated animals or any form of agriculture. This first volume of the series shows them building defences against rising water levels and reclaiming land from the sea, using the kind of methods probably employed in the Netherlands before Roman times and employing solely human labour.
It is a well-told story of people leading a happy, uncomplicated existence, worshipping spirits but hardly slaves to superstition. Occasional inter-personal and inter-tribal rivalries sometimes have to be resolved by outbreaks of extreme violence, but their lives are otherwise peaceful, although short, and at times physically arduous - as one would expect. Nevertheless they are shown as employing fairly advanced language skills and an ability to grapple with abstract concepts, although one wonders if this part of the picture is entirely convincing.
It seems that in recent years Stephen Baxter is becoming increasingly inclined to explore past history as a source of inspiration. In this case, the result is a book almost totally devoid of science and technology as we now know them: he has hinted elsewhere that future volumes in the series may show the development of a different kind of advanced civilisation but the implication is that it may be non-technical. To some extent it may be interesting to explore a different kind of world in this way, but the idea that the series explores an ‘alternate history’ is a slender justification for calling it Science Fiction. If you are looking for SF don’t look for it here.
THE MASSACRE OF MANKIND by Stephen Baxter
This novel is a sequel to H G Wells’ THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, and the new story revolves around the Martians
return to Earth in the 1920’s. Whilst other authors have previously written sequels, this version is listed as “authorised by
the H G Wells Estate” and I presume was timed to coincide with 2016 being the 150th anniversary of Wells’ birth. The
author, Stephen Baxter has previously written another authorised H G Wells’ sequel, THE TIME SHIPS which was a
follow-up to THE TIME MACHINE and marked the centenary of that book’s publication.
It is fourteen years since the Martians invaded England, and the world has changed considerably. Examination of wrecked and abandoned Martian machinery has led to significant advances in technology. History as we know it has changed as a consequence of the original invasion; most significantly, a recovering UK formed an alliance with Germany, and a “Schlieffen War” between Russia and Germany is still ongoing. The governments of Earth scan the skies, but as another close approach between Earth and Mars nears, they are confident that their progress and prior knowledge means that this time they are prepared for the Martians. But when another Martian fleet begins to land, it becomes obvious that the Martians have also learned lessons and adapted so that yet again mankind is in deadly peril.
Writing in another author’s world, especially one so well-known and iconic as this one, is always going to be a difficult task. What is done very well is the attention to the details of 1920’s geography, vocabulary and appropriate technology. It is clear that a considerable amount of research has gone into writing this novel, and I also enjoyed the little nods to other people or works connected to Mars, ranging from Schiaparelli through to Grover’s Mill.
The worldbuilding is excellent and like the original, there are some suitably gruesome accounts of the Martians’ treatment of captured humans. However, I found myself a little frustrated with the pacing. The first section of the book, which deals with the initial landing, consolidation and the flight of refugees is the most successful in my opinion. After that however, there is an interlude of a couple of years where the Martians in England spend a long time just consolidating this bridgehead, without any attempt to spread further, and I found the urgency and menace of the story evaporating in this section. Towards the later part of the book there are further landings around the world, and the pace picks up but it felt to me like there was then too little space left to give these invasions sufficient details and thus engage the reader.
Fans of Wells’ will appreciate that the narrative does link back and reference the original story. It also includes many of the characters from the Wells’ story, including the original narrator, Walter Jenkins and the artilleryman, although much of the tale is now told by Julie, the sister-in-law of Walter Jenkins. However, I felt that the major focus was on the plot and that thus the characters often seemed to lack depth and I often found it hard to care much about their struggles.
Finally, it was always going to be difficult to find an ending with equivalent impact to the original. Without giving away the conclusion, this story finishes with a resolution that feels a little too “easy” and hence unsatisfying, although there is a “epilogue” which leaves scope for future developments. To summarise, this is a “curate’s egg” of a book – there are some very good bits but other bits that didn’t work for me.
TIME by Stephen Baxter
This seems to me a more rambling novel than usual from Steve Baxter. Probably this is because it is not focused on
one story-line, such as a mission to Titan, or a Moon-mission using old NASA hardware, or. . .
There are actually three threads here: Reid Malenfant, who has a mission to get humankind into space, with or without NASA's help; the 'Carter Prophecy' which forecasts that we have only a couple of centuries to live before we become extinct like the dinosaurs, or worse, and the efforts to confirm that by receiving messages from the future (rather as in Greg Benford's TIMESCAPE) and to see what we can do to avoid it; and the 'Blue Children' — a sudden epidemic of children who are 'strange', vastly more intelligent than their peers, and appear to have a secret mission of their own, regardless of the authorities' efforts to control or segregate them (often using pretty horrific and inhumane methods).
The latter theme is of course not new in SF. We all know John Wyndham's THE CHRYSALIDS (MIDWICH CUCKOOS), television's THE TOMORROW PEOPLE. And so on. But they are essential to the story, and indeed play an extremely important role in developments. Oh, and they all wear a blue circle. Malenfant plans a mission to an asteroid — piloted by an intelligent squid. The squids, too. Have their own story, so I suppose there are four threads really. The asteroid, Cruithne, is actually Earth's second moon, though it has a very complicated orbit, and it seems to have something to do with Earth's eventual fate, according to a message from the future. It turns out that there is some sort of alien artifact there, with a link to the blue circle which obsesses the children, and to time itself (hence the title). But I won't give any more away; read it and find out for yourself. Baxter is never afraid to take his ideas to the limit, and to encompass vast distances in time and space, and this book is no exception, while his grasp of modern scientific theories is quite spellbinding.
Steve has one habit (about which I must ask him next time I see him) which I find irritating. No, not writing as if he is an American, using words like 'gotten' — and not just in dialogue — though this is a bit odd. No: it is the fact that he capitalises the words "Earth' and 'Moon' (quite properly, in my opinion, since they are proper nouns, though may authors do use lower-case for them.) yet uses lower case for 'sun'. What is the logic of this? It brings me up short every time I see it, and distracts me from the text I am supposed to be reading. Earth is our planet; 'earth' is soil. The Moon is our natural satellite and important to us because it lights our night sky and influences the tides, while 'a moon' is a satellite. But the Sun, as opposed to 'a sun' which means any star, is the most vital object in our Solar System since without none of the planets, or ourselves, would exist. All of them surely deserve capital initial letters. But if one must use lower-case, then at least let's be consistent. (Does anyone disagree? If so, please explain!)
TRANSCENDENT (Destiny’s Children Book Three) by Stephen Baxter
The triumphant conclusion to this latest massive trilogy sees humanity reaching its ultimate apotheosis some half-
million years into the future. Having conquered space and time, the Transcendence is a coalition of selected human
beings melded into a single intelligence with the avowed objective of redeeming itself by atoning for all the suffering
that has ever taken place throughout the whole history of humanity. If the only way to achieve this is to go back to the
beginning of time and arrange for humanity never to have existed at all – well, perhaps it will be for the best.
The explication of this problem and its resolution involve two people. In the far future lives Alia, a candidate for the Transcendence, and she is linked across time to Michael Poole, who appeared briefly as a child in Book One. In 2047 he is an engineer battling the onset of global warming and plagued by visions of his dead wife, visions which the astute reader will soon guess are a product of this link to Alia. The story unfolds through a sequence of alternating chapters told from the respective viewpoints of Alia and Michael: this is a legitimate writing technique, but one of which Baxter is over-fond and uses in all too many of his books – notably the first instalments of this trilogy. Eventually, they come together and Michael has to visit the future to argue for humanity being allowed to continue.
Viewing the Destiny’s Children trilogy as a whole, the second volume seems only loosely tied to the first and third. It seems to exist largely to tie the series into some of Baxter’s previous work such as TIMELIKE INFINITY and the stories in VACUUM DIAGRAMS, showing how humans won the war for the future and swept the Milky Way clean of alien opposition. This leaves the current volume as more of a direct sequel to Book One than a continuation of Book Two. However, this comment is not meant in any way to detract from the impressive accomplishment which the series represents.
Noted in the past as a hard-science writer of futurist SF, Baxter is now extending his reach to deal with more philosophical, metaphysical, or even spiritual matters. The Transcendence to which future humans aspire is little, if at all, distinguishable from Godhood, and there are cogent and persuasive arguments to be made as to whether this status is desirable and what use should, or should not, be made of the power it provides. And what is SF for if not to provide a forum for this kind of discussion?
THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
In one of his last stories – albeit one published some seventeen years before his death – Arthur C. Clarke told how
dirigible captain Howard Falcon was left crippled by a crash and was rebuilt as a cyborg. This enabled him to make a
voyage into the atmosphere of Jupiter where he encountered indigenous sentient lifeforms which he called Medusae.
That story ended with clear hints that one day there would be more to be told and now two of our leading SF writers have applied themselves to doing so in a story which spans several ensuing centuries.
As mankind begins to explore and develop the Solar System, increasing reliance comes to be placed on machines in which burgeoning artificial intelligence eventually moves on to completely autonomous self-awareness – aided and stimulated, it has to be said, by the intervention of Falcon.
The result is the machines uniting to constitute a mech civilisation (if that is the right word) which advances to the point of challenging human civilisation for ownership of the Solar System. Over the centuries Falcon observes this progressing, attempting to intervene here and there. Eventually, an ill-considered attempt is made to use an unwitting Falcon as a weapon against the machines which are now occupying Jupiter, but this backfires when Falcon discovers what has been done to him. Instead, he and a representative of the machines embark on an incredible and epic journey to the centre of Jupiter where they discover a gateway to a higher realm of organised intelligence.
This is indeed a worthy and successful continuation of what Clarke began. The earlier part of the book even captures some of the style of his writing, and a verbatim quotation from 2001 is just one of several oblique nods to his work. In due course scientific and technological wonders are deployed which in a present-day context are every bit as far-out as some of Clarke's ideas were in his own day in such books as CHILDHOOD'S END and THE CITY AND THE STARS – perhaps even more so.
Unfortunately, the final conclusion is somewhat open-ended, leaving one to speculate as to whether the intention is to make this the first in a series, or at least to leave open the possibility of a sequel. Be that as it may, it is a book well worth reading, and perhaps more than once in order to fully work out the timing and all the intricate and subtle nuances it contains.
BEYOND HEAVEN’S RIVER by Greg Bear
I have read quite a few Greg Bear books, and generally enjoy them as 'hard SF'. This will not become one of my
favourites, and if you're looking for a fast-moving, all-action, adventure story, this is not for you either. It is however a
thoughtful and well-researched novel and worth a read - especially if you are interested in Japanese history. Because
it revolves around the discovery on a distant planet of an ex-Japanese air force pilot who was involved in Pearl
Harbour, over 400 years after his birth in 1918. He links up with a rich female spaceship owner, who realises that he
holds some secret and spends most of the book trying to find out what this is. (It is never fully explained.) There is also
a tussle between three parties over the ownership of the barren planet on which he was found, now abandoned by an
enigmatic alien race.
Reading a book like this, I often wonder why the author wrote it. Bear does not seem to have any great philosophical point to make in this one, except perhaps the futility of life even when you have lived for 400'years.
But he does show a great knowledge of the Japanese culture and history - so did he write this simply to make use of, and show off the results of a life-long interest? I have wondered this about some of Stephen Baxter's lengthier diatribes, too!
Oh, and as an artist, I can't resist a comment on the cover. As with most Millennium books by Bear, the art is by John Harris, though it bears little relation to the story and was probably done for something else. But someone in the Art department has decided to spice it up with a digital Photoshop lens flare - which really doesn't work, since Harris's work is very painterly, and flare needs a photographic image. Hey ho! David A Hardy
BLOOD MUSIC by Greg Bear
I picked up this review copy because, to my surprise, I didn’t think I had read it before. And I was right.
This is a volume in the ’SF Masterworks’ series of classic SF, and this certainly is a classic, in which even Bear excelled himself. It is also real, hard SF, so there’s no point in starting it unless you either know a fair bit about cell chemistry and DNA, or are ready and willing to learn quite a lot! I still find the concept highly unlikely: that human cells can become intelligent and can organise themselves and communicate with their hosts, at first being as bright as lab rats, but ultimately changing the whole face of the Earth. But having ’suspended disbelief’ to that extent (and Bear surely knows his stuff), the story is gripping and carries the reader to its stunning finale in a manner of which Clarke would be proud.
Vergil Ulam is a researcher who, when he is fired for his unorthodox methods, injects himself with his special lymphocytes as the only way of saving his experiment with biochips which he hopes will use DNA as a method of information processing.
He does not even really expect them to survive - but they not only do, but they go forth and multiply within his body, then spreading elsewhere, originally by means of sex (how else?). At this point it all seemed a bit familiar - didn't this happen in a movie? From here, we follow mainly three individuals: an old college friend of Vergil, Edward Milligan; an ex-employer, Dr Michael Bernard; and a girl who is seemingly unaffected by the new cells, Suzie McKenzie. If, like me, you missed this first time round in 1985, don't miss it this time!
QUANTICO by Greg BearThere seems to be a vogue at the moment for near future thrillers. Both Paul McAuley and Jon Courtenay Grimwood have moved to writing this kind of story. QUANTICO is Greg Bear’s contribution to this new sub-genre. The techno- thriller is a good way of speculating about the places new scientific developments may be leading us to. At the same time, there is an opportunity to write a good, fast-paced narrative that carries the story at speed.
WAR DOGS: ARES RISING by Greg Bear
First, a few words of explanation. At the November meeting I was surprised to see TWO science fiction books for
review; for months there has been only fantasy, and any SF was taken before I saw it! So I grabbed both of them. The
first one I started to read was ON THE STEEL BREEZE by Alastair Reynolds. I had no idea that it was the second in a
series, or trilogy. It doesn’t say so, or even suggest this anywhere on the covers. So I kept coming across things that I
didn’t understand. As a result I am handing it back, in the hope that someone else has read BLUE REMEMBERED
EARTH, the first in the series.
The other book I took was WAR DOGS by Greg Bear. Again, there is no indication that this is anything but a standalone novel, but it turns out that it is the first in a trilogy. Still, at least it is the first, so I read it, and perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to get the second . . .
On a future Earth, an alien race known as the Gurus has appeared, and is virtually controlling the human race by bringing gifts. They landed in the Yemini desert and made contact with a group of camel herders. From there they went on to hack into telecoms and sat links, raised money by setting up anonymous trading accounts, then published online a series of puzzles which whet the appetite of the most curious and intelligent. Within these were lurking ‘Easter Eggs’ – puzzles which led logically to brilliant mathematical and scientific insights. At this point the Gurus revealed themselves, through a specially trained group of intermediaries. Few people ever saw them, but soon they had made themselves indispensable. They came in peace – of course – but then they revealed the fly in the ointment: they were being pursued by deadly enemies, from sun to sun, world to world. And they needed our help.
These hostile aliens had already started to establish a beachhead in our own Solar System, but not on Earth – on Mars. Humans were already living there, so the task of defeating what were known as the Antagonists, or Antags, fell to the Skyrines, ie. Space Marines. The story is taken up by one of these, Master Sergeant Michael Venn. The Skyrines travel to Mars in space frames, protected by Cosmoline. The frames carry ‘sticks’ holding squads of Skyrines, which are dropped onto Mars from orbit. They make a bad landing, and Venn’s group is separated from the rest of their platoon. They receive information and data via their ‘angels’, but the Antags keep bringing down their orbiting satellites and generally messing up communications. Then they drop the head of a comet onto Mars, almost obliterating the Skyrines ...
The rest of the story is concerned with their efforts to link up with other Skyrines, stay alive, and to shelter in and hold on to a strange geological formation (which may be an ancient alien ship?) known as ‘the Drifter’, which seems to take the shape of a giant buried figure. There is a unit of female special ops who seem to be working to a different set of order to the Skyrines, a mysterious girl called Teal who belongs to a group of original colonists known as Muskies who live on Mars and almost consider themselves as Martians; and the overwhelming Antags. Many times it seems that they must surely die, especially when the Antags attack on the ground, but somehow most of them survive.
This is not an easy read, as the text is full of ‘Skyrine slang’, which is also of course US-based, so one often has to work out what is meant. At intervals the term ‘SNKRAZ’ appears between paragraphs. I checked to see if it is explained, but couldn’t find anything. So I put a note on Greg’s Facebook page, and he replied to the effect of “Military jargon – think SNAFU.” I’ll leave you to work that one out! I’m not a big fan of military SF, but this book rewards the effort of reading it, and I look forward to its sequels.
DAUGHTER OF EDEN by Chris Beckett
In the previous two novels in this series, we saw a society evolve from two shipwrecked survivors on the strange world of
Eden. This is a world with no sunlight but with a strange ecology of luminescent plants and animals sustained by
geothermal energy. A schism in the early descendants has persisted and as the humans have spread and multiplied
the ill-feeling between the two groups has festered. In this novel, we see this erupt into full blown war as the Johnfolk
attack the settlements of the Davidfolk at a critical time when many of the latter’s warriors are away celebrating a
significant anniversary. The story is told mainly by Angie Redlantern, a “batface” (one of the many colonists with facial
deformities) as she joins the other non-combatants of the Davidfolk as they flee to Circle Valley (the revered original
Landing site) hoping for protection from the missing warriors, and also in flashback as she considers her earlier life.
Once there she is witness to an event which will change the Eden peoples’ view of both their past and their future.
Whilst I don’t know that this is the last book in the Dark Eden series, there is certainly some sense in the narrative that
the story has come full circle. The events take place at the original settlement of “Circle Valley” as people return there
from the wider world and (without spoiling the plot) there is the challenge that new knowledge brings to the differing
beliefs they have about their origin and their societies.
Chris Beckett is an author who writes with both great imagination and depth. His creation of Dark Eden, its biology and society is one I have greatly enjoyed. His books are multi-layered, telling a compelling story which is at the same time a metaphor for many contemporary issues. In particular, in this novel it is the role and value of belief systems to people and the variety of ways they react if these are challenged. All that being said, whilst I still enjoyed this novel and believe it is exceptional writing, it is my least favourite of the trilogy. The problem I found myself having is that for the first time it felt that the message was less subtle at the expense of characterisation to some extent. Also, there were so many threads left from the second novel in particular that had hooked me that weren’t explored here and I found myself thinking as I read when are we going to get to this issue and then being disappointed when I reached the end and they were not addressed. Even with these caveats however, this is still well worth reading as a significant piece of SF.
MOTHER OF EDEN (Dark Eden 2) by Chris Beckett
In the first novel in this series, DARK EDEN (winner of the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award (review in #506 November
2013) the author introduced us to the planet of Eden. Eden is a dark planet where life exists in oases of light and
warmth fuelled by geothermal energy. The first book told the story of a small human group descended from two
marooned astronauts and the schism over remaining at the landing site versus attempting to explore the dark.
MOTHER OF EDEN is set a substantial number of years after the events of DARK EDEN and the marooned humans
have multiplied and spread into new areas. They have split into various factions (based on the original dispute in
DARK EDEN) of which the two largest are known as Davidfolk and Johnfolk.
Starlight Brooking is a young girl from a small group who live traditionally. Seeking excitement, she persuades the group to organise a trading expedition to a distant settlement. Here she meets Greenstone Johnson, the guileless heir to the rich New Earth group. Smitten with each other, they agree to marry and she accompanies him back to his home with very little idea of the vastly different society she will find. New Earth is a very hierarchical and oppressive society with “Big People” and “Little People”. As the highest status woman, she wears Gela’s Ring (Angela, the original marooned astronaut) which is seen as a holy object by many. As she and Greenstone try to improve society, their naïve efforts are resisted by the vested interests of the powerful “Big” families and the “Teachers” (who control literacy and access to written knowledge). Matters come to a climax when Greenstone’s father dies and there is a resulting power struggle.
Chris Beckett is an excellent and intelligent writer who clearly understands the importance of “show not tell”. The strange, beautiful world of Eden is enchantingly portrayed and contrasts well with the ugliness of humanity’s behaviour. His characterisation is superb and I particularly liked that we see the flaws in the ostensible heroes of Starlight and Greenstone. However it is in the story-telling that this novel really excels. This multi-layered novel skilfully incorporates many issues into the narrative without heavy info-dumping or preaching. Whilst it looks carefully at discrimination in many forms, it is in its subtle consideration on how access to and interpretation of history shapes people and society that it is at its most masterful. I also loved that scattered throughout we see how small actions have the potential for large consequences over a long time scale. This is well-paced and eminently readable SF and heartily recommended.
CROSSWAYS (Psi-Tech 2) by Jacey Bedford
In the first book in the series (EMPIRE OF DUST) the reader was introduced to an economy dependent on the “gates”
(which control access to “fold space”) for most travel between solar systems. The gates need Platinum to work and this
along with most other resources is controlled by the ruthless mega-corporations. When the planet of Olyanda is
discovered to have substantial deposits of Platinum, the fledgling colony and the accompanying Psi-Techs (people
with technologically enhanced mental abilities) are an inconvenience to be eliminated.
In the second book, the remaining survivors of Olyanda have outmanoeuvred the mega-corporation and have negotiated a deal for refuge on the crimelord-run station of Crossways. However, they are still in danger because of their control of Olyanda’s Platinum and their possession of evidence of mega-corporation corruption. The two most powerful mega-corporations co-operate in an attempt to eliminate both the Olyandans and the Crossways station, whose independence has become a major irritant. In their attempts to survive and also rescue missing colonists and family, the Psi-Techs are forced to take more risks in the strange world of foldspace. In doing so they uncover more about the nature of foldspace. This offers them a potential opportunity to outwit their persecutors but at the same time introduces new dangers.
The second book in a trilogy can be the most difficult to write well. The author has to balance having an interesting story with the necessity of setting things up for the final volume. In this book, Jacey Bedford has succeeded excellently and yet again I thoroughly enjoyed her storytelling. She is still exceptional at characterisation; the two main protagonists (Ben and Cara) are competent, likeable and credible. This ability also shows in the “villain”, Crowder as he is not just a cardboard baddie – we see some of his self-justifications for his actions so he does not regard himself as evil. The story development is logical given the events of the first book (something often lacking in sequels) and is well-paced building to an exciting confrontation at the climax. If you like intelligent space opera, I thoroughly recommend this series and look forward to the final book NIMBUS.
EMPIRE OF DUST (Psi-Tech 1) by Jacey Bedford
I am sure we all know the saying that you should not judge a book by its cover and I think this is very true for this book.
I know that the fashion in book covers is different in the US compared to the UK market (and this book is published by
an US publisher) but the dull colours and too small details would not have attracted me to this book. Unfortunately,
that does a great disservice to this book as the story within the cover is excellent.
In the future, humanity has spread to many solar systems. Huge unscrupulous mega-corporations, more powerful than individual governments, control and compete for resources. In particular, they hunt for Platinum which is used to power the “gates” which access “fold space” and allow interstellar travel. Each company uses “psi-tech” agents, implanted with technology to boost their natural mental abilities including telepathy. Viewed as expensive assets, any psi-tech who tries to leave is usually hunted down and their abilities and often their sanity are destroyed.
Cara is one such psi-tech. Escaping with damning evidence, she is on the run from Ari van Blaiden, a powerful executive and former lover. Cornered on a small spacestation, she escapes with the help of Ben, a psi-tech navigator for a rival mega-corporation. Masquerading as his wife, she joins an expedition to establish a new colony planet. Initially released for colonisation by a “back to basics” group, the discovery of resources coveted by the mega- corporations means she is in a far from safe haven. Added into that, tensions between some of the technophobic colonists and the psi-tech supporting crew erupt into violence. Ben, Cara and the small team of psi-techs have to use their wits and abilities to survive all these threats and protect the fledgling colony.
This is a superb adventure story with well-maintained pace and tension. The plot structure is excellent as the reader sees the various threats develop and converge to a thrilling climax. To balance this, a lot of thought has also clearly gone into the construction of the characters. In particular, I liked the development of Cara, as she struggles to escape (both physically and psychologically) from what has clearly been an abusive and controlling relationship with Ari van Blaiden. I also appreciated the considered and slower growth of the bond between Cara and Ben.
This is a book that yet again proves that women can and do write first-rate science fiction. Now all it needs is a British publisher to sit up and take notice!
WINTERWOOD (Rowankind 1) by Jacey BedfordThe year is 1800. Mad King George is on the throne. Rossalinde returns to Plymouth after seven years of sailing the seas as a privateer. Her mother is dying, but even on her deathbed she still calls her daughter a pirate's whore, and won't forgive her for her elopement. But she does leave her one gift; a small box of ensorcelled Winterwood, alive with promise. And Rossalinde needs to keep it safe, as the only permitted magic is that licensed by the Mysterium.
THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS by Alden Bell
This may appear at first glance to be about zombies, but in fact, this is not the sense of the book at all. It is the story of
a teenage girl calling herself Temple, although her real name is Sarah Mary Williams, and her quest to find meaning
in her life and in the only world she has ever known. The zombie apocalypse is simply the setting in which the author
has chosen to tell her story.
Within the first few pages we are shown both Temple’s capacity for finding beauty and wonder in the simplest things and her capacity for the savage ferocity which she needs to exercise if she is to survive. As she continues to travel across a fractured America, she is seen still managing to find pleasure in the little things, but occasional outbursts of violence continue to suggest she may not be a very nice person at all. Withal, when the opportunity to help someone less fortunate than herself comes, she takes responsibility for him, remembering a young boy she had previously tried to protect but was unable to save. For a while it seems that this selflessness may give her the chance of ultimate redemption, but in the end it all goes awry and comes to an ending which is as shattering as it is unexpected.
It has to be said that the book is not without its faults, not least of which is a degree of implausibility shared with some other post-apocalyptic stories in which an amount of left-over technology is made available to suit the needs of the plot rather than the needs of realism. Apart from that, the author has chosen to write it in the present tense, which can sometimes grate, and to eschew quotation marks, but one soon learns to ignore both these affectations as the sheer quality of the writing and imagery take hold.
These faults, if such they be, are easily forgiven as the reader becomes immersed in the narrative and the totality of Temple’s story becomes apparent. It is a powerful story with an ending which is positively heart-rending and wrenchingly emotional, although one is left wondering whether any other ending would have been possible. It is a wonderful, beautiful book and deserves to be read over and over again.
THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS has been widedy acclaimed and was nominated for the Philip K Dick Award which it should have won.
CHASING EMBERS by James Bennett
Once upon a time, a long time ago, Ben Garston didn't need to drink to forget. Known as Red Ben, he had lived for
far too long. Ben is sitting in the bar drowning his sorrows, bemoaning his love life and the loss of his damsel Rose,
when Fulk of the House Fitzwarren turns up, with vengeance in mind. He throws a tatty newspaper at Ben (who has
lived for centuries) detailing the theft of the Star of Eebe, a jewel housed in a NY museum centre; a jewel that is
supposedly an uncut gem which fell in a meteor striking the African continent over 3,000 years ago. Fulk tells Ben he's
reading his own death warrant. The 'Pact' is null and void. Ben isn't the only one anymore.
A fight ensues, as it tends to in these books, then expectations are thrown out the window. Ben becomes something ... else. Part grizzled noir PI in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Jim Butcher, (but in a modern setting), part dangerous creature, part heartbroken man, Garston is resistant to magic and can kick arse with the best of them. You find out what type of ‘thing’ Ben is pretty quickly, but it's a nice surprise and it's been a while since I've encountered such a mythology in a modern Urban Fantasy. It can be done badly, or it can be done well. Here, it's bloody awesome. Ben, in his alternate identity can hear, see, smell and taste everything. This makes Red Ben an excellent investigator, ally or adversary.
The senses are alive and Bennett accurately captures this. His writing is gritty, well-paced, darkly humorous and somehow lyrical. Bennett also knows his classic literature throwing in a Dickensian reference early on.
Amidst the narrative style of the novel, there's a whole plethora of quirky characters; the 'Three Who Are One' Coven of witches, or CROWS, a cult reluctantly following the Lore (outlawing magic) laid down by the Guild. Dwarvish Babe Cathy is like something out of the ROCKY HORROR SHOW or Twin Peaks; exotic, enigmatic and wholly entertaining. The entire novel is filled with adventure, misadventure, magic, mayhem, humour and surprises. Having also met the author at FantasyCon, he is as bright a spark as Red Ben. This is a series I shall devour in flames, with each new instalment.
NO ENEMY BUT TIME by Michael Bishop
Gollancz’s famous yellow book jackets were an automatic draw to Science fiction readers in the 50’s and 60’s, so the
inclusion o f Michael Bishop’s 1982 story No Enemy But Time into Gollancz’s Collectors’ Editions comes as somewhat
of a surprise.
When are dreams just imagination or when are they reality, these are the questions that a young Joshua Kampa has no answer for. But they finally lead him to a meeting with an eminent palaeontologist and the questioning of known facts and wisdom by Joshua. This meeting has far reaching consequences as Joshua is asked to join a secret project, which sends him back in time to the early Pleistocene period in Earth’s past. On the East African Savannah Joshua is to keep under surveillance and report back his findings of a group of hominids. Slowly the involvement of Joshua with this group of prehumans, Homo Habilis, goes beyond the bounds of his original remit. The consequences of his interaction with this band of prehumans is to have surprising results. The nitty gritty realities of a day to day existence and the long term survival of the group bring into focus Joshua’s troubled past. Through a series of flashbacks the troubles of Joshua's early life as an adopted child with the constant movement of his adopted family from military posting to military posting are brought into focus. The bigotry and racial abuse suffered by the child of a black father and Spanish mother start to fade and bring the harsh realities of the modern world into focus.
The Collectors’ Editions have some great titles in their list and No Enemy But Time is a worthy addition. A story that does not fall into the usual Science Fiction mould, it is a thought provoking book that shows that modern man and his ancient ancestors have more in common than most people think.
RED GLOVE (The Curse Workers Book 2) by Holly Black
Cassel Sharpe is no ordinary senior.
Where most students spend their summer vacation on the beach, Cassel finds himself spending his summer with his ex-convict Mom running cons in Atlantic City. Cassel’s entire life he has been fighting his destiny as a Curse Worker. With just a slight touch of his hand, Cassel can transform anyone – into anything.
After his brother Philip is murdered by a mysterious lady wearing a red glove, Cassel is blackmailed into looking for the murderer by the FBI. They also offer him a job working in their Worker Unit. The only problem being he is also offered a rather lucrative job as an assassin working for Mobster Zacharov, his girlfriends’ dad.
Cassel’s world is an interesting world and an enjoyable place to visit. Curse Workers, regardless of persuasion or occupation, are treated as criminals, outcasts and thieves. Everyone has to wear gloves to avoid their bare hands accidentally cursing someone and Cassel’s friend Daneca runs the local Worker support group HEX. As part of the story we see many instances of Worker discrimination and bullying, which adds extra dimension to the novel.
However, running somewhat short at 262 pages for your money, there is a missed opportunity here for Black to have covered more of the discriminatory elements.
Apart from the short length, this is a surprisingly satisfying novel, and it is immensely refreshing to find the lead character is a criminal who takes part in morally questionable actions, whilst still being very likeable. Philip’s funeral and wake during which we encounter the Worker criminal underworld is particularly entertaining.
Definitely worth a look as a quick pleasant read
WHITE CAT by Holly BlackThe world in which WHITE CAT is set is one in which people can be cursed by the touch of a magic worker. Magic working is illegal and magic workers can have one of a limited number of abilities including being able to change someone’s memories, charm them or even kill them. Everyone, workers and nonworkers alike, wears gloves so as not to curse or be cursed. The ability to work magic doesn’t come without consequences, and workers suffer ‘blowback’ every time they work.
THE ARCADIAN CIPHER by Peter Blake & Paul S Blezard
I still remember the first film I ever saw based on the ideas of Erich von Daniken: I was amazed and completely
convinced. Since then I have learned to adopt a more sceptical outlook - just as well in view of the proliferation in
recent years of books about Ancient Mysteries, of which this is just one more example. Like others it is based on the
mystery surrounding the village of Rennes-le-Chateau in southern France. The authors now claim to have unravelled a
coded message contained in several seventeenth-century paintings to discover an ancient tomb which is nothing less
than the last resting-place of Christ.
Their conclusion centres round the message incorporated in the paintings, which are by several different artists, and depends on the application o f that message to modern maps, which must be better and more accurate than anything available then. If this is true, it represents a combination of draughtsmanship and cartography which would be a remarkable accomplishment for three hundred-plus years ago. Even so, it could be argued that the results are too good to be attributable to mere coincidence. Leaving that aside, however, one cannot help wondering why a message was compiled at all if the secret it contained was of such enormous importance that it should never be revealed. It became a futile exercise anyway, since the message was concealed so thoroughly that it has been lost until now.
The authors present a convincing argument and to be sure there is some hard evidence, including what is known of the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery, which defies any less controversial explanation. Something strange and inexplicable may have been going on in that area for two thousand years. Nevertheless, their case depends on their interpretation of that and other less definable evidence and some of that interpretation is speculative to say the least. The best way to deal with it is to regard it as entertainment and accept that it MAY be true, but only until a better theory comes along.
Viewed in that way the book is an interesting, even intriguing piece of work, and quite educational. It is full of fascinating history, although the presentation suffers rom a tendency for each chapter, like the whole thing, to start with a big bang and then to proceed somewhat anti-climatically. If anything, however, it is too crammed with detail and would perhaps have been better at the length of a Sunday supplement article.
I have not attempted to give it a star rating. You will like it if it is the sort of thing you like, but otherwise you may well think it unmitigated rubbish.
THE SEEDLING STARS by James Blish
James Blish was one of the stars of the nineteen fifties and probably couldn’t have written a bad book if he had tried.
This is one of his most noted efforts, a collection of linked stories written around the theme of pantropy, the concept
(not unique to him alone) that man will colonise the Universe by adapting his form to the alien and unfamiliar
ecological structures of other worlds.
What this means is vividly shown in the long and frequently anthologized central story “ Surface Tension” with its dramatic scenes of water-breathing men a quarter of a millimetre tall navigating their tiny wooden “ spaceship” overland from one puddle to another on a distant world.
This was the first of the stories to be written and the remaining three provide some sort of a framing structure but fail to build a satisfactorily coherent novel. They are notably weaker and give somewhat the impression of being afterthoughts rather than important new ideas.
In fact, reading it again for the first time in quite a few years, I was struck by how very “ fifties” it seemed.
Half a century ago its impact must have been tremendous; today the concepts are less impressive and even the writing style has dated, albeit only slightly.
Nevertheless it remains an impressive accomplishment, well worth having been re-issued, and reading again.
A TOLKIEN TAPESTRY by Cor Blok
Cor Blok is a recognised Dutch artist with a long association with illustrating J.R.R Tolkien’s works, most recently seen
providing the illustrations for the 2011 and 2012 Tolkien calendars. At first glance Cor’s artwork tends to draw criticism
from an audience more familiar with the works of Alan Lee, John Howe, Ted Naismith and the brothers Hildebrandt.
Cor’s illustrations of THE LORD OF THE RINGS (LOTR) are often described as childish and overly simplistic, which is
an interesting comment given the artist’s process of producing the pictures.
This book presents the complete collection of Cor’s LOTR pictures, and as such makes up a visual narrative of over 100
pictures not unlike a tapestry; hence the title. However, the first 40 pages or so present a series of essays by Cor written
to give an insight into the artwork. Firstly, it is important to note that Cor alters his style for different projects, and to
assume all his artwork has similar style to his LOTR illustrations is a grave error. Anyone who has seen the intricately
detailed and astonishing images from his IRON PARACHUTE project might not recognise the artworks as being from
the same artist!
The prose describes both the physical process of producing the pictures and the historical context in which they were
produced. The reader cannot help
but feel greater warmth for the pictures when one knows that Tolkien himself purchased two of the LOTR illustrations,
such was the author’s like for Cor’s works
(Cor visited Tolkien in 1961, and subsequently Cor provided the covers for the Dutch translations of LOTR in 1965).
Some of the text is given over to illuminating his inspiration by way of explaining the author’s fascination with LOTR.
Any fan of Tolkien’s books can give a similar exposition, but each is personal to the reader, and
insight into Cor’s interpretation is helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of
But the artistic interpretation goes deeper than simple fandom. Cor gives us an insight into his inspiration in
Barbarusian art, an area Cor was exploring when he discovered LOTR. His studies in this area caused Cor to realise
that an art style may be adopted consciously, for specific purpose, for many reasons (for example, when a comic artist
might adopt style to match the limitations of mass printing processes). Cor goes on to give examples of Barbarusian
artwork where the style is such to reduce the image to only the essentials necessary to convey the meaning, leaving
the rest up to the viewer’s imagination to fill in. An analogy might be the design of signs at an airport, where an image
must be simple and easily visible, yet must contain the meaning pictorially with the greatest clarity.
And it is this approach that Cor brought to illustrating LOTR.
Thus the pictures are not truly simplistic but instead the pictures follow a deliberate philosophy of representation.
Indeed, the physical process for creating the pictures is exacting and complex; involving Japanese silk paper painted
on both sides and then applied to coloured backgrounds when wet, an artwork process as technically demanding as it
sounds, but which results in luminous colours. Once the viewer is enlightened to the meaning in the style the pictures
become considerably more fascinating!
Given the above, I approached the pictures with renewed interest; given that the pictures attempt to present the story
at its barest essence, I resolved to try and interpret the story I know well from the pictures alone. True, some of the
pictures were so reduced that I misunderstood the scene, but in most cases the meaning leapt out in a slightly
wonderful way. Never again will I look at Cor Blok’s artwork quite the same way.
It is hard to say whether the reader should buy this book; certainly those interested in the art styles may find a lot to
enjoy, and maybe for the Tolkien fan who has found little to enjoy in the artist’s work might well discover something
new to appreciate. I cannot help but feel that the book occupies something of an odd niche. However, if you have an
appreciation for LOTR and fantasy artwork, this might be a niche of interest…
THE HEALER by Michael Blumlein
Every now and again a book surprises me. This is one of them. For when I picked up this book I was expecting a
completely different book to the one I read. In some ways I think I was expecting a tale along the lines of James
White's Sector General series with a slight twist due to the nature of the healers in this tale.
What I found in the pages of this book was a quite brilliant tale, one which had no problems not following its more expected path, preferring to strike out and find its own path.
It's a book which had no problems leaving loose ends, not clearing up after itself. For if bad things happen, then they happen and that's just the nature of the world.
Payne is a Tesque (short for Grotesque) a sub species of human, kept in virtual slavery by humans. And like his brother before him when it comes to the time of the testing he is found to be a potential healer and taken away for training, there being no choice for either him or his parents in the matter.
From that point onwards his life is not his own, and his healing talent is to be at the beck and call of any human who needs it, until he reaches the time of The Drain and his talent is exhausted.
But despite the fact that these healers are vital to the health of their human masters, they are despised and reviled - no human willing to spend time with them or consider them anything other than chattel.
This is an incredible book, full of exquisite prose. I know this may sound a little overblown but I cannot describe this book in any way else. It does nothing wrong for me.
Now, should you feel that you prefer your fiction all snug and cosy and want everyone to survive and have good lives (except any passing bad guys that is) then this book might not be the best thing for you to read.
TITAN by Ben Bova
I was quite surprised when I was offered this book to review, as I had assumed that Ben Bova’s ‘Grand Tour of the Solar
System’ series was complete, all major planets (and the asteroids) having been covered. But clearly he has not
finished with it, as this shows.
Many of the old protagonists, such as Dan Randolph and Martin Humphries, are of course long-gone, and even the Yamagata Corporation doesn’t get a mention, although the insidious New Morality are still lurking in the background. But this is really a sequel to SATURN, and in fact it follows on directly from plans announced at the end of that novel: a huge L-5-style habitat, housing ten thousand people, has now been built and placed in orbit around Saturn, and in it we find Pancho Lane, her sister Susan (now called Holly), Malcolm Eberley, Professor Wilmott, Tavalera, Manuel Gaeta, and other familiar names.
At first this seems slower-paced and even less exciting than the previous books, as time is spent setting the scene inside this vast cylinder and the politics that are going on as a new Chief Administrator is due to be elected. Malcolm Eberly is confident of being re-elected, and wants to mine Saturn’s rings for ice, to be supplied to provide much- needed water for the rest of the Solar System. But Holly Lane has other ideas, as she wants the ban on having children to be lifted, and she takes advantage of Nadia Wunderly’s discovery of what appears to be life in the ring particles (or is it?) to prevent this from happening. Another main storyline is the Titan Alpha probe which has been placed on the surface of Titan, is roving around collecting data – but refuses to transmit it! This drives Eduoard Urbain to distraction as he and his team try to make contact.
The stuntman, Gaeta, finds himself under pressure to come out of retirement and first to bring back more samples from Saturn’s rings, then to go down to the surface of Titan in a dangerous attempt to solve its communication problems.
Oh, and then there’s Timoshenko, who wants to destroy the habitat and all within it. . . All in all, a satisfying read for fans of hard SF. Dave Hardy
PRIESTESS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson
This volume was published after Bradley's death, with the aid of Diana Paxson. It is a collaboration, although Paxson
had to finish it. It is a pity she does not gel a credit on the book’s cover. This book is part of the Avalon series of which
THE MISTS OF AVALON was the first published volume. That involved the women associated with King Arthur’s court.
PRIESTESS OF AVALON is set at an earlier time, during the Roman Empire. The principal character is Helena who was the mother of the Emperor, Constantine the Great. Like many women of the time, relatively little is known about her, but she was canonised and some sources credit her with the discovery of fragments of the True Cross. It is certain that she travelled to the Holy Land and lived to an old age. In PRIESTESS OF AVALON, Helena is one of the priestesses that lives on the mystic Isle of Avalon until she meets Constantius.
Except for this element, historical facts are kept to wherever possible.
This is a relatively short book to encompass the whole of a long life and perforce touches it only at intervals. More than a quarter of the book is taken up with Helena's life on Avalon, before she leaves with Constantius, so that their relationship and characters, and the intricacies behind the events that follow, are only sketched in. The book disappoints because it is neither a fantasy novel or a historical one, but tries to be both and they do not mesh - it is almost two separate stories as very little of the mysticism bleeds into the known history. It will probably satisfy neither readers of fantasy or historical fiction.
THE DESERT SPEAR by Peter V Brett
In the world known as Ala by the desert dwelling Krasians, and as Thesa by the Chin who live in the verdant north, an
ages old war is being waged.
Not between men, but between men and the ‘core’ dwelling demons that materialise on the surface as the sun sets and vanishes at sunrise. This war consists of active fighting in the south and passive resistance in the north where mankind cower behind ‘warded’ barriers. THE DESERT SPEAR is the story of two men, Ahmann Jardir living in Fort Krasia, a supreme warrior who declares himself the promised deliverer and Arlen Bales of Tibbets Brook (also known as the ‘Painted Man’), a wanderer declared to be the deliverer despite his wishes by others. These two were formally friends. The story is enhanced by five major secondary characters as well as a host of others. These major support actors being: Inevera a Dama’ting, - a Krasian holy woman and Ahmann Jardir’s first wife, who is not an invisible power behind the throne. Abban a Kaffit - a man who works at a craft instead of becoming a warrior or a holy man who was a boyhood friend of Ahmann Jardir and in later life an adviser despite being despised by the rank and file Krasian warriors. Leesha the ‘herb gatherer’ (healer) and de facto leader of the township of Deliver’s Hollow formally known as Cutter’s Hollow. She is a friend of Arlen Bales and is a powerful ‘ward witch’. Rojer - a jongleur and friend of both Leesha and Arlen Bales. His music has a unique magical effect on the demons. And finally, Reena, a childhood friend of Arlen Bales.
The first part of this story concentrates on the life of Ahmann Jardir following his rise from childhood obscurity to the absolute leader of the Krasians. Later on it covers his invasion of the north in pursuit of his holy war against the demons; a campaign during which he meets Leesha and Rojer. Meanwhile Arlen tries to make the leaders of the north aware of their danger from Ahmann Jardir and spreads his knowledge of aggressive warding; and while doing this he meets Reena again.
THE DESERT SPEAR is an excellent read, full of action and enjoyable engaging characters. While it is the second book of a series it is so strongly written that it can be read as a stand-alone novel without any detriment to the quality of the story. That said, the first, THE PAINTED MAN, is well worth reading. As is often the case, a taster of the next book, THE DAYLIGHT WAR, is provided. It too promises to be excellent and I look forward to reading it.
EVOCATIONS by James Brogden
What factors help us to decide to try a new author? Reviews and recommendations from friends help but I have also
found that hearing someone speak and enjoying what they say can be a good (albeit not infallible) pointer to a writer
worth investigating. As some of you may remember, James Brogden is a local writer who was a guest at the BSFG in
March 2013. Since that appearance he has published two further novels (TOURMALINE and THE REALT, both
published by Snow Books) and this short story collection, EVOCATIONS (Alchemy Press). I must confess that I have not
read his novels but have enjoyed some of his short stories in previous anthologies.
EVOCATIONS is a collection of sixteen of James’ short stories, most previously published elsewhere with a couple of new additions. The stories all contain an element of the fantastical but are also rooted in the real (and mostly modern) world. Some of the stories also verge into horror.
The first story “The Phantom Limb” concerns an amputee who finds his phantom arm can reach into another world and is a short but effective little horror story.
In “The Evoked” we see the author’s Australian background combined with a consideration of the old meaning of the Winter solstice and the festival of Yule. There are lots of ideas in this story and I felt that whilst good it would have benefited from more space to expand.
“The Last Dance of Humphrey Bear” is one of my favourites. A child’s favourite toy (Humphrey Bear is an Australian Children’s TV programme) holds the last breath of a dead child. It has emotional depth and deals very sensitively with some dark themes.
“How to Get Ahead in Avatising” is a nice little satire on the price people may have to pay for fame and combines mythological archetypes with clever swipes at “spin” and personality worship.
“Junk Male” is about a couple of students who create a fake identity to reply to unsolicited post and the unintended consequences. This is one of the stories which illustrate the author’s ability to deftly combine humour with horror.
“The Decorative Water Feature of Nameless Dread” is another story I really liked. It is an affectionate combination of Lovecraftian monsters and Middle England. It is written with a light touch and I found it very funny.
“The Gestalt Princess” is a charming but unconventional love story which I enjoyed, even with a steampunk setting (of which I am normally not the greatest fan).
“The Smith of Hockley” and “If Street” both show another one of this author’s strengths – exploring the intersections between local locations and ancient things and people.
“Mob Rule” is probably my least favourite in the collection. The idea behind the story is good (difficult to describe without giving away the premise) but I just didn’t like any of the characters or the conclusion.
By contrast, the short story “The Gas Street Octopus” is excellent and the one-liner ending will make you smile (or groan, depending on whether you like puns!)
“DIYary of the Dead” is a first-rate horror story where the mundane is slowly “peeled back” to reveal the macabre.
“The Curzon Street Horror” looks at the arcane rites that might have been involved in the start of the railways in Birmingham and again shows Brogden using a local location as the starting point to something weird.
“The Remover of Obstacles” is about dodgy car mechanics that again looks at ancient things concealed beneath a modern veneer.
“Made from Locally Sourced Ingredients” is a ghoulish look at trendy restaurants and the advisability of knowing where your food comes from. Whilst not for the faint-hearted this is still a very enjoyable and ingenious story.
The final story in the collection “The Pigeon Bride” is essentially a fairy tale but in a modern urban setting. As with the original fairy stories, there is a grim element and a price to be paid for the “happy” ending.
An extract from the author’s novel, TOURMALINE ends the collection. It introduces a mysterious girl but is too short to give much feel for the story. A better guide would be the review published in BSFG Newsletter #507 (December 2013).
Based on this collection, James Brogden has an impressive imagination. He is exceptional at taking small everyday elements and transforming them into the bizarre. I also like his use of Midlands locations and how he connects the mythological past with the more “rational” present. His stories also demonstrate a mischievous and satirical sense of humour (including some clever puns) and were one of the things I really relished in this collection. On a minor note, there are no SF stories but that is the only reservation I have about recommending this book to readers. Carol Goodwin
THE REALT by James Brogden
Where do we go when we dream? How real are our dreams? Can we influence them? All questions that have
exercised minds down the millennia. Scientists have studied sleep, psychologists and oneiromancers have tried to
interpret dreams. Fiction has come up with a number of interesting ideas, including the suspicion that everything we
think is real is actually a dream. Graham Joyce’s first published novel, DREAMSIDE focused on the idea of lucid
dreaming, a technique by which dreams can be affected by the dreamer. That idea is also used by James Brogden in
this novel. The biggest dream cop-out was probably in the TV series Dallas where in order to bring back a character by
public demand, they had to make the whole of the previous series into a dream. Having the action ‘dreamed’ is not
the best approach to convincing a reader that they have a legitimate story to tell. Fortunately, Brogden avoids this
This is the second volume in a trilogy. In the first volume, TOURMALINE Bobby Jenkins finds himself on the other side of consciousness. There is another world, Tourmaline that some people can reach in their dreams. Those whose bodies lie in comas find a kind of freedom here despite being hunted by the authorities of this other place. Bobby, though, has physically passed through the membrane into the dreamworld. There he met Allie Owens and fell in love. At the end of TOURMALINE, the island-sized raft that Allie and the other coma victims have made their home is attacked by the authorities that want to rid themselves of these interlopers. Allie survives but Bobby is thrown back into the waking world, known here as the Realt. With him comes a monster which, initially takes up residence at the bottom of a Birmingham canal.
Back in the Tourmaline Archipelago, which is now embroiled in war, Allie’s concern is survival, especially as she finds that she is pregnant with Bobby’s child. Bobby’s intention is to get back to Tourmaline and Allie. Everyone has always been told that the two sides must be kept apart and nothing intrude in either direction or there will be dire consequences. Yet modern weapons have appeared on one side in the war. Bobby discovers that there are ways to cross over and that both sides – from Realt and Tourmaline – actually have a large chamber like an amphitheatre, where representatives from both sides meet and discuss issues. They are held apart by a dividing membrane. Bobby needs to get into the chamber to get back to Allie even though the division would be breached.
Meanwhile, the monster or araka, can manifest as several separate entities which take up residence in the brains of some of Birmingham’s criminal underworld and begin to create havoc, especially as their hosts now seem to be indestructible.
This is a novel which wanders in a number of directions before coming together as a complete whole and a grand finale. The most convincing aspects of it are the ones in the Realt, especially where the dark side of Birmingham comes to the fore. Without this, the novel would have much less impact. In a few places, the effects of subornation are described. These are events when a dreamer crosses over and brings with them the images of their nightmares. The novel would have been enhanced by more of these and their dramatic effects.
The concept of a dreamworld that has a reality of its own is an effective device for this fast-paced adventure that will provide a few hours of enjoyment to the majority of readers.
DARK SKY by Mike Brooks
DARK SKY is the second book in what promises to be an extensive sequence by this author. I have not read the first
one, DARK RUN. However, I am pleased to report that not having read it did not diminish my enjoyment of this book
one jot. It did not have any effect on the plot whatsoever. Where pertinent to this book and only then was any
reference made to what had gone before and this was no more than that which would be expected in any book.
In DARK SKY Captain Ichabod Drift of the star ship Keiko and his crew are enjoying some ‘R & R’ staying at the Grand House casino on the pleasure world, New Samara. Unfortunately, this does not last as the ‘crime lord’ who owns the casino, and also controls much of the government of New Samara, decides that their somewhat shady past makes them the perfect crew to carry out a small job for him. Receiving an offer they ‘cannot refuse’ Ichabod accepts, promising his crew that this side trip to the mining planet Uragan would be a quick in and out job and then they would be back at the tables with some welcome extra spending money. Naturally whatever can go wrong does go wrong and they find themselves stuck on the planet by a revolution and a horrendous dust storm. Cue for nonstop action with some interesting twists and turns.
I don’t want to say anything more about this book’s plot as this may diminish any reader’s enjoyment. But I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it - something that I was not expecting when I first picked up DARK SKY, so much so that if I have the opportunity to read DARK RUN and any subsequent books in the series I will do so without hesitation. DARK SKY is good old-fashioned and thoroughly enjoyable space science fiction with a modern verve and an excellent cast of characters.
BINARY SYSTEM by Eric Brown
BINARY SYSTEM is the most recent of Eric Brown’s numerous novels, novellas and collections of short stories being
published in this country on the 10th of August 2017. In it his heroine, Cordelia Kemp, is (she thinks) the only survivor
of a catastrophic explosion that rips through the starship, Pride of Amsterdam as it starts its transit through the lunar
wormhole on the way to 61 Cygni. By a fluke the section of the ship she was on was shunted at least 10,000 light-years
away from Earth. This is far further than the 200-light-year limit of currently explored space. Luckily for her there is a
nearby star system with an inhabitable planet. Again fortunately, although it has an extremely eccentric orbit, it is
coming out of its long very cold winter into its short but very hot summer. When coming into land her life craft is shot
down and she is captured by an extremely hostile insectoidal race, the Skelt. These turn out to be the degenerated
descendants of a star faring race that invaded the planet in the distant past and are waging war on and enslaving and
eating two indigenous sentient races, the Fahren and the Vo. Imprisoned by the Skelt and about to be tortured for her
scientific knowledge she is rescued by Muhn, a Fahran slave. So starts an epic trek across the planet’s equatorial band
to her rescuer’s home village. Then on to the mysterious valley of Mahkanda so that Muhn can give thanks and fulfil a
lifetime ambition of observing the rising of his living god. On the way they rescue a Vo from a wolf like carnivore, who
in turn out of gratitude and a sense of adventure decides to join them on their odyssey. Later they observe what they
believe is the contrail of another life craft from the Pride of Amsterdam. Fortunately, this craft’s predicted landing point
is on the way to Mahkanda. Despite his many books I have never previously read anything by Eric Brown and as I had
heard that he was a good writer I was eagerly looking forward to reading this book. Unfortunately, I was rather
disappointed; despite my liking of ‘Space Opera’ adventures. My concerns started with the title, the book I have states
that this is ’BINARY SYSTEM’, but the publisher’s information sheet has it as ’BINARY / SYSTEM’ both in the text and
in the illustration of the cover. A minor point to be true, but it caused initial unease. By the way the only reference to a
binary system in the book is a very minor one near the start of the story, you could almost miss it. In addition, I found
some of the technical/engineering aspects unconvincing and puzzling. Perhaps this was due to my technological and
auditing background. There was one point when an enormous space laser used in action against the Skelt suddenly
was referred to as a ground to air missile! In addition, while pleasant, I found the characters rather one dimensional
and as such I could not relate to any of them. Overall the book did not ‘sing’ to me or entice me to read on. That said
the writing was straight forward with the story flowing well following an unconvoluted narrative path. Perhaps the book
was intended for a ‘younger’ audience. It may be worth noting that I have found many young person books to be very
satisfying to read. As you can tell from the above ’BINARY SYSTEM’ regretfully was not to my taste although others
may enjoy it more
NEW YORK DREAMS by Eric Brown
This is the third volume of the Virex trilogy. It is basically a detective thriller set in a future New York which lies at the
cutting edge of technology. In the first Volume, New York Nights, we are introduced to Halliday and his partner. They
are ex-cops and run the kind of detective agency you would expect in a 1950s novel. They are brought in to
investigate a disappearance. In their world, VR technology is the up and coming thing. Public facilities are just
opening in which you can immerse yourself in your fantasies.
In NEW YORK DREAMS, we rejoin Halliday, who is now rich and spends most of his time tanked in a VR world. He is offered large sums to find the technological genius who has gone missing. His heart is not in the investigation until his ex-lover also disappears. His old partner, Barney, reappears from the dead (literally). This is a fast paced, techno- thriller but there are problems. Brown is an excellent writer but some of the information needed to make sense of the plot lines are included in the previous volumes. A newcomer to this series is strongly recommended to begin with volume one. At the start of NEW YORK NIGHTS, the technology that is vital to the course of all three books is new. Although current developments have shown how fast changes and improvements can be made, the time scale seems a little too short for the universal acceptance and use suggested here. A degree of suspension of disbelief is required. It is probably worth waiting for an omnibus volume and reading all three volumes at one sitting.
THE MARTIAN SIMULACRA: A SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY by Eric Brown
This novella is one in a series of four Martian themed books due to be published by NewCon Press. The others in the
series are THE MARTIAN JOB by Jaine Fenn, PHOSPHORUS: A WINTERSTRIKE STORY by Liz Williams and THE
GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD by Una McCormack.
This story is a mash-up of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS by H G Wells. In this story, the Martians learned from their defeat by Earth’s bacteria. They adapted, both in terms of immunity and in their strategy and a second less militaristic invasion was more successful. Claiming that the original, massively destructive incursion was by a defeated faction, the Martians now profess to rule the Earth more benignly. Set some ten years afterwards, much of humanity is apparently reconciled to this state of affairs. Holmes has learned the Martian language, and having helped them in a previous case, is called upon to help the Martians with an incident on their homeworld. When he and Dr Watson travel to Mars however, all is not what it seems and they become embroiled in a dangerous adventure which will uncover the Martian’s real intentions and plans for the people of planet Earth.
If you are a fan of this type of mash-up, there is much to enjoy here. It is a romp with lots of old-fashioned derring do and action. Although I am not a fan of the word steampunk, it has that feel of old-fashioned futuristic technology which feels appropriate to the Doyle/Wells influence. There are also some nods to modern sensibilities about how Empire is not completely advantageous to the colonised, and racial prejudice although these are kept light as this is not a “serious” book. There is also a welcome inclusion of a competent female character, indeed at times almost too competent, Freya Hadfield Bell.
Writing stories about Holmes however, is always a tricky proposition as you will never please everyone. If I have a criticism, it is that the plot of the story does not seem to offer much chance to showcase Holmes’ intellectual ability. I felt that most events happen to the Watson/Holmes pair, with the narrative being driven more by the actions of the Martians and the aforementioned Freya Hadfield Bell. That being said it is competently written and easy to read and many (though not all) fans of Wells and Doyle will enjoy this homage Carol Goodwin
MYCROFT AND THE NECROMANCER by Michael R Brush
His interest in SF (as in the Professor Challenger stories) and Spiritualism notwithstanding, Conan Doyle eschewed
anything remotely fantastic in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Even “The Sussex Vampire” turned out not to be one. Now
that many modern writers are turning their hands to creating additions to the Holmes canon, tales involving more outré
events are beginning to appear, and Michael Brush has chosen in his first novel to delve into the supernatural with a
story involving werewolves, shapeshifters, vampires and faeries, etc.
In point of fact, this is not a Sherlock Holmes story at all. He is mentioned in passing, scarcely more than that, and as the title of the book suggests, the principal protagonist, or one of them, is elder brother Mycroft. He is presented here as very much a man of action, far from the reclusive man of inaction who is described in his first, and only major appearance in an original story. (“The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”) There is some suggestion that his withdrawal from an active role in criminology was a deliberate choice arising from the events recounted here.
Briefly, the story concerns the unmasking and eventual destruction of a sinister death cult operating from a disreputable private club in London called “The Grinning Skull” and controlled from the country residence of the Necromancer of the title. Mycroft, ably assisted by the narrator of the story, one Fox Hungerton, and a hitherto unheard-of younger Holmes brother, Carmel, together with various others, both human and supernatural, and all supported by the staff of the Diogenes Club, leads the campaign to expunge this evil.
For the kind of reader likely to encounter this review the book has the potential to be of interest. Unfortunately, it is quite badly, almost amateurishly, written. The general construction and plotting are confusing and illogical and moreover, errors of grammar and punctuation are not uncommon, phraseology can be clumsy and the choice of words is often infelicitous to say the least. Although it is supposed to have been written in 1887, the writing reflects neither the style of the period nor that of Conan Doyle himself.
These faults may or may not limit the appeal of this book in the horror/supernatural market at which it is presumably aimed. On the other hand, true dyed-in-the-wool Holmes aficionados will probably recoil aghast at everything in it.
CHALLENGER UNBOUND by Michael R Brush and S G Mulholland
There has been a tradition of writers, especially those honing their skills, to add to the adventures of their favourite
characters. Children do it every time they play with the characters and other toys from films and TV programmes, such
as Thunderbirds and FROZEN. Most stories either stay under the bed, or turn up in fanzines shared with others with the
same enthusiasms. Some writers such as Storm Constantine, encourage such fan fiction and allow the best to be
published in books, and others, such as Star Trek, develop a franchise of officially sanctioned novels by respected
authors. When a favoured writer has been dead long enough for their work to be out of copyright, there is an
opportunity for other enterprises such as PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. CHALLENGER UNBOUND, with the
blessing of Conan Doyle’s estate, has taken the irascible Professor Challenger as the centre of a series of short stories.
While the project is a worthwhile enterprise, I have some issues with this particular book. It is not the fault of the editors that no female writers submitted stories. The question is whether this is a reflection of the appeal of the character or whether enough publicity was done in the right places. What is less forgivable is the typesetting of the book. Anyone who opens a book, real or electronic will know that you do not leave a line-break between paragraphs. It makes the book very annoying to read, and encourages a reader picking it up to put it straight back on the shelf. Proof reading could have been a little more rigorous as well (Challenger’s daughter has different names in different stories).
Those familiar with the original Professor Challenger stories, especially THE LOST WORLD, will have some familiarity with many of the characters that appear in these pages. Anyone meeting them for the first time here may wonder who they are as there is an ingrained assumption that the reader is in the know. There is an added confusion in that there has been no attempt to put these stories in any kind of chronological sequence. There is also no kind of cohesion in the selection of the stories. Two, including the first in the volume (‘The Last Expedition’ by Simon Kurt Unsworth) feature the death of Challenger, and of these, the better written is the second, ‘The Death of Challenger’ by Steve Lockley. This story has some interesting features, but I wasn’t convinced that this could only be a Challenger story. This is a problem I had throughout. Too many of the stories could not honestly say that they could be nothing else but part of the Challenger sequence.
In one of the original Challenger stories, the Professor came up against an inventor, Theodore Nemor, who invents a disintegration machine which Challenger deems too dangerous to exist and so destroys it. Yet, three of these stories make use of this invention. I would be wary of one use of it, but this is too many and causes an internal conflict within the structure of the anthology as a whole. Challenger might have been disingenuous; his chroniclers should not be.
A dilemma that a book like this has is whether the stories should stylistically copy the original, or have narrative brought up to date with more modern approaches. One positive thing these stories have in common is they have all tried to keep to the vernacular that Conan Doyle used.
This could have been an interesting addition to the Challenger portfolio if it had had a tighter editorial control on the content of the stories. As it is, it doesn’t work for this reader.
FARLANDER by Col Buchanan
This is the first novel from a new author who is still learning. He’s got a few things right: the pace is fair and the
characters aren’t entirely stereotypes but there are obvious good guys and obvious bad guys; the plot runs smoothly
and doesn’t drag anywhere. The characterisation is reasonable but could do with more depth.
Let’s start with the good stuff…
Ash is a trained ninja assassin working for a sect that exacts retribution when any of its clients are murdered. He’s getting old and his even older master has decided he should take an apprentice.
Nico has been living on the streets of Bar-Khos since he ran away from home. It’s hard enough on the streets but Bar-Khos has been under siege for the last 10 years and many of the people are starving. Nico finally resorts to theft but in choosing Ash to steal from he has chosen the wrong person.
Suddenly he finds he has two options – go to jail or become the assassin’s apprentice.
Kirkus is the heir apparent to the Empire of Mann. His mother is the Matriarch of the religious order that controls most of the world. The order is based on some pseudo-Nietzchean ideal that actually encourages senseless casual violence and murder. He’s just become Ash’s next target.
The story takes Ash and Nico on a mission to kill Kirkus who is protected by the best that the empire can provide. Where the story fails is in the background which is a bit of a disaster. The siege on Bar-Khos takes up a great deal of the book even though it doesn’t merit it once the central characters have left. The siege is much like something from our Middle Ages. The city is protected by multiple large earthworks that would stop a frontal assault and keep all but the biggest guns far enough away to render them useless. Since there is some kind of restriction on supplies of gunpowder, no-one could build any gun powerful enough to be effective against that. There are enough details of the various attempts to undermine the walls to explain why these fail. When Ash and Nico leave the city it is by airship. This kind of airship appears to work like a 15th-18th century warship complete with cannon that flies.
During the voyage it is explained that the Empire of Mann has a whole fleet of these warships and that the strategic importance of Bar-Khos lies in it being both an active seaport and an active airport. There is no explanation at all as to how a city under siege manages to remain an open port or why an empire with a major air fleet should be bogged down in a ground assault on a city that has no protection from above.
This is far from the only detail that hasn’t been properly thought out. The story opens with something set in a frozen wasteland that is shown on the map as coastal and halfway up the map. Places further up and down are described as temperate so this seems wrong. Maybe some of this is to be explained in later volumes of the series but I can’t really see how.
This is an adequate novel if you don’t pay too much attention. Think about it too much and it falls apart.