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.
(dir:Tim Burton) starring Ewan McGregor, Jessica Lange, Albert Finney, Helena Bonham Carter.
I had been feeling a bit let down by my favourite director. Burton had last been seen producing the rather scarily formulaic re-make of PLANET OF THE APES (which I still think was an OK film if you don’t consider who directed it, and worryingly bad if you do). So I needed to come and see something to reconfirm my feelings, and I was not let down.
BIG FISH bears rather a resemblance to SECONDHAND LIONS, as in old man tells tales (true or false) about his childhood, and it is up to the other characters (and audience) to work out if he is telling porkies. Another film this bears a strong resemblance to, with its flashbacks and strong tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, is PRINCESS BRIDE. Though in that latter film, the ‘real’ story interlapping the tale is not so strongly drawn - here Burton brings in the right amount of pathos to make the present-day stuff worth watching too, though nothing can beat the ta ll tales (or is it the truth) that Albert Finney tells of.
Basically it is about a father who after a long life is dying, though we are never told what of exactly. His son, after years of feeling resentful, decides to try to get to know his father, who has always seemed to hide away behind tales of magic and witches and big fish, tales that while wonderful in the telling, the straightforward son just cannot accept as truth. Thus through the father’s stories, we too have to decide for ourselves what is true and what isn’t.
This is a clever film. The stories are such th at, even if partly fabricated, you can see what might be the truth behind them. And th ey are never too far-fetched to believe, they just might be true. I was slightly disappointed by the ending, as it seemed to give rather too many answers - it would have been nice to be kept partly guessing. And as it is the obligatory happy ending, it is almost too slushy. But let this not detract - it is a heart-wanning, inspiring story, and Burton is back on form. Great performances from the leads - although the two main actors are so well known at tunes it is hard to be able to imagine one as the younger version of the other… Still despite its few and far between disadvantages this rates as one of the best films I have seen for the past few months. Vicky Cook
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
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!!!
directed by Peter Berg, starring Will Smith, Charleze Theron, Jason Bateman.
This is an anti-superhero movie. From the start we see Hancock is a heavy-drinking, supremely strong layabout who doesn’t apparently care who he hurts or what he damages when chasing bad guys. A world away from cleanshaven, pants over trousers superheroes though, like them, he can fly, lift trains and all the other superhero stunts you would expect. The plot thickens though as he saves a businessman from impending danger, and soon his life is taken onboard by this guy who is determined to change his image and life… Hancock then meets his wife and son and his life is soon to be changed completely….
The first and second halves of the film are rather different in tone as Hancock discovers and reveals more about himself and his background, and whether he is the only one of his kind. There are plenty of action set-pieces in amongst the introspection. There’s no real bad guy, just a few rather stereotypical villains who I found were a bit too two-dimensional. Smith does a great job as Hancock though – at least in the early part of the film - he is vastly different to the joking, comic characters we see in his other films. Theron as the wife is ok, but doesn’t have a lot to do to begin with, and I found her rather bland.
Bateman is the only other actor with a lot to do as the businessman who takes a strong interest in Hancock’s image and he does a good job, being believable even as his own life irreparably changes.
CGI are prominent in this film (they do love tearing up famous American cities these days…) and there are some nice darkly humorous scenes. Pacing is good and the film not too long for the plot. Worth a watch.
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) directed by Garth Jennings
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.
I AM LEGEND
(dir: Francis Lawrence) Starring Will Smith and Alice Braga This is the third adaptation from the 1954 Richard
Matheson novel. This one stars Will Smith as Robert Neville, a scientist left alone when a disease-destroying drug
turns every other person on the planet into crazed monsters. With an aversion to UV light, they hide away by day and
come out at nightfall. The film follows his actions by day with the whole city to himself and follows his emotional
journey as he faces loneliness, depression and internal as well as external demons. He also strives to discover a cure
for the virus, using lab rats and later a captive. This leads the Alpha male of the other beings to seek him out, leading
to a final stand-off.
The film leaves out much which made the book so memorable and different to the norm, which to my mind is a real shame. Matheson explored the idea of two types of ‘infected’ – depending whether they lived or died - and the former being more human and less ‘crazed’ are able to communicate and develop. It is a shame the film never delves into this idea. The ‘I Am Legend’ which refers to the scientist being a sort of ‘bogeyman’ himself to the more developed ‘infected’ is changed utterly. Smith is ‘legend’ due to his inexplicable immunity to the virus, which is airborne as well as through contact. The film, like the book, introduces a female protagonist but without giving too much away, she is dealt with completely differently here.
Overall though, I enjoyed the film. The latter part of the film, as the action picked up, did not affect me but I was really struck by the depiction of the main character in the middle of this world-changing event. He was not just a macho tough guy blasting zombies - you could really feel for him. I’d say purists of the book might not like the omissions and changes, and unfortunately some people did not like the film because it was too slow, but I, not usually a fan of this sort of film, appreciated the more thought-provoking aspects and that the monsters were not just plain zombies but evolved into a sort of semi-vampire, semi-monster. CGI being what it is nowadays, they were surprisingly less gruesome than I expected. Worth watching. In order to compare, we’ve just ordered THE OMEGA MAN and LAST MAN ON EARTH (the two other film versions of this book) to watch too.
I, ROBOT (dir: Alex Proyas)
This was much better. I had heard various grumbles about this film nicking the three laws of robotics and the title of
one of Asimov's books and not a lot else, but when I came to watch it, I was pleasantly surprised.
There is the decidedly techno-phobic hero with a little secret of his own.
There is the huge TERMINATOR-style cybernetics firm which wants to produce one robot per household, with the prim and proper female scientist who you just know is going to end up helping the hero out. And then the robots rebel…
Some scenes ended up looking suspiciously like TERMINATOR, as robots clambered effortlessly up buildings and chased vehicles. There are lots of big booms and action scenes, but amidst all this, there are some morals to be told too.
Robbie (sorry, Sonny) the Robot just wants to understand the human way of things, and the three laws are frequently called upon, as everyone struggles to understand how they can be apparently broken. The climax is well done and resolved, leading to an ultimate satisfaction with the film. Hit of the summer, definitely!
directed by Jon Favreau Starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow. Tony Stark is
the heir to a weapons manufacturing dynasty. Handsome, suave, charming, he captures the public imagination and
adds glamour to the industry. He enjoys his fame and lavish lifestyle. However on a promotional trip to Afghanistan,
he is captured by enemy soldiers after suffering near-fatal injuries, who fix him up but in such a way that his life will
never be the same again… The story takes a while to get going to the Iron Man bits – there is quite a slow build up
before the action scenes get going. I found the film overall a little long and with too many storylines for one film – it
seems to feature the story of him escaping from enemy hands, then launches into another plotline featuring enemies
closer to home. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the bad guys either but then comic book stories can be predictable
– that can be part of their appeal.
However, Robert Downey Jr. is great in the lead role, in one of his first major roles for a few years. Gwyneth Paltrow is also good if not given a tremendous amount to do as his loyal assistant, Ms Pepper Potts, and Jeff Bridges steals scenes as the partner in his business. There is a good amount of humour as well – the themes in the film are quite dark and the comedy therefore quite black, but it was kept light by, for instance, the banter between Stark and his assistant. The CGI is also good – it backs up the real armour suit made for the film, rather than replacing everything, which adds a good amount of realism and looks more impressive. I also felt emotionally for the characters – they had real feelings and seemed like real people. This was impressive for a film made from a comic book – Spider-man went along the same vein, trying to make the audience emote with the characters, and this is a factor I liked in both these films.
Interestingly, Marvel made this film themselves rather than farming their characters out to other studios. Despite the over-long plotline and the rather slow build-up, I think they’ve done a good job and would recommend the film.
League of Gentlemen: Apocalypse (2005) directed by Steve Bendelack
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
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.
SPIDERMAN 2 (dir: Sam Raimi)
This follows the same sort of lines as the first one - Peter Parker is still beset by personal teenage-style problems as he
fights various nasty criminals as his alter ego. Meanwhile this time the villain of the piece is one Doctor Octopus, i.e. a
scientist whose disastrous attempt at a scientific breakthrough leaves him welded to four powerful steel arms. Also
cropping up is the son of the Green Goblin, who is out for revenge for the death of his father.
All in all, however, I was mildly disappointed. While the action scenes are very well done, with the effects of Spidey swinging across the city far more believable than before, the scenes where he is trying to woo, and then not woo, Mary-Jane are far too long and drawn-out, and just detract from the rest of the film. The more interesting bad guy really has very little screen time in comparison, indeed he disappears from much of the middle section. Granted his story isn't all that long anyway, but maybe they could have had another bad guy, like the Green Goblin #2 to liven things up?
Worth catching if a fan, but if not, beware as this may put you off any more in the series.
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.
STAR WRECK: IN THE PIRKINNING (IMPERIAL EDITION)
Some of you who were at this year's Eastercon might well have seen this already, or at least seen the rather
spectacular poster. If not – well, there are good reasons why you might well seek this out. This is a Star Trek spoof,
started by two guys in a back bedroom somewhere in Finland. The first STAR WRECK was a home-made computer
animation in the style of SOUTH PARK. It was posted on the Internet, and attracted enough attention to inspire the
makers to repeat the exercise. By the time they reached this film, the sixth in the series, they had gathered enough
support to make a live-action professional film, with CGI effects that are the equal of almost anything you have seen
on television – and possibly on the cinema screen too.
The plot is a mad version of Trek's ‘mirror universe’ plot strand. Marooned in early 21st-century Finland, Captain Pirk, his loyal Plingon officer Commander Dwarf and his android companion Commander Info, force Russian scientists, anxious to rebuild the Soviet Union, into building a replacement space fleet with which to re-invent their future.
Yes, you read those names right. In an effort to avoid legal copyright complications, all the characters and some of the plot devices have been renamed with some of the stupidest alternative names you can think of.
But that is the real marvel of this film. Forget the names; look at the visuals. They are as good, and as inventive, as anything that Paramount has given us. Indeed, some of them look suspiciously as if they themselves were copied for the most recent Star Trek film: the building of the USS Enterprise – sorry, CPP Kickstart – and the ‘maggot hole’ anomaly appears almost unchanged in the ‘real’ Star Trek. There are few signs that this is an amateur production: the producers only built two main sets for the spaceship interiors, plus some generic corridors. The rest is filmed location work, clever CGI using stock footage, and even a short sequence of fake black-and-white newsreel which is delightful.
In the course of the film, Pirk and his crew invade an alternative universe which itself is a parody of Babylon 5; this takes longer than it ought to as the action has to stop at regular intervals for the station commander to make a pretentious speech. Watch out for the truth behind the mystery of the Vorlons!
This is no GALAXY QUEST. Sophisticated comedy it is not. The Finns are revealed in this film to have a similar sense of humour to the Germans; rather literal and unsophisticated, yet at the same time having a good sense of wordplay – though it loses quite a bit in the translation and some of the subtitles are less than grammatically perfect English. The visual style of comedy is also rather German, in that it owes more than a little to the overcranked style of the late Benny Hill.
There are some extras, including a Director's Commentary (the language of which is not specified; it'd better not be in Finnish!), a blooper reel, and perhaps the biggest disappointment of the whole package. This is a documentary called TOWARDS THE IRON SKY, and it consists of a series of interviews with the production team, and others, talking about their next production, IRON SKY. Unfortunately, that's all they do – talk about it, in considerable detail. This 30-minute (or possibly 45-minute) documentary was filmed, for some reason, in an anechoic chamber; and believe me, 30 minutes of talking Finnish heads can easily seem like 45 minutes. Or longer. Much longer.
Which is a shame, because IRON SKY will be well worth seeing.
The strapline for IRON SKY is: “In 1945, the Nazis fled to the Moon. In 2018, they're coming back.” The producers took a show-reel to Cannes in 2007; they remade it completely, using professional studio facilities and full-scale bluescreen techniques with live actors, to take back to Cannes in 2008 in their search for funding. The overall style is rather like Kerry Conran's SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW – sepia retro technology – but this is is extended to Albert Speer's GERMANIA ON THE MOON, complete with subsurface flying saucer hangars.
IRON SKY is in production now, with release dates variously quoted as 2010 or in the first quarter of 2011. But unless you research this on the Internet (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Sky or the official site, www.ironsky.net), you won't see any of it as Revolver Pictures didn't bother to check what extras they were getting when they bought the rights to UK DVD distribution!
This DVD is now available in limited quantities through the UK retail trade and may well be available from major online retailers; or you can buy online direct from the producers via the address above – though in that case, you will be ordering the original Finnish DVD (with subtitles, fortunately).
If you can cope with the broad comedy, I can recommend this for the sheer, jawdropping chutzpah of the producers in making this film and punching way above their weight in the effects department. You will come away from this asking yourself “How have they avoided getting sued?” And they deserve support simply for what they are going to do next.
When I was younger I loved the film called THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Irreverent, funny, firmly tongue-in-cheek, it was
great. I still enjoy it today. STARDUST is along the same lines though maybe not with quite the same stroke of genius.
Tristan lives in a village by a wall leading to a fantasy world. He ventures through this one day to seek a fallen star for his one true love. Also featuring in the chase for the fallen star are three sons of a dead king, and the leader of a gang of witches hunting for eternal youth. He learns as he goes about his true heritage and what true love is.
This is one of those films where famous names appear throughout, which for the main part don’t distract too much, though it has to be said I didn’t think the scenes featuring the comedian Ricky Gervais were completely smooth and plot-relevant, and he did sound rather like his TV alter-egos, but other appearances were brilliant, particularly Robert De Niro, who sent himself up yet again as a pirate. The main actors did a sterling job – Michelle Pfeiffer as the lead witch, covered in make-up, hammed it up delightfully and was a pleasure to watch, as was Charlie Cox, not as famous but able to hold centre stage onscreen admirably. I wasn’t so convinced by the two female leads – Sienna Miller as his first love was a little bit too two-dimensional, and I found his second true love, Claire Danes, a little irritating which really probably wasn’t meant to be intentional, and not thoroughly convincing.
THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED
Directed by Terence Gross (2001) Story by Brian King; teleplay by Max Enscoe & Annie deYoung
This low budget made-for-TV movie tries to combine some of the more traditional ideas of alien invasion/impregnation and telekinesis. Not a particularly well known cast either, apart from Randy Quaid who can be seen in films such as INDEPENDENCE DAY, KINGPIN and even DAYS OF THUNDER, who does a good job as the ‘special’ boy’s father. Not a remake of the 1958 film of the same name but named after it as the boy is seen watching it on video!
It starts off with a new face moving into a small ‘local town’ - a psychiatric doctor played by Nastassja Kinski who is coming in to work at the local school. One of the first discoveries the new doctor makes is of a boy who doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the locals. This is the son of the town’s medical doctor. The child shows some sign of having some powers that manifest when he is angry or upset - one of the bullies in the playground develops a nosebleed as he gives them a ‘look’.
As the film goes on, we learn more about the boy’s past and how his real mother mysteriously disappeared a few years before when he was just four years old. But not before she has managed to convince him that his real father is an alien who will return when he needs him most! This leads him to an unhealthy obsession with alien films and comics. As the boy’s turmoil rises, the alien descends and goes on a bloody killing spree. The film then goes towards a climax, which leads to the question of whether the alien is real or a figment of the boy’s imagination.
9 The film is quite entertaining in parts but lacks real creativity and is full of clichés. Not a movie to read much into but not too bad if you leave your brain at home.
(dir: M Night Shymalan) Starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel THE HAPPENING is the latest offering from
M.Night Shymalan and involves a family caught up in the midst of a strange spate of apparent suicides. As the
number of casualties grow, we share the main character’s confusion and growing fear at this event they cannot
comprehend, and as they try to work out why it keeps happening. Badly rated on first release, we found it an
interesting film. It doesn’t easily slot into any particular genre, with elements from science fiction, horror and drama,
which may confuse the more mainstream audience.
(dir: Neil Burger) Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel.
Now to a completely different film. Starring Edward Norton, THE ILLUSIONIST features a magician who can apparently summon up spirits of the dead, shocking the 19th century populace. The plot thickens when he falls in love with the fiancé of a prince. The film leaves you to consider whether or not these spirits are real. The ending implies not, but the question is never explained fully. Most of the film is from the viewpoint of Inspector Uhl - Paul Giamatti (excellent) as he learns more about the magician’s tricks and we share his surprise and shock at new developments. Quiet, interesting film leaving you with questions unanswered.
(dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel) Starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig THE INVASION is INVASION OF THE
BODYSNATCHERS brought up to date. Again we found it was better than critics would suggest; again it was badly
panned on first release. It loses some of the older film’s originality and suspense but is still watchable. Nicole Kidman
does a good job as usual and there are suitably poignant scenes as she battles with herself as well as the external
aliens. The original film (1956) strongly referenced Communism and it would be hard to attract a modern audience in
the same way but the change of method of infection to an alien flu-like virus was, if a bit predictable, a good way to
Directed by Irwin Allen (1978) Story by William Herzog
Wow, I thought to myself, a Michael Caine movie! Must be good! And look at the other stars in it - Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Richard Widmark, Olivia DeHavilland, Henry Fonda, Slim Pickens AND Fred McMurray.
It had to be good! Now I rather enjoy good silly monster movies from time to time (I enjoyed JURASSIC PARK 3, silly but true), so happily settled down to this one while Tim was playing with his alien movies.
The plot is as follows: Huge swarms of killer bees seem to be randomly gathering and attacking people. When entomologist Brad Crane (Caine) discovers this he has his work cut out trying to stop them reaching Houston, and trying also to stop General Slater (Widmark) from using military tactics against them.
And that's it. Not exactly mind-bending stuff. The trouble is, this film just doesn’t do the idea justice. The acting is terribly wooden, even from th is batch of stars. The storyline is sloppy (though the idea that the survivors of the stings ‘see’ mammoth bees in front of them, is worth a giggle) and the script stilted. It doesn’t help that it all looks a bit dated, with the bees shot from afar in swarms and the train scenes especially, appearing incredibly unrealistic and faked. It is hard to warm to the characters, even Michael Caine, who usually injects a reasonable warmth into his characters.
The trouble is you are never entirely sure what category to put it in - 70’s disaster film, in which case it is a definite failure for reason of just being too silly, or SF monster flick, which it just about gets away with.
At the end of the day surely a big jar full of boiling water and some jam smeared around the rim would have sufficed. Hard to warm to and a bit of a struggle to believe.
THE TIME MACHINE (2002 version)
If you ignore the title, have a couple of drinks first and suspend a lot of disbelief, you will probably enjoy this film. Set
around about 1900, it is about a rich American teacher who, after witnessing the murder of his brand new fiancee,
contacts his friend Albert Einstein and picks his brain about his forthcoming Theory of Special Relativity. He then
commences to build a time machine out of bits of an old lighthouse, so that he can go back in time to save his
He discovers that, unfortunately, the past cannot be materially changed.
He is unable to rescue his loved one. So he decides to go forward in time to find someone with the answer.
The film is advertised as being based on the novel by H G Wells. It isn’t - it’s lifted from the 1960s film starring Rod Taylor, which WAS based on Wells’ work. Just as a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy becomes progressively less like the original, so this film has less in common with its namesake. The Time Traveller is there, as is Mr Filby, Mrs Watchett the housekeeper, Weena, the good Eloi and the bad Morlocks; but what, where and how they do tilings are all different from the book. The 1960s film did it much better, keeping more or less to Wells’ plot although it did add a few things to appeal to the cinema-going public. Unfortunately, it’s these additions that the latest film has expanded at the expense of the original story.
You could do worse than spend a happy hour or so picking out the bits borrowed from other films and cringing at the occasional piece of PC. And it’s even more fun if you’ve both read the book and seen the original film. Just don’t expect Wells.
THE VILLAGE (dir: M Night Shymalan)This runs on the same lines as the director's previous efforts. I am a fan so I enjoyed it, but some may find it a bit slow and predictable. Basically it is a bit of a love story among some remote villagers, who live in fear of the mythical creatures living in their backwoods. The film is full of suspense and little jumpy bits, which works well - although it did not live up to the expectation of the mounting tension. The 'twist' wasn't quite as outstanding as I had been expecting.
directed by Michael Bay Starring Shia LaBoeuf, Megan Fox. Now this is a film that far exceeded my expectations! I
grew up around the same time as the cartoon series was showing on television, and the first animated film came out
during my youth, but I was never completely entranced…I was not quite sure therefore how I would get on with this
film… Teenager Sam Whitwicky lives in a remote American town, growing up like any normal lad, but little does he
realise that his unreliable car is not quite what it seems. He is drawn into a battle between two extraterrestrial clans
over a talisman called the Allspark.
The excellent cinematography (you can really feel the heat in the desert town they live in, and the scenery is gorgeous), and excellent CGI used to create the immense Transformers combine to create a film worth watching for visual effects alone. The acting is fairly standard (this sort of film is never going to make many demands on an actor, being for the most part full of car chases and CGI battles), and the robots are characterised for the most part well enough that by the end of the film you’ve got to know and can distinguish them well.
Don’t expect it to be a children’s movie – it was far more grown-up than I was expecting. Beware also – it is loud and with various car chases and battles throughout, so don’t watch if you are expecting a quiet, thoughtful film! But I’ve watched it twice now and it does grow on you. I think I appreciated the comic timing and the acting from the two leads the most – they stood up well against the CGI and portrayed their characters well, so you could sympathise with them.
Transformers fans may feel a little let down by the storyline – for the sake of the movie they’ve removed a lot of the back-story built up for many years by the Transformer cartoons, and changed some things (one example was that the humans are much more capable of defeating the bad guys than in the original cartoon where they were basically helpless and had to rely on the good guys). But, as a non-devotee of the original, this didn’t particularly affect me, and overall I enjoyed it as a good piece of escapism. Films number 2 and 3 are coming out soon, so I may watch to see how they progress the idea further.
WESTWORLD and FUTUREWORLD (1973/1976) Michael Crichton / Richard T. Heffron
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
DARK TERRORS 4
This year's paperback is noticeably less horrific and more literary in tone. Not that this is a flaw; most of the stories are
clever, highly original and very entertaining.
Picking a favourite is difficult from such a glittering array, but I think that Poppy Z.Brite's "Entertaining Mr Orton" is
going to stay with me the longest; it's a tour de force of gay sex, beautifully researched.
Moving from sex to alcoholism, Joel Lane's "The Country of Glass" is one o f the best of his stories, a strong and
emotional piece about a drinker's quest for his own holy grail, and set in Birmingham (particularly in Moseley).
Ramsey Campbell is as good as ever in "Never to be Heard", in which a boys' choir give the first ever performance of a
supposedly religious oratorio. David J.Schow provides an amazingly composite view of the Jack the Ripper murders in
"The Incredible True Facts in the Case". Conrad Williams writes about ghosts and suicides in the underground system
of a city slightly like London, while Michael Marshall Smith shows a frenetic view of New Orleans.
If there is real horror here at all, it's to be found in "The Wedding Present" by Neil Gaiman (the present in question is
just a description of the wedding and the marriage, but it changes) and in "Family History" by Stephen Baxter—yes,
the SF writer, with his first horror tale
DARK TERRORS 5
This is a bumper-sized book - 500 pages and 31 new stories. There aren’t many horror anthologies in the UK (heck,
there aren’t many anthologies), especially ones that present such a wealth of previously unpublished tales. For the
horror fan, this series is invaluable. For someone on the outside, this volume is an ideal introduction to the horror field
- to the literate horror field. I mean, this is feel the width and feel the quality territory. Meet the authors: Chaz
Brenchley, Eric Brown, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, Kim Newman, Lisa Tuttle, Michael Marshall Smith,
Brian Stableford, Peter Straub … and the others.
Campbell’s story is a bitter-sweet piece, about an author aspiring to past success in a world were publishers leave a sour emptiness, and where the final outcome is street poetry - o f a type. Newman writes scathingly of “victim” television, as I’ve heard it called: Big Brother. Big bollocks. Birmingham’s Joel Lane’s story remembers the carefree days of the university student - only they weren’t quite so happy in all cases, where one can be dry in an ocean of emotion and romance. In Nicholas Royle’s tale, we spy a ghost, miserable from its previous life, imbued with sadness and tragedy. And perhaps the longest story, more a novella by David Case, is a wonderful yarn of mad scientists and cannibalistic zombies, melded into a refreshing 50s-style science fiction. C’mon', you don’t expect me to comment on all 31 stories, do you?
The book also sports a classy illustration. The last thing the book looks like is a traditional slash 'n ’ dice horror fest. And of course it isn’t. It is a marvellous taste of top-notch horror fiction, an appetiser and main course in one volume (although I wouldn’t say “no” to Dark Terrors 6). This is a very large-format paperback and is cursed by cracking-spine syndrome, no matter how carefully you read it. If you can afford the seventeen pounds, buy the hardcover - you won’t be disappointed.
FEAR Issue #38
After a hiatus of 27 years John Gilbert has relaunched his horror magazine as a bi-monthly, with the first (called Issue
37) out in August 2016. It's a good-looking 50-page glossy with stories from Ramsey Campbell and Johnny Mains &
Simon Bestwick, interviews with Campbell, Mains, Gary McMahon, Jonathan Maberry and artist Jim Pitts. There's a
tribute to film director Robin Hardy, lots of film news and some reviews of books and films.
The whole thing is well printed and published with plenty of pictures (Ramsey Campbell smiles out from the front cover), very professional and a snip at £3.99. For my taste there's rather too much film and interview material, not enough fiction. The stories are well worth reading and the interviews are well conducted. John Gilbert is in the process of appointing a fiction editor and intends to have a higher proportion of fiction in future issues. Recommended.
INTERZONE issue 214 Feb 2008
INTERZONE isn’t the magazine it was when it started. It seems to have lost all of the literary pretensions and is now
going for a younger market. It isn’t trying too hard to do so. There’s a Christopher Priest story that shows some signs of
the old literary qualities. There’s a film review column that is either the worst of its kind I’ve ever seen or deliberately
trying to alienate anyone who hasn’t spent a lifetime reading fantasy novels/comics. I would say that this is a
magazine written for its subscribers that doesn’t really care about anyone else.
The best part of the magazine is the fiction. All of the stories are fairly good although the Christopher Priest and the Award Winner aren’t really up to the rest.
There’s an interview with Iain Banks that’s just the usual “I’ve got a new book out” plug. There are pictures that seem to be backgrounds or characters from the stories. Some look like they’d be good in colour but aren’t so good in black and white. None of them are anything special. There are book/DVD reviews and an old copy (December?) of Ansible.
So what does this magazine really need? It needs to sell the stories. They are its strong point and all that they give on the contents page is author and title.
The image presented with the story doesn’t really say anything about what’s in it.
They really need to put in a teaser for each and action rather than character/background pictures. If they’re not going to go for colour on the inner pages, they should probably consider line drawings for illustration.
If they want to attract a younger market, they should try harder on the media product. There’s no media news and the reviews are of product that has closed in the cinema or has just reached DVD. It should be possible to get interviews with relevant personalities if only by phone or email questionnaire. If they want to run a film review column they have to get reviews of films that won’t hit the cinema until after the magazine is on the shelves. It should be possible to get some idea of what is coming to UK TV and – in some cases – review from internet versions.
People can write for many contrasting reasons and the intended audience can be very different for different pieces.
This book evidences this very well; this is a showcase anthology of work by the Cannon Hill Writers’ Group, a local
writers’ group and includes work by several Brum Group members including Theresa Derwin, Jan Edwards, Lynn
Edwards (as Lynn Cochrane), Chris Morgan and Pauline Morgan (as Pauline Dungate. It is always difficult to review
something which is so varied, both in themes and styles. This little book contains over 50 pieces of prose and poetry
and obviously there will be some that suit some people more than others. It also needs to be borne in mind that the
writers themselves have very differing levels of experience, ranging from some very new to writing to some who have
been professionally published. That being said I did find many pieces which I enjoyed and although I have not
enough space to
discuss every piece in detail I will try and provide an idea of the variety and highlight a few of the works which I liked.
The poems and prose here contain a mixture of pure fiction, some clearly autobiographical pieces and some clearly very personal stories. Although the majority of the work is in real world settings, there is some science fiction, fantasy and horror.
In the science fiction realm there is ‘Nanna’ by Margaret Miller which starts with an old lady telling children her story of the colonisation of a new planet. Although using familiar themes it is still well-written and builds a believable and likeable character. ‘The Harrowing’ by Lynn Cochrane is a study of a disaster but observed subtly from the side- lines. It concentrates on ordinary characters slowly adjusting their lives due to civilisation collapse, and the actual detail of what has happened is only inferred from its effects.
There is also some horror and fantasy although for some of the stories the boundaries are a bit blurred. Theresa Derwin has a funny little story called ‘Mikey’ which starts as an interview about discrimination, but with a twist. There is also ‘The Hag’s Piano’ which is very atmospheric but would benefit from expansion – although to be fair it is billed as an extract.
For fantasy fans there is ‘A Woodland Dream’ by Helena Hempstead, a modern variation on the theme of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
Of the more mainstream work, I liked ‘September 1st 1939: Evacuation’ by Joyce Lancashire and ‘Memories of Trains’ by Z. Burszytn which both feel like very personal recollections of war memories. They may not be the most polished but the recall and recording of these memories is clearly important to the authors and does engage the emotions.
There were also various stories which used humour, of which the most amusing in my opinion was ‘The Start of the Habit’ by Chris Morgan, about two ladies with awful husbands.
Finally, this volume contains a number of poems in various styles, including rhyming, non-rhyming and even a haiku. I have difficulty assessing what is good or not with regards to poetry and am hesitant to offer an opinion. I can only say that some did not work for me but I certainly enjoyed some of the poems. I liked ‘The Vigil’ by Helena Hempstead and ‘Rook’ by Elaine Oakley for the emotions they captured which felt very real. Lastly, but by no means least, the collection ends with an excellent poem by the late Joel Lane called ‘The Chosen Woodlouse’ which in just three short verses contains a lot to think upon.
BROKEN HOMES by Ben Aaronovitch
The fourth volume in the acclaimed Rivers of London series continues the story of PC Peter Grant, apprentice wizard,
as he becomes involved in a series of mysterious cases.
A death in an unexplained car crash leads to the discovery of a mutilated body ineptly hidden in nearby woods and there is an apparent suicide on the Underground which may not be as straightforward as it seems. Then the discovery of a stolen eighteenth-century German grimoire is followed by the obviously sorcerous death of the suspected thief. Investigations soon reveal that these cases are probably linked to each other and to the twisted magician known as the Faceless Man who has already played a major adversarial role in the previous books in the series. There is also a connection to a German architect who was responsible for a peculiar municipal housing development in Elephant and Castle which appears to be the focus of attention. Events build to a suitably near- apocalyptic climax with a surprising twist to finish.
On the way, a number of characters from the previous books show up from time to time, playing parts of greater or lesser importance. Chief amongst these is, of course, the Faceless Man. Although he suffers a serious setback here he is not finished yet and it is becoming confirmed as increasingly obvious that the series can only end with his downfall and the revealing of his identity. So this is very much an episode in an ongoing opus and the occasional references to people and incidents from previous episodes limit slightly the extent to which it can be viewed as a standalone story.
Whether deliberately or not, the writing style seems to have changed since the beginning of the series. Although the somewhat light-hearted turn of phrase, particularly when referring to police procedure, still remains, the overall style is less jokey as though a more serious style is intended to reflect the more serious turn which events are beginning to take. Be that as it may, it remains a readable and immensely entertaining book with a complex yet tidily constructed plot and no loose ends – well, perhaps one. Or even two.
Of course, anyone already familiar with the Rivers of London will need no encouragement to continue following events: others may find here an introduction to the whole series which will attract their attention to the preceding instalments.
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 Aaronovitch
This 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.
This is the story of Peter Grant, a newly promoted Detective Constable, and Chief Inspector Nightingale his new boss. Nightingale is also a wizard. He deals with minor deities and monsters on a regular basis. Here he takes on some of the more surreal aspects of community policing including peace negotiations between Father and Mother Thames over who runs which part of the river. He is also teaching Grant the basics of magic. There are vampires and ghosts to deal with and, of course, since this is a detective novel, there are also a series of bizarre and grisly murders to solve.
It's not a matter of whodunnit so much as who made them do it and how and why. The answer comes in the form of an easily recognisable and generally unexpected figure.
On the whole this works. The pace is good enough but the various plot threads are a little too distracting. The river dispute plot doesn't really impact on the murders and vice versa. In such a short novel the central plot and the situation/character building should take up more of the story. It makes me wonder if the writer could manage more novels in this series without the plot becoming too fragmented.
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.
WHISPERS UNDERGROUND by Ben Aaronovitch
The latest instalment in the popular and successful series about police constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant
effectively begins with the discovery of the body of an American student on the platform of Baker Street Underground
station. He had apparently been stabbed to death on the tracks somewhere between there and the next station along.
And the fact that he is, or was, the son of a US Senator is not going to help matters, with an FBI Agent, sent over to
keep an eye on things, who must be kept from discovering any inconvenient truths.
One thing leads inevitably to another, in this case to the discovery of a secret community living below the streets of London, in and around the tunnels of the Underground and Bazalgette’s sewers, and employing magic to stay hidden. The crime is solved and the murderer caught: meanwhile, there is a tantalising, brief, but significant contribution from the Big Bad Guy who first showed up in the previous book and will presumably provide a major ongoing story arc in subsequent volumes.
Like the previous books in the series, this one begins on a relatively light-hearted, almost jocular note.
Then, as things start to get serious and events look as though they might spiral out of control, there is less time for jokes although the irreverently humorous style never completely goes away.
The deployment of magic as an art with a firm scientific foundation is consistent and logical and is almost seamlessly integrated into the more conventional aspects of the murder investigation.
There is, however, a slight feeling that the overall planning of the story is on occasion somewhat forced. This, coupled with the fact that publication of this book was delayed some six months beyond the date originally announced, suggests that it ended up as a bit of a rush job. Also, it would have benefitted from better proofreading. However, neither of these solecisms need be allowed to detract from the overall success of what is definitely a Good Book and a worthwhile follow-up to the previous two. Further instalments are eagerly awaited.
RED COUNTRY by Joe Abercrombie
RED COUNTRY is the 6th book by Joe Abercrombie that I have read and it confirms in my mind his eminent position
as a writer of grungy, dirty, violent but compelling fantasy fiction. It may not be his best when compared with BEST
SERVED COLD but is still a very enjoyable read. This tale is set in his Circle of the World universe and is an
alternative take on ‘cowboys and Indians’. In it, Shy South returns home from selling her farm’s crops to find her farm
burnt down and her young sister and brother stolen.
Together with her cowardly stepfather, Lamb, she sets off in pursuit. Lamb however is not all he seems, (being a character well known to readers of Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy) neither is Shy as she has a murky past of her own.
To facilitate their pursuit across the grasslands to the ‘Far Country’, to where it seems the kidnappers are heading, and for mutual protection from the Ghosts (Indians) they join a ‘Fellowship’ (wagon train) led by the legendary scout ‘Dab Sweet’.
The second major strand of this story follows the misadventures of Nicomo Cosca, the Captain General of the ‘Company of the Gracious Hand’ a company of so-called mercenaries, an ill disciplined bunch of cowardly parasitic jackals. They are infesting the ‘Near Country’ and move onto the ‘Far Country’ in the pursuit of rebels on the behalf of the ‘Midderland Inquisition’, and of course any loot that they can pick up along the way.
Other characters of note are: Temple who is a weak, ineffectual but multitalented drunkard refugee from the ‘Company of the Gracious Hand’ who meets up with Shy on her trek across the grasslands; The Mayor and Papa Ring, the leaders of the gangs who rule ‘Crease’ (a place named after a fold in a map) that is the Fellowship’s destination in the Far country; Cantliss, the dastardly kidnapper; and finally Sergeant Friendly, a compulsory counter and henchman of Nicomo Cosca (first met in BEST SERVED COLD) All these and many more collide violently at Crease with some expected and unexpected outcomes. All is explained by the end of the story. Lurking around the edges of the tale is Caul Shivers, another character from BEST SERVED COLD.
All in all a very enjoyable book well worth reading. I look forward eagerly to Joe Abercrombie’s next novel.
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.
THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON by Saladin Ahmed
This book has been nominated for a Hugo award, so there must be a lot of people out there who like it. It is an
enjoyable romp and for a debut novel it is competently written. It has some idiosyncrasies that give it a different twist
on the average fantasy format. Three of the main characters are elderly, reaching the ends of their adventuring lives.
Adoulla Makhslood is the last of the ghul-hunters. Ghuls are magical constructs similar to golems conjured out of
inanimate material for nefarious reasons. His friends are Litaz and Dawoud. Litaz is an alchemist, Dawoud, her
husband, is a scholar and a mage. They have worked together in the past. To add youth to the mix, there is Raseed, a
warrior-trained dervish and Zamia a shapechanging girl from the desert tribes.
When the niece of the woman Adoulla has loved for twenty years is killed by water ghuls, he promises to investigate. From the opponents he encounters, he deduces that there is a very powerful but evil sorcerer determined to destroy his city and take over the known world. With an unlikely ally in the person of a revolutionary aiming to lead a people’s uprising against the despotic Khalif, Adoulla and his friends have to find a way to thwart the evil.
Most of the characters and the social structure of the part of this fantasy world that we have been introduced to have a recognisably Arabic flavour. This is refreshing since most fantasies have an Anglo-centric slant but if this aspect was stripped away, the result would be that of a largely traditional format. This is a world where magic works and monsters lurk in the shadows. There are the heroes who have to solve the riddles and overcome the obstacles to save the day. The villain is totally evil with no redeeming features and seems to have no motive other than total destruction. It is not a narrative where subtlety reigns. These though are all symptoms of the inexperienced writer as is the lack of depth in both the descriptions and the action sequences. Everything happens a little too fast and although Ahmed tries to give depth to his main characters, and to differentiate them by their attitudes and philosophies it doesn’t go far enough.
On the whole this is a good effort but I would hope that the next novel will push the quality of style, plot and characterisation to a higher level.
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.
TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson
One of the odder (and sometimes amazing) things about being an SF fan who started reading SF in the early eighties
is the way you can be aware of a name like Poul Anderson for years, but due to the backlog of excellent SF novels to
read, how one might not have ever actually gotten around to reading any of Poul’s novels until now. Which seems a
shame, because if TAU ZERO is anything to go by, Poul Anderson is really rather special; Poul Anderson has won the
Hugo seven times, and the Nebula three. And TAU ZERO is merely one of his Hugo ‘best novel’ nominees…
I have heard a few different definitions of ‘hard’ science fiction in the last 20 years; one common view is that hard SF realistically portrays characters as real human beings, with understandable human motives and frailties. This improves the believability of the story, as the reader can relate to the character’s actions – it all makes human sense, regardless of the SF situation the characters may be in. A different definition of hard SF might be that the technological fiction described in the story seems plausibly extrapolated from existing scientific knowledge, thus making the story seem more plausible in its own right (of course, this depends on the reader’s actual scientific understanding, but a fair proportion of SF readers have at least a passing interest in science as well, so I guess this helps). TAU ZERO satisfies both these definitions very well; I quote author James Blish “The ultimate hard science fiction novel.” The basic premise concerning a crew of 50 carefully selected humans in a spaceship built to survey and, if possible, colonise a nearby star system, is well handled in this novel. The characters know that ultimately they might need to pair off and start families, if the mission is successful, and the interplay between them is handled in colourful yet realistic fashion, giving the reader a great insight into the characters themselves. The spaceship itself, built to utilise interstellar hydrogen in a Bussard engine, constantly accelerating to a significant portion of the speed of light, seems realistically described, to the extent that the reader can easily believe that this might indeed be a way to the stars. The explanations of the relativistic effects of having such a high velocity feel plausible (to one with a basic understanding of Einstein’s theories, at any rate), allowing the crew to reach their destination within a reasonable human timescale. If it is all this well worked out one wonders, why haven’t we gone to the stars already??
And this novel does not stop giving there, either; in the best 70’s tradition, this is also a disaster novel! Without wanting to give too much away (the blurb reveals this at least) an unexpected incident in the voyage damages the engines such that the ship can never stop accelerating. The results are believably fantastic.
Goodness! If a `lesser’ Anderson novel is this good, what must his award winners be like? Or the competition for the Hugo back in 1971, for that matter?
Perhaps the best thing about being young enough to have started reading SF in the eighties is that I still have time to catch up on authors like Poul Anderson…
and it’s going to be a lot of fun!
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.
JUPITER WAR by Neal AsherJUPITER WAR is the third volume in Neal Asher's Owner series of novels set in a world where a bureaucracy gone mad rules. Imagine a world where the EU has expanded to the nth degree and the 'Committee' delegates, especially the 'Chairman' have absolute power. One in which there is an enforcement Inspectorate that makes the Gestapo seem like the Salvation Army and that their actions and the excesses of the Chairman makes those of Pol Pot and Hitler seem to be teddy bear picnics.
ORBUS by Neal Asher
There's been a resurgence of the space opera in the last decade or so. We've had Banks, Reynolds and Hamilton
producing massive works that last 1,000 pages or are heavy enough going to make it feel like they do. In this book
Neal Asher is working on a much smaller scale. Not only is the book smaller but the pace is strong enough to stop it
seeming any longer. There is still the regular changing of viewpoints but there's much less switching of plotlines and
jumping back and forward in time. This makes for a much easier read. The cast is also much smaller. Maybe the scale
inflates if you take into account the whole of the series or add in all of the books set in the same universe, but this is
just one book and it actually stand up on its own. There are characters, situations, and plot lines that appeared in
previous novels but they have enough explanation here to cover that. It may help to know things like the exact nature
of the ‘history’ between Vrell, Orbus, and Sniper but you can get by on what's here.
So here's the story… Orbus seems to be fighting off the spatterjay virus and is starting to feel much more human. He is now captain of the freighter Gurnard on a mission to the Graveyard – the no-man's land between the Polity and Prador regions of space. This may have something to do with clearing out various Prador spies in the area. Sniper is either cargo or a stowaway on board the Gurnard - depending on how you define an artificially intelligent war drone with enough weaponry to level a city or two. Vrell is also in the Graveyard taking his revenge on Vrost and taking over the ship that the Prador King sent to hunt him down. It is during the ensuing carnage of this revenge that the true nature of the spatterjay virus that infects the Prador King's Guard is revealed and the potential consequences for those on the ship and the rest of the universe.
So it's not a thrill-a-minute ride but that's only because there is a plot. It's a good easy read with no real dull moments. There are monsters and battles and explosions all making good summer reading.
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.
ZERO POINT by Neal Asher
ZERO POINT is the second volume in Neal Asher's 'Owner' series of novels set in a world where a bureaucracy gone
mad rules. Imagine a world where the EU has expanded to the nth degree and the 'Committee' delegates, especially
the 'Chairman' have absolute power and also there is an enforcement Inspectorate that makes the Gestapo seem like
the Salvation Army. In this world all but those at the top live under the Committee's leaden bureaucratic oversight and
plain incompetence. Everyone with a smidgen of power abuses it and grovels to those above them. Basically its
Citizens are divided into two groups i.e., 'Zero Assets (Zas)' and 'Societal Assets (Sas)' with neither having any rights,
even to life.
In ZERO POINT the 'Owner', Alan Saul, has hijacked the orbital space station Argus (see the first Owner novel - THE DEPARTURE) and is on his way to Mars leaving behind a planet in disarray. While capturing Argus he attempted to destroy the Committee and its Inspectorate by turning their own weapon systems against them. Unfortunately some survive and like a hydra grow more heads as with extreme rapidity 'Delegate' Serene Galahad grabs power and commences a reign that makes those of Pol Pot and Hitler seem to be teddy bear picnics. Her rise to power forms a powerful strand within this book.
While much of ZERO POINT describes the titanic struggles of Alan Saul and his subjects/friends aboard the Space Station against the attempts of Serene Galahad to recover the Argus; there is also a strong third strand which follows the fight of Technical Director Varalin Delex and her staff to survive in a Mars Base abandoned by the Committee as a waste of resources. However, with the overriding suspicion and treachery culture of Committee run Earth infecting most of her subordinates, Varalin not only has to fight against an inhospitable planet but also against those on her staff on whom she should be able to depend.
ZERO POINT is pure space science fiction of the best possible kind full of action and believable science with a great depth of terrific well defined characters. Often when one reads the second book in a series, as is ZERO POINT, without reading the first (THE DEPARTURE) there is a feeling of loss, however this is not true with this book. ZERO POINT is more than good enough to stand by itself. That said the author provides plenty of natural references to actions in THE DEPARTURE to ensure that all actions are natural and clear. However if you have not already read THE DEPARTURE read it as soon as possible as you have missed a great book.
BUY JUPITER by Isaac AsimovOriginally 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.
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").
KARLOFF'S CIRCUS by Steve Aylett
This is the fourth and, probably, last book of the Accomplice series.
Accomplice is a small town that is totally cut off from the rest of the world (if there is a world out there for it to be cut off from) by natural features (an ocean, a desert, a swamp, a great chasm). It does have easy access to several levels of hell through various inter-dimensional ‘creepchannels’. These channels vary in size from the sort you have to crawl through to something that will take a railway train without trouble and generally at the same time. This probably explains the sequence early in this book where the circus arrives by train through an inter-dimensional portal that occupies the same space as the mouth of Rod Jayrod, master of the bizarre religion known as the Cannon Sect. Accomplice is a version of Trumpton by way of a William Burroughs trip or a Freddie Krueger nightmare.
Demons walk the streets without drawing attention, surreal manifestations like the lobster-sized cockroaches that represent the corruption of the mayoral office infest the buildings.
The plot seems trivial. Each book in this series has just another variation on the same theme. The demon Sweeney uses some obscure artifice in an attempt at revenge on Barny Juno, but fails. Barny rescues another dangerous animal (this time it’s a poisonous snake) from demonic clutches. The mayor struggles to keep control of the town although he knows the real power comes from the Conglomerate. Gregor manages to get out of one more scrape (a boxing match with a heavily armoured demon). “Oh, and someone stole the Moral Fibre again, the new rubber version. ” Steve Aylett’s strength isn’t in his plots. There are usually several heavily twisted plotlines running through each story but these take a distant second place to the style and the imagination. This is grotesque comic fantasy that the likes of Rankin and Pratchett couldn’t attempt. There are funny lines and set pieces (like the Zombie Trapeze act with catches going wrong because a participant’s arm falls off) and a general tone that doesn’t belong anywhere else. It takes some getting used to but it’s worth the effort.
THE VELOCITY GOSPEL by Steve Aylett
So this isn’t such a great book. Steve Aylett had been writing a sort of comic SF but for this series he’s decided to do
fantasy. Instead of exotic postcyberpunk devices and genetically-modified creatures, you get demons and bizarre
religious sects - the sort that finish a funeral by firing the deceased from a cannon.
The big problem is the plot. The whole thing reads like an episode of some twisted soap opera - and not one of the early ones that introduces the characters. There are a few stories going on here - guy changes girlfriends, friend loses job, other friend gets proclaimed messiah, local elections, deciding what to call an anthology of poetry, demon plots revenge on the guy that stole his lunch … that sort of thing.
There’s nothing much resolved here, implying that the series has a lot more to it yet (the next volume is now out in hardcover). The language isn’t that clear either.
Aylett has been compared to P G Wodehouse and Damon Runyon for inventing his own dialect and it takes re- reading to get close to seeing through the style.
That said, this isn’t truly awful either. There are not many writing comic fantasy that aren’t Pratchett clones. This sort of thing needs someone to take risks to keep it interesting. The comedy is good - most of the time - although it’s often sick humour with grotesque characters in surreal situations.
TOXICOLOGY by Steve AylettA 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.
FORTUNE’S PAWN by Rachel Bach
This is the first book in Rachel Bach’s Paradox series and was published in 2013 while the next two HONOUR’S
KNIGHT and HEAVEN’S QUEEN are to be published this year (2014). The heroine, Devi (Deviana) Morris is an
armoured mercenary living and fighting within the ‘Paradoxian’ stellar empire. She is good, very good at being an
armoured warrior but this is not enough for her. After serving terms in the Royal Army and in Paradox’s top private
armoured company where she has excelled, she has gone as far as she can go without becoming a ‘Devastator’.
Devastators being the Sainted Kings’ best armoured warriors (with the best combat armour in the known galaxy).
However membership is only by invitation, no applications please. In an attempt to become ‘noticed’ in the shortest
possible time, Devi applies for and is appointed to the security team of The Glorious Fool, a tiny trade ship. Normally
ship security would be far beneath her notice, but the Glorious Fool isn’t an ordinary trader, it’s a trouble magnet. So
much so that a year’s security work under the Glorious Fool’s captain is the equivalent of at least five years anywhere
else. And so it proves to be.
FORTUNE’S PAWN strikes me as an old fashioned SF novel with a dauntless hero(ine), sinister villains and scary aliens, but one written with a modern verve. It has a feisty, determined and outrageously courageous heroine in Devi Morris as well as a good cast of supporting characters in the Glorious Fool’s captain and crew. In addition Rachel Bach has developed an interesting cast of aliens (some friendly and many not) in the stork-like Aeon, the tyrannasoid Xith’cal and the jellyfish-like Lelgis. These creatures are all competing with, and raiding on each other, as well as on the Paradoxians and their human rivals, the Terran Republic. FORTUNE’S PAWN is a highly readable book; in fact it took me less than a day to finish it.
While making comparisons with other authors’ work is always problematical it is sometime part of a reviewer’s role in order to help possible readers. To me, whilst good, FORTUNE’S PAWN does not have the richness and depth of characters and settings as David Weber’s Honorverse books or Elizabeth Moon’s Serrano Legacy and Vatta’s War series. However that said, FORTUNE’S PAWN is well worth reading and if the following books in this series are to the same standard they will be too.
NEUROPATH by Scott Bakker
This is the writer known as R. Scott Bakker but to show the change of style, he's dropped the ‘R’. This is more likely to
sell as a crime thriller rather than SF.
There are a couple of elements here that would put it into the SF market but the overall style is one that would work best as a straight thriller. The least of the SF bits is that it is set in the near future after the effects of climate change have wrought havoc throughout Europe (including large parts of Russia) and consequently USA internal security has gained an even greater hold than it does now. The second element is that there is a secret project that applies electric charges to people's brains in order to change their personalities.
The real story is that Neil Cassidy, an employee of this secret project, has taken it upon himself to reveal its existence to the world by applying it to various people in sickeningly creative ways and posting the video on the internet. There's the ex porn star that he turns into a pain junkie until she slices herself to death; the multi-millionaire that can no longer remember faces and is now scared by his closest friends and family who all appear to be strangers; a politician forced to abuse children and a church minister who is given a divine revelation.
Since Cassidy isn't killing so many people and someone else is, the FBI have decided to recruit Thomas Bible, his old friend from college, in an attempt to capture him. There are complications in that several characters aren't what they seem and the odd bloodbath results.
Bakker is trying to use this as an expose on a certain kind of psychosurgery that may be used for various military/intelligence purposes. On occasions this is really shocking, over explanatory and misjudged.
This is definitely not for the squeamish and, towards the end, it seems to overdo the shock element - if you can't take the torture of small children, don't touch this.
TWISTED METAL by Tony Ballantyne
Tony Ballantyne is a nice man. It is a pity about this book. If you are a naïve twelve-year-old who likes robots, then
fine; if not, this is a book to be avoided. The premise of having robots fighting wars over resources, especially metal, is
fine, but in this book, every single robot is humanoid and they have sex.
Now this is not an impossible scenario as the robots in Charles Stross’s novel, SATURN’S CHILDREN, do that, but they were designed that way by humans (which have since disappeared). The android form robot is the least sensible, especially for fighting wars, especially when all the senses are concentrated in the head making them particularly vulnerable. To compound this, these metal-clad robots have emotions, form stable family relationships, produce children, feel and can smile. Even an AI would not do this. One of the most ludicrous suggestions is that a new robot can be created by the ‘female’ twisting together into a pattern special blue wire produced by the ‘male’. That then becomes the active ‘brain’ of the child – no mention of silicon chips, capacitors or resistors and certainly no motherboard.
The plot follows several robots as the metal poor state of Artemis tramples over all the other states without let or much hindrance, melting down all metal, including conquered robots, to expand the state.
Other aspects of this book are also suspect such as the chemistry and geology. I doubt that revelations in subsequent volumes of this proposed trilogy can rescue it.
THE VOICES OF TIME / THE TERMINAL BEACH by J G BallardFirst published in 1962 and 1964 respectively, these are two collections of Ballard's early "inner space" stories.
THE HYDROGEN SONATA by Iain M Banks
For his latest Culture novel Banks has eschewed the somewhat portentous over-elaboration of the most recent ones in
favour of the somewhat lighter and more accessible tone of the earlier ones. It is also between ten and fifteen percent
shorter, which is perhaps not such a bad thing. It mostly concerns a civilisation called the Gzilt who were around at the
time the Culture first came into being some ten thousand years ago but chose not to join. Now they have decided to
do what a lot of other races have done before them and Sublime, moving their individual downloaded personalities
into a new and better form of existence in another dimension beyond the seven or eight that are generally known.
Various shenanigans ensue as, during the last twenty-three days before this event ( Enfolding ) takes place, various
factions seek to better their positions in the hope of future advantage. And one of the advantages being sought is
continued concealment of a momentous secret which largely accounts for them having not joined the Culture all
those years ago when they had the chance. A disparate group of Culture ships have got wind of all this and, naturally
enough, decide to try and find out just what is going on, with a view to interfering if necessary. This involves locating
and interrogating an individual who was there at the beginning, but unfortunately he has excised the relevant
memory, placed it into secure storage and lost it. The story is mostly about their efforts to find it again while thwarting
the efforts of those of the Gzilt who would prefer it to remain lost. Vyr Cossont, a young Gzilt musician, is called upon
to play an important and risky part in this search. The Hydrogen Sonata of the title is an ancient and difficult piece of
music and it is her life’s ambition to play it from beginning to end without unwonted pauses or mistakes. Her efforts to
do so symbolise her part in the larger story: at the beginning of the book she is continuing to try and fail. At the end,
having done her bit, she successfully completes the sonata, then chooses not to take part in the Enfolding but to go off
on her own instead. This long and, it must be admitted, complex story provides ample opportunity for Banks to do
what he does best, obviously enjoying himself as he explores his creation ( The Culture ) and giving free rein to his
inventive imagination, with amazing advanced technology pervading almost every page while weird personalities
both alien and human abound. At the same time, he explains more than has previously been given away about both
the origin of the Culture and the ultimate aim of maturing civilisations, to Sublime. It is all written in the
conversational, mostly light-hearted, style which he seems to use more in his Culture books than in some others he has
written, never using one word where four or five or even more would do and constructing sentences of up to two
hundred words ( depending on how you count hyphenated ones ). The argumentative chatter among the Ship Minds
is particularly entertaining. It marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Culture and is every bit as good as one has come
to expect, although a reader not already familiar with the Culture might find it a trifle difficult and fail to pick up on
some of the less obvious nuances. The sheer inventiveness displayed and the writing style combine to make it a
delight and one can but hope for more like it.
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.
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.
THE DOMINO MEN by Jonathan Barnes
This is Barnes' second novel. It could be called a sequel to the first – THE SOMNAMBULIST - in that the characters of
this title also appeared in that book. There are other links too. As before, this is set in the early years of the century but
this time it's the 21st not the 20th. Once again, there's a secret organisation but, this time, it's seen from the inside not
the outside and it's trying to prevent a disaster not cause one. There is also a sense of style in the characters.
There are so many grotesques. There are Hawker and Boon, grown men dressed as schoolboys. They enjoy killing and do quite a lot of it. Strangely, they seem to be among the good guys this time around although it's hard to tell if they're really on anyone's side. There's Dedlock who's been living in a tank on one of the cars on the London Eye. He's been around for a century too. The most grotesque of all is Leviathan. It's been imprisoned inside someone for a century and is about to break out. When it does it will mean the end for all of London. Leviathan isn't really a character, more of a … but that would give too much away.
There's no way of deciding whether this is SF or Fantasy. Certainly Leviathan has a lot of similarity with all of the demons that you'd find in horror movies and the method of containment is done through rituals rather than technology but it's hard to believe that a fantasy/horror story would produce something that had a true nature anything like that.
At the same time, this is definitely someone's idea of comedy. It's not the simple sort that you'd find in Pratchett/Rankin/Holt and their clones. There's nothing that's laugh-outloud funny either. Think of it more as an adult version of some of the more grotesque scenes in Roald Dahl's children's books with a layer of Dickens or Fielding on top.
So on to the plot. Henry Lamb, one-time child comedy star and now civil service record clerk, is recruited into a branch of the secret service when his grandfather is hospitalised. It seems Grandpa was involved in something much bigger that just TV production. But, as an italicized voice tells us, Henry Lamb may not be telling the truth. A century earlier, Queen Victoria plotted to bring a creature called Leviathan to Earth but was thwarted by the Directorate - a secret organisation. Now certain members of the House of Windsor are involved in a plot to free Leviathan.
THE SOMNAMBULIST by Jonathan Barnes
There's a borderline between SF and other genre fiction that's often blurred. Think of the spy thrillers where the hero
perpetually saves the world from some new technological marvel or the detective with (near) psychic abilities.
The plot of the story doesn't really have anything to do with SF but some will claim it is because of these minor frills. This is one of those. There are several characters that belong in a carnival freak-show (including at least one that *is* in one), a device that Dr. Frankenstein would have been jealous of, and a character that has a different view of the passage of time. Despite all this, the plot is an adventure story that isn't so different from John Buchan or Arthur Conan-Doyle.
The setting is London, soon after the death of the Queen. Although it is never said outright, this seems to have been Queen Victoria. This is not some obviously alternate world but it is an obvious fiction.
Once-great amateur detective and stage magician Edward Moon is drawn into a case of bizarre murders that are merely a ruse to get him into something much more sinister. He moves from Scotland Yard to ‘The Directorate’ (presumably the secret service of the day) to “Love, Love, Love & Love” who have their own (literally) underground organisation before everything explodes into a small war on the streets of the city.
The great feature and most of the mood of the novel, comes from its continuing array of freaks. From Moon’s constant companion,“The Somnambulist” , who has no problem with people sticking swords through various parts of his torso, through Cribb, who seems to live his life backwards remembering only the things that have yet to happen, to the secret of “Love” that seems to have stepped out of a famous SF/Horror story. For a little added spice there are also assassins, usually freakish, occasionally superhuman and psychopathic.
Although the story reads as easily as any thriller there are a few serious flaws. Too often there are teasers for plot and character points that are never resolved - most obviously the connection between Cribb and “The Somnambulist”. Many of the freaks have no reason to be such within their own story. It makes the story feel like it has been built on something much more ordinary and these extra parts are just stuck on to try to conform to something that doesn’t really belong there.
COALESCENT ( ‘Destiny's Children' Book One) by Stephen Baxter
I must confess my heart sank a bit when I saw that this was the first part of a new trilogy - yet another enormous story
from the hand that has given us several such already. In fact, COALESCENT works perfectly well as a stand-alone
novel and there is only a partial sense th at it has come to an artificial stop only part-way through but remains an
unfinished story. There are however one or two obvious openings for further developments There are at first two main
narrative threads here: the contemporary story of George Poole who discovers after his father's death that he had a
twin sister he never knew about and the story of Regina, a young Roman girl (from whom George is in fact distantly
descended) struggling to survive in Britain in the fifth century as the Roman Empire collapses around her. She
manages to make her way to Rome itself where she lays the foundation of a new kind of society comprised entirely of
women and living in a warren of secret tunnels beneath the city - the eponymous Coalescents. George's sister is a
member of this society and his reunion with her leads him into conflict with the group. He escapes them at the end,
remaining unsure as to whether or not he has glimpsed the future of mankind.
I was drawn irresistibly into comparing this with Frank Herbert's HELLSTROM'S HIVE from 1973, which also tells of a secret organisation of humans living underground and not only evolving a new kind of society but also new kinds of human beings to people it. Baxter's approach is different from Herbert's in many ways, particularly in that he does away with the idea of a single controlling intelligence, th ereby probably coming closer to how hive societies of ants, say, or bees actually function. I would love to know how familiar Baxter was with the earlier book and how he worked out his different approach.
If I have a quarrel with this book it is the amount of it devoted to Regina's story. Perhaps it is essential for the reader to understand where she is coming from, but if I wanted to read a historical novel I would go and find one - it's not what I read SF for. For me, the book only came alive about two-thirds of the way through, when the SF ideas took over and one could begin to get a sense of grand concepts unfolding. Apart from the question of what the future will bring for the Coalescents themselves, there are hints of outside influences interfering with the formation of our solar system, and perhaps still around today, and there is a brief view of humanity colonising the Galaxy twenty thousand years in the future - so plenty of basis for the sequels which are to follow.
As is so often the case, therefore, there can be two judgements of COALESCENT: on its own or as part of a larger whole. On its own it is pretty good but the completed ‘Destiny's Children’ trilogy may well turn out to be great.
Or not. Michael Jones
DEEP FUTURE by Stephen Baxter
In this book Stephen Baxter analyses the future of the human race and its place in the universe according to the most
up-to- date scientific theories. He begins with our future development on this planet and then goes on to look at the
development of the Moon and the possibilities of terraforming the other planets before we expand out of the Solar
System altogether. Along the way he discusses the likelihood of other intelligences having got there before us and
discusses the question “if they exist, why can’t 5 we see them?” (the Fermi Paradox).
Eventually, countless billions of years into the future, all the stars will have burned out and our unimaginably remote descendants will live by mining black holes for gravitational energy.
From that remote future our brief existence will be indistinguishable from the Big Bang with which the cosmos began.
In one sense, of course, this is all highly speculative, but it is the sort of informed speculation that we have learned to call ‘science fact’ and to regard as the basis for the SF we like to enjoy. There are a hundred SF stories hidden in this book and in fact Baxter himself has used many of them in his recent Manifold series, having employed the same research ideas as a basis for both fictional and factual writing.
However much SF one reads, one should always be able to find time to read a book like this in order to preserve a sense of perspective.
EVOLUTION by Stephen Baxter
In this huge novel, Baxter traces the course of human evolution from the time of the comet impact which eliminated
the dinosaurs to a time in the almost unimaginably distant future when there will (may) be scarcely any life at all left
on Earth. Not just ‘The Ascent of Man’ but ‘The Descent of Man’ also.
The progress of evolution is displayed in a series of vignettes, widely spaced at first but becoming closer together as the present day is approached, each portraying a significant developmental stage in the DNA strand which purports to tie them all together as the progenitors of humanity are shaped by their changing ecological environment and, in turn, contribute by their own activities to changing it. Baxter himself makes it clear that most of this is highly speculative, but it COULD have happened that way and he includes nothing significantly contrary to at least one of the various conflicting theories of evolution which are currently in favour. (Except, of course, for the parts of the story set in the future, which are SF pure and simple. Science Fiction or Science Fantasy - take your pick!) An interesting detail of this process shows how the first emergence of modern man, some ten thousand years ago, already contained the seeds of his own future degeneration. In another stage of the story the latter days of a collapsing Roman civilisation are portrayed as displaying a number of alarming similarities to our own present-day situation.
Interesting for the most part, and never less than informative, this is nevertheless an unfortunately long book. In each of the ’vignettes’ to which I have referred the author goes into all the detail necessary to get his point across as well as making a little story out of it and at times he is in danger of descending into textbook mode. The result is very heavy going and I found that I did best by reading at most a chapter or so a day rather than trying to get through more at a sitting, although the sections set around the present day and the graphically physical description of that comet impact sixty-five million years ago were more exciting. Incidentally, a partial echo of the latter is seen in the form of a catastrophic seismic eruption in 2031 which virtually brings about the end of civilisation as we know it - an event which some authorities say is already overdue.
This is certainly a book to admire and is an impressive addition to Baxter's oeuvre. However, I visualise few readers who, having read it once, would foreseeably read it again in its entirety, as they might, had it been at least a third shorter.
FLOOD by Stephen Baxter
In 2016 four hostages rescued from a group of religious terrorists arrive in London just in time to witness the onset of a
flood which overwhelms the city. At first this is attributed to climate change hut as the flooding becomes worse all over
the world another, better explanation has to be found and it seems that water locked in vast amounts in the deep rock
of the Earth's mantle is being released causing the seas to rise at an ever-accelerating rate, (There is a scientific
justification for the existence of this 'buried' water, but no explanation is forthcoming as to why it is being released, or
Within twenty years Scafell Pike, the highest point of • England, is covered and in 2052 a straggly group of raft- dwellers watch as the peak of Everest disappears beneath the waves.
The story of those thirty-six years is told from the various and separate points of view of those four hostage survivors, who find themselves uniquely placed to watch the unfolding events as billions die, civilisation as we know it is destroyed forever and such humanity as survives is forced to adapt to life on a world covered by water. The reader recalls the catastrophe novels that were popular at one time, hut the world and SF have both moved on in the last fiftyphis years and this story is far removed from the relative cosiness of, say, John Wyndham's work. It is a bleak and at times horrific tale, with little to offer by way of a future for the human race, Except . . . Baxter seems to like writing in series: this cries out for a sequel and there are several obvious and not-so-obvious hints that there remains more to be told.
Interestingly, this proof copy of the book, contained in a sealed evidence bag to protect it from water damage, is presented as having been recovered from a collapsed tower block in central London under 1000 metres of water during an extra-planetary exploration mission in 2115. (So two hints that there may be more to come, before the book is even opened!) Stephen Baxter has obviously done his homework. Apart from the origin of the Hooding itself, he shows the progress of the waters creeping over the lowest land first, before rising remorselessly higher and higher and writes about how the inundated land will react to the weight of water lying on it, giving rise to earthquakes, tsunamis and the like:, and how even more radical climate change will arise from the redistribution of energy in the atmosphere. Plus, of course, the reaction of both populations and governments to the prospect of losing everything. It may not always make for pleasant reading, hut is intriguing, fascinating and perhaps even enjoyable nonetheless.
ICEBONES by Stephen Baxter
This is Book Three of the Mammoth series, and the final volume.
This series has apparently been compared with WATERSHIP DOWN, but the only similarity really is that it is anthropomorphic - the animals talk to each other as if they are humans. But the culture of the woolly mammoth (for these are the animals in question) is quite different from that of humans, or ‘the Lost’ as they are known here, and Baxter has clearly done a great deal of research into the habits of their species, which must mainly be elephants, since mammoths became extinct some 11,000 years ago. Didn’t they? So why, in the first book, do we start coming across artifacts which are obviously not only human, but belong to advanced, technological humans? All is revealed as the books progress, and in this volume we reach the ultimate phase: the Sky Steppe. It is obviously best if readers have read the previous two, though if you happen to pick up this one in an auction, it is still a very fine read. But it would be interesting to know, if it were possible for him/her not to read the blurb on the back cover, how long it would take a new reader to realise that these mammoths are not on Earth but on Mars in the year 3000AD! (Of course, the front cover is a bit of a giveaway too - not by Fangorn this time, who was probably busy in Hollywood, but by Peter Barrett, whom I must admit I hadn’t heard of - but one might not notice the reddish landscape.
And those rocks are more marshmallow-like than anything I ever painted. . .) According to the Cycle - the mammoths’ handed-down story, which amounts to their Bible - the Sky Steppe is paradise. However, this world is very far from paradise. It is cold, the air is thin, there is dust everywhere and often little to eat, and the rest of the mammoths are starving because they are used to being fed by the Lost, who have deserted them and left them to fend for themselves.
Enter Icebones, the heroine of the title, who, although she often finds it hard to believe, is destined to become the saviour of all mammoths on Mars.
Why there are mammoths on Mars in the first place and how Icebones got there I’ll leave you to find out for yourself, because I strongly recommend that you do read this trilogy. It is quite different from anything else that Baxter has written and if you think of him just 7 in terms of ‘hard SF’ you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
LONGTUSK by Stephen Baxter
This is book 2 in the Mammoth trilogy, and sequel to SILVERHAIR.
However, whereas that book was set in roughly the present day, this volume takes us back to 16,000 BG.
This series is very different from Stephen Baxter’s more usual space or time epics, but no less compelling. They have apparently been compared to WATERSHIP DOWN - presumably because the animals speak to each other (in English, for convenience!). But any such resemblance is surely superficial.
Baxter has always done his research and knows all about the mammoths’ natural methods of communi- cation too, such as contact rumbles and smell, as well as their interaction with other creatures and hominids. And about their mating habits, migration patterns, and all else necessary to make this another well-rounded novel.
The Fireheads (humans) are invading mammoth territory and, as we discover, have already ‘domesticated’ their cousins, the mastodons. Longtusk, as a mere youngster, gets separated from his Clan, and this book is about his adventures, which make him the greatest Bull hero in the Cycle. He befriends a young Dreamer (another type of human, presumably Neanderthal, being ruthlessly exterminated by the more intelligent and aggressive Fireheads), and is later captured by Fireheads, though he never fully capitulates to them, and makes an enemy of their Shaman.
I found it quite compulsive reading, but I wonder where the next in the series is going. We’ve had one book set in the present, one in the past - and the Epilogue to this book refers to Mars in AD 3,000.
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.
PHASE SPACE by Stephen Baxter
In 2001 Stephen Baxter completed his Manifold series, a collection of linked novels exploring some of the advanced
scientific ideas he described in his non-fiction book DEEP FUTURE. Between 1997 and 2001 he had also published a
number of short stories and these are collected here.
The phase space of the title refers to the space containing all the conceivable states of the Universe and one of the stories, featuring characters from the Manifold novels, describes how a failed experiment opens the Earth to Phase Space. Within this space we find included stories based on alternate histories - stories of what might have happened if this or that had gone wrong with the Apollo Programme for example - and stories linked in some degree to the Manifold novels, although not necessarily part of them.
As befits their previous independent publication, each story is able to stand alone, although they are now linked within a very loose framework based on the failed experiment story I have just mentioned which opens the Earth to the myriad possibilities of the Manifold where anything that can happen, will. Each is a gem in its own right, superbly crafted and polished. There are strange ideas aplenty here, emotion, pathos and flashes of a rare beauty which makes one want to reach out and touch the Universe, to be a part of it.
Like most of this author’s work it deserves not to be missed.
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.
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. Carol Goodwin
THE SCIENCE OF AVATAR by Stephen Baxter
Purely by coincidence, immediately before starting this book I was reading the same author’s DEEP FUTURE. This was
published in 2001, and it attempts to divine what will happen at various stages in the Earth’s future; will we have star
travel, shall we make contact with alien races – are there any civilizations out there?
There is a chapter on the Fermi Paradox: if there are people out there, why can’t we see or hear evidence of them, e.g. by radio signals? Since more than a decade has passed since he wrote this, some of Baxter’s predictions have proved good, while others have not (at least as yet) worked out quite as he expected.
My point? I think that Steve used THE SCIENCE OF AVATAR to update that previous book. Certainly there are many references to the film, and some chapters deal with it almost exclusively, but others are more general musings on the possibilities of interstellar travel, on how we may change and ‘genetically engineer’ our own bodies and minds; even interfacing these with computers, on the chances of meeting with aliens, and what they might look like. There is also a section of illustrations, with scenes, colour sketches and development drawings.
I must admit that I probably would not have read this book were it not for this review copy, but I’m glad I did. AVATAR is the first and still the only film I’ve seen in a cinema in 3D, and it blew me away! I sat near the front of the stalls, and it wasn’t like watching a screen: there was this whole world stretching away in front of me, with strange ‘jellyfish’ floating in front of my face, or I was swooping down into a jungle-covered valley on the back of some dragon- like creature. I know everyone says “But it isn’t very original,” and I agree that the basic story seems pretty familiar: huge conglomerates literally riding roughshod over land that has belonged for millennia to indigenous people, cutting down ancient trees, destroying and desecrating virgin rainforests and ‘sacred’ ground, mining and polluting, etc., etc.
Trees are certainly important here, because ‘Hometree’ is central to the life, beliefs and culture of the Na’vi, connecting all to the Tree of Souls and thus to their mother goddess, Eywa. If you haven’t seen the movie (is there anyone who hasn’t?) you probably won’t be reading this, but it takes place in 2154, when we have star travel. James Cameron started working on AVATAR in 1994, but because the necessary technology (such as motion capture) was not then available work did not start seriously until 2006; although work on the Na’vi language started a year earlier. This is typical of Cameron’s attention to detail; what may to most appear just a very pretty fantasy has actually been worked out in the finest detail, as Baxter is at pains to point out in this book. The science behind avatar technology, the problems of travel to the planet (or in this case Pandora, the moon of a planet, Polyphemus) of another star (Alpha Centauri A), and the problems of the time taken (solved here by cryosleep), the ecology of this alien world, the orbital dynamics of the Alpha Centauri triple star system with its consequent gravitational and lighting effects, and much more, have been researched and incorporated into this film.
The reason for humans being on Pandora is a ‘new mineral’: unobtainium.
This sounds like a joke, and in a way it is, because the mineral was given the name simply because it is so rare and difficult to obtain. It has been found only on Pandora, but is seen as the solution to Earth’s energy crisis. It’s a superconductor, worth $40 million per kilogram, with unusual magnetic properties which enable it to levitate, and it is also used to contain the matter/antimatter propulsion of their starships. Although Baxter doesn’t mention this, it explains something that even SF fans found a little difficult to swallow: the ‘Hallelujah Mountains’, which float in the atmosphere. Many of us felt that Roger Dean should have received a credit for these, since they appear so similar to the flying mountains or islands that he painted in the 1970s as album sleeves for rock groups like Yes! But Baxter explains how the magnetic properties of unobtainium enable these rocks to levitate: the magnetic fields of Pandora also make navigation and weaponsguidance very difficult for the humans when it comes to the final battle, and they have to resort to more old-fashioned methods.
If you enjoyed the film, you’ll find this book explains and enhances a lot in it (I watched it again on Blu-Ray!). If you didn’t, you might just find that it makes the experience more enjoyable. Personally, science apart, I found it an extremely beautiful film and indeed, a work of art in its own right.
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!
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 Bear
There 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.
The ‘Quantico’ of the title is the FBI training ground. At the same time as William Griffin and his class-mates are desperately trying to qualify for their badges, William’s father is staking out a farm in the mountain forests in Washington State. The man living on the farm is a religious fanatic of the Christian kind. Known as the Patriarch, he has a record of bombing such places as abortion clinics. He is also very cunning. The FBI has underestimated his ingenuity and the situation, literally, blows up in their faces.
One of the agents that survive the shambles is Rebecca Rose. She is convinced that the Patriarch was working with someone else to develop a potent way of spreading anthrax spores. Because of his family interest, she recruits William to help her track down the people supplying the Patriarch with his equipment.
Meanwhile, one of William’s classmates, an American Muslim named BuDark, has been recruited by the secretive wing of the FBI because of his ability with languages. They believe that the anthrax threat is not just a home-grown one as there is evidence that the major religious centres of Rome and Jerusalem have also been targeted. Those attempts have been foiled but imminent is the great Muslim exodus to Mecca for the annual Hajj. The Middle East is still a very unstable region and anything could set the factions at each other’s throats again.
The threat must be found and stopped.
Bear is far too intelligent a writer to have written a straight thriller. There are plenty of unexpected twists. He has also devised a very plausible method of generating his biological agent. It could be done, but as he says in the postscript, he has left out vital information. He has a wish to warn his readers of a potential danger but he has no intention of giving malefactors a means for putting his ideas into practice.
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.
DARK EDEN by Chris Beckett
This novel was the winner of the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award for SF published in the UK in the previous year. The story
is set on a planet with no sunlight but which surprisingly has life. Small islands of light and warmth exist between
cold, dark deserts. In these oases, fuelled by geothermal energy, plants and animals generate their own light. Warmth
is provided by the tree-like plants. One hundred and sixty three years ago, five people with a damaged space-craft
found this dark planet which they called Eden. Three chose to try and navigate the damaged vehicle back to Earth to
mount a rescue whilst two, Tommy and Angela chose to remain.
Now the 500 descendants of their incestuous union huddle in one such haven, next to the remains of the ruined “Landing Veekle”, waiting for rescue from Earth. They have no technology and some of them suffer from genetic defects (“batfaces” and “clawfeet”). Trapped by the need to remain where they can be found and the extreme cold and dark beyond the edge of the plant life, they are starting to exhaust their resources.
A schism forms between some of the younger members, led by John Redlantern, who want change and the majority who insist on remaining. The split leads to violence and changes to the social structure.
John Redlantern’s group are developing ways to explore the dark but are forced to leave early in a hunt for other areas of light in which to live.
I liked that the science in this story seemed plausible to me. Dark planets (either a long distance from or without a star) do exist and some of these would be large enough (or orbit a gas giant) to maintain volcanic activity. Indeed only this month, astronomers have discovered a planet without a star. Also, the ecology of the world is convincing. There are micro-organisms on Earth which derive energy from inorganic compounds rather than light, and which produce oxygen as a waste product. These are found round volcanic vents (“black smokers”) deep in the ocean.
The plot is reasonably well-paced and the characters for the most part seem convincing. For example, the “hero”, John Redlantern is flawed and indeed is not the main factor in the breakaway group’s achievements. A different character narrates the story in each chapter so we get to see the point of view of both sides of the conflict. The story is easy to read and does come to a conclusion although there is plenty to still be explored and resolved. The author’s ability to create a convincing alien world reminded me of Brian Aldiss (Helliconia Trilogy) or Hal Clement (THE NITROGEN FIX in particular). I believe a sequel is planned and I would definitely read it.
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 BeckettIn 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.
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! Carol Goodwin
WINTERWOOD (Rowankind 1) by Jacey Bedford
The 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.
Rossalinde is a strong female character, not because she wears men's clothes, fights or uses magic, though these are all an integral part of her character. She is strong because of her attitudes, her empathy for those abused or in need, her reliance and her fortitude.
Amidst the adventure is the story of the Rowankind, who are bonded to families for life, much like slavery. This analogy is explored in depth, so as well as getting pirates, magic and pulse-pounding adventure, you get lots of buckle for your swash and morality to boot!
Bedford is a gifted storyteller, an experienced Milford SF writers’ conference organiser and participant, who can turn her hand to multiple genres with skill and depth. Her expertise in writing is apparent throughout the novel, which is crisply written, easy to engage with and vibrant with its descriptions and environment. The end promises much for the future of the Rowankind and I can't wait to read what happens to everyone in book two; SILVER WOLF, out in 2017. Piratical Perfection!
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.
JASMYN by Alex BellThere's a story idea that's been doing the rounds lately that starts with a central character whose history is either unknown or falsified even to the character itself. Most of it comes in spy thrillers from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE to THE BOURNE IDENTITY but there have been a spate of TV SF shows in the last few years (DOLLHOUSE has just arrived on cable here). This was a theme of Alex Bell's first novel in which his hero has no memory of his former life, has hints strewn through the first half of the book and the truth finally revealed in the last quarter. Here it is again in a slightly different variation.
THE NINTH CIRCLE by Alex Bell
Gabriel Antaeus wakes up one day not knowing who he is or how he has got where he is. He is alone in an apartment
and there is a fortune in cash in there with him. He knows his name because there are identity documents with the
money. There are also a lot of books on angels and demons. Within a day he has discovered where he is and two
people who he either seems to recognise or seem to know him. He has also managed to beat off a group of muggers
single handed which makes him think that he is something special and he soon discovers other ‘powers’.
One of the two people, Zadkiel Stephomi, claims to know Gabriel but has promised not to tell him anything he doesn't already know. So Gabriel has to work out his history by himself. He doesn't really get anywhere. Though someone is sending him mysterious clues. Every so often he gets a hint of something from Zadkiel but never that much.
This is being sold as fantasy's answer to the Bourne films. There is a fantasy element to the plot but it’s minimal. The same could be said for most of the plot. Despite the shortness of the book, when the revelation came, I'd stopped caring.
TERRA / TERRA'S WORLD by Mitch Benn
When Terra was only a few days old her parents were driving home, arguing as always, when a lemon-shaped
spaceship appeared in front of them. In panic, they swerved off the road and ran away. It was some time later that they
realised they had left the as-yet-unnamed Terra in the back of the car. Lbbp, driver of the afore-mentioned spaceship,
believing that the parents had abandoned their baby, took her home with him to Fnrr (a planet, invisible from Earth,
somewhere in Orion's belt). Despite initial complaints from his colleagues at home, he gives her the name Terra
(although that is unpronounceable to his species). All this is accomplished in the first 30 pages of book 1.
Eleven years later, Terra is in her first year at the academy. She is generally accepted by her peers and has made friends with some. Things change. The first change is the interface. The interface is a new teaching device designed to plug in to your brain and feed you everything you need to know. Terra falls asleep using one. She dreams. On Fnrr only babies dream. Her dreams involve her and her friends flying through the air on large winged animals. That doesn't happen on Fnrr. Since she was plugged in to the interface all of this goes out live across Fnrr's equivalent of the internet. The next morning all kinds of people are calling and banging on the door to find out what has happened. The Fnrrns have no concept of fiction either. Soon Terra is writing her own stories and they are becoming very popular. This leads to the discovery that all of those films about the humans (called Ymns on Fnrr) destroying alien invaders from species no-one has heard of might not actually be real.
The last part of book 1 deals with an invasion from another race of Fnrrns who are generally thought of as more primitive by the group that Terra has come to know.
In book 2 Terra has returned to Earth and, now Fnrr has decided that the Ymns aren't so dangerous and uncivilised, all of Earth knows where she's been. After two years Terra and her (original) family have "disappeared" having moved and changed identities countless times to avoid the press.
Billy Dolphin is a 13 (or thereabouts) year old schoolboy who doesn't like the way the world has changed since Terra returned. Most of all he misses science fiction. Since everyone knows that there are aliens out there and what they look like and where they come from, people are less likely to invent different ones. At school he likes Lydia and the new girl Tracey because they have both read SF (William Gibson anyhow). Then he finds out that Lydia is really Terra and Tracey is an insectoid alien bounty hunter and before he really has time to process this he's off with Terra on an alien spaceship to find out what has happened on Fnrr and why she hasn't heard from them for months.
Fnrr hasn't actually got the concept of fiction properly yet. They know what it is but they can't really tell the difference between that and truth yet. So when a janitor at the academy tells people that he's the Gfjk-Hhh (a planetary hero that a prophecy from thousands of years ago said would return someday) just about everyone believes him. The planet is now in the grip of a new pseudo-religious frenzy with executions for dissidents on a daily basis … and that isn't all. There's a rogue black planet that is the stuff of legends. It wanders the galaxy and every time it passes a living planet that planet winds up black and dead and it's headed toward Fnrr.
Mitch Benn is well enough known for his work as a comedian and writer of comic songs for most people to guess at the light comic style that both of these books begin with. It's the sort of glib, simple tone that you might associate with Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams or the early Vonnegut - depending on your age. Rather than persist with it throughout, he does manage to pick up the pace and drop the jokes when there are action scenes or anything important to say and that lasts for the final half or third of each book. Despite the lack of notice to that effect, these are children's books. Benn wrote them in reaction to the lack of good appropriate material for his two young daughters. That means that the stories are generally simple with no real twists to the plot. There are also oddities that don't really stand up to scrutiny. For instance, the inhabitants of Fnrr don't appear to have vowels in their language and can't really pronounce them, yet her adopted parent still names her Terra although none of his race will be able to pronounce that name. These books are probably perfect for 12 year old girls but lose a little the further you get from that. Even so there are still some nice observations like the shorter your name for "Science Fiction" the more serious you are about the subject.
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 Black
The 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.
We learn early on that the lead character’s brother can change the memories of others but loses his own in the process; his grandfather is a death worker missing the fingers on one hand after working a death curse; and his mother can charm people into believing she is someone else but loses her touch on reality as she does so.
This is a world where a worker’s talents are both feared but desired by many, and are a valuable commodity. Magic working runs in families and some worker families are like the mafia, or alternatively are ‘for hire’- contracted by mobs who need a problem dealt with.
The lead character, Cassell, is a troubled teenager at a private school with his fair share of teen angst and problems, notably a bad relationship with siblings, his mother being in jail, not fitting in at his private school and killing a friend when he was 14. He begins to have strange dreams and sleepwalking episodes featuring a white cat. We then follow Cassell getting involved with a mob trying to uncover the truth about the murder of his friend.
All in all, this book has all the right ingredients to be an enjoyable and involving read– mobsters, magic, memory manipulation and con-artistry. It’s a straight forward quick read, and introduces an interesting world with plenty of conflict that the author can capitalise on. Unfortunately just shy of a third in, it was very clear what the plot was going to be. It was simply very predictable, and even though this is aimed at a teen audience, I think most teens will quickly pick up the plot too. The book in places reads like a script. With such appealing topics this could easily translate into a television series or a film and through the book the reader gets the sense that this is maybe one of the author’s objectives after the success of her SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, along with a desire to join the current trend in supernatural fiction.
Key themes in this book are memories and misdirection, topics which have the potential to be engaging and intricate, but the reader is left feeling that the simplicity of the plot doesn’t match the nature of the topic. I finished the book somewhat disappointed that I hadn’t been hoodwinked, duped, conned or kept guessing as to what original memories would reveal.
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 BlishJames 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.
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…
STRUCK by Jennifer Bosworth
‘Only one girl can save the world …. Or destroy it’. And I don’t particularly care which at this stage! Mia Price is a
lightning addict. She's survived countless strikes, but her craving to connect to the energy in storms endangers her life
and the lives of those around her. Los Angeles, where lightning rarely strikes, is one of the few places Mia feels safe
from her addiction. But when an earthquake devastates the city, her haven is transformed into a minefield of chaos
The beaches become massive tent cities. Downtown is a crumbling wasteland, where a travelling party moves to a different empty building each night, the revellers drawn to the destruction by a force they cannot deny.
Two warring cults rise to power, and both see Mia as the key to their opposing doomsday prophecies. They believe she has a connection to the freak electrical storm that caused the quake, and to the far more devastating storm that is yet to come. This dystopian novel for younger readers sees Mia Price attempting to hold her family together in the midst of this chaos.
Whilst the premise is promising, the novel itself is a letdown. The blurb made the book sound great, and whilst there was some potential to live up to the blurb, it was destroyed by prophecies and God botherers.
The cults are where it falls down. They are straight out of a bad 1970s flick rather than a modern novel. For instance, a number of religious cults are handled and portrayed far better in LAST DAYS by Adam Nevill. Granted, STRUCK is a YA novel, however, that doesn’t mean it has to be dumbed down.
It seems that Bosworth set up something that could have been so strong, yet she didn’t have the writing skills to follow through. Never mind the predictability of the plot, the budding romance is what drags the novel down. It is the Twilight-esque feel to the book that makes it difficult to read and enjoy. The writer is more concerned with Mia’s love life than with a potential apocalypse. I was struck dumb (ahem) at how mundane the book was considering what it could have been.
THE SAM GUNN OMNIBUS by Ben Bova
Sam Gunn is a freewheeling space entrepreneur, a little stubby loudmouthed guy with short wiry red hair, a wiseass, a
cheating, conniving, womanizing rogue, who was kicked out of NASA as an astronaut.
Sam Gunn is a champion of the small guy, always fighting for justice, always battling with the big boys of powerful interplanetary corporations (like Rockwell - sorry, Rockledge - and Yamagata) and usually winning. For a while; he has made billions, and then lost them. Despite his short stature, moon face, small, shifty eyes which sometimes look blue and sometimes green, and gap-toothed grin, women apparently find him irresistible.
An unlikely hero for a whole series of short stories that date back from 1983 to the present day, you may think. And you'd be right, but it works. Ben Bova has, over the years, woven an alternative (alternate, US) universe, one which should have come into being by now but didn't, but which - just perhaps - one day might.
It's a universe in which we have space stations and even space hotels, where there are extensive bases on the Moon, and humans on Mars, where there are asteroid-miners, and habitats everywhere from the Earth/Moon L-5 points to the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and expeditions out to Pluto and beyond. It's the same universe in which he set his epic and very readable 'The Grand Tour' series of novels: Mercury, Venus, The Silent War, and all the rest. (Rather oddly, but because these stories span such a long period, we get strange anomalies such as, for instance, the fact that space stations Freedom and Alpha exist in parallel, whereas in fact they are actually earlier incarnations of what is now the International Space Station, or ISS.) To link all of these stories Ben has introduced the slim, elfin Jane Avril Inconnu, who (coincidentally?) also has red hair and green eyes, and likes to be known as Jade, who started life as a foundling at the old original Moonbase, later to grow into the lunar city of Selene. Born with a congenital bone defect, Jade is bound forever to live in space or on the Moon, as her bones would snap in Earth's gravity. She becomes a truck driver, and over the years hears many stories about Sam Gunn. Gradually she realizes that a TV series about Sam Gunn could be very popular, and manages to get a job as an assistant video editor for the Solar News Network, and eventually a reporter and journalist.
The linking sections about Jade become an integral part of this omnibus (which includes all the stories ever written about Sam Gunn, plus a couple of new ones), making it read almost like one long novel. So, as she contrives to meet various people who have become involved with Sam during his lifetime, his story unfolds - not always in chronological fashion. We learn how he sets up the first honeymoon hotel in orbit, ruined by the fact that the newlyweds inevitably spend the first few days throwing up, despite there being a cure for space-sickness which Rockledge vindictively withhold from Sam. There are 50 stories, of various lengths, so I will not attempt to list them all; of his amorous exploits and how he evades marriage numerous times (especially to Senator Jill Meyers, who continues to pursue him to the end), of his encounter with the Porno Twins, who supply virtual sex to asteroid miners, of his (alleged) fall into a black hole and meeting with aliens out in the Kuiper Belt, and his involvement with a matter transmitter - or is it duplicator? And so on.
This is all great fun, and while not holding any great philosophical message (except that we really should be doing a lot more in space because there are huge opportunities out there . . . ) it's a good solid read which should keep you happy for quite a while. If you're into space stuff, don't miss this one.
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.
FROM THE DUST RETURNED by Ray Bradbury
There is much wrong with the cover of this book but, fortunately, this does not continue inside. This probably isn't, as
the cover says, "his new novel". Like several of Bradbury's previous works, this may not be a novel. Some of the
chapters read like short stories and several of them have already been published as such (two in the collection "The
Toynbee Convector"). The book is closer to a novel than, say, "The Illustrated Man" or even "The Martian Chronicles”
but there is still an element of the collection here. Neither is this entirely new - some of the stories were published in
the 40's. This isn't even proper science fiction, it's much closer to the fantasy/horror that Bradbury first became famous
This is the story of a "family". Not the ordinary sort or even the extended sort that used to be popular in places east of here. This is the sort of family that the Addamses would be proud to have as neighbours. There's the grandmother who is older than most of the ancient civilizations that people wonder about, the fly-by-night uncle who really does, the young girl who is a bit of a dreamer but still gets out a lot that way. Then there are cousins and other relations that bear even less resemblance to . . . Well. .. Anything.
Comparisons with the Addams family are further justified in the author's afterword in which he explains how the (Charles Addams) cover illustration came about and that the two families developed together. Unfortunately the UK publishers have decided to opt for a cover more in line with their corporate image.
NOW AND FOREVER by Ray Bradbury
When I was young, I was told there were 3 great SF writers: they were Asimov, Heinlein & Bradbury. As I grew older, I
saw how mechanical Asimov was and the overwhelming ego that was Heinlein. I found those two almost unreadable
after a while. Bradbury had his problems too.
There was a sort of over-romantic view of rural life that hung over so many stories. He didn't do that often enough to make it unreadable. They say he still writes. I wonder about that.
You could say that these two stories represent his best and worst. One of the high points of his career was working on the script of MOBY DICK with John Huston in 1956. He's already written a fictionalised account of his experience (GREEN SHADOWS, WHITE WHALE) and "Leviathan '99" is his SF version of MOBY DICK. This isn't the first appearance of the story. It's been written for the radio and was broadcast by the BBC with Christopher Lee. It was rewritten for the stage and played only once. Since then it's been heavily cut to produce the 89 page story included here.
It works well. It's as good as anything he wrote in the 50s and feels just like it was written then. If there are any complaints it's that the story has a dated feel and isn't original but these are just trivial.
"Somewhere a Band is Playing" is something else entirely. Although this, too, was written as a screenplay many years back, it has never been produced.
Bradbury says that he rewrote the script many times over the years to suit the age of the actress he had chosen to play in it (Katharine Hepburn). He does not say how much trouble he took to rewrite it for print. It still needs a good editor.
There are times when he reveals some point of plot more than once and expects surprise each time. He seems to repeat some things too much. The plot seems too predictable. At it's worst, it lays on the sentiment as much as he ever did.
Admittedly it's written as a romance with a twist that comes between SF and classical fantasy but he still lays it on too thick.
Here you have a great writer at his best and worst. Golden age pulp SF and sickly-sweet sloppily edited romantic fantasy.
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. Pauline Morgan
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.
NIGHT BROKEN by Patricia BriggsMercy Thompson, coyote shapeshifter, VW mechanic, wife and mate of Adam the local werewolf pack’s alpha, is in trouble once again. Adam’s ex-wife, Christy is in peril and has turned to him for rescue and protection from her abusive new boyfriend. As Adam has an oversized sense of responsibility he cannot turn away the mother of his daughter. This is a nightmare for Mercy as not only is Christy in her home but she is also attempting to take over, trying both to recapture Adam and destroy Mercy’s relationship with the pack.
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 NARROWS by James Brogden
THE NARROWS is James Brogden’s first book. This novel is best described as an urban fantasy with some light horror
influences, and pitched at the generally mature reader due to some of the more emotional themes. The novel is set
very recognisably in Birmingham, which this reviewer found irresistible (the lead character, Andy Sumner, lives in a
flat in Northfield, the same suburb that I am sat in writing this review). Despite my obvious relish for the setting I think
the book stands effectively on its merits for a non Brummie reader.
Andy is a University drop-out without any real clear view of which way to take his life. Engaged to marry Laura, a professional and organised young woman, Andy is casting about for purpose, employed in a dead-end job at a video- games store in the Pallasades shopping centre. One day he discovers, quite by accident, an odd back-alley shortcut off the Smallbrook Queensway. Following this alternative route takes him through an overgrown courtyard that he is dimly aware there should not be space for behind the buildings. After finding himself thoroughly lost, not being able to retrace his steps, he pushes on through and finds himself some five miles from his starting point, despite only walking for maybe ten minutes.
And so Andy finds himself curiously able to access `the narrows’, shortcuts through forgotten parts of the city which narrow the distance between two points (hence the name). But he would not find his way without a guide, so it is fortuitous that coincidence (?) throws in his lot with Bex, a fully-fledged member of the narrow-folk who choose to live their entire lives outside of the bright lights of mainstream life and inhabit the narrows full time. Soon it becomes apparent that a sinister figure named Barber is closing off the narrows one by one, and is quite happy to slay anyone who gets in his way by use of sub-human Skavags who hunt down and rip apart their prey. Ultimately Andy will discover his mysterious past and the reasons why he has a special affinity for the narrows and join the fight against the inhuman Barber and his terrifying schemes.
Brogden clearly knows his setting backwards; the usage of recognisable Birmingham landmarks and features is both very clever and pleasingly correct.
The author layers on top of this an almost Lovecraft like `from the depths that man is not meant to know’ paradigm. As the book progresses the narrows bloom out into layered multiple realities. Unlike Lovecraft, however, Brogden’s text does not drip with mind unhinging terror, but instead employs more comfortable fantasy tropes. The characters are easy to relate to, and many seem extremely believable every-day sorts. The moments of horror are mostly limited to the aforementioned skavags and certain other, darker creature called forth by unpleasant human sacrifice.
For a first novel this book is extremely accomplished. I have reviewed a number of first novels recently, and THE NARROWS does not seem to have so much in the way of rough edges or literary mistakes. In truth, I found some of Andy’s decision slightly hard to justify (spoiler alert: would he really be so ready to drop his relationship with his fiancé?) and maybe Brogden intended for the atmosphere to be more sinister and less comfortable. It is stylistically fairly neutral, using fairly straight forward language throughout. But that level of comfort provides for a very engaging read. The novelty of reading a book set in my home town had worn off by the middle of the book, but I can happily report that the text continued to grip me to the end.
Therefore I have little reservation in recommending this book. Overall it is of surprisingly high quality. If you happen to be resident in Birmingham, this is almost a must read, if only for the novelty factor. Committed horror fans might find it a little light on their brand of fun, but I think that fantasy fans would find it an enjoyable change of pace. Given how accomplished and professional this first book is, I certainly think that Mr Brogden will be worth watching for future output.
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.
TOURMALINE by James Brogden
Unfortunately I missed James’ visit to the Brum Group in March, as I was in Iceland! However, I did read his first novel
THE NARROWS, set almost entirely in Birmingham, and thoroughly enjoyed it. This is not a review copy, but I am a
Brummie, born and bred, so it is of course now a bonus to read another novel which includes among its settings the
Barber Institute and the University, a martial arts centre on the Pershore Road in Stirchley, and even my home suburb
of Hall Green etc., rather than London, Los Angeles or Paris. . .
But this is just peripheral. This second novel by James Brogden is even more readable than THE NARROWS. It is original, fast-paced and exciting. As you probably know I usually read SF, and while I'm sure the author is embraced by the SF fraternity, it is not SF; nor is it fantasy (in the sense of magic, wizards or dragons). It's the sort of indefinable novel that almost seems in a genre of its own; and in that Brogden joins a select list of luminaries like Christopher Priest and the late lamented Robert Holdstock. (Indeed, Priest has his 'Dream Archipelago' of imaginary islands, and Brogden's Tourmaline Archipelago is certainly the stuff of dreams – quite literally.) Here’s what James wrote in his own blog at http://jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/its-all-gone-tourmaline-shaped.html ‘Its full name is the Tourmaline Archipelago, and it's only a small part of a much larger parallel world which we sometimes access when we dream too deeply, become comatose, or enter hallucinatory or psychotic states of mind. So far so standard fantasy trope. The problem comes for the people who live there because our dreams superimpose themselves on their reality, forcing them to become unwilling participants in our fantasies and nightmares. This process is called Subornation. The people of Tourmaline do not like this, and in the country of Oraille they have developed a specialised branch of the police called the Department for Counter Subornation, whose agents are tasked with exorcising us from their world.
This is complicated by the fact that sometimes people from their world get caught up in this exorcism and end up back in our world, trapped inside the bodies of the dreamers. A kind of possession, if you like. They too have an ability to impose their reality on ours – albeit to a much more limited degree. They in turn are hunted by an organisation called the Hegemony which wants to exploit them for their powers.
In a doldrum region of the Archipelago called the Flats, there is an island-sized raft called Stray, populated by people from our world who for one reason or another have never woken up. Bobby Jenkins finds himself there with no memory of who he is or how he got there - all he knows is that he's in love with a woman from Stray who can't leave, and somehow they have to defend themselves against forces in both worlds that want to do 'orrible things to them.’ If I had to say anything negative (as reviewers are required to do, if honest) I'd say that it is very complex, and one needs to concentrate! There are many characters, and when a name pops up after 50 or 70 pages you have to think "Now who is that? Where did they come in?" Especially if a surname is used and we are used to a first name. . . And it takes place in two worlds: our own, and the one of dreams – and nightmares – in which people also have different names, so again you need to keep track of these. But overall I strongly recommend this book.
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.
MOTHERSHIP by John Brosnan
The concept of the generation ship has a long history in the Science Fiction field. As societies aboard them evolve,
problems will inevitably arise within the populations, providing endless possibilities to drive the plot along.
Urba is a generation ship, constructed to carry the entire population of our Solar System away from a dying sun. Sufficient clues are given in early pages for the reader to appreciate the setting even though the majority of the inhabitants do not. The Elite have arranged the world into discrete territories. Warfare is allowed, but anyone likely to set up an empire is severely curtailed. The Elite are definitely in control, until the Day of Wonder when power fails and Elite aircars fall out of the sky. It seems an ideal opportunity to get one’s own back on the tyrants and hunt down anyone who might possibly be Elite.
In the kingdom of Capelia, the headstrong Prince Kendar decides to venture out on a self-imposed spying mission to find out what is happening in other areas. His father sends Jad, Kendar’s childhood friend with him to keep him out of trouble. More by luck than judgement, they rescue an Elite woman, Alucia, from those who are killing Elite. Kendar falls instantly in love with her. Together they travel to the Citadel, the power centre of the Elite only to find that Urba has been invaded.
This is pure adventure fiction and is entirely plot driven with virtually no depth to the characters. For some readers, this will be enough. The more discerning reader will be dissatisfied. When Alucia explains the true situation, Jad instantly believes her even though he doesn’t understand half of what she means about stars, planets and nuclear reactors, whereas Kendar thinks she is lying or mentally abnormal. Even in the face of evidence he still thinks it is an Elite trick, but as he loves her he is prepared to overlook it. Jad and Kendar are too much at opposite ends of the scale for their attitudes to be completely believable. For someone whose entire upbringing has been almost in a mediaeval framework, Jad is far too accepting of everything Alucia has to say, especially as her kind have always been regarded with suspicion.
Added to this, despite all the obstacles put in their way, they complete their mission comparatively easily. Jad, at one point, wonders why Alucia needs Kendar and himself tagging along. It is a good question, not fully answered, except to add interest to a plot that rushes past at a great rate. There are touches of humour but they are not enough to compensate for the lack of depth.
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 BrownThis 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.
SATAN’S REACH by Eric Brown
This is the second novel in the Weird Space series. It is intended to be a shared world project where different authors
will contribute their own novels to the series (similar to Star Trek or Dr Who books for example). Both this book and the
preceding book, THE DEVIL’S NEBULA have been written by Eric Brown.
In the Weird Space universe, humanity is spread across thousands of worlds, overseen by an autocratic government, The Expansion. There is at present an uneasy truce with the neighbouring aliens, the Vetch. The eponymous Devil’s Nebula and Satan’s Reach are areas in space not directly controlled by either the Vetch or the Expansion. In the first book we were introduced to the “Weird”, an alien race from another dimension who are invading the outer reaches of the human realm. The Weird exist in a number of different forms and in the first book we learned that this included small mind-parasites which could infect and control humans. Seven ships containing these mind- parasites had been sent to Expansion worlds in the past, with some also being sent to the Vetch planets. The only reliable way of detecting an infected human is scanning by a telepath.
The second book starts with a new set of characters than in the first book. We are introduced to Dan Harper, on the run from the Expansion authorities. Sold to them as a child slave, they used his telepathic abilities for espionage and scanning political dissidents. Sickened, he escaped with a valuable ship (which contains secrets he is unaware of) but is pursued by a bounty hunter. His rescue of a young girl from a horrific death by another alien species, the Ajantans generates another set of enemies. In the course of their flight from their various pursuers, they encounter another infected human/Weird colony and only by working with some of their erstwhile enemies can they hope to escape.
This is good old-fashioned space opera, which you don’t need a degree in physics to understand. It is fast-paced and fun with plenty of action and a quick read. I enjoyed this second volume better than the first, where I felt too much time was spent on establishing the various factions (Vetch, humans, Weird etc) at the expense of the characters. Although I enjoyed this book, it is not my favourite Eric Brown novel as it lacks some of the subtleties of his other work, and is a fairly straightforward plot. As a first introduction to Eric Brown, readers would be better directed towards the excellent NECROPATH, HELIX or ENGINEMAN (to name but a few). It will be interesting to see how the series progresses with other writers at the helm as I understand Eric Brown was only contracted to write these first two novels.
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
THE SERENE INVASION by Eric Brown
This is by no mean Eric Brown’s most original novel (and he has written some corkers). It starts with a transparent dome
appearing in Uganda, covering the town of Kallani. It is perhaps unfortunate that the publication of this book
coincided with Spielberg’s Under the Dome serial on TV, which has the same scenario. However, whereas the TV
version remains only over Chester’s Mill, USA, in this book more domes appear over just about every town and city all
over the world. However, these vanish, and vast craft shaped like manta-rays appear in our skies and hover over major
cities. Again, one inevitably thinks of Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END, or the movie Independence Day (which the author
does actually mention at one point). Finally, after briefly vanishing, the eight starships come together ‘like a giant
snowflake’ over the Sahara, where, after a flash and a halo of light, they descend on to the sand – transforming the
desert into an area of rolling meadows and lakes, dotted with low-level domes. This is duplicated elsewhere.
A fairly familiar sfnal scenario, then, so this novel depends mainly upon the story and characters. The main players are: Sally Walsh, a doctor at Kallani when the story opens; Geoff Allen, a freelance photographer sent to cover the story of the alien crafts’ arrival, who is romantically involved with Sally and who has a strange experience with the aliens whilst on an aircraft; billionaire businessman, James Morwell, Jnr., who has some rather unusual sexual preferences but who dispenses millions of dollars to charities and good causes annually; and Ana Devi, an orphan street kid who lives rough on Howrah Station near Delhi, is abused and raped by the gross Sanjeev Vanaputtram, and whose brother Bilal vanishes and later in the book reappears in the USA under a different name in the employ of James Morwell.
The most important theme of this book is the reason for the aliens’ arrival on Earth. Called the S’rene, and therefore known as the Serene, they are here to protect humanity from itself. All over the world, any attempt at violence is prevented; from boxing matches and Sanjeev’s attempt to beat Ani, to attempted bank raids and anything connected with weapons or war. Faceless golden figures appear and inform people that they are ‘wanted’, after which they spend a period of days a month apparently helping the Serene in some way of which they have no memory. These people include Sally and Ana, but not Morwell, who instead is later contacted by a different, blue figure who announces that he is a member of the Obterek race, who are opposed to the Serene and wish to give humanity back their free will (but actually have a different but more sinister agenda). While the Serene (or their representatives, some of who appear to be wholly human but live much longer) are physically present on Earth, the Obterek can only contact us briefly and with difficulty, but require humans in order to carry out their opposition. Meanwhile the Serene have set up enormous, kilometres-high black obelisks (2001, but much bigger?) in various places, which is where their human ‘helpers’ seem to go.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but basically after some resistance the human race seems to accept the Serene’s interference as mainly beneficial and lives in peace. The Moon, Mars and Venus are terraformed, and many people go to live on these worlds. Titan becomes the site of the biggest black obelisk, and again all the ‘chosen ones’ go there to carry out unknown tasks for the Serene. By now you will be thinking ‘There must be a ‘but?”. Well, the fly in the ointment is of course the Obterek, who do their best to disrupt the haven that Earth has become. And some people, like Morwell, do object to the fact that humans, in losing their aggressive and competitive tendencies, also seem to have lost the ability or desire to innovate, create, invent, explore. . . .True, we are now inhabiting many worlds in the Solar System – but we are not doing so under our own initiative; we cannot claim any credit for this. No spaceships designed and built by us; instead we are transported almost instantly, often to habitats which duplicate the homes we left on Earth.
Brown attempts the sort of grand finale, cosmic ending at which Clarke and Asimov, and later Baxter and Reynolds, do so well. But I can’t help feeling that in the hands of Clarke some method would have been found for the human race, while staying at peace, still to retain its independence and creativity, rather than mildly living like sheep! David A Hardy
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.
ARCTIC RISING by Tobias S Buckell
This is a book that has good ideas and a well thought out future. With climate change and global warming, the Arctic
icecap has melted with the exception of the area immediately around the pole. That is only kept frozen by artificial
means and is largely a symbol of the past, a reminder of when the planet was in better shape. The fabled North West
passage has long been opened up to shipping and is the most direct route between Europe and Asia as it runs along a
great arc to the north of Canada.
Anika Duncan is a pilot. That is all that she has ever wanted to be. Her experience is varied but now she is working for the United Nations Polar Guard flying an airship. Airships use less fuel than conventional aircraft and are thus more economical in a world that restricts the uses to which petro-chemicals are put. She and her co-pilot, Tom Hutton, patrol the passage looking, in particular for rogues dumping industrial waste including radio-active materials. When one ship seems to be going a bit too fast and the instruments register radioactivity, they request it to stop for inspection. Instead of complying, the crew opens fire causing the airship to crash, killing Tom. Anika now finds herself part of an action-packed thriller where unknown parties are trying to kill her because she saw the ship and are afraid she will be able to identify the crew. With the aid of some new friends she has to take the fight for liberty and justice outside of the official channels.
There are many readers for whom this kind of fast paced adventure is exactly what they want to read after a difficult day at the workface; however, the discerning will find it flawed. Most of the defects are character driven. Anika is supposed to be a person who is passionate about flying. It is what her life has revolved about to the point that the story starts. As the story progresses, she seems to lose interest in it, regarding aircraft as just another means of getting to where she wants to be.
There is also the problem of Anika herself. She is described as a black lesbian, yet there is no feeling for these character traits, or at times that the character is actually female. If an author is going to write about someone who will stand out in the society they are portrayed against, is would make sense to use those qualities to develop the plot and advance the situations they find themselves in. Here, opportunities are lost almost as if they are forgotten in the course of the plot. A shame as this could have made the book outstanding.
Despite the well-structured future and the pace of the action, I am not sufficiently interested to seek out the next volume in this saga (There has to be one as this ends on a cliff-hanger.)