THE BOOK OF PHOENIX by Nnedi Okorafor
I had high hopes for this book before starting to read it. Firstly, it was on the shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award for the
best SF novel which hopefully indicates a degree of quality. Secondly. with a Nigerian American author, I anticipated
a distinctive and potentially unusual perspective which is something I usually appreciate. Unfortunately, I was severely
disappointed and really struggled to even finish the book. This is the story of Phoenix, a black woman who is an
“accelerated organism”. She is the result of genetic engineering, held captive in Tower 7 and subjected to ongoing
and painful testing. There are other test subjects there, all of whom are non-Caucasian. When the man she loves
apparently dies, she uses her abilities to escape and then embarks on a quest for revenge which ultimately ends with
her devastating the whole world.
I have two major problems with this book, Firstly, I don’t think it is science fiction. The story reads more like a fairy story or fable, which is clearly deliberate and includes mystical elements such as the giant Backbone tree and its seed which she replants back in Africa. Phoenix has abilities to match her name; her body temperature can be raised until she burns everything around her, when she dies she is reborn (even if her body has been destroyed), and she can fly. There is no attempt to provide any scientific plausibility to these abilities and the Phoenix character is more like a comic book superhero (or more accurately super-villain).
My second problem is with the narrative of the book itself. The book is clearly intended as an angry polemic about racism. That in itself is fine but the book lacks subtlety and characters are very much good or evil with little middle ground. I recognise that many of the issues raised are real and important, but having every white person as evil and the only effective response to these issues as violence (with Phoenix showing callous indifference to large scale collateral damage) does them a disservice. There is little if any depth of characterisation and the story is advanced by implausible but convenient “helpers” or a new ability. At every point where Phoenix needs help or information there is “magically” just the right person available, ranging from the Ethiopian couple who feed and shelter her when she first escapes to finding a convenient congressman (who also happens to be the only black congressman in the government) who provides them with security clearance and false papers whenever required. While some might claim that the above issues are intentional and the book is intended as satirical, other books deal far more effectively with the issues raised and with far better writing. In short, I found this a thoroughly unpleasant book to read and would not recommend it.
SOUTH by Frank Owen
SOUTH is a saga of the end of the Southern American states and is set in a world where there is and never was a USA.
Just the Northern and Southern states, no unification, in fact that is a dirty word to the Southerners who when asked
would tell you that a common currency is unification enough. But the Northerners disagree. Eventually there is a
referendum. All inhabitants have to return to their home states and vote. However, knowing that they cannot win this
referendum the Northerners delay declaring the result and secretly build a dividing wall. This starts a civil war which
drags on for many years and is effectively ended when the North unleashes a series of windborne viruses attempting
genocide. Thirty years later the viruses keep on coming and to the few southern survivors the wind is to be feared as it
brings disease and death.
SOUTH vividly describes the horror of life in this harsh, disease-ridden and devastated land following the brothers Garrett and Dyce Jackson as they flee the brutal vigilante law-enforcing clan, the ‘Callahans’. These are led by the vindictive Tye. One night while sheltering from the wind they meet up and join forces with a young woman, Vida, who is on a secret quest of her own. Standing out among other brilliantly described supporting characters is Felix. a reclusive weatherman.
SOUTH is one of those books that seem to start indifferently but quietly and gently it firmly sets its hooks into you and turns out to be an absorbingly excellent read. It is to be commended.
Frank Owen is the pseudonym for two authors – Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer. Diane’s debut novel GARDENING AT NIGHT won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Prize. Alex Latimer is an award winning writer and illustrator whose books have been translated into several languages. Jim Pearce
MUSIC IN THE BONE and other stories by Marion Pitman
This hugely entertaining collection of nineteen stories and a poem is the best of Marion Pitman's fiction from the last
35 years. Almost every piece contains elements of the supernatural, though with a great variety of style and treatment.
There's humour in "The Cupboard of the Winds" (would you like to find a deity living in your airing cupboard?), in "Eyes of God" (full of extreme grotesqueness that shouldn't be taken too seriously), and in "Dead Men's Company" (a new take on sex slaves among 18th century pirates).
Sex, tastefully done, is an ingredient in several stories, notably coupled with music in the title story and in "Saxophony", both told from a female position. "Music in the Bone" is arguably the strongest story here, building tension cleverly with musical performances, couplings and sharp changes of key leading to an unexpected climax.
There are more-or-less traditional ghost stories, including "Out of Season", "Looking Glass", "Christmas Present" and "Forward and Back, Changing Places", though in all of them Pitman manages to surprise the reader (always the most difficult thing about ghost stories).
A surprise ending is not always necessary or suitable. There are folk-tales re-worked here, such as the exquisitely told "The Seal Songs", set in the Hebrides, where the climax is fitting, predictable and not at all disappointing.
Not all the stories make sense, by which I mean that there are wonderfully surreal tales such as "Disposal of the Body", where a visit to a family funeral becomes, by degrees, something entirely different. And there's "District to Upminster" which, if you took it seriously, would inhibit you from catching another train ever again. And I suppose that "Overnight Bus", which is about many things including stalking, travelling in South Africa and cricket, deserves a mention here for an astonishingly surreal dream sequence in the middle of it.
To complete the genres there's SF ("Sunlight in Spelling", with enough good ideas for a novel), a really unpleasant horror story of the "payback time" sort ("Indecent Behaviour") and a fantasy western ("Meeting at the Silver Dollar").
What's exceptional about this collection are the arrangement and the poetic skills of the author. Longer and shorter stories alternate, though not slavishly – and I urge you to read the book in the order it's presented. As a poet, Pitman has a great talent for finding the right word and creating the desired atmosphere, while maintaining a tight hold on her material. She never lets style obscure plot or clarity and she knows that one of the greatest secrets of writing fine short stories is brevity – cutting out all repetitions and inessentials.
You can always judge the quality of an author collection by its weakest story. This is a collection without weak stories.
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS (The Skyscraper Throne 3) by Tom Pollock
This is the final book in the Skyscraper Throne trilogy (reviews of the previous two books can be found in Newsletters
518 and 520). In this urban fantasy, the two main protagonists, Beth and Pen have been re-united after Pen’s return
from the mirror world of London Under Glass (Book 2 – THE GLASS REPUBLIC).
Unfortunately, the goddess of London, Mater Viae has also returned and she wants to reclaim her throne. In the process she is re-making the city and ordinary inhabitants are dying, trapped in superheated “Fever Streets” or kidnapped by Mater Viae’s creatures, the Claylings for unknown sinister purposes.
In the previous books, thanks to the weird alchemy of the Chemical Synod, Beth had taken on many aspects of the goddess and her health is now linked to the health of the city and the damage caused by Mater Viae means that both Beth and the city are dying. The beleaguered Beth and Pen and her small group of friends must find a way to defeat Mater Viae.
The only alternative remaining to them is to make allies of old enemies but can they be trusted and what will the ultimate cost be to Beth and Pen?
As I have said before Tom Pollock has a vivid imagination and I have thoroughly enjoyed these books. In particular, he has brought a freshness to the urban fantasy field that does not rely on old traditional “creatures”. However, in OUR LADY OF THE STREETS I did feel that the author was to some extent a victim of his own success. In providing us with so many themes and plot strands, in the final book it feels like there is not enough space to address everything in sufficient detail. There are still plenty of good ideas but some characters and situations who the reader cares about are given little space especially the people of the THE GLASS REPUBLIC and Pen and Espel’s romance. Also, the character, Filius Viae from the first book (THE CITY’S SON), although involved to some decree is left to some extent in limbo. The story still has plenty of action and is well-paced and easy to read. However, and again I think this is due to lack of space, the “big bad” Mater Viae is kept “off-stage” for far too long and does not feel like a nuanced villain.
Despite my caveats, if you like urban fantasy I would still recommend this series. Tom Pollock, to my mind has a great deal of talent and given this promising start I look forward to watching him progress.
THE GLASS REPUBLIC (Skyscraper Throne 2) by Tom Pollock
THE GLASS REPUBLIC is the second in the Skyscraper Throne series. The first book THE CITY’S SON was reviewed
in Newsletter 518 (November 2014). In that book, teenage Beth meets the son (named Fil) of Mater Viae, the missing
Queen of supernatural London. She helps Fil to defeat the Crane King who was threatening London and free her
friend, Parva who had been captured by the Wire Mistress, General of the Crane King’s army.
In this sequel, we take a step back and concentrate on the injured Parva who has been left scarred and mutilated. In many ways I find Parva (nicknamed Pen) a more interesting character. She is quieter and less confident than Beth and struggles to re-integrate back into normal life at school. Without Beth as her defender, and with her self- confidence even lower because of her scarred face, she is left alone to face the bullies who now taunt her even more.
However the magic still touches her life. In the previous novel, we were introduced to the Mirror World. If you step between two facing mirrors, creating an infinity of reflections then you generate a mirror doppelganger who exists in the Mirror World (called London under Glass) behind the mirrors. Inadvertently this happens and Pen’s mirror image becomes her new friend and solace, conversing at mirrors until she goes missing and the reflected room shows a pool of blood and a bloody handprint. With little to keep her in this world, Pen makes a bargain with the mysterious alchemists, the Chemical Synod to allow her to cross over to London under Glass to try and rescue her reflection. On the other side she finds a world where her scars make her beautiful and a major celebrity. Everyone assumes she is her mirror twin who is being used as a pawn by the ruling Mirrostocracy. Befriending a young worker, a steeple Jill called Espel, she begins to uncover the truth behind her twin’s disappearance and the brutal and repressive Mirrorstocracy. This climaxes with the revealing of the dreadful secret which keeps the ruling class in power.
As I said of THE CITY’S SON, Tom Pollock is an author full of ideas and imagination. He is excellent at worldbuilding and inventing creatures which do not rely on old tropes and fairy tales. If I had any criticism of THE CITY’S SON it was almost too full of ideas. In this book I liked the tighter focus on Pen and her new friendship with Espel. It was a bold step to shift the focus away from Beth and Fil but it works well. That said the strange world of London under Glass and its strange denizens again shows his talent for worldbuilding but it is the growth and increasing independence of Pen which I particularly liked. The author is clearly improving his craft and his characters have increased depth whilst still retaining the pace and action of a good story. Also the occasional viewpoint shift which niggled me in the first book is now gone. This is in my view a better novel than the first (which I thoroughly enjoyed). The characters and the themes (particularly learning to value yourself and the superficial judgement of others based on physical appearance) are likely to appeal particularly to a young adult market but also to a wider market including fans of urban fantasy.
CITY WATCH TRILOGY by Terry Pratchett
This book consists of Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Feet o f Clay.
There seems to be, nowadays, three camps where Terry Pratchett is concerned. The first, which I fall into, is the one that loves his work, the second is the one that doesn’t like his work and the third, the one that is dwindling almost daily, the one where people have not read his work.
Saying that, I thought this book would be a nice easy book to read and review and, to be honest, it was very easy to read. It is also simple to review. It is great!
The fact that three of the best of his Discworld stories are put into one volume made it a lot easier to read them in continuation, whereas the first time round I had to wait for two or maybe three years between stories.
Guards! Guards! The first novel of this trilogy introduces us to Captain Vimes, Carrot, Nobby Nobbs and Sargent Colon of the City Watch, and Lady Ramkin, who breeds swamp dragons, raises funds for the Sunshine sanctuary for Sick Dragons and owns half o f Ankh-Morpork. Someone has summoned a dragon into the city and it is appearing, disintegrating people and burning houses, then disappearing again. Vimes knows there is a crime involved but doesn’t quite know which one. And since the arrival of Carrot something strange has been happening to the Watch; they have been trying to catch criminals.
Men at Arms continues the story of the Watch. Vimes is retiring and marrying Lady Ramkin. Someone has stolen the Gonne from the Assassin’s Guild and now they are taking pot-shots at important people in the city, including Sam Vimes. And if that wasn’t enough, he only has until noon tomorrow to crack the case.
Feet of Clay finalises the trilogy. Vimes is now Commander of the Watch and Carrot is the Captain. Someone is murdering seemingly innocent people in the city. They are also poisoning the Patrician. Nobby Nobbs has been made an Earl. When the city golems start committing suicide Vimes has yet another problem on his hands.
Terry Pratchett has three of his best works in one volume and if you have never read any o f his work before this is probably one of the best ways to start reading the Discworld novels. But then again, I am a little biased.
THE GRADUAL by Christopher Priest
Christopher Priest is a very stylish writer. Not only is he able to tell an enthralling story without the verbosity of some
modern writers, he fills the prose with subtlety and reaches out to the intellect of the reader. THE GRADUAL is a very
Priest first visited the Dream Archipelago in a series of stories written between 1978 and 1999 when they were collected together in a volume bearing that title. The Archipelago consists of thousands of islands mostly scattered across an equatorial sea. Although many have names, it has proved impossible to map them. No attempt provides the same pattern but each island has its own characteristics. The 2011 novel, THE ISLANDERS, is written as a gazetteer of some of the islands throughout which a narrative unfolds. The sequence begins to show in more detail the anomalies visitors have to contend with. In THE GRADUAL, some of these are explored rather than explained.
This novel is narrated by Alesandro Sussken. He is a native of the continental country of Glaund. His country has been at war with its neighbour for a long time. Tired of bombing each other’s civilian populations, they have agreed to fight the war on the uninhabited Southern continent. Each youth is expected to do military service and Alesandro’s older brother is waved off with the expectation that he will return in four years. It doesn’t happen. Alesandro gets on with his life, making a name for himself as a composer. It is this that gains him a place on a cultural exchange tour of part of the archipelago. It is only when he returns after the tour of nine weeks that he discovers there is a problem. In Glaund, eighteen months have passed. His house is closed up with bills left unpaid, his wife has moved out and his parents have died. Alesandro is philosophical. He cannot understand what has happened but there is nothing can do about it. So, he gets on with his life, composing and teaching. Then, at the age of fifty, he gets an offer he cannot refuse. The Generalissima, leader of the country, honours him by asking him to create the music for a gala celebration. He will be paid more money than he has ever earned in his life. She outlines the pattern that she wants his composition to take. Refusal is likely to be taken as traitorous behaviour and since the country is under martial law, this probably means execution. Alesandro accepts the money, transfers as much as he can to an off-shore account and flees into the Dream Archipelago.
As Alessandro begins his travels, he starts to understand what happened all those years ago on the concert tour. The archipelago is threaded through with a gradual. This speeds up or slows down the passage of time. He needs the help of the young people he noticed hanging around the Shelterate building that acted as customs and immigration on his previous visit. These guides help adjust the time lost and gained by circuitous routes so that overall expected time progression is maintained.
THE GRADUAL has a tightly controlled narrative where some of the plot twists are as unexpected as the gradual itself. Some follow logically from the narrative but Priest is the kind of writer who will happily play with the minds of characters and readers. To explain here the themes that run through the archipelago would be to spoil the satisfaction of the reader as they work it out.
Alessandro developed a fascination with the islands of the Dream Archipelago from the moment he glimpsed the nearest from an attic window, even though the history of his country denied their existence. As a reader, I hope you will become equally fascinated by them. This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.
THE QUANTUM THIEF by Hannu Rajaniemi
Rajaniemi is a Finnish scientist living and working in the UK and has had a number of short stories published. This is
the first fruit of a three book deal landed on the basis of a 24-page sample.
It seems initially a strange and difficult book to get into. It opens with a professional thief, Jean le Flambeur, held in a strange glass prison where he is repeatedly pitted in competition against various entities - frequently replicas of himself - with death (and subsequent revival) as the penalty for losing. This is intended to lead to his eventual redemption. Then he is rescued by a woman from the outer solar system in a sentient spidership who takes him to Mars, where he had lived before under a different identity. Here he will be expected to pay for his rescue by committing a final crime.
It gradually becomes apparent that life in ‘the moving city of the Oubliette’ is rooted in an elaborate computer system referred to as exomemory which stores all data – the environment, senses, thoughts, everything. Individual personalities can be downloaded into reprinted bodies and can exchange memories with each other through encrypted channels. They are allowed time in these bodies on the basis of time spent downloaded into construction and maintenance machines and the like; can be resurrected if they die, and can return with new bodies and new identities. On the other hand, murder can be committed by scrambling the exomemory record of an individual, thus completely excising his or her personality.
One way of looking at this book is as a description of a future of amazing possibilities, a futuristic setting where personalities, bodies and memories are digital, changeable and fluid. This setup leads to new ways of looking at such issues as self-identity, individuality, personal privacy and even death. In fact, the reader is led into a maze where nothing is as it seems and it is almost impossible to determine what (or who) is real and what is not. At the same time, it is a story on a classic theme, a conflict between a thief and a detective, but in the kind of setting first created by William Gibson and progressed by the likes of Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan.
Whether it merits the fervent enthusiasm with which it has been greeted in some circles may in my view be debatable. There are a lot of advanced ideas to understand, some of which are only partially explained, if at all, so that a great deal is demanded of the reader. Nevertheless it is certainly an extraordinary piece of technical SF.
THE JAPANESE DEVIL FISH GIRL AND OTHER UNNATURAL ATTRACTIONS by Robert Rankin
Firstly, I would never have picked up this book from Rog’s Table Boutique of Fine Review Books if it weren’t for the
cover. It’s fantastic, and for those of you who aren’t aware, crafted by Mr Rankin himself. What a refreshing cover to
see, and I can’t remember when I was last taken by a cover enough to start judging the book by it, but I did, and
looked forward to a fine read.
THE JAPANESE DEVIL FISH GIRL is an alternate history steampunk, set after H.G. Wells’s WAR OF THE WORLDS. Wrecked Martian ships have been back engineered and Mars is a part of the British Empire. The key character is George Fox, a hapless but loveable young lad frequently fleeced and put-upon by his boss, Professor Coffin, as they travel around with their Unnatural Attractions show, which exhibits amongst other things, a pickled Martian. George meets Ada Lovelace, who also initially attempts to fleece him, and the three of them make their way through a world full of dirigibles, goggles and top hats on an adventure looking for the best exhibit of all, the Japanese Devil Fish Girl.
Firstly, if you are not a fan of steampunk, you probably won’t like this. If you are a fan of steampunk, you may not like your steampunk flavoured with double measure of Rankin. I’ve come to realise that steampunk is quite the fashion these days and for steampunks it is almost a lifestyle choice (if the reader is not aware of this phenomenon, I suggest googling ‘steampunk’ into your steampowered computing device for further insight). Consequently, throughout the book there are many references that will make steampunkers happy: goggles, little ladies top hats, funny little machines that puff steam and do miraculous things, bustles and noticeably dastardly fiends and villains.
The story trips along at a wonderful pace, full of Rankin’s witty observations, delightful prose, jokes and pure silliness. There are appearances from many historical characters of note, including Mr Churchill, Mr Babbage and Mr Tesla.
If I have any criticisms at all, it’s that sometimes a scene seems to have been built to make a joke – a funny joke, but nevertheless perhaps one that the reader may have seen some distance off. This book is simply fun to read.
THE MECHANICAL MESSIAH AND OTHER MARVELS OF THE MODERN AGE by Robert Rankin
I should probably start by saying that it helps if you have read THE JAPANESE DEVIL FISH GIRL, as while this book is
not exactly a sequel it is set in the same ‘universe’.
That is, the War of the Worlds (and WW2) has happened, the world’s technology is
basically steampunk, enlightened (literally) by Mr. Nikola Tesla’s new electricity, and we are regularly visited by
Venusians and Jupiterians, or Jovians. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill the Martians were of course defeated
in the first Worlds War, and we then went to Mars and committed genocide on the rest of the Martian race. . .
Also, if the Rankin novels you have read previously have been from the Brentford Trilogy series (of which there are far
more than three) and you’re expecting more of the
exploits of John Omally and Jim Pooley, centred around the Flying Swan, you’re in for a surprise. While none of Bob’s
books can really be said to be science fiction as we know it (Jim), he has clearly embraced the steampunk ethic and
has really entered into the spirit of it.
The main characters here are Cameron Brown, a private detective, whose nemesis is Commander Case of Scotland
Yard; Alice Lovell – the Alice of Wonderland fame, who takes to the stage of the Electric Alhambra with her trained
kiwi birds; Lord Andrew Ditchfield, the Alhambra’s owner, and Colonel Katterfelto, who has now acquired the talking
monkey, Darwin, who first appeared in the previous novel. But we also meet Joseph Merrick, better known as The
Elephant Man, Aleister Crowley (who requires no introduction), and a sinister, black-caped mystery figure who intends
to take over the world and bring it to its knees in worship of him alone. Indeed, all worlds. But Mr. Bell has found the
Ring of Moses, which the Beast needs in order to complete his dastardly plans, and much of the story concerns the
Beast’s attempts to wrest it from him. In passing, we also meet Charles Babbage, who is responsible for the amazingly
intricate workings of the Electric Alhambra, and Surgeon General Sir Frederick Treves, who looks after Joseph Merrick
and tries to thwart his many rather malicious practical jokes. Not to mention The Travelling Formbys, so I won’t. (By the
way, if the dates of some of the characters don’t seem to coincide, don’t worry about it. The author doesn’t.)
Colonel Katterfelto has already constructed one Mechanical Messiah, in Wormcast, Arizona, but it failed to become
imbued with divine energies as expected. Thanks to Darwin the citizens of Wormcast took it instead to be a demon
employed by the Antichrist, and it all ended, Frankenstein-like, in blazing torches and flames. As a result he is reduced
taking his Katterfelto’s Clockwork Minstrels to the stage, to join Alice’s ferocious kiwis. But he is not deterred: thanks to
skilful writing, it turns out that a missing ingredient, essential to bringing his creation to life, is a form of gold called
Magonian, found lying around only on the surface of Venus. So, of course, a hunting expedition to Venus is joined by
the colonel and his monkey. Here Alice also has an encounter with a White Rabbit.
Many adventures ensue, and it all ends, as you may expect, with a mighty battle between the Powers of Darkness and
Light. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you enjoy a rollicking adventure tale with a good few laughs thrown in,
this is for you! I can’t end, however, without a word of praise for the cover art, which in the case of both books is (of
course) by the author. On this book in particular he has excelled himself, with a magnificent line drawing; and chapter
headers, to boot.
WAITING FOR GODALMING by Robert Rankin
Oh dear. Robert Rankin has started repeating himself If you are a regular reader of his work you may think this is a silly
statement, since much of his humour is based on repetition, running jokes, recurring characters. . . I have read all his
books, I think. I got the 'Brentford Triangle' trilogy after his first talk to the Brum Group on 15 February 1985 (data
courtesy William McCabe), and have built up my paperback library since his last (somewhat controversial) visit. The
guy makes me laugh. 1 well remember the looks 1 got from the other passengers as I sat on the sundeck of the Eclipse
cruise ship last July, chortling to myself. Well I had to cheer myself up, having seen nothing of the eclipse but a black
However, in several of his books (eg. THE BOOK OF ULTIMATE TRUTHS) he has a character called Cornelius Murphy, who has a very small friend called Tuppe. In THE MOST AMAZING MAN WHO EVER LIVED, God has closed down Hell. Etc. In several of the books one of the characters (sometimes Elvis) has a Guardian Sprout living in his head (well, you see, God ran out of people, so had to start using other creatures, ending up with vegetables. It's all quite logical.) In at least one book, only our heroes can see that some humans are really monstrous devils in disguise.
In this latest novel the main character is Icarus Smith, who encounters a very small man called Johnny Boy. And both Heaven and Hell have been closed down. And only they can see that there are monsters among us. Sound familiar?
Rankin goes further though. God is murdered (by his wife, Eartha, or his son Colin?), and another recurring character, Lazlo Woodbine, an archetypal detective who always works in the first person and only does four locations — his office, the bar, the alleyway and the rooftop — is brought in to solve the murder. Or is he really Icarus Smith's brother, under the delusion that he is Lazlo Woodbine?
If you want to find out, get this book. It's still a good read, and OK for a few laughs, but as you may have gathered, it's not as original as his earlier works
INVENT-10N by Rod Rees
It is always good to see an author who is prepared to experiment, and to do it with relative success. So many avant
garde novels fail at the first hurdle, which is to entertain the reader at the same time as playing with words, concepts
and formats. One of the best in recent years is THE RAW SHARK TEXTS by Steven Hall.
The background to the story in INVERT-10N is fifteen years on from now and considering the current refugee status in Europe, scarily prophetic. Certain towns such as Blackpool and Scarborough have been given over to migrants or Gees. These have been fenced off from the rest of the country. UK citizens can go in, Gees cannot leave. Although life in the enclaves is tough, they are free from the constant surveillance the rest of the country has to put up with. Political correctness has gone mad. Just swearing or dressing inappropriately can earn demerits or bennies (Benign Index Score). Too many and you get punished. So to let your hair down, you visit the enclaves where surveillance is banned.
The two main characters are Jennifer Moreau and Sebastian Davenport. They are total opposites but are both keeping a journal. The former is the singer in a band – Jenni-Fur and the Joy Poppers. Jenni-Fur performs in the enclaves where she can dress provocatively and “diss” the government in the lyrics of her songs. She is a kind of futuristic punk. In her day-job, she is a journalist. Sebastian works for the government on the National Protection Agency. Jenni-Fur writes her journal on an old fashioned typewriter because there is no way that it can be hacked and her privacy violated. Sebastian uses conventional methods, such as a computer for his. Hers is full of politically incorrect comments and slang, his is written in proper English.
The event that takes them both to Scarborough is when Ivan Nitko, a Russian deportee, wins the World Stone Skimming Championship. Not remarkable in itself but the question of cheating is raised. Both Jenni-Fur and Sebastian are sent to investigate. Ivan is quite open. He won with Invent-10n. The device generates power using only water. This is almost free energy. Ivan, a recluse, appoints Jenni-Fur as his agent and publicist. Sebastian is instructed to get examples of the device so that government labs can dissect and reproduce them. Ivan is very happy for them to try. Ivan will supply as many units as are required for political concessions but he has to activate all units. All sides see an advantage and are willing to give concessions.
To separate the two opposing accounts of events, the journals are presented in different type faces, as if they were produced in the ways suggested. The extracts are interspersed with other items – security transcripts, news reports, propaganda, history texts and other items which together provide a snapshot of the future Rees has envisioned. Some of these enhance the book, others are over-wordy and boring. To have impact there should perhaps have been less of them. The other problem is that Jenni-Fur’s journal is highly spiced with slang and although this is meant to give street-cred to the writing, it is rather overwhelming, especially at the start.
This book is very mixed in its success. Some readers will be enthralled, others irritated by it. The vision of the future is bleak but indicative of the thinking of some sections of the population. Above all, this book is a brave attempt at being different and, like Jenni-Fur, Rees does not want to follow the herd.
BEYOND THE AQUILA RIFT by Alastair Reynolds
As this volume is billed as the Best of Alastair Reynolds, the expectation is that all the stories are good. In fact, they
are excellent, and they are all science fiction.
Any writer of hard SF has a problem – how to get characters out of the solar system. In the old days, the most popular method was the ‘bullshit’ drive. Forget the physics, forget the technology, just put the spaceship into gear and go. While ramping up the warp factor might be fine for Star Trek, fiction writers these days try to think the problem through. Sometimes they stay with the physics we currently understand, and stick to sub-light mechanisms, or explore other ways of getting from place to place. In these stories, Reynolds has explored a number of techniques.
In many of Reynold’s novels, humanity has expanded out from the solar system and has divided into factions. Most use some kind of technology to increase their abilities but the Ultras have gone to extremes often becoming more machine that human. The Conjoiners have used technology to become almost a hive mind. In this universe, lighthuggers are the space ships of choice. They can travel at near the speed of light but never faster. They are powered by C(onjoiner)-drives. ‘Great Wall Of Mars’ takes the REVELATION SPACE time-line back to when the Conjoiners were feared and quarantined on Mars. The Great Wall was designed as a terraforming agent with a breathable atmosphere within it. The Conjoiners keep trying to escape and Nevil Clavain is sent to give them a final warning – if they try again, the Conjoiners will be wiped out. Those who have read the novels will know that this doesn’t happen. In ‘Weather’ the title character is a Conjoiner separated from the rest of her nest. She is rescued from a pirate ship. It is through her that we learn some of the secrets of the C-drive.
Two other stories are set in the same universe, using the same ship technology, though that is a minor part events. ‘Diamond Dogs’ involves a group persuaded that their skills are what is needed to conquer a strange artefact on a distant planet. The spire consists of a vast series of rooms through which you can only pass by solving a mathematical or spacial problem. Failure to do so results in death. ‘The Last Log Of The Lachrimosa’ takes the crew to a distant planet in search of salvage or alien artefacts – anything that can be made to turn a profit.
Any system that has an origin on Earth, tends to accept the concept that FTL is not possible. In ‘Thousandth Night’, the people who gather to share experiences at a reunion have each been travelling the universe for two hundred thousand years. They are actually all splinters of the same personality and the occasion is to merge experiences. Then Purslane realises that Burdock has related false memories as they suggest that he and Campion were in the same place at the same time. This story is set against the same background as Reynolds’ novel HOUSE OF SUNS.
The idea of the ramscoop to power space ships is a relatively well known one, with the engine gathering interstellar dust and thrusting it out the other end as a propulsion system. In ‘The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice’ Peter, the narrator, is desperate to get off station and takes a berth on the ramscoop, Iron Lady as apprentice to the surgeon. He is the only true human, as most of the crew are mechanically enhanced or are lobots, criminals whose independent function has been removed. Unfortunately for Peter, he finds it is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire as he has signed on to the most notorious pirate ship in the sector.
Where the plot of the story needs FTL travel between star systems, the methods rely on discovered alien technology. The aliens themselves have long disappeared but the technology still works. In ‘Minla’s Flowers’, relatively small ships can travel the Waynet which acts like a fast-moving current between places. When Merlin finds himself thrown out of the Waynet, he heads for a nearby planet to affect repairs. Minla is a small girl when he arrives but when he discovers that the planet has only seventy years before a branch of the Waynet bisects and destroys the sun, he offers just enough technology to enable Minla’s people to develop the means to escape.
‘Beyond The Aquila Rift’ also uses alien technology. This time it is a network of Apertures. These are important when something goes wrong, and The Blue Goose ends up somewhere it isn’t meant to be, and so far off the main network that there may be a problem getting back. ‘Fury’ uses another, unexplained, method designated skip-space. The details are unnecessary as the story is about the bodyguard of the Emperor of the Radiant Commonwealth. He travels long distances between stars in order to discover the person behind the assassination attempt on the Emperor and at the same time discovers his origins. Although ‘Zima Blue’ is set against the background of a different universe, it is also an origin story. This time it is the artist, Zima, who tells a reporter of his search for his origins as he embarks on his final piece of conceptual art.
Of the remaining seven stories, all are far future science fiction of the highest calibre and although some of them would need space travel to get the protagonists to the place where the story takes place, it is largely irrelevant to the plot. Although many authors use different means to travel long distances in space, it is unusual to have so many explored in one volume.
Those who know Reynolds’ work will be delighted with this volume, any who don’t will find this a good place to begin exploring.
CENTURY RAIN by Alastair Reynolds
This book has really stuck in my memory, which, considering the number of books I have been reading, is quite a feat!
The plot in a nutshell, is that nanotechnology has ruined Earth. Verity Auger, an archaeologist, makes a disastrous
field trip down to the planet from her space home, and to make amends, has to take part in a dangerous mission -
trying out a backdoor worm hole into an unstable alien transit system (all is eventually explained fully!), thus ending
up in Paris of the 1950’s. But is all as it seems - is this history as we know it or something weirdly different? There is a
bit of everything in this book - love story, alternate history, hard SF terminology. It even reads like a kind of space
opera at times, especially near the end, where there seem to be lots of spaceships rushing about, and chases, and
characters being killed off then not killed off, and everything becomes political - to my mind the plot started to unravel
a bit at this point and I had to start concentrating on what was going on!
The characters were very vividly drawn - the Paris-based central character is a bit of a jazz-playing, washed-up detective with no motivation in life, and Reynolds does a good job bringing him and the characters he gets mixed up with, such as Verity, nicely to life. I also liked the way the perspective switched between the two of them - rather than focussing too heavily on one side. Their eventual romance reads like something out of some old-fashioned love film - CASABLANCA maybe. A couple of characters however seemed to vanish rather disappointingly (whatever happened to his business partner, who disappears late on in the book?), but while this may or may not have been deliberate, it added nicely to the theme that the world as we know it may be fragile and unstable, and not what we are expecting.
In fact, Reynolds brings lots of ideas and themes into the book, which is why it is hard to fit it into a genre (though noir SF was mentioned somewhere, and that sounds quite apt), but his strong imagination is evident throughout. He does well to hold it all together and quite tightly too - apart from that bit towards the end there is no visible drifting off or digressions from the two main streams and the tension of the storyline, and my attention was held throughout. It is only my first of his books that I have read, so I cannot compare it to any of his others, but he has said it is a departure of sorts from his usual output (despite the usual themes of nanotechnology and frozen worlds, and the ‘all is not as it seems’ theme), so I will be interested to try some of his past (and future) work out. At 500+ pages it looks like a bit of a major undertaking, but don’t let the thickness of it put you off, it is a wonderful page-turner and an engrossing read.
GALACTIC NORTH by Alastair Reynolds
Here we have a collection of stories set in the universe of REVELATION SPACE. In an afterword the author offers a
brief essay describing his interest in the writing of Future Histories, which are a not uncommon theme in SF, and this is
his. The stories here, five previously published and three all-new, do not provide a full and continuous account of
human history in the Revelation Space universe, but rather a series of snapshots, adding to and illuminating his
previous works. In particular, there is some attention to the time when humankind is beginning to expand out from the
Solar System. As such, the book would certainly provide a useful introduction to the series for a reader not yet familiar
with it, as well as a supplement helpful to one who was.
Reynolds is a writer well and truly in the grand tradition of adventurous Space Opera, a worthy inheritor of the mantle previously worn by the likes of Heinlein, Clarke and others too numerous to mention. His imagination literally knows no bounds and his stories are replete with super-science, amazing technology and advanced cosmology.
And as if that were not enough, he is a highly accomplished practitioner of the craft of writing as well. It is hard to imagine how he could improve.
There is one thing I have noticed however. His previous books, especially in the Revelation Space series, have always had a significant touch of darkness about them, although that has usually been counterbalanced by the glowing excitement of the storytelling. At the shorter length of these stories the darkness holds sway much more strongly and sometimes develops further towards the frankly horrific. This is not necessarily a problem per se, but needs to be mentioned as part of conveying an overall impression of the work.
(Incidentally, the keen reader is promised another Revelation Space novel next year, and probably there are even more to come in the future.) So, then, a terrific book, which has the potential to appeal equally to a reader already familiar with the universe in which it is set as well as one new to the scene. Very highly recommended, especially in view of the modest price.
ON THE STEEL BREEZE by Alastair Reynolds
The trilogy is a strange creature and is constantly evolving. The original concept was to have three books all telling
the same events but from radically different points of view. The framework was concise and enclosed.
Then readers and publishers wanted more of characters they had come to love. Authors, too, discovered more that they wanted to say. Sometimes it was to develop the characters in different directions, sometimes it was to produce more of the same. In some cases, the trilogy grew into a series some of which appeared to have no finite
ending and the characters remained ageless. Mostly, each book can be read in isolation, in any order. A variation is the trilogy that is one large novel which has to be split into separate tomes, not only because of the sheer volume of words but because the cost of
buying separate volumes is greater than what can be reasonably asked for one. The worst of these are fantasy and appear to end mid-sentence, leading to frustration and impatience as reader is denied the next instalment for a period of up to a year. Some writers, particularly SF writers are developing a new form of the trilogy. The potential for the range in time, distance and technology allows a more expansive view. The
volumes of the trilogy are set at different points on the projected time-line of a future history. Characters may or may not be continuous but there is a definite connection. Paul McAuley and Peter F. Hamilton have used this technique. So has Alastair Reynolds.
Reynolds’ earlier novel, BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH,
introduced the Akinya family. After the collapse of the ‘Western’ nations of the Northern Hemisphere, African entrepreneurs were able to take advantage of the gaps left behind. The Akinyas accumulated a huge fortune by investing in renewable technologies. In BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH younger members of the family embark on what is effectively a treasure hunt, following the clues left behind by their grandmother Eunice, in order to discover their inheritance. The novel introduced a remarkable
set of off-world societies. Elephants played a part in the psyche of the characters, as do the people who have chosen to adapt their bodies to an aquatic lifestyle. These are links between the Akinyas in the two novels.
In ON THE STEEL BREEZE technology has moved on. People, although not immortal, have increased their longevity greatly. Humanity has headed out for the stars, aiming to colonise a particular planet that would require generation ships to reach if life-spans were as short as they are now – Reynolds does not believe in the development of FTL drives or short-cuts through wormholes. Chiku Akinya has a choice. She can stay on
Earth and live a quiet, comfortable life, she can head out after Eunice Akinya’s ship with the prospect of finding a way to unlock the physics of space travel, or she can go with the colonists as part of the expeditionary ark to the planet of Crucible. The solution is for Chiku to be cloned, have her personality stripped down and rebuilt into the three new Chikus, and be in three places at once. Chiku Yellow, who stays on Earth, turned off
the link that exchanged knowledge with her counterparts. She would have remained in the situation of not knowing their fate indefinitely except that she is approached by one of the Aquatics who say they need her help.
Chiku Green, who went after Eunice’s ship, did return from her mission but is effectively dead. It is possible to retrieve her memories but only if Chiku Yellow is willing.
Once the process for sharing memories is unblocked, she is able to exchange memories with her other third. By this means we get an understanding of what is happening on the fleet ships heading for the Crucible. These are hollowed out asteroids and have been accelerating a long time. The problem is that they cannot slow them down. The original plan had been to work on the problem in flight but after an accident that destroyed one of the ships, the government banned further research into the problem.
Both Chikus have other issues to contend with. High level sentient AIs have been banned. Any found will be destroyed. This is to protect humanity from possible subjugation. They are good at hiding. The one that has survived will do anything to remain extant. The one in the solar system has sent a part of itself with the ark. Both parts not only are good at surviving but also keeping information from the humans they were originally designed to serve. Both Chikus have nasty surprises in store for them. They have one advantage, Eunice and her forward planning.
Reynolds has created a highly complex scenario which has the asset of being a very believable forecast of future human development with enough space from now to make it feasible. It also moves away from the Americanised future by considering a resurgence of Africa as a centre of civilisation. He is also a proponent of the school of science that keep their space exploration within the bounds of the Theory of Relativity. Travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere takes time so other, more possible technological developments are envisaged to enhance the plausibility of what is an exciting thriller, the outcome of which is never certain. The book is beautifully written and the characters react naturally.
While it is not necessary to have read BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH, some of the subtleties here will be understood better if you have.
POSEIDON’S WAKE by Alastair Reynolds
When I first picked up POSEIDON’S WAKE from amongst those offered for review at the BRUM Group meeting I was
informed that it was the third in a series. The first volume entitled BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH being published in
2012 and the second ON THE STEEL BREEZE in 2013. Fortunately I had already read the previous two volumes in
this series. In fact as I progressed through this book I found that as the current tale unwound Alastair Reynolds provided
all I needed to know about the back story. This would ensure that new readers to the series would not be
disadvantaged. As with the previous two this book is complete in itself. While it would be pleasant for readers to have
first read the earlier books, not having done so would not in my opinion detract from enjoying this book. That is the
mark of a master craftsman.
These books mainly follow the fortunes of the strong women of the Akinya family from the matriarch Eunice, also known as Senge Dongma, the lion-faced one, via her granddaughter Sunny, her daughters and the next two generations. In all these books action takes place on Earth, Mars and, as the Akinyas travel to and live on them, extrasolar planets. Interlinked with their exploits are those of the elephants that they care for as well as the robots, whose evolution on Mars Eunice accidently initiated. To add spice and mystery there is the Mandala structure discovered on Crucible, the first planet to be colonised and also the enormous alien robot spacecraft that both observe the Mandala and make human space travel perilous.
In POSEIDON’S WAKE the story follows Kanu and Ndege Akinya, Eunice’s descendants as they separately and then jointly respond to an enigmatic radio message received on Crucible. This was to all intents and purposes sent by Eunice from a third star a 150 light years away. Extra depth to the tale is added by a strong cast of supporting characters. Without a doubt Alastair Reynolds is a master at writing SF. The science is good. The characterisation is excellent and the story flows with plenty but not too much action. Overall this is individually a story, and a series well worth reading.
PUSHING ICE by Alastair Reynolds
When one of Saturn’s moons inexplicably leaves its orbit and sets off to exit the solar system altogether the only
spaceship anywhere near is the Rockhopper with its crew of comet miners. They are therefore ordered to give chase
and eventually find themselves on a one-way trip to an unknown destination aboard an alien artefact. This journey
will plunge them into a struggle for survival which will tax their ingenuity to the utmost: eventually they will be
humanity’s first contact with alien races before finally being linked to the far future of the human race – a future which
they may have been partly responsible for bringing about.
Yet again, Reynolds displays an extraordinary breadth of imagination and sheer inventiveness, together with an ability to portray well rounded and believable – if not always likeable – characters.
However, I must confess to slight reservations. Previous stories on the theme of ‘First Contact’ have generally involved aliens sufficiently like ourselves to enable some sort of understanding to be reached – even if that meant understanding the inevitability of conflict. It is now more generally realised not only that alien thought processes may be quite unlike ours but also that alien technology may be so advanced as to be beyond our understanding. Thus any writer endeavouring to portray contact with an alien culture has to tread a fine line between giving free rein to his imagination and needing to ensure that the products of his imagination remain comprehensible and not too unfamiliar to his characters, to say nothing of his readers. In this case, the description of the futuristic technology surrounding the inadvertent travellers and their struggle to make sense of it, thereby enabling themselves to survive the beginning of their journey, goes almost too far (although this is, of course, is just my opinion) and the middle section of the book describing that part of their experience slows the pace somewhat. Once contact has been made the story picks up again and becomes more interesting.
But still major issues remain unresolved. To begin with, there is no explanation of the transportation system which has brought them so far in space and time – it is just there, but its origin, purpose and modus operandi remain unknown. Also, it is made apparent that humanity is still going on, thousands of years in the future, but there is no suggestion as to the intervening history and the relationship – if any – between humans and aliens during this time. Finally, the book ends with a small party setting out on their own to explore the universe, but there is no indication what will happen to them.
Perhaps, as has been the case before with this writer, there will be a sequel – to recount what happened both to this group and to those left behind, to say nothing of how the human race got from here to there.
None of which is to say anything but that I heartily recommend this epic novel.
REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds
It begins with archaeologist Dr Dan Sylveste and his fascination with a long dead alien race the Amarantin. the one-
time inhabitants of the planet Resurgam. He is about to discover something that could change the course of history
but before he can act he is captured when a coup sweeps across the planet. Meanwhile a huge and heavily armed
ship crewed by militaristic cyborgs is bearing down on Resurgam having spent a lifetime at sublight speed crossing
space to enlist his late father's help. Sylveste, or, more accurately, the software programme he carries in his head
containing his father's knowledge, is the only one who can save their metamorphosing Captain. On its arrival the ship
takes on a replacement crew member that is actually placed to serve the interests of a third, unknown group. None of
those involved can anticipate the cataclysm that will result when they meet, a cataclysm that will sweep through space
and could determine the ultimate fate of humanity.
That summary can do no more than provide an introductory taster to this massive and immensely complicated book. It is not one to read casually: historical events and background concepts put in brief initial appearances only to recur later when their importance becomes clearer and the author also employs a technique of stating that significant explanatory discussions have taken place between characters but without actually telling the reader what was said. This all helps to keep one turning the pages - it is like an intricate puzzle or detective mystery with the ending in doubt until, well, the end. About a third o f the way through I had felt that everything seemed to be coming together but then it became apparent that the story was actually about something completely different from what I had thought.
After another third I believed I could see where it was going, but there was still a great deal left to be worked out and explained. When I did reach the end I found that it was not only beyond anything I could have imagined but was also a step further than anything any other writer in my experience has done.
Bursting with advanced sf ideas and mind-blowing concepts, this is the sort of book that only comes along at rare intervals. Author Reynolds is an astronomer currently working at the European Space Agency and he puts his scientific expertise to brilliant use, not to mention what I suspect is a wide experience of reading the best in science fiction. After a number of short stories this is his first published novel and there is already at least one sequel in the pipeline. Work some overtime, cut down on the drink, take out a loan, do whatever you have to do to get the dosh, but BUY THIS BOOK
REVENGER by Alastair Reynolds
I am told that this is a Young Adult (YA) novel, but as so often before I can’t find any information to confirm this.
However, the main characters are two young girls, only one of which is onstage for most of the book, and there is no
sex or bad language (but plenty of violence!), so I suppose this is probably the case. (It is interesting that the author
chooses to have a female lead, but I have noticed that Stephen Baxter has also done so in recent years, so possibly
this is some sort of nod at political correctness? Whatever, in this case it works well.) The publisher’s blurb states that it
is ‘perfect for fans of Firefly, Peter F. Hamilton and Star Wars’. I’m sure Peter can speak for himself, and I have never
seen much of Firefly, but I really can’t see any similarity at all to Star Wars, apart from a charismatic but evil leader –
in this case also female and known as Bosa Sennen. Universally feared, Bosa is effectively a pirate and seems to have
no redeeming features, lurking in her stealth-protected, lightsail-powered ship, the Nightjammer while others raid
‘baubles’; tiny worlds with a ‘swallower’ (presumably a black hole) at their heart to provide gravity, for valuable alien
artifacts, relics and technologies. She and her crew then swarm over the hapless ship, killing anyone who gets in their
way, and make off with their plunder.
The two girls are Adrana and Arafura Ness, the latter, later known simply as Fura, being the younger and the main character. They lead boring, upper-class lives and crave adventure – which they find in spades when, hoping to save their family from bankruptcy, they run away from home with their robot ‘nurse’, Paladin, and join the crew of Captain Pol Rackamore’s ship, the Monetta’s Mourn. Communication in space, or ‘The Empty’ as it is known, is either by ‘squawk’, the equivalent of radio, or via ‘skulls’, again of alien origin and containing flickering lights, which are sometimes able to contact the skulls on other ships. It takes a special talent to ‘read the bones’, but both girls find that they have this, so are employed in this capacity by Captain Rackamore. Despite initial hostility, Fura befriends Prozor, who is the bauble-reader onboard, and she features strongly in later chapters.
The universe of REVENGER is a strange and unfamiliar one. There are fifty million worlds in the Congregation, but ‘a shifting, shimmering purple twilight was all that remained of the Old Sun’s energies’. Make of that what you will. Far, far in the future, our galaxy has passed through waves of alien conquest, or ‘Occupations’, in which empires have risen and fallen, but humanity still survives amongst the rubble and ruins of ancient civilisations. Amongst these are the baubles, and most humans live in the hope of striking a really valuable hoard which will make their fortunes, despite the considerable risks of raiding a bauble, which are surrounded by layers of protection and are only ‘open’ for a specific period of time before closing again, trapping anyone left inside.
Having successfully done this with one, the Monetta’s Mourn is boarded and raided by Bosa Sennen, who mercilessly kills the captain and many crew, and captures Adrana to become her own bone-reader. Fura hides away and escapes, promptly swearing eternal revenge upon Bosa. From this point on, everything in the book changes. From being a rollicking adventure it takes on a darker aspect, with Fura transformed from a sweet teenager to a hard- hearted avenging angel who will let nothing stop her self-appointed crusade. There are many surprises along the way, during which ambiguity creeps in; nothing is as clear-cut as it once seemed and even Bosa Sennen may not be who she originally appeared to be . . .
The author has to some extent developed a language that has evolved, along with everything else. This I felt was perhaps the least successful aspect of the novel. For instance, he uses ‘lungstuff’ for air and ‘squint-time’ for sleep. But given that apart from this the characters seem to use pretty standard English, I was not convinced that these small changes were necessary. Obviously to change the language too much could become tedious and confusing, and I suppose these do help to suggest a future environment, but I’m not sure about them. However, this is a minor criticism, and overall, YA or not, this is an exciting and often gripping read, and up to Reynold’s usual standard.
SLOW BULLETS by Alastair Reynolds
This is a novella, not a novel, so quite a quick read. It opens near the end of a vast war which has affected hundreds of
planets and solar systems. The main character is a conscripted soldier, Scurelya Timsuk Shunde, known (fortunately)
as ‘Scur’. As an aside, I expect you have noticed, as I have, how many stories these days have a female lead; Stephen
Baxter for one seems especially keen on this. I have nothing against this – we have had decades when macho males
took the lead by default – though to my mind it does get a bit silly when people start talking about a female Dr Who or
even James Bond!
Anyway, after a ceasefire Scur is captured by a four-man enemy sweep squad, headed by the sadistic Orvin. Orvin injects a ‘slow bullet’ into her thigh, from where it will make its slow way through her body (hence the title). The bullets contain a transponder, and can be made to explode, but they also contain and store masses of information, which can be transmitted when required. Every soldier already has one of these inside as a way of keeping tabs on them, but this one is designed to hurt like hell and to keep burrowing until it reaches Scur’s heart. “Why?” she asks. Orvin lets out a little laugh. ‘Why not?”
After they have left she cuts out the bullet, with a great deal of pain, and vows to get her revenge on Orvin. She passes out from the pain, and when she wakes she finds herself in some sort of capsule or ‘egg’. Her leg appears to have healed and she feels no pain. The capsule is one of many in a long corridor which curves up and out of sight in both directions. Later she finds that this ‘wakening’ has been experienced by many people. All the capsules contained someone who had taken part in the war, and it showed what side they had been on, Central or Peripheral, what their rank and service history had been, and the names of their home worlds. It appeared that they were all being sent to a world called Tottori, of which Scur had heard.
She begins to meet people who take fright upon meeting her, and a fight breaks out. When calm is restored it transpires that the people are crew on a military transport or ‘skipship’, the Caprice – a converted luxury starliner, now operated by the Peacekeeper authority. But it is also a prison ship, and the prisoners (“Dregs”) should not be coming awake as they are. Scur protests that she is a soldier, so should not be there. They can only agree that some sort of mistake has been made. . . Their leader is called Prad, and he and Scur eventually form a kind of friendship, or at least an alliance.
Through a window a planet can be seen, but it cannot be Tottori. In fact, all attempts to identify it, and the surrounding area of space, fail. While Prad is showing her scenes from the ship on his ‘slate’, Scur thinks she sees a glimpse of Orvin, and again vows to find him. In order to restore some order between waking prisoners and crew, Scur and Prad sound an alarm signal, claiming that the ship is about to blow up and unless they stop fighting Scur won’t allow Prad to make the core safe. Eventually this works, and the people in the ‘rings’ sort out their differences. But there is still the greater problem of finding where they are in space, and what world is below them. When they finally do so it is part of a greater surprise! Meanwhile Scur has definitely identified Orvin among the passengers, but he is successfully hiding himself. What happens in the rest of this book is exciting and often surprising. Slow bullets play a great part in this, but in unexpected ways. To a large extent this is a story of survival, and of the human will to stay alive, no matter what the odds against them.
TERMINAL WORLD by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds has become famous for his far-ranging space operas, but here he eschews this broad approach to set
his latest novel on Earth. Some tens of millennia in the future it would seem to have suffered one or more quite
major catastrophes, one result being to make it much colder than before.
The story opens in (or rather, on) Spearpoint, a vast and mysterious structure reaching right through the atmosphere and into space. Various communities cling to different levels on the outside of this structure, apparently existing in zones where the basic fabric of reality changes from place to place, altering the way in which both machines and living nervous systems are able to function - or not, as the case may be. Quillon (he has no other name) is forced to flee from Spearpoint where he has been living under an assumed identity and becomes an exile in the world at large where he and his escort encounter skullboys, carnivorgs and tectomancers before falling in with The Swarm, a military community living on a fleet of airships. They find that zones of reality are changing everywhere, placing the Earth and its entire population in danger.
Eventually Swarm, taking Quillon with them, find their way to Spearpoint and he is able to set in motion a process which, hopefully, will undo whatever previous disaster has left the Earth the way it is and lead to the return of normalcy.
Integral to this is the nature of Spearpoint itself, and the conclusion the astute reader has reached about it, based on several clear hints, proves to be only partially correct. This is just one of several issues, some major and some relatively minor, which remain unresolved. Instead of dealing with these questions head-on the story has become complicated by incidental details which are introduced from time to time with little or no explanation, as if in the hope of keeping the story interesting.
As a consequence, the book comes to an end after having seemed to have gone on far too long, without coming to a proper conclusion. Even the future of Quillon, whose destiny the story is founded upon, remains in doubt. It is a tendency I have noted in this author sometimes - although, I hasten to add, by no means always - to leave things unfinished in this fashion. Perhaps he was planning a sequel, or perhaps merely leaving the opportunity for one. Either way, the result is rather unsatisfactory. It is good, certainly, but it could have been better.
ADAM ROBOTS by Adam Roberts
The difficulty with reviewing short story collections is usually that you aren't reviewing one story. Occasionally there
will be a theme that you can latch onto that helps categorise what you have just read so that you can cover more than
one story at a time or, even more rarely there will be a sequence to the stories and plot lines and characters will carry
from on to the next. The least you can hope for is that many of them will be from the same sub-genre or written in the
same style. None of that is true here. You would be hard pressed to find a more diverse collection from one writer than
this. Not content with changing sub-genre from one story to the next, Roberts changes style and theme frequently if
not with every story. For example, the title story (there is one, it's not just a play on the author's name) is a robot story.
Except they're not really robots. And it's a variation on the "Garden of Eden" tale. Only it's turned on its head. I know
that doesn't give much away but it's only 11 pages and there's not a whole lot you can say without giving away too
Here you have two dozen stories ranging from one page to fifty in length covering a different sub-genre of science fiction every time - possibly more than one per story and with a few odd variations that you might not expect. All but the odd one are at least well done. Here you have the story of a space-going dynasty told in verse, a couple of time (travel?) stories - one about communicating with the past, another explaining how you can camouflage a disaster and the truth about nuclear weapons - one step further than steampunk or an artificial intelligence that is really a … No, that gives away a little too much … how Macbeth could have gone if they hadn't cheated on the prophecies, why Copernicus was wrong, Neanderthals in space... and many others. There is the obvious failure - an attempt to make something of a nursery rhyme although there is something of the Philip K Dick on drugs about it and an oddity at the end that I still don't get the point of. Only two of the stories are new in this collection but all the others have appeared in collections (often from small presses) rather than magazines.
It's hard to make an overall judgement on the collection but, apart from a mis-step or two, this is all good stuff with new and interesting ideas.
BÊTE by Adam RobertsAdam Roberts is unusual among SF writers in that he doesn’t seem to indulge in trilogies, series or even consistent sub-genre. He’s been through the likes of space opera, steampunk, dystopia, and many other styles but never really settled on one. Whatever he tries, he’s usually pretty good at it and this is no exception. It’s not perfect but what is? It’s fun, it’s interesting, it has new ideas and reworks old ones.
GRADISIL by Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is a Professor of English at the University of London and in the past six years has had several quite well-
received SF novels published as well as a number of satirical parodies. In GRADISIL he has reverted to hard SF –
space fiction though hardly Space Opera.
His concept for this book is of a technology to ride into space on the lines of force of the Earth’s magnetic field which spread from the poles like the branches of a great tree – the Yggdrasil of Norse myth – which is the source of the names of both the book and one of its main characters. With this cheap and easy technology almost anybody can cobble up a space plane and drag some kind of container into space to form the basis of an orbiting house and soon ‘The Uplands’ has become the home of a collection of eccentrics, mavericks, misfits and outright criminals living entirely independently of the various nations down on the ground.
Of course, ground-based governments in general, the Americans in particular and especially the American military, hate all this, and the book mainly tells, through the eyes of four generations of Gradisil’s family, the story of how the Americans try to conquer the Uplands and how the Uplanders, led by Gradisil, resist and establish their freedom and independence. Over a period of nearly a century their personal stories are of sacrifice and revenge, much of it misdirected.
To a degree this is reminiscent of some of the best SF of the past, brought up to date and dealing with people and their emotions as much as with the hardware, if not more so. Unfortunately, Roberts has allowed his characters, mostly writing in the first person, altogether too much indulgence to describe their thoughts and feelings and much of this goes on far too long, particularly towards the end of the book. It had started reasonably and some of the technological and medical implications of this kind of space-dwelling had been well thought-out, but eventually I found myself losing interest and just wishing it would come to a conclusion.
In short then, interesting, perhaps even slightly memorable, but not a book I would want to return to again and again.
SALT by Adam Roberts
Salt is a planet with very little water, its surface covered with endless deposits of sodium chloride, its atmosphere
contaminated with free chlorine and with no magnetosphere to shield its surface from radiation. To this inhospitable
world come disparate groups of emigrants from Earth, including the Senaarians, a rigid hierarchical society with a
strong religious element and the Alsists who live without rules, laws or compulsions, with everybody free to do, or not
do, whatever they wish. Mutual misunderstandings lead, perhaps inevitably to war, instigated by the former and lost by
the latter. However, the victory of the Senaarians contains the seeds of their own destruction.
The story is told from the alternating points of view of a leading member of each society. The chief of the Senaarians reveals himself as a despotic bigot, whose belief in his own god-given righteousness justifies him in any destruction or slaughter, while the Alsist is a reasonably decent sort of individual who nevertheless finds himself both willing and able to assume the mantle of leadership despite thereby becoming everything that his fellow citizens hate and despise. By the end of the war he has come to an uncertain apotheosis as the principles he was trying to protect are lost amid the general chaos of defeat. Thus, ultimately, the book is seen as a commentary on the shortcomings of human nature.
Although extremely well written, almost poetic in parts, I found it somewhat tedious. Even the action sequences fail to bring it alive, the few most interesting parts for me being the face to face encounters between the characters, each striving, and failing, to understand the other’s motivation. I also felt that there was room for a better account of the two societies, particularly the Alsists where people work because they want to but the questions of how they know what needs doing and what would happen to anyone who was unable or merely disinclined to work remain unexplained.
In summary, there are some interesting and novel ideas here, but their execution leaves something to be desired. This is a first novel and author Roberts shows obvious promise. Michael Jones
THE MATRIX DERIDED /STAR WARPED by Adam Roberts
(Note – with pages smaller than usual these books are much shorter than the page counts would suggest.) I have put
these two together because they are the same kind of thing. The contrived authorship conceals the identity of Adam
Roberts, literary expert and writer of scholarly books as well as several well-received SF novels. These however are
something else – parodies of well-known film series (obviously).
Both start reasonably well and straightforwardly, picking up on the basic storyline of THE MATRIX and STAR WARS respectively but introducing various satirical jokes and puns, especially with names, varying from amusing to excruciating. For example, who could fail to either laugh or groan when reading of the pilot Hand Someman and his sidekick Masticatetobacco. (Well, I could actually.) As the narratives progress however, they deviate farther and farther from the original as the author is unable to resist introducing his own take on the story.
In the case of THE MATRIX this is not so bad and the eventual conclusion might be regarded by some as an improvement – certainly a simplification. With STAR WARS, on the other hand, he appears to lose the plot completely (in both senses) introducing an unjustified series of cultural and SF references – some much more obscure than others – and going off at a completely new tangent.
This is not helped by his choice to present the segments of the saga in the order in which the films appeared, rather than in the order of internal chronology, which I would have thought the obvious thing to do. As a result, it becomes painfully obvious that it has ended in the middle (twice).
Also, one gains the impression that he ran out of steam, cramming the last three segments together into fewer pages than any one of the first three. This is true of THE MATRIX also, where the first film gets two-thirds of the book.
To my mind, the whole approach here is wrong. The most successful parodies present a completely new and original story ‘in the style of’ and work best at quite a short length, as evinced by, for example John Sladek and Dave Langford to name but two. Trying to follow the original storyline while at the same time reconstructing it so as to provide an enhanced basis for mockery does not work but merely leaves the reader trying to relate what is written here to what he already knows and the result is both disappointingly tedious and tediously disappointing.
If you feel you must read these, go ahead, but I would not particularly recommend that you do.
FIFTY DEGREES BELOW by Kim Stanley Robinson
FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN was the start of a trilogy revolving around the implications of global warning. Robinson is
researching at the cutting edge of knowledge and making uncanny predictions. For those of us that believe in global
warming, we know that one of the symptoms is unusual weather patterns. Some of these generate storms. Storms can
cause flooding. In FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN unusually severe storms hit the Eastern seaboard of America. Washington
is flooded. Robinson may have got the city wrong, but the chaos that he describes for Washington was mirrored this
summer by scenes in New Orleans.
FIFTY DEGREES BELOW takes the situation a stage further. Due to the melting of the Arctic ice, the Gulf Stream has stalled. This is a vital part of our weather system. It carries warm water from the tropics northwards across the Atlantic, providing Britain with its temperate climate. Normally, when warm water meets cold Arctic water, the heavier warm water sinks, carrying the colder water with it and then moves south, forming a vast convection current. The melt water is less dense and floats on salt water. The increasing amount of it being produced forms a fresh water cap on the ocean preventing the warm current carrying it downwards. The convection current is stopped. Without the warm water moving north, the criteria for abrupt climate changes are met. Signs of abrupt climate changes have been found in geological records so it is not an impossible theory. It could take as little as three years. What this will mean is very cold winters in the Northern Hemisphere.
In the real world, the Gulf Stream is slowing down, and this winter has been predicted to be much colder than those we have seen in the last decade. In this novel, it happens. Washington is still the focus of disaster, though the rising sea levels are not forgotten. One project organised by the National Science Foundation is to try and restart the Gulf Stream by dumping an awful lot of salt into the sea at the point where it should be sinking.
The human characters are small, set against the power of the weather.
Back in Washington, Frank Vanderval, an NSF worker, is homeless. The people he had been renting from have returned to reclaim their apartment. To begin with, he is not worried. He constructs a tree house in Rock Creek Park. In the beginning, this lifestyle is fun. Then winter sets in and the snows come. Frank is still content until the night the temperature drops to fifty degrees (Fahrenheit) below freezing and people start dying. Washington, though hard hit, does not suffer as badly as some places in Europe.
At the end of the book, you are left with the unsettling feeling that the conditions described are just around the corner; that if we do not act now, Robinson’s predictions will become inevitable. If you have any doubts about the truth of global warming, read these books and ask yourself the question, do you want to run the risk of this future? Then, go and lobby your government. It may not be too late.
FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN by Kim Stanley Robinson
One of the original reasons why people wrote SF was to provide a vehicle for dire warnings. Then, with fewer books to
choose from, they reached more people. The problem today is that the warnings can get buried in the morass of words
of the shelves of the bookshops. In FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN, Robinson chooses the theme of global warming. The
setting is America today.. The principal characters are scientists. Anna Quibler works for the National Science
Foundation which hands out grants to promising research projects, Frank Vanderwal is one of her programme officers.
Her husband, Charlie, works from home and looks after the children. He drafts environmental policy for a senator.
There is concern about rising sea levels, but it is deliberately being ignored – there are not enough votes in it. Even when freak storms threaten Washington, it seems that the evidence is still going to be swept under the carpet.
Labelled, science fiction, it seems all too possible that this is the real situation. Robinson is not so much providing a cynical view of the situation but exposing the ostrich-like qualities of power. There is a lot of scientific jargon in the book which may put off a lot of readers, but it should be read – by everyone.
Then they should go out and lobby their respective governments.
KEEPING IT REAL by Justina Robson
Some people consider Justina Robson’s work to be too deep and complex to be enjoyable. It is true that her early
books aspired to a high literary standard, a fact recognised by two nominations for the Arthur C Clarke Award.
Though still keeping the high quality in the writing, this book is a complete change in approach.
KEEPING IT REAL is the first in a series of books that are fast paced, fun and very accessible. In 2015 a quantum bomb explosion had ripped a hole between dimensions and ours has now become linked with five other realities allowing for a two-way passage. Lila Black was on a fact-finding mission to Alfheim, the dimension of the elves, when she suffered horrific injuries. She has been rebuilt and is half woman, half machine, the machine parts being powered by an atomic reactor. Her first assignment since her rebuilding is as a bodyguard to the Elf musician, Zal, lead singer in the band, The No Shows. Zal has been sent threatening letters and their content is being taken seriously. Both are soon thrown into a chase situation with Lila trying to keep Zal out of the hands of a group of elf fanatics who are trying to take him back to Alfheim. The suggestion is that they disapprove of his life-style.
On the surface, this is a science fiction/fantasy thriller but as the story develops, Robson adds twists and layers of complexity. Nothing can be assumed, and that is part off the pleasure. Lila makes mistakes, she misreads the nuances of the other species’ characters and her mechanisms and inbuilt computer programmes can malfunction. Both reader and characters are kept on their toes.
Marketed correctly, this is the book that should open Robson’s writing to a wider audience. If you come to this volume leaving any prejudices you may have accumulated behind, you will have the chance to participate in an exceptional experience. Robson had fun writing this book. Have fun reading it.
NEXT OF KIN by Eric Frank Russell
If there is one thing that dates worse than up-to-the-minute cutting-edge science it is contemporary humour. This was
probably a very funny book in its day but that day was forty years ago and it has dated badly.
The fifties was the heyday of the catch-phrase. Comedians would come onto the stage, utter some signature phrase and have the audience in stitches. The phrase would have some vague cultural significance at the time and perhaps the echo of something known to all but it would also tie itself to one person. While I would not be surprised to find that the phrase "Baloney Baffles Brains" occurs less than a dozen times within this novel, it definitely seems like more. Add to that the almost juvenile gags (the alien race that are "nuts" and have "the willies") and you have something that belongs so much to its time that it's surprising that it survived at all.
Somewhere beneath all this is the story of a soldier that can't abide authority sent on a scouting mission far into enemy territory who somehow manages to pull of an intelligence coup that could change the whole face of an inter galactic war. Even then, there is still something unfinished about the plot. William McCabe
WASP by Eric Frank Russell
This is the first of the (relatively) new Gollancz SF Collectors’ Editions that I’ve read. I can only say ‘Hurrah!’ for Orion
and that nice chappie who runs the SF side.
The Collectors’ Editions are bringing back many good (not to mention concise - whatever happened to slender books - the same that happened to slender fans presumably - self indulgence) out of print books. Fabulous. I do wonder why, however. Not why they’re reprinting good books, but why they’ve chosen quite this format. The SF Masterworks has apparently the same mission.
Many excellent books have been rediscovered and produced at a quite reasonable price with iffy to superb cover art. So what is the point of the Collectors’ Editions? Presumably not-quite-masterworks in the traditional bright yellow colours and at quite a substantial price increase. Eh?
Most, if not all, BSFG members are old enough to have a sneaking affection for the old Gollancz yellow jackets, easily spotted on library shelves.
In the same way, most of us already own the books being reprinted. I have at least half of the books advertised on the back of this particular book (including a very tatty copy of WASP). Why would people without this residual affection pay £10 or more for (admittedly good) books with no artwork when great books with good artwork are available for £6 to £7 from the same publisher? Oh well, as we have observed over the years, the ways of the marketing department are strange. Perhaps SF writers ought to examine this mindset when looking for ideas for aliens instead of the Japanese. I seem to be rambling. Sorry.
So, WASP. I like this book. It’s not one of those that I’ve reread often over the years and it was a pleasant rediscovery. It’s about James Mowry, recruited to be a ‘wasp’ in the war against the Sirians. Luckily James was born in Masham, capital city of Diracta - the Sirian home planet. With the removal of his wisdom teeth, pinned back ears and a few pints of purple dye, James Mowry is able to play the part of a native-born Sirian and do it well enough to fool the Sirians. This is just as well because, though Earth is technologically superior, the Sirians have ten times the population and without the action of ‘Wasps’ such as James, the Sirians will win the war through sheer weight of numbers.
James’ job is to cause as much disruption as possible ‘behind the lines’. He is to occupy the effort and attention of as much of the Sirian war machine as possible, turning their attention to quelling an initially imaginary internal rebellion instead of focussing on the war with Earth. As the recruiter says, ‘.. .in suitable circumstances, one can obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort.’
How James completes his mission is fascinating. If you thought about it you could come up with some of the ideas. Eric Frank Russell’s achievement was to think of them, put them together in a splendidly entertaining book and yet manage to make the war seem petty and ridiculous. This seems to me to be an anti-war book much in the tradition of Bill the Galactic Hero.
James Mowry isn’t a character with great depth; what he does is far more important than what he thinks or feels. He’s a reluctant volunteer; no hero, merely a pawn. Similarly, the Sirians are just (purple) people, worried about their day-to-day concerns, only vaguely bothered about the war. The immediate evil for the Sirians is the Kaitempi, the secret police. For both the Sirians and for James, their own officialdom is more dangerous than the enemy.
This book was written in 1957. Apart from the computer system working on punched cards (I vaguely remember punched cards), this book is as relevant today as it ever was. Go out and buy it if you don’t already own it. The extra £3 cost for the book isn’t really OK but at least you get integral bookmarks and a few of these scattered through your bookcase will brighten it up.
MIKE & GABY’S SPACE GOSPEL by Ken Russell
Ken Russell the enfant terrible of the British film industry has turned his talent to this unusual novel setting the key
events of the Christians new testament into a hilarious pastiche. It treats with total irreverence the myth that some
people misguidedly believe as the truth and puts a rocket up the rear end of the people that believe such books as this
Mike and Gaby two robots from a long proud lineage of Rossum’s Universal Robots were playing god and delivering to earth the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, as experimental prototypes to help in the search for a cure for their incurable disease ‘rust’. Enter another robot roughly identified as Satan! From here on in everything goes haywire. Nothing, to use the term, is "Sacred" anymore. The technical marvels of the robots help to perpetrate the so- called miracles that the son of Mary and Joseph performs as he plays the son of god A.K.A Mike & Gaby.
This short novel, somewhere between Science Fiction and a film script, is a breath of fresh air that at long last deals in a humorous fashion with the con of the Christian religion. This should be compulsory reading for all the religious fundamentalists out there, and for every one else a laugh at the original Fantasy book ever written. Ken Russell has never been one to take into account good taste and I look forward to a full-length novel from what is an auspicious debut.
THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES by Carrie Ryan
It is very difficult to make zombies sexy. Instead of trying to, Carrie Ryan concentrates on the burgeoning emotions of
her human characters. Since this is written for the young adult market, do not expect steamy sex scenes. Compared
with some of the offerings in the bookshops, this is very chaste.
This is a post apocalyptic novel. The event that changed the world was The Return when the dead, known as Mudo, started walking. They are dormant until they smell living flesh. Then all they want to do is infect the living with their condition. Bites are invariably fatal.
Gabry is an adolescent who lives in an enclave of the living with her mother. One night, she and a group of friends defy the rules to venture outside the barrier to a derelict fairground. She is encouraged by her best friend Cira and Cira’s brother, Catcher. Just as Catcher is about to give Gabry her first kiss, they are attacked one of the Mudo, the returned dead. Two of the teenagers are killed, Catcher is bitten. Gabry escapes back inside the barrier but the others are rounded up and sentenced to join the Recruiters whose job is to hunt down Mudo. Gabry is torn between wanting to stay safe and owning up to being with her friends. Hormones take over and she decides to brave the outside again to find Catcher, expecting him to be dying. Instead, she discovers that he is a very rare person, an Immune. The bite did not kill him and now the Mudo cannot sense him. Rescuing Cira, they venture into the Forest of Hands and Teeth. During the flight, Gabry learns about her own origins which are not what she thought.
The tensions and anxieties of living in a world like this are well drawn and the obsessions of adolescents are well handled. There is, however, a bit too much of the
teenage angst about who she fancies most – Catcher or Elias – perhaps a bit too much even for the readership the book is aimed at, as Gabry never really gets beyond the tentative kissing stage.