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.
TO SLEEP IN A SEA OF STARS by Christopher Paolini
Christopher Paolini, for those who don’t know, is the best-selling author of YA fantasy series, The Inheritance Cycle.
The first in the series, ERAGON was published while he was still a teenager and was made into a film of the same
name. TO SLEEP IN A SEA OF STARS is his first novel for adults and also his first SF work.
It was pleasing to me to see that the author has clearly taken seriously his move into SF and invested substantial time into technical research and worldbuilding. The main protagonist is Kira Navárez, a xenobiologist who is part of a survey team checking new planets for suitability as new colonies. On the last day of her current mission, she finds an alien relic and the events the encounter precipitates have enormous consequences both for Kira and the rest of the spacefaring human civilisation. Smothered by an alien “dust” after falling into a hidden room, at first her only injuries appear to be broken bones until the catastrophic emergence of an alien organism which kills most of her team and leaves her skin coated by an alien artefact (part nanoware, part organic). Imprisoned on a military quarantine ship, she discovers during their aggressive “scientific” tests that the organism (named “Soft Blade”) has extraordinary abilities capable of great harm in the wrong hands. Others are also interested in the potential of the organism and when soldiers of an unknown alien species attack the prison ship, she must escape and run from all those who want to control her. As her symbiotic links with the organism slowly develop, she starts to uncover its history, origin and its true purpose and realise that she is the only one with the knowledge and skills to stop the annihilation of humankind and other sentient, spacefaring aliens but in doing so she may lose her own humanity.
At first TO SLEEP IN A SEA OF STARS felt a bit like a crossover between ALIEN and VENOM (where a sentient parasite also gives the host extra abilities). However, that is too simplistic a comparison. As well as the enjoyable action sequences the author does explore the psychological and emotional consequences for Kira and her reactions are very credible and show a developing arc through realistic stages of grief, anger, denial etc. The worldbuilding is, as already mentioned, skillful and effort has been made to construct a convincing alien biology and its effects in shaping a society that is different from humans. It is a long book but it does flow well from page to page so as a reader I enjoyed it. The other characters of the Wallfish ship on which Kira spends much time are also interesting, though as the narrative only shows us Kira’s viewpoint, I found them harder to connect to. It’s long but I couldn’t see obvious places where it needed large-scale editing and it does come to a satisfactory if not completely happy ending (although there are threads which could develop into other stories in this universe if the author wished). All in all, this is a good entertaining space opera and I am sure it will be a success.
REVIVER by Seth Patrick
The Revivers are able to awaken the recently dead - not for long and not to put right what killed them, but, according
to the circumstances of how they met their ends, for long enough to say farewell to their loved ones or to explain how
they were killed (or both). The latter possibility has led to the establishment of the Forensic Revival Service, an
organisation to assist the police in murder investigations. One of their best operatives is Jonah Miller and at the
beginning of the book he undergoes a disturbing experience during what should have been the routine “revival” of a
murdered woman. As the story gradually unfolds it becomes apparent that there is something lurking there, down
where the dead people go, and it wants to find a way out into the world of the living. It may be may be something
beneficial or something dark and malign. As Miller investigates what his friends and colleagues are doing he discovers
that there are two undercover factions, one seeking to make contact with this hitherto unknown something and the
other trying to prevent contact. The latter group are prepared to resort to extremes of violence and murder, but they
may not actually be the bad guys.
Writer Patrick has done a fair job of bringing all the elements of his story together, but it is rendered over- complicated by the way in which flashbacks are used to explain how what has happened in the past influences what is happening in the present while new leading characters have to be introduced with a backstory which needs to be explained. All this tends to make it confusing to follow what is going on in the first part of the book, but once that is over a gripping narrative emerges with one or two wholly unexpected twists as it builds to a climactic conclusion. There is also a hint in an Epilogue that there might be more to come.
What is of particular interest is that although this could easily be dismissed as supernatural horror the underlying themes of the book could alternatively be categorised as SF if the reader chooses to interpret them in that way. It is possible to think that one recognises the derivation of some of these ideas, but the use made of them is sufficiently novel to excuse this and the overall effect is new and exciting.
This is the writer’s first novel and this being so the grounds for the critical comments made above are to a degree excusable. As a first novel it is a remarkable effort and Seth Patrick is certainly a new writer to watch.
RED MOON by Benjamin Percy
There has been lots of anticipation surrounding the release of this book; an alternative history epic with lycanthropes.
The blurb that comes with the book states that this is part of a 'new wave' of 'literary horror'.
Young Patrick Gamble doesn't want to leave his hometown but knows he has to, as his dad has to go away to fight in the Republic for a 12 month stint, so Patrick is being sent away to live with his mom. Patrick gets on the plane to San Francisco only just noticing the incredibly nervous flyer boarding close to him.
Patrick is waiting to use the cramped airplane loo, when a noise that sounds like a growl emerges from the cubicle, followed swiftly by gore and mayhem as a werewolf/lycan dives out and slaughters everyone on the flight except for Patrick who hides under a dead body and is soon given the moniker 'Miracle Boy'.
Patrick had seen lycans before but only in the newspapers or on TV. In this alternative reality, lycans are forbidden to transform, and are medicated with a drug to stop transformation and control the lycan population. There is already a war going on between the lycans and the norms, and the lycans are using guns and claws alike.
The attack on the plane is a terrorist attack, aimed at drawing attention to the subjugation of the lycans, who, in the majority, live in the 'Lupine Republic'.
The US troops remain in the Republic to keep order and the Iraq metaphor isn't lost on the reader.
Young lycan Claire Forrester is busy looking at college prospectuses choosing her new college based on distance away from her current home. She isn't from a broken home, but nevertheless she needs to get away; she craves something more, despite her Dad pressurising her to apply to his old college, so she can be 'with her own kind'. Like all teenagers, Claire thinks she is different, and though she wants to get away from home, she never imagined the terror of having to go on the run after her parents are murdered by the government. Forced to run and hide, Claire runs to her aunt Miriam, exresistance member who fled her husband and the resistance some years ago.
Governor Chase Williams could very well win election as President, as an ex-soldier of the US troops who toured the Republic in the aftermath of the lycan terrorist attacks. Williams assures his public that swift and severe measures are being taken.
But all is not as straightforward as it seems.
As all three protagonists become caught up in the conflict between humans and lycans their previously unconnected lives become entangled.
Early on I got the feeling we were heading for a Twilight style romance, but luckily, though there is romance involved it is real and integral to the plot. It is wonderfully visceral from the start, yet the slaughter on the plane is as poetic and lyrical in style as the rest of the novel (although this does become a tad heavy handed at times). The werewolves themselves aren't glamorous. The shifting, which is rarely allowed to happen, is full of pain and tears, yet the drug which the lycans are forced to take, dulls the senses.
I mentioned earlier that the blurb calls this book 'literary' horror. If by literary horror the publishers mean an excess of adjectives, metaphors and simile, then this is indeed literary horror. However, I would argue it is SF with lycans.
Though normally associated with horror, these lycans are investigated by a researcher and we find out lots of feasible scientific facts to explain the creatures.
The drug used to control them is part science/part mythology with elements of silver mixed in. And though this is a rather heavy tome; being a hardback coming in over 500 pages, and is heavy at times in the metaphorical sense, the characterisation is strong, particularly Miriam and the world building is pretty solid.
Overall a strong and varied addition to the werewolf subgenre. Worth investigating.
THE SCENT OF SHADOWS by Vicki Pettersson
Vicki Pettersson. An ex-Vegas showgirl, has done well with her first foray into fantasy writing.
The first instalment of her zodiac trilogy is set in modern day Las Vegas, where a supernatural battle between the light and the shadow rages, each side having 12 members. These zodiac warriors all possess superior senses, speed and strength, in addition to accelerated healing, and each is affiliated to one star sign.
The story follows Joanna Archer, a casino heiress who was brutally raped as a teenager: now 21, she prowls the night as a vigilante. She is also coming into her power as the latest Zodiac warrior, and both sides are fighting to make her their own.
The question is on which side will her allegiance lie?
I found that the story progressed quite slowly at first but after a few chapters began to flow freely, and near the end I couldn't put it down. Her ideas are original and the book has vivid imagery. I found that the characters were interesting but I did not have an emotional connection, in that if one of them died 1 was unaffected yet in other books I have mourned the passing of some characters. Despite this, I would recommend the hooks and personally, I can't wait to see how the rest of the series progresses.
THE TASTE OF NIGHT by Vicki Pettersson
This is the second novel of the Zodiac trilogy, about the battle between the light and shadow factions of the zodiac
which takes place all over the world. This book, like the first, is set in Las Vegas. Both warring factions have 12 warriors,
one for each sign of the western zodiac, each imbued with superhuman strength, speed and senses as well as an
increased healing factor. This book continues the story of Joanna Archer, the latest supernatural warrior of the light.
The story starts a couple of months after the events of book 1. Shadow activity has been lacking, allowing the light to
rest and recuperate. That, however, ends at the release of a new deadly virus threatening the humans of Las Vegas.
Now Joanna must battle the shadows, find a cure for the virus without putting her friends and identity in danger and
without disaffecting her allies. Having read the first book I was looking forward with anticipation to reading this one.
However, sadly, it did not live up to its predecessor.
The first part has a rather clumsy resume of the previous book, so theoretically it can be read as a stand alone novel. More so than the previous novel, it seemed to be tailored to a female readership, and I lost interest (and the will to live) when given a guided tour of a beauty salon. It also lacks the vivid imagery and pace of the first and is quite graphic with its sexual content which was considerable. This book provides extra details and background to some of the existing characters although I continued to be indifferent to their suffering. Their attributes and the writer’s treatment made them unsympathetic characters.
In my opinion the only saving grace was the action which increased the pace of the book if only briefly towards the end. I was disappointed and hope the final part restores my interest. Overall a disappointing read.
THE CHOSEN SEED (The Dog-Faced Gods Book Three) by Sarah Pinborough
This is a trilogy that started well. In A MATTER OF BLOOD, the first of the three, we are introduced to Cass Jones, a
relatively honest cop in a world where a degree of corruption is accepted as the norm. The shape of the book is a near
future thriller with Cass trying to find a serial killer at the same time as trying to cope with the deaths of his brother,
Christian, and family. The accepted sequence of events is that Christian killed his wife and son, then himself. Cass is
not so sure. Somewhere behind everything is The Bank, for whom Christian used to work, and the mysterious Mr Bright.
By the start of THE CHOSEN SEED, Cass has enough evidence to suggest that his nephew, Luke, was exchanged at
birth and is still alive somewhere. Cass is also a wanted man, having been framed for two murders and shot during his
escape from the officers pursuing him. Other than staying free, he has two objectives – to bring down Mr Bright and to
find his nephew. The police, while still hunting him have other concerns. There is a man going around infecting
people with a disease called Strain II which makes AIDS look as dangerous as a common cold. Victims deteriorate
quickly, usually after having infected several others. The story is told from multiple viewpoints. There is the main
narrative of Cass’s search, with the help of underworld friends, for Luke. The search for the new serial killer is followed
from the view of several of Cass’s old colleagues, some of whom have concerns about his guilt, others of whom have
no such doubt. To fill in the gaps and prevent the reader from wandering around in the dark there are the viewpoints
of Mr Bright and his associates. It is mainly through this strand that the real situation can be fully understood. As a fast
paced, action-packed thriller, this volume and the two preceding it are enjoyable. The problem is the premise behind
the whole set-up headed by Mr Bright. It is difficult to discuss this without revealing the rationale behind these books
but I found it a tired theme and was disappointed that Pinborough had descended to an idea that lacked imagination.
As a writer, and in most of the scenes and plot twists, she has shown that she has plenty. The other issue to consider is
that in A MATTER OF BLOOD there is considerable time given over to the details of this near future Britain. By the
time THE CHOSEN Seed is reached this is only paid lip-service and many readers picking up this volume would be
hard pressed to spot the differences between Pinborough’s world and our own. It is a shame that a promising trilogy
has ended on a down beat.
WE ARE SATELLITES by Sarah Pinsker
Sarah Pinsker may not be too familiar to UK readers, but she has over fifty works published and has won multiple
prestigious awards. These include three Nebulas, the Philip K Dick, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award.
WE ARE SATELLITES is near-future science fiction which shows the emerging divisions in a family regarding a new technological device. The device in question is a brain implant called the Pilot. It increases the brain’s ability to focus simultaneously on a number of tasks without penalty.
Val and Julie are a happily married couple with two children, teenager David and younger daughter, Sophie. Val, a teacher first notices the Pilots, which have a distinctive blue light at the side of the head in a few of the richer children in her school lessons. Soon their son David is begging for one to help him with his studies. Wanting to give their child the best start, they reluctantly agree. Soon the Pilots are everywhere and Julie finds herself outpaced at work and pressured to accept one in order to keep up. As the uptake increases, we see the increasing social pressure – to be better, to fit in etc – lead to a division into the haves and have-nots. Schools and workplaces adapt their practices to suit the “piloted” and those without become stigmatised and ostracised. Their daughter, Sophie is not suitable for an implant as she suffers from epilepsy and Val, in solidarity agrees to not have a Pilot.
Seen as hugely beneficial by the majority, there is also a negative side to the Pilots which slowly becomes apparent over the next few years. The company, aided by the military, fuels the rapid adoption by offering financial incentives for teenagers towards their education. Any medical data is not easily accessible, and the implantation process feels more like high-pressure sales than a rigorous medical assessment.
Over the years we then see the family (and society) become gradually polarised. Sophie, bullied at school, joins FreerMind, a protest group against the Pilots, and finds herself appreciated and grows in confidence and ability. David joins the military, but all attempts to report problems with his Pilot are minimised and gaslighted. Val and Julie’s differing approaches to helping their children leads to more tension and puts distance into their once happy marriage.
This book is very clever in how it uses the family’s differing experiences to illustrate the huge changes arising from this new device. There are clear parallels to be drawn between some of the technological dividing lines we have seen during lockdown, especially in education. Those children with digital access (real-life) have been at an increasing advantage compared to those without, much as with the Pilots. The exclusion and bullying in schools of those without Pilots also parallels how children without the latest gadgets, clothes or trainers etc can be humiliated and shamed by others.
The author packs a lot of challenges and character growth into this story without sacrificing readability, so it is easy to read while still making you think. Also, the characters of the family are sympathetic and realistic and their actions remain believable and consistent given their situations.
SF which examines the effects of a particular change on a society has a long history and this book is an outstanding, intelligent addition to that category. If there is any justice, it should be appearing in future Award lists. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of this author’s work.
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 CITY’S SON (The Skyscraper Throne) by Tom PollockTeenage girls Beth and Pen (Parva) were the best of friends. Despite their very different personalities, the outwardly confident Beth and quiet Pen rely on each other. Both have family problems, from Pen’s suffocating parents to Beth’s widowed father who is too lost in grief to notice his daughter. Until one day, Pen betrays Beth. With no-one else she feels she can turn to Beth runs away to the streets. Here she encounters the hidden London filled with strange creatures. Threatened by a Ghostwraith, her life is saved by a young boy, Filius Viae. He is the son of the missing ruler of London, Mater Viae. Left alone since early childhood he has been raised by the various strange inhabitants of this other London. With nowhere else to go, Beth attaches herself to Fil. But Fil is in trouble. The Crane King is extending his control over London and destroying many of Mater Viae’s subjects. In the absence of his mother, Fil should step up to confront him but he is only a young boy and has few powers compared to his missing mother. Beth must help him discover his confidence and recruit allies before London is overrun by the Crane King. However Beth has not been forgotten and her father with the help of Pen tries to find his missing daughter. In the search Pen is captured by the Wire Mistress, chief general of the Crane King. The Wire Mistress needs a human host at the centre of her barbed wire body and so Pen and Beth are arrayed on opposite sides of the conflict.
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.
FLEET OF KNIVES (Embers of War 2) by Gareth L Powell
This is the second novel in Gareth Powell’s Embers of War space opera series. As in the first novel (EMBERS OF WAR)
it concentrates on the intelligent spaceship, Trouble Dog and her crew. Unlike many SFF novels, the story is set not
during but after a massive interstellar war. The characters are emotionally damaged by their actions during the war
and this focus on consequences makes for an uncommon and more profound story than many other space operas.
In the first novel, Trouble Dog and her crew had joined the House of Reclamation, an organisation devoted to rescuing people in distress. During one of their rescue attempts, they awoke an ancient fleet of self-aware spaceships and Trouble Dog convinced them that humanity was worth saving. As Trouble Dog and her crew embark on another mission, this time to rescue a group stranded on an ancient asteroid spaceship, the alien fleet starts to implement its mission to “protect” humanity from itself. Aided by a fugitive Admiral responsible for a major war atrocity, the fleet commences to enforce peace by confining people to planets and destroying any vessel or installation that possesses weaponry. Despite their former acquaintance, that unfortunately includes Trouble Dog and her crew. As they attempt to retrieve the remaining members of the Lucy’s Ghost crew from the asteroid, they have to contend with multiple threats; ships from the fleet, an unknown alien menace which caused the crash of the Lucy’s Ghost, and ships from the custodians of the asteroid spaceship, who regard it as a sacred relic. The second book in a trilogy is always difficult as the author has to build on the setup from the first novel and also set up things for a climactic conclusion in the third book. If handled badly, it can seem just as lots of shuffling pieces around on a chessboard, which makes for a very dull read. Thankfully, this novel is very much not of that mould. It is a great story in its own right and really ratchets up the tension and pace. As well as excellent storytelling and worldbuilding, it is the depth of characterisation that makes this book really stand out. The individuals are distinct and have realistic personalities and roles. I particularly liked that the non-human characters, such as the ship AI’s and the alien engineer, Nod are clearly different yet still relatable. Events in the book have a real emotional impact on the individuals something which often gets forgotten in many space operas. The real costs to people of the events in the story also means that the reader cares far more about what happens to them. Also, although the fleet and the admiral are clearly the “villains” of the piece, the author takes the time and care to let the reader see some of their motivations and self-justification. This again makes for a more interesting and nuanced take than usual, and adds to the enjoyment of the book for me. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who likes a rare combination of thoughtful yet exciting sf storytelling.
A BLINK OF THE SCREEN by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett is of course best known for novels – fifty at last count, not including various collaborations and much
else – but like many another successful writer his first published work was a short story, two decades before the first
Discworld book. That story is reproduced here, together with a collection of other work spanning most of his writing
career, all with explanatory introductions and supplemented by Josh Kirby illustrations the majority of which have not
previously appeared on, or in, books. The book is subtitled “Collected Shorter Fiction” rather than “Collected Short
Stories” which is as it should be: although every word in it (apart from the afore-mentioned introductions) is fiction,
there are several pieces where anything constituting a narrative is conspicuous by its absence. But no matter – in fact,
some of the pseudo-nonfiction items are arguably better than the stories. Unsurprisingly, there are several Discworld
stories, variously featuring such familiar characters as Cohen the Barbarian, Granny Weatherwax, the Wizards of
Unseen University, Corporal Carrot and Death. The two-thirds of the book which is non-Discworld contains some
fantasy, including that first teenage story which is quite powerful, although the writing style could be described,
forgiveably, as a trifle naïve. However, there are also several stories which provide irrefutable evidence that inside the
well-known writer of comic fantasy is a first-rate SF writer trying to get out – and usually succeeding! It is also of interest
to find here a story which provided the original idea for THE LONG EARTH recently developed with Stephen Baxter
as a novel.
It would be overstating the case to say that this collection provides a comprehensive overview of Pratchett’s writing career. Between 1965 and 1970, for example, he wrote 247 story episodes for the children’s column in the local newspaper where he was then employed, although judging by the samples reproduced here the less said about these the better, and there are probably another one or two stories from this era which remain uncollected. Nevertheless it is a reasonably complete selection which displays a considerable range of styles and talents. Some pieces are merely humorous while some are out-and-out jokes; withal some are quite totally serious. Taking it all-in-all this is superb, confirming Pratchett (as if confirmation were needed) as a born writer, brimming with ideas and abundantly possessed of the ability to turn them into words. It should be on the bookshelves of every reader who has ever enjoyed his work and of a good many more who do not yet know what they are missing.
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 COLOUR OF MAGIC & THE LIGHT FANTASTIC by Terry Pratchett
1983 saw the publication of the first of the Discworld novels, THE COLOUR OF MAGIC, and this handsome volume
has been produced to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of that event.
THE LIGHT FANTASTIC is also included, despite not coming along until three years later, but both of those volumes were published by the tiny publisher Colin Smythe and prices for first editions are now into four-figures. The 25 year marker seemed the perfect chance to get these two books republished under the Gollancz imprint.
The Discworld, and the books about it, have changed enormously through the intervening years and it is interesting to look back at these first efforts. The first was written as a spoof, an ‘anti-fantasy’ counter to all the works of heroic fantasy which preceded it and with no conception of the series to which it would lead. Consequently, of the characters who have become the mainstay of the later books only Rincewind, the cowardly wizard, and Death are significantly present although embryonic versions of such organisations as The Unseen University, The City Watch and The Patrician’s Office are also to be found. Very much in evidence however are the style, the humour and the plundering ( and merciless sending-up ) of familiar fantasy sources such as Anne McCaffrey and Robert E. Howard ( to name but two of many ). The second book was more structured, more of a story with a plot rather than a series of loosely-related episodes.
Anything by Pratchett is always worth reading for itself and these early efforts are no exception. He has however gone on record as saying that if he had known then what the Discworld concept would later become, these first books would have been different, and better. Whatever, if this publication can bring new readers into the fold, whether or not it be on the back of the TV movie, it cannot be a bad thing.
Whether existing and confirmed readers will need this new production is another matter. A good deal of effort has gone into justifying the high price. Careful printing with judicious use of coloured ink for paragraph dividers and page numbers is set against colourful illustrations and there are pictorial endpapers and even a ribbon bookmark. It is certainly a volume which will grace a collector’s bookshelf and would enable a couple of tatty worn-out paperbacks to be discarded, although it might be no replacement for precious first-editions. However, it only contains the same words as any other edition and at the end of the day the words are what is important and there are less expensive ways to find them. So, whether a new reader or an old collector, you pays your money and you takes your choice as the saying goes. Michael Jones
THE LAST HERO (Illustrated by Paul Kidby) by Terry Pratchett
THE LAST HERO first appeared in a large (28 x 23 cm) and handsomely produced hardback edition, followed in due
course by a softbound version with several added illustrations. It is now reissued in a smaller (20 x 17 cm) version, still
softbound, inclusive of the extra illustrations — actually eight double-page spreads — and about half the price.
The story, briefly, is that Cohen the Barbarian and his equally ancient chums plan to go out in a blaze of glory, heedless of the fact that they may bring about the end of the (disc)world. Clearly they must be stopped, and how better to do it than to send the inept and cowardly Rincewind in a dragon-powered spaceship designed by Leonard of Quirm to intercept them. Cue various comedic high jinks. However, as so often with Discworld books, the actual story is to some extent of only secondary importance. It serves as a vehicle for musings on such serious subjects as religion, worship and the nature of belief, life and death, friendship and loyalty, and the power of story.
Note that this is in no way a graphic novel as such, although some of the illustrations are virtually part of the text — and all serve to enhance it to some degree, so that it would be a lesser book without them.
A reader familiar with the Discworld books will know pretty much what to expect, and it would serve as a reasonable introduction to a newcomer. Michael Jones
LU-TZE’S YEARBOOK OF ENLIGHTENMENT (Illustrated by Paul Kidby) by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Briggs
How do you review a diary? —because, despite the grandiose title, that is what this is. Well — it has all the dates for
next year, with a space to write something for every day, and a calendar for the year and one for the year after, and
somewhere to put your name and address and everything. So far so OK then.
Of course, the “important” part is contained in the first twenty or so pages, where one finds an exposition of the meaning of life according to Lu-Tze, which is found to be based upon the Way of Mrs Cosmopolite. This is supplemented by brief references to several other of the Discworld’s more recondite characters. In the diary pages important dates are noted such as Soul Cake Day and Hogswatch (to say nothing of the date of the Sto Plains Tiddly- Winks Finals) and most weeks carry a cod philosophy entry from the Way of Mrs Cosmopolite already referred to.
All in all then, it is neither one thing nor the other. It would be a waste to buy it just as a Discworld book, however good that part of it may be — and it is quite amusing. On the other hand, one would hardly want to use it as a diary and then keep it on the bookshelf for ever after with most of it filled with twelve months of out-of-date scribbles.
Either way, some might consider it as expensive for what it is, although it might work as a present to give a dedicated fan — or one for him to give himself. It is up to the individual really.
Terry Pratchett’s HOGFATHER: The Illustrated Screenplay by Terry Pratchett and Vadim Jean
Illustrated by Stephen Player
This is of course, the screenplay of the television production of HOGFATHER first broadcast at Christmas (or Hogswatch) just over a year ago. It is profusely, as well as very attractively, illustrated, with both publicity stills and shots from the broadcast as well as concept drawings and the like to make a pleasing souvenir of what one may or may not consider to have been a successful production. Plus its main raison d’etre, a version of the script. I say a version because there are many differences from a previous edition of the book published a year ago and I am in fact by no means certain that either conforms exactly to the final broadcast.
Be that as it may, one wonders at whom this is actually aimed. It provides little, if anything, which could not be enjoyed to better effect by watching the TV movie, while on the other hand it cannot possibly serve as an effective alternative to the original book as a version to read. Perhaps the best way to use it would be to have it on one’s lap while watching the TV, thereby hoping to enhance understanding and enjoyment - if you are sad enough!
But enough of that - the most useful purpose this review can serve is to let you know that such a book exists. A keen collector may choose to buy it as a souvenir and will probably not be disappointed. Someone more cynical might dismiss it as a money-making publicity exercise.
BONESHAKER by Cherie Priest
In nineteenth-century Seattle, in an alternative U.S.A., an eccentric inventor named Leviticus Blue accepted a
contract to build a tunnelling machine to be used to bore through the ice of the Klondike in search of gold. On
completing it however, he tested it on a destructive journey under the financial district of the city, causing widespread
death and destruction, and then disappeared. Unfortunately, his depredations also opened a geological rift which
released a subterranean source of poison gas, contact with which killed many people and turned those of the
remainder who were unable to escape into zombies. Within a year the city had been surrounded by a massive wall two
hundred feet high to contain the gas. A fragment of the original populace continued to inhabit the decaying city,
living a hand-to-mouth underground existence and forced to wear gas-masks and fight off the zombies whenever they
venture out into the open.
Fifteen years later, Blue’s son Ezekiel makes his way inside the city with the intention of learning the truth about him. His mother, Blue’s widow, realising he has little idea of what he may be getting into, follows in the hope of rescuing him from the consequences of his folly.
The book recounting all this tries to be science fiction, steampunk, a zombie story and an adventure yarn all at the same time and because it tries to do all things at once it ends up not doing any of them very well. The tunnelling machine with which it begins is unoriginal and the release of poison gas from underground is implausible, as are its effects; the zombies, here called “rotters” because they are living people gone rotten rather than re-animated corpses, are no more believable than such usually are and although there is a certain amount of gadgetry involved it seems to be designed, if that is the right word to use, to fit the needs of the story rather than to be technologically realistic. On the plus side it is quite well-written and the characters of Zeke and his mother are rounded and complete although some of the subsidiary characters are less so.
The Clockwork Century novels, of which this is the first, have become well-established in the U.S. during the last three or four years. On this evidence some might find it difficult to see what all the fuss is about.
AN AMERICAN STORY by Christopher Priest
This is my novel of the year, a grabbing, electrifying and chilling read. It’s probably best categorised as a conspiracy
thriller, with settings in the near past, the present and the near future.
Ben Matson tells the story. He’s an English freelance science journalist, living in Scotland (a member of the EU) and looking back at events from an unspecified point in the 2020’s. He has a firm and loving relationship with Jeanne, who is Scottish, and they have two young sons. But more than twenty years earlier he was in a relationship with Lily Viklund, a US publishing executive and expecting to stay with her for life, despite the complication that she was still married to Martin Viklund, a senior White House advisor.
Then 9/11 happens. Ben is in a passenger aircraft over the US at the time, and Lily is meant to be in another passenger aircraft. He cannot find out what’s happened to her and has to presume her death. He researches the details of 9/11 and discovers that while there are hundreds of crackpot theories about that infamous day in 2001 the official records are incomplete and deliberately false.
A couple of events in Ben’s “now” cause him to look again at 9/11 and its repercussions. Priest has cleverly interlaced chapters and scenes from the different years (all carefully labelled) to maintain a trickle of information and to increase tension. It’s impossible for the reader to know how much is fact and how much fiction. Priest has done his research with care, so that the small but significant changes in air travel and communication between 2001 and now are all in place. All through the novel are the insertions of Things That Don’t Fit, which worry Ben as he tries to make sense of the “true story” of 9/11. Why are people lying to Ben?
Priest’s smooth and clear writing style makes the reader care about his characters. A plethora of small details gradually come together to deliver a really satisfying novel. His novels mostly operate on the outskirts of SF and this is a great addition to his oeuvre.
EPISODES by Christopher Priest
When Chris & Nina paid their last visit to the group in July 2019, I bought this copy from Chris––and then forgot about
it. It turned up recently, and what an enjoyable volume it is. I'm talking about a collection of 11 stories covering the
whole of Chris's writing career, the last fifty years.
What's different and most fascinating about this collection is that for each story Chris has provided 'Before' and 'After' notes. He explains how stories came to be written, how they compare with the novels he was writing at the time, and what happened to the story afterwards. His theory is that most stories (not just his but all those within SF/fantasy/horror) are quickly forgotten even if they make a splash at the time. It's a theory that almost falls at the first fence with "The Head and the Hand". The gruesome tale tells of a man who, for reasons of huge monetary gain, has parts of his body cut off in public performance. Once you've read it you can't forget it. It's a story written in 1970, from which a movie was planned but never executed. It should be reprinted in any 'Best of...' horror anthology. Several of the stories included here fall into the horror category, yet are elegantly told, fully demonstrating the power of Chris's style.
Two of my favourite Priest stories are here: "Palely Loitering" and "An Infinite Summer", both of which are SF with fantasy trimmings and feature in his collection An Infinite Summer (which I recommend strongly but which is now 43 years old). Both are, in different ways, love stories. "Palely Loitering" was nominated for a Hugo but had to settle for a BSFA Award. I remember it, but how many of you do? Several of the later stories in the volume were new to me––especially those with surreal elements. They had one appearance in an anthology (sometimes a very obscure one) and have not been seen since. In his 'Before' note to "futouristic.co.uk" (sic) Chris mentions Robert Sheckley's humorous social satire, and that is, indeed, a story Sheckley would have been proud to have written. Yet it was broadcast on Radio 4 and this seems to be its first printed appearance. "Shooting an Episode" is a fine piece of OTT future technology that has only appeared in a slightly obscure anthology, 2084 edited by George Sandison. And the final story is the unsettling "The Sorting Out" a very subtle suggestion of horror that not even I have in its original anthology, The New Uncanny edited by Ra Page.
So if you enjoy good, clever writing across the genres of SF, fantasy and horror, hunt out this volume. (I bought my trade paperback direct from Chris Priest; it's a 2019 book; the hardcover and Orion standard paperbacks are still available.)
THE EVIDENCE by Christopher Priest
This is the latest addition to Priest's Dream Archipelago series that stretches back over forty years through THE
AFFIRMATION, THE DREAM ARCHIPELAGO, THE ISLANDERS and THE GRADUAL. But if you haven't read (or can't
recall the details of) all of those, don't worry. You can start here with THE EVIDENCE, a stand-alone crime thriller full
of surprises, matching or exceeding the quality of the previous volumes. The narrator, Todd Fremde, is a crime
novelist, never happier than when he's at home with his female partner and the cat on the subtropical island of Salay
Raba, writing novels and admiring the sea view. But he's agreed to deliver a lecture on crime novels to an academic
audience on the far-off island of Dearth. On Dearth, Fremde is confronted by numerous problems, in particular the
wintery conditions (for which special outdoor clothing is necessary) and the fact that the island is subject to mutability -
- details of time and space change without warning. Early on in the novel Fremde seems to be a Kafkaesque
protagonist persecuted by society and unable to achieve any satisfaction. But after his lecture he meets an older
woman who offers him a lift back to the airport (a couple of days away) in her souped-up sports car. It's a seeming
stroke of good fortune that gradually pushes Fremde into being at the centre of a real-life crime thriller.
Parts of the novel use the device (as old as novels themselves) of a tale or memoir told by a character other than the narrator. There's plenty of subtext here to speculate on. Is Dearth meant to equate to death? Would we have less crime if we called it by another name?
The Dream Archipelago islands are amazingly varied, with different cultures, laws and languages. And there are usually odd SF or fantasy elements in the mix, creating a surreal ambience. Are all the islands satirised parts of Britain? Priest may claim that all the details of the archipelago were planned decades ago (not that I've heard him doing so) but with each new book the place seems different––and that's part of the appeal. Just as with dreams themselves, you never know what you're going to get. In this series, all you can be sure of is an entertaining read presented in an immaculate writing style. Because this is Priest, he's never content merely to tell a story. Part of this novel is Fremde's analysis of the architecture of the crime novel and its plot clichés such as twins and the locked room murder. He (Fremde) would never write a novel including either of them. But would Priest? And he (Priest) has great fun satirising the non-academic author speaking at an academic conference, though I hope none of his experiences have been as bad as Fremde's.
It's another gripping read from Priest. If the plot seems to jerk or jump tracks from time to time, it must be the effects of mutability.
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 SEPARATION by Christopher Priest
This is the story of two identical twins, Jacob and Joseph Sawyer and the effect that they had on the war between
England and Germany in 1941.
The story presents several alternate histories that blur into one another to such an extent that people from one time-line are often confronted with people and stories from another. To add to the confusion, stories are presented from personal recollection, diaries and state papers. Some parts are even common to more than one history.
I can’t comment on the accuracy of the portrayals of historical figures and I suspect that there is enough disparate opinion that very few people could say for sure. The story-telling is good and the variations are often subtle enough to pass without notice but sometimes the segments are blatantly from a different alternate. I suspect that this could become more confused the more attention I paid to the plot. This story could get much worse or much better with re- reading.
THE CAUSAL ANGEL by Hannu Rajaniemi
This book presents several challenges to an old and old-fashioned reader of science fiction. Hannu Rajaniemi has a
reputation as being among the hardest of hard SF writers, and it feels perilous to avoid or dismiss difficulties when
their author has a PhD in the field of string theory, and a day job as director of a commercial research organisation,
ThinkTank Math. And there is an arcane literary challenge in that some of the characters come straight from the
Arsène Lupin novels of Maurice Leblanc. Lupin is a French master criminal something on the lines of Robin Hood,
with an eyeglass and top hat, and one of the few to prove a match for his contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, or rather
Herlock Sholmes as he appears in Leblanc’s stories. Jean le Flambeur (John the Gambler) also appears as Paul
Sernine (anagram- geddit?) in THE CAUSAL ANGEL. There are further echoes of Jules Verne and C. S. Lewis, plus a
final little difficulty in that the book is third in a trilogy!
I was glad to see the Victor Gollancz publisher’s mark on the review copy, as this is a name often found on many classics of the SF genre, old and new. And the name has been something of a support during what has proved to be a demanding time.
Let us begin asking the meaning of the title – who or what is the causal angel? I believe it is the character named Mieli. This is a Finnish name, short for Mielikki, the forest goddess, and also a Finnish word meaning ‘mind’. She has the appearance of an angel; she was raised in the Oort Cloud, which seems to be where the Finns settled after Earth became too uncomfortable due to independent rogue software called ‘wildcode’. Hannu Rajaniemi himself is Finnish, and also writes SF in that language. If you think settling the Oort Cloud strange, then how do you find Australia recreated as a walking city on the planet Mars? And causality itself is no longer certain in the quantum world depicted here.
The book opens with the destruction of Earth: “Alone of the timeless beach, Joséphine Pellegrini finds herself disappointed by the end of the world.” This feels like good strong SF, where straightaway we meet a being, old and detached enough to wish to view such an event, and also able to treat it as a kind of performance. It goes on: “As Ragnaröks go she has seen better . . . This is merely the final withering of an ancient placenta, long since overdue.” We are in a time distant from the present, but still within the Solar System; much of the book turns upon vast changes taking place there, and how and where to seek refuge from them. Joséphine has a brooding presence throughout the story, ancient and suffering in body, relentless and crystal clear in mind, and a descendent of Napoleon’s Joséphine in the Arsène Lupin originals.
The far future action centres around Saturn, its rings and satellites; the reader needs some idea of the meaning of Trojan asteroids and Lagrange Points. The way people live, with access to multiple versions of themselves, and the existence of at least partially self-sustaining software, have the feel of some strange fantasies, even though firmly based I believe on current theories of quantum physics.
Although much of the interest of science fiction lies in appreciation of the genre itself, lasting evaluation should be based on the same criteria as any other literature: an effective story, interesting characters, elements such as knowledge and humour, and ultimately a confidence that the author understands at least some of the important things that make up our humanity, and how we choose or are sometimes forced to live. I find it difficult to measure THE CAUSAL ANGEL against such criteria. The quantum science persists as a barrier, and while the literary background lends the story some mythical and even heroic elements, I am not sure how far the book presents a possible reality in which recognisable human beings have to endure and attempt to thrive.
Therefore I leave the book feeling some frustration with my only partial understanding. However Rajaniemi certainly deserves further interest and the obvious place to start is to read the first two novels in the trilogy:THE QUANTUM THIEF and THE FRACTAL PRINCE.
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 DA-DA-DE-DA-DA CODE by Robert Rankin
When Rog offered me this book he began by saying: "Dave - have you read The Da Vinci Code?" When I said that I
had, he replied' "Here you are then, this is for you!". So I should probably start by saying that the Rankin book has
nothing at all to do with the Brown one, apart from the punning title. Actually this conspiracy is much, much bigger
than the one in the Brown book, because it affects everyone, and the fate of our whole world. Unless, of course, it's all
in the mind of Jonathan 'Jonny' Hooker, the hero of this book, because his is a very strange mind. For one thing, since
his childhood he has had an imaginary friend, who prefers to be known as an NCC - a non-corporeal companion - by
the name of the Monkey Man, who wears a brightlycoloured waistcoat and a fez, and claims to have escaped from a
Jonny receives a Very Special Letter informing him that he has been selected by a Competition Supercomputer to be a WINNER (we've all received those, haven't we?). But in order to claim his prize he has to solve the Da-Da-De- Da-Da Code. Being a musician (he plays lead guitar in Dry Rot, which plays at the Middle Man on Heavy Metal Nights), Jonny know that all tunes contain 'da-da-de-da-da' somewhere, 'Waltzing Matilda' being perhaps the best- known example. But it becomes more sinister when he realizes that it also has something to do with the Devil's Chord or Devil's Interval, an augmented fourth or diminished fifth, which gives the listener a sense of unease, or restlessness, which needs resolution. It's also used in the title music of The Simpsons, and The Dance of the Sugar-plum Fairy. And not a lot of people know that. It also turns out that Robert Johnson, legendary blues player who sold his soul to the Devil, actually played his thirtieth song at the Middle Man; the barman and owner has a photo behind the bar to prove it. Later, he even produces Robert Johnson's Gibson guitar from a storeroom, and Jonny gets to play it, with remarkable results.
Near the beginning of the story there are several deaths, by beheading, for which Jonny is a prime suspect until he apparently becomes a victim.
But he continues regardless, under the disguise of a Gunnersbury Park Ranger. There is so much more, and it's impossible to describe it in any detail here, such as the involvement of the Air Loom Gang, from the year 1790, who are able to magnetise people and make them do their bidding, via music played on their amazing machine, and the appearance, near the end, of Elvis as one of a group of Rulers who almost plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust, under the influence of the Air Loom.
Robert Rankin books are rather like Marmite, or Brussels sprouts, which everyone either loves or hates. Personally I love them: to me Robert Rankin is much funnier than Terry Pratchett, and indeed he's the only author who never fails to make me laugh out loud (which can get you funny looks if you do it on a crowded train). It's a tradition, or an old charter, or something. .
THE FANDOM OF THE OPERATOR by Robert RankinOK, this is another book by Robert Rankin. One of approximately 22 that he has written. He has visited the Brum Group twice - not always to unanimous approval, but to much appreciation from the audience. So if you have never read him, you have only yourself to blame. Even the Daily Express said: "Everybody should read at least one Robert Rankin in their life." And you can't argue with the Daily Express, if you know what I mean, and I'm sure that you do. It's a tradition, or an old charter, or something.
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. Sam Fennell
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.
ABSOLUTION GAP by Alastair Reynolds
This is Science Fiction to satisfy all those who want the whole gamut of space ships, aliens and adventure.
ABSOLUTION GAP is sequel to REVELATION SPACE and REDEMPTION ARK. Each book is strong in ideas,
characterisation and plot.
There are two strands to this novel. First there are the characters who are familiar from the first two novels. Twenty years has passed since the mutated ship Nostalgia For Infinity landed on Ararat. The older ones still remember the rescue from the planet of Resurgam before the Inhibitors destroyed the solar system and hope that life is settling down. The Inhibitors are a machine race that destroy any species that attains space flight. Humans have come to their notice and they are hunting them down. They have followed the Conjoiners to Ararat's system and now they have to leave, in a hurry. Their destination is Hela.
The other strand concerns the moon Hela. Here a cult has developed due to the planet it orbits occasionally vanishing for a fraction of a second. A procession of huge moving structures, known as cathedrals, constantly circle the world in order to keep the planet directly overhead to observe the vanishings better. Rashmika Els lives on this hostile ice-covered world. When a trading caravan comes close enough to her village for her to join it, she leaves home to seek her brother who did the same thing a number of years ago.
Gradually these two apparently unconnected stories draw together, the breathtaking scope of this novel is impossible to convey in a few words. It needs to be experienced to appreciate it and although it conies to a conclusion for most of the characters, the Inhibitors are still out there.
AURORA RISING (Inspector Dreyfus 1) by Alastair ReynoldsIt always seems a strange decision to change the title of a book even if it is being reissued after ten years from original publication. When it first appeared in 2007, this book was called THE PREFECT. It may not have sounded as exciting as the current one, AURORA RISING, but it does encapsulate the essence of the book. While a publisher might express all kinds of logical reasoning for the change, it does confuse readers, especially those enthusiastic about Reynolds work, as the new title will suggest a new novel. Granted, there is a label in the cover stating the original title but it still doesn’t excuse it.
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.
BLUE REMEMEMBERED EARTH by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds has chosen to set his latest book – part one of Poseidon’s Children - on Earth in 2150. There has
been climate change, but rather than a dystopian future in the aftermath of disaster, he shows us a world in which the
consequences of calamity have been overcome and a new world order established. In this world China and India are
leading the exploration of the Solar System, while Africa is also a dominant technological and economic power. (It is
not entirely clear whether a union of the many disparate African states has been achieved.) From eastern Africa the
Akinya family operates a vast business empire with interests all over the System and the death of its matriarchal
leader, Eunice, who was almost single-handedly responsible for establishing its success, sets in motion a train of
events which is to have incalculable consequences. She has left in place a series of clues which amount to nothing
less than a Treasure Hunt, leading members of her extended family of descendants from one planet to another until
they find in the Kuiper Belt the fruits of her advanced research.
She had deliberately withheld this while she remained alive, but perhaps now it is time for it to be made public.
In terms of advanced science and technology this is everything we have come to expect from Reynolds. It is also beautifully paced: it seems slow at first but the tension gradually increases as the various threads of the complex narrative come together in a dramatic conclusion. The characters are wholly believable, as are the descriptions of life in this advanced world. Most importantly, perhaps, the sheer quality of his writing shines through from every page, with not a word out of place or a sentence badly constructed.
The contract between Reynolds and publishers Gollancz for his next ten books has been widely publicised. On the evidence of this one he is worth every penny of what they are paying him and the future volumes in this series will be eagerly anticipated. This one works perfectly well on a stand-alone basis, but the series title provides a tantalising hint of what may be to come.
BONE SILENCE by Alastair Reynolds
Space Opera was a term coined in the 1930s and related to fictional adventures set almost entirely off-planet. Space
ships ignored the problems of relativity and crossed huge voids in days or even hours. The majority of the characters
were male, aliens were there to fight or subjugate and any woman was someone to be rescued. As with our
perceptions of race, gender and science, Space Opera has come a long way. There has to be an advanced scientific
method of reaching far away stars (even if the aliens provide it), and the characters tend to be more gender- and
colour-blind. Aliens can be friends. In other words, the best Space Opera reflects the times in which the author is
living. Alastair Reynolds is a modern proponent of Space Opera. The Revenger trilogy has all the magic ingredients.
The action – and this is packed with that – is mostly set in space. The setting is millennia in our future. The solar
system was dismantled a very long time ago and numerous worlds, many of fanciful constructions, house the
population. Some of them are like space stations, others small worlds with gravity (usually provided by a swallower aka
mini black hole). Since the dismantling, the Congregation of worlds has been subject to twelve previous Occupations.
History covers such a long period that no-one knows where the people who developed the civilisations of each
Occupation came from though there are relics often hidden on dangerous structures known as Baubles. Some of these
artefacts are discs known as quoins and are used as currency. When serious change happens, the people at the centre
of it probably didn’t intend or prepare for the consequences that bring it about. Certainly, Adrana and Arafura Ness
didn’t when they headed out into space from their home world. In the first volume, REVENGER, they fall in with a
notorious pirate called Bosa Sennen. By the end of the book they have defeated the woman and taken control of her
ship which they rename Revenger. The big problem is that the authorities of the Congregation are not prepared to
believe that Sennen is dead, which makes the Ness sisters and their ship a target. One of the things that Sennen was
supposed to have was a vast stash of quoins stolen from ships she had attacked. The second volume, SHADOW
CAPTAIN, is partly about the search for them.
The Ness sisters are curious about what the quoins really are, especially when they inadvertently put a large quantity together and all the quoins in the whole of the Congregation changed their value. It is clear that they were not originally minted as money. The other mystery is how and why the Occupations occur. From Sennen’s notes it seems that the Congregation is seeded at regular intervals but that not every seeding takes. Why an Occupation ends is also a mystery. These are questions that the majority of people aren’t bothered about. One of the ways ships communicate is through very old, alien skulls. Both Adrana and Arafura are Bone Readers. They can plug into a skull and listen in to the conversations between other ships. As they are regarded as pirates, whatever they may assert, they are wanted. As BONE SILENCE opens, they have disguised the ship and headed for a world where they hope to be able to find a suitable skull to replace theirs, and acquire other provisions. As can be expected in this kind of story, nothing goes as smoothly as they hope. Adrana agrees to take an alien, a Clacker, to Trevenza Reach, a spindle world on the edge of the Congregation. She hopes he will have some information that will satisfy some of her curiosity. This is not a simple task as they are attacked by muddle heads. These creatures are constructed from bits of human, animal and alien and temporarily animated. This gives Adrana another question – how can human and alien bits be made to cohere if their evolution and origin is different? Not that she has time to ponder the question as almost as soon as they escape into space, they have other problems.
Revenger still has no skull as since they are regarded as pirates, they decide to steal one, attacking a bauble prospector. Though they are careful to leave the ship with enough resources to make it to a port for repairs but they are being hunted by a military squadron that they may not be able to outrun.
These are only some of the problems the Ness sisters face. At every turn there is the prospect of disaster. Living in space is fraught with risk so expect some collateral damage. The pace is relentless but the situations, including the setting have a ring of authenticity about them. This is Space Opera at its best but to appreciate it at its fullest it is best to start at the beginning of the trilogy. Nevertheless, this is a very satisfying read.
CENTURY RAIN by Alastair Reynolds
At one time there was a vogue for time travel novels, especially those that introduced paradoxes. When they were
done well, they were great fun.
There is also a sub-genre of science fiction which deals with alternate histories.
Alastair Reynolds appears to do both, and neither. Verity Auger is an archaeologist. She explores a future Paris that is covered in ice. The Earth that we know has suffered a major climatic disaster. The problems that we have created in our own century escalated and to try and put things right, self replicating nano-machines were seeded into the atmosphere. At first, this seemed to work but the technology got out of hand and only people who were off world at the time, survived. These had split into two factions, the Slashers who embrace enhancements and nano-technology, and the Threshers who distrust machines they cannot see. Earth is now a very hostile place with the nano-machines, known as furies, readily attacking any living tissue. When an expedition to Paris goes wrong, Verity faces a choice – facing a charge of murder by negligence or going on a top secret mission. She chooses the latter.
Threading through the universe is a network of alien technology, the hyperweb that offers fast transit between stars. It is, so far, largely unexplored and the places of exit of the transit tunnels is largely unknown. At the end of some of them, though, have been discovered some very large objects that form shell around spaces large enough to hold planet/moon systems. A route has been found into one of these ‘anomalous large structures’ (ALS). Verity is to go there to retrieve some papers. She is the best qualified person for the job as the world inside the ALS is Earth in 1959. The exit is under Paris. On this Earth, the Second World War petered out in 1940.
Wendell Floyd is a native of this alternate world. He is a jazz musician and a private detective. Neither profession is going well. He is asked to investigate the death of a young woman. She fell from her apartment window. The police have decided it is suicide but her landlord suspects murder. Before her death, Susan White entrusted her landlord with a tin of papers and said her sister Verity would come and collect them. Susan is an agent from outside and has stumbled on some kind of plot. She is the link that throws Floyd and Verity together. They uncover a sinister plot by the Slashers that is world threatening.
At the start of the historical section, the prose felt a bit flat, although it was readily apparent that this was not quite the Europe that formed part of our past. This is partly because down-on-their-luck private eyes are a very familiar character type. However, it quickly picked up, especially once the link with the ‘future’ characters was hinted at and the strange looking children began to turn up. The depiction of this slightly skewed, late 1950s Paris is well done. It always amazes me how authors are able to create such detailed technological futures and make them sound reasonable. Ultimately, Reynolds has achieved two difficult things; to write convincingly about the past and the future simultaneously and to meld them together into a novel well worth reading.
CHASM CITY by Alastair ReynoldsAlastair Reynolds’ first novel REVELATION SPACE was an incredible five-star blockbuster and now he has followed it up with a kind of prequel involving a lead character and a setting which both appeared peripherally in the earlier book, although this story is completely unconnected with it.
DIAMOND DOGS, TURQUOISE DAYS by Alastair Reynolds
Firstly let’s make it clear that this is not a novel, but consists of two novellas, unconnected apart from the fact that both
are set in the author’s ‘Revelation Space’ universe, and in each there is at least one character who has been in contact
with, and thus been altered by, the Pattern Jugglers. Further, DIAMOND DOGS was published a couple of years ago
by Peter Crowther’s PS Publishing (I should know, since I did the cover for it, showing the Spire on Golgotha!).
However, if you haven’t already read that, but preferably have read CHASM CITY, REDEMPTION ARK, etc., this book
is well worth buying. I always find it interesting to read stories set in a particular fictional ‘universe’, as you get a
feeling of familiarity, and recognize certain references to events from other books.
The first story deals with a group of what can best be called mercenaries, who are employed to explore a mysterious tower which poses a series of problems, mainly mathematical, to people who try to ‘invade’ it. If they fail, they are subjected to horrific punishments which are likely to result in them being killed and cast out. The problems also become more difficult the higher they climb inside the tower - and the doorways become smaller, forcing them to remove their spacesuits. . . There are similarities between this and stories like ROGUE MOON by Algis Budrys (a favourite of mine), and also the movie CUBE, which the author acknowledges within this story.
TURQUOISE DAYS focuses on a woman, Naqi, and her sister Mina, both of whom have experiences with the Pattern Jugglers in the oceans of the planet Turquoise, as a result of which Mina dies, but her brain patterns are absorbed by the Jugglers. Naqi becomes involved in a project to enclose a section of ocean, cutting off a colony of Pattern Jugglers from the main body. Then an Ultra ship approaches Turquoise, asking permission to land. It does, and for a while all seems fine. It becomes clear that their intention is to study the Pattern Jugglers on Turquoise (having done so on other worlds), but not to interfere. But - well, read the book to find out!
DOCTOR WHO HARVEST OF TIME by Alastair Reynolds
It may be a surprise to find Alastair Reynolds writing about Doctor Who, but he is doing no more than join the ranks of
many illustrious writers who have preceded him as well as many more who became (justly) famous later.
Following a Prologue set on a planet remote in both space and time, the story begins in contemporary England in the era of the third Doctor, featuring recognisable portrayals of The Doctor himself as played by Jon Pertwee, supported by Jo Grant and U.N.I.T., and The Master as played by Roger Delgado.
They are soon up against a planetary invasion by the irresistible Sild, a race apparently known to The Doctor although not one which has previously appeared in the known Doctor Who canon. It seems as though the Master, up to his usual nefarious tricks, may be in some way connected with this invasion, although perhaps not intentionally.
The first half of the book is pretty straightforward Who, dealing with events on a comparatively mundane level. Reynolds has perfectly nailed the required intellectual level; that is to say undemanding to read whilst at the same time including enough pseudo-scientific jargon to sound almost convincing. In the second half however he gives freer rein to his innate talent, producing a much more complex and imaginative story of time meddling and reality shifts. The Sild are defeated (of course) and the Master ends up done for (or is he?) while there is one final major twist which ties everything together including the prologue – although this was telegraphed in advance for those readers sufficiently observant.
Of the two names on the cover, it is for the individual reader to decide which is the more important. Neither side need feel disappointed. Reynolds fans will find that although it may not be his best it is nearly everything they have come to expect from him, while for Who fans it can hardly fail.
ELYSIUM FIRE by Alastair Reynolds
When I first saw this book among those provided for review and noted its sub-title “A Prefect Dreyfus Emergency” I just
had to acquire it as I own a copy of its prequel THE PREFECT and this is one of my favourite Alastair Reynolds books.
Obtaining ELYSIUM FIRE provided me with the perfect opportunity to reread THE PREFECT. By the way I was
recently in Waterstones and noticed that the title of THE PREFECT has been changed to AURORA RISING. Although
in my mind this is an unnecessary alteration it is understandable as Aurora is a central character in the book and now
plays a key supporting role in ELYSIUM FIRE.
Most of the action in these two books takes place in the “Glitter Band”; Ten Thousand habitats orbiting the planet
“Yellowstone”. Although this planet has a toxic atmosphere it is the location of what is described as the greatest
settlement in human history and is the focus of another great book by Alastair Reynolds, i.e. CHASM CITY. It also
features in ELYSIUM FIRE.
In both books the citizens of the Glitter Band and Chasm City are ‘Demarcists’ having universal suffrage, voting not just
occasionally (via neural implants) but virtually hour by hour and on every conceivable matter governing their lives. In
order to monitor and ensure the inviolability of the polling system a small independent task force, “the Prefects”, was
created. Much of the action of this book takes place in “Panoply”, the Prefects’ asteroid base. Although primarily tasked
with maintaining the sanctity of the polling mechanism, the Prefects also try to ensure the safety of the Glitter Band
and each individual citizen. ELYSIUM FIRE covers such a threat. Across the Glitter Band, citizens’ neural implants are
overheating and literally burning out their brains. Fighting this epidemic, nicknamed ‘Wildfire’, is consuming more and
more of Panoply’s thinly stretched resources. As well as investigating this horror, against his will Tom Dreyfus becomes
entangled with the machinations of a charismatic revolutionary/secessionist. Resolving both of these problems tests
him and his loyal team, as well as Panoply almost to destruction.
Great plot, great characters, great world building, believable action and future science; ELYSIUM FIRE confirms
Alastair Reynolds reputation as an outstanding storyteller. Overall this is a first-class novel. You may be asking yourself
if it is necessary to read THE PREFECT (AURORA RISING) before ELYSIUM FIRE. I don’t think it is essential. Although
I think that you will be missing a great read if you do not read both, so why not read them in the order that they were
written. Will there be a sequel? I think and hope so as just before the end there is a hint that we will be seeing more of
Tom Dreyfus, Panoply and Aurora.
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.
HOUSE OF SUNS by Alastair Reynolds
This novel is a departure for Reynolds in that it explores more complex ideas and reaches greater depths than
previously. It encompasses huge periods of time and vast distances in space, all without stepping outside the known
parameters of physics all his spaceships travel at sub-light speeds.
At some point in our distant future, a pioneer, with the expertise for building starfaring ships, decided to explore the galaxy. In order to do so, but without the ability to travel faster than light, she decided to clone herself, each 'shatterling' taking one ship and meeting up in the future to exchange information. Thus the family lines were created. Campion and Purslane are members of the House of Flowers, the Gentian line. Campion and Purslane, contrary to family tenets, are lovers.
They are also late for the latest reunion, having gained one passenger (a member of the only intelligent race of machines) and losing another (an aquatic whose tank malfunctions). When they arrive, however, they discover that most of their fellow shatterlings have been massacred. Retreating to the planet of Neumne the fifty two survivors need to work out why someone wants to eradicate the Gentian line, The novel starts slowly, as the building blocks of the plot are put in to place, then accelerates. It is told as alternate first person narratives from the points of view of Campion and Purslane with interacts going back to the perspective of their progenitor, Abigail Gentian as a child.
This is perhaps Reynolds' best book to date. It deals with themes of love, friendship and loyalty, interspersed with ideas of revenge, self-sacrifice and subterfuge. When Purslane is abducted aboard her own ship. Campion is prepared to follow however far, and however long it takes to be reunited with his love.
An excellent piece of work.
INHIBITOR PHASE by Alastair Reynolds
Fans of Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space series will find all the high-concept, imaginative hard SF that they love in
spades in this superb addition to the series. However, it works just a well as a stand-alone for those who aren’t familiar
with his previous books (although inevitably there will be some spoilers, including in this review but I will try to keep
them to a minimum).
The Inhibitor machines (“wolves”) designed millennia ago to detect intelligent life and destroy it, have now wiped out most of human civilisation. Humanity survives in small pockets, desperately limiting their activities to avoid detection. Miguel de Ruyter has sheltered in the cavern of an airless, battered world called Michaelmas, protecting his family and their small community from attack for 40 years. When a sleeper ship enters the system, he volunteers for the heart- breaking mission to destroy it before it can bring unwanted attention. But the mission goes wrong and he ends up rescuing the sole survivor, Glass. However, there is far more to her than expected. She has come searching for Miguel specifically, and blackmails him into reluctantly accompanying her on a crazy mission to uncover a weapon that could at last defeat the pervasive Inhibitor machines.
The two of them embark on an odyssey to reach the location of the weapon, visiting now ruined major population centres such as the Glitter Band and Chasm City, and the water world, Ararat. Along the way, they encounter various strange allies and enemies, including Conjoiners (augmented humans), hyperpigs, a sentient spaceship, and the alien Pattern Jugglers. While readers of the previous novels will appreciate the return (and story progression) of old places and characters, it does not prevent a new reader from following or appreciating the story.
The story starts with the mystery of who or what Glass is and what she knows about Miguel and his past. Unravelling those twin puzzles forms a very interesting and important part of the narrative. The book is also very good at evoking a continuing sense of menace throughout, starting with what Glass intends for Miguel (and his small colony). The perils continue with high-stakes encounters with a mad spaceship, the homicidal Swine Queen and escaping from activated sentinel Inhibitor machines. The pacing is excellent and this is a book I didn’t want to put down as I wanted to see what happened next.
As expected, there is more of the superb imaginative worldbuilding of the Revelation Space universe with high-tech and mysterious characters and machines, which all adds to an exciting plot. The author has clearly also paid attention to having fully rounded characters with believable pasts, drives and agendas. There are clashes, compromises, sacrifices and ultimately personal growth for more than one of the characters which add depth and enjoyment to the narrative.
This is hard SF at its very best and heartily recommended.
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.
REDEMPTION ARK by Alastair Reynolds
I have already written enthusiastically in these pages about Reynolds’ two previous books REVELATION SPACE and
CHASM CITY. This new novel is a direct sequel to the former.
One of the themes of REVELATION SPACE was the destruction some nine hundred thousand years previously of an advanced technological civilisation by a mysterious force from outside. Now in REDEMPTION ARK the same force is emerging again, this time with the apparent object of destroying humanity. It transpires that this mysterious agency - which becomes known to us as the Inhibitors - has been around since the dawn of time, ruthlessly eliminating any emergent intelligence before it becomes able to start colonising the Galaxy.
Paradoxical though it may seem, the object of this programme is actually to ensure the indefinite continuation of intelligent life, three billion years into the future and beyond.
This is not made clear until close to the end of the book; meanwhile humans try to fight back and, once having discovered the threat, try either to protect themselves from, or escape altogether, the fate which the Inhibitors have in store for them. Unfortunately, rival human factions are already at war with each other and there is conflict about who is to do the protecting and who the escaping.
One of the major factions in this conflict is carried over from the previous book, while others are developed from earlier work published in INTERZONE and elsewhere. In particular, this involves the Conjoiners, a group who use neural implants to meld themselves together into a single group mind and some of whom are quite prepared to follow an agenda which excludes the rest of humanity. I feel that the author and his publisher owe us yet another book collecting and/or developing that previous work to flesh out the history of his universe.
Superbly written and full of invention, this is yet another great book by an important author. Interestingly, however, it ends with important issues unresolved - the Inhibitors have not been stopped and are still out there and, so possibly are the Conjoiners. There is room in Reynolds’ universe for lots more books and I hope they will all be as good as this one.
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.
THE PREFECT by Alastair ReynoldsFans of Alastair Reynolds will remember CHASM CITY set on the planet Yellowstone, which was surrounded by the Rust Belt, the wreckage of thousands of space habitats. This novel is set at the height of the orbital civilisation when it was still called the Glitter Band. Each habitat is independently governed and to keep their freedom the only overall authority are the undermanned and underequipped Prefects of the habitat Panoply.
ZIMA BLUE AND OTHER STORIES by Alastair Reynolds
ZIMA BLUE was originally published in 2006 by American publisher Nightshade Books. They produced two versions,
the standard trade edition and a limited edition containing an extra story. Now, in 2009, Gollancz have published the
collection in Britain.
This edition contains three extra stories that were not in either of the Nightshade editions.
Of these stories “Digital To Analogue” is the one not in the standard Nightshade edition but in their limited and the Gollancz editions.
Unusually for Reynolds it is one of the few stories set in the present. The narrator is well into the club scene – alcohol, soft drugs and loud music. One night on the way home he is picked up by a serial killer preying on clubbers.
Of the three stories only in the Gollancz edition, “Minla’s Flowers” is the middle of a sequence of three stories. The central character calls himself Merlin and the sequence revolves around two problems – how the remnants of humanity are going to hide from the pursuing Huskers (aliens bent on wiping out humans wherever they might be found), and how they are going to find a weapon to destroy the Huskers. Both humans and Huskers are space faring species travelling long distances in sublight ships. There is a faster way. A long gone alien species threaded the galaxy with a fast transit system, if you can gain access to it. In “Hideaway” the humans have to decide whether to hide or run. Opinion is divided, so they divide the ship. Merlin stays with the group that intends to hide on a cinder of a planet. His motive, to find a way of using an artefact they call a sphinx to gain access to the Way. In “Minla’s Flowers” Merlin, now a seasoned traveller of the Way, finds a planet of floating cities reminiscent of his own planet, destroyed by the Huskers. By going into stasis for long periods, he is able to follow the career of Minla and her attempts to unify her planet. In the third of the sequence, “Merlin’s Gun”, he believes he has found where the weapon he wants is located. These three stories are very different from each other and are unified by the character of Merlin.
It would be good to have more or longer pieces of his story.
Another story, only in this volume is “Cardiff Afterlife”. It is in the same sequence as “Signal To Noise”. One of the consequences of string theory is the idea that there are many parallel worlds. Here, the belief is that with every choice, an alternative time line branches off our own. It is becoming a fashionable theme in SF. In this story, however, a laboratory in Cardiff has succeeded in linking resonances with another, closely parallel world. In our world, Mick Leighton’s wife is killed in a traffic accident. In the world they have contact with, she is still alive. Using technology that allows for transfer of minds between bodies, Mick takes over his counterpart’s body to spend a few more days with his wife before the differences between their realities becomes too different to hold the connection.
In “Cardiff Afterlife”, the city is destroyed by a terrorist atomic bomb, but not in all versions of Cardiff. The story relates the effect of the knowledge of the destruction on a counterpart of a parallel world of the man who developed the means to communicate between alternative Cardiffs.
Related to these stories in philosophy is the fourth story only in the Gollancz volume. In “Everlasting” an unstable man scares an old friend by ringing her up and telling her that he is not going to kill himself. His theory is that as there are infinite worlds, if he plays Russian Roulette, then he cannot die because in one branch of the timeline, he always survives. It is a scary kind of twisted logic, but entirely believable.
Of the remaining stories in this volume, all of which appear in all versions, the first and last involve the same character. Carrie Clay is a journalist who specialises in interviewing people with strange stories. As a character, she is fairly passive. She is a listener and it is the tales her interviewees tell that make the stories fascinating. In “The Real Story”, she is interviewing Grossart, the first man to set foot on Mars. During his lone voyage to the now colonised red planet, he coped by developing multiple personalities. As he shows her the sights of Mars, she has to keep up with his personality switches to avoid upsetting him and losing the scoop. In “Zima Blue”, Carrie is the only person granted an interview with the reclusive artist Zima. Zima Blue is the colour that the artist started putting in his paintings, initially as a very small square but which grew to dominate the entire work. Some of his creations have literally been on a cosmic scale. Now, the world is awaiting the unveiling of his final masterpiece.
There are five other stories in this collection. All of them are well told, thoughtful stories which aim at exploring an aspect of humanity as well as entertaining. The ones that work best for me are those in which the central character is interesting enough for the author to want to go back and write more about, such as Merlin and Carrie Clay.
BLOOD COMMUNION: A Tale of Prince Lestat by Anne Rice
Vampires have been a staple in both folklore and fiction for a very long time, even Bram Stoker’s DRACULA had its
roots in myth. Since then, the idea of the vampire has evolved away from the evil, blood-draining monster with no
redeeming qualities, into the charismatic upstanding citizen found in the pages of such as Charlaine Harris or Lynsay
Sands. Don’t be fooled, though, these vampires can still be dangerous. Anne Rice can, to some extent, be regarded as
starting the revolution with her 1976 novel INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. BLOOD COMMUNION is the thirteenth
novel in the Vampire Chronicles series. The central character is once again Prince Lestat – a title given to him by the
elders of the vampire tribe. These vampires are immortal but not unkillable, though disposing of a very old one
becomes more difficult and they retain many of the features of Stoker’s Count Dracula. At the point this novel begins,
Lestat is restoring his ancestral Chateau to be the focal point of a Court to which all blood-drinkers (as they usually
refer to themselves as) will be welcome. The artisans working on the place are human and unaware that vampires
exist. Much of the novel is taken up with the refurbishment and the setbacks Lestat encounters. Early on, he is drawn
away from the project. An old vampire, Dimitri Fontayne, living in Louisiana asks for help dealing with a bunch of
maverick blood-drinkers who are threatening him. Lestat takes them out easily but Fontayne warns Lestat that he has
other enemies. One, Roshamandes, Lestat knows about and other members of his court have been urging him to kill
this vampire, something Lestat is reluctant to do while he is not an immediate thread. Baudwin is a different matter.
When he threatens Fontayne he has to be dealt with. The bulk of the action in the book, though, deals with the
problem of Roshamandes which comes to crisis point when his companion, Benedict, decides he has lived long
enough and commits a ritual death in front of all those gathered at the Court. Roshamandes blames Lestat and seeks
revenge on him. The overall feeling of this book is that Rice is tying up loose ends left over from other novels drawing
the sequence to a close. Many of the characters here will be familiar to those who have read the other books in the
Vampire Chronicles. Starting here is not a good move as the relationships between them are only sketchily drawn.
There is a big flaw in the book. At the end, the invitation goes out to all the blood-drinkers of the world to attend the
Grand Ball. Some five thousand turn up. Now, older vampires can exist by taking small amounts of blood from prey
but younger ones kill to satisfy their needs. Lestat has furnished comfortable cells under the castle and filled them with
the scum of the earth – murderers, assassins and cut-throats – gathered from around the world. There would have to
be a lot of them and the supply replenished regularly to feed that number of fledglings. In this day and age, even the
most worthless would be missed and disappearances in such numbers questioned. The blood-drinkers would not be
able to stay under the radar permanently. Ultimately, though, this is a book for those who have followed the series.
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 Roberts
Adam 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.
This is the story of Graham Penhaligon in a near-future changing world. The changes have begun before the story starts. At the beginning Graham is delayed, briefly, in the slaughtering of one of his cows – he is a dairy farmer and trade isn’t good- when the cow complains. This isn’t any great surprise to Graham. He’s been used to talking farm animals for a while. An animal rights organisation has been implanting animals with a computer chip that either gives the animals the ability to speak for themselves or just provides a pre-programmed A.I. with an animal voice box. Which of these you believe tends to depend on which side of the animal rights debate you’re on. With the slaughter of this cow, Graham becomes famous as the last person to slaughter a talking animal. When the court cases are done he becomes either a hero of the people or a war criminal. Again, depending on your point of view. The country passes a new law to recognise the rights of talking animals and the changes really begin. Someone creates a form of tank- grown meat that makes meat production by any other means virtually redundant. Supposedly intelligent animals take over the countryside and human life moves into walled cities. Graham goes from struggling farmer to semi-legal travelling butcher to tramp in a few years. Just when he has got as low as he possibly could he starts getting messages from an animal leader called “The Lamb” who has a proposition for him.
The ethical issues covered and the science that goes along with it are pretty well done and make for a very interesting story. The great failing comes in Roberts’ idea of humour. This seems to rely on the idea that dropping references to recent films etc. into the text is funny. I suppose there are a lot of people that like that sort of thing but, somehow, it never really worked for me. I suppose you can’t have everything.
GRADISIL by Adam Roberts
This is certainly an unusual and original book. According to two other writers (Baxter and Grimwood) on the cover, it is
‘very high concept’, whatever that means. It starts in 2043, but the author makes it clear in the first few pages that this
is not quite the universe as we know it. For instance, he states that after moving to America Wernher von Braun
changed his name to von Brown (but not to Vernon? Sorry!), which to the best of my knowledge he never did. And
apparently it is not necessary to use brute-force rockets to reach space, because you can simply fly up, changing from
normal propulsion and wings as the atmosphere thins to using the Earth’s magnetic field and magnetosphere, thanks
to ‘Elemag’ coils wrapped around the wings and belly of a plane.
The story moves from 2043 to 2131, and is told from the perspective of various people, most of whom are related in some way to the original writer, Klara Gyoffery. Her father, who built the first Elemag vehicles, likens this form of propulsion to climbing the branches of the great mythical tree Yggdrasil, which reaches between Earth and Heaven. But he mispronounces it as ‘Yggradisil, and it is from this that the title comes: Gradisil is the name given to Klara’s daughter, to whom, later, much of this book is devoted. Many people move into orbit using this method, until they form a sort of community, living in ‘houses’ which are usually little more than two or more cylindrical tanks attached to each other, but rarely visible to each other, such is the vastness of this ‘territory’. However, many of these people are extremely wealthy, even multimillionaires, and naturally they do not pay taxes to any nation down below – the cause of much friction and bad feeling.
Klara’s father is murdered in orbit by an amoral woman called Kristin Janzen Kooistra, who also steals his house, and the earthbound police are not interested since it is beyond their jurisdiction. From then on, Klara’s story in Part One is mainly about her attempts to extract revenge for this.
In Part Two the story is split between several people: Gradisil herself, who becomes the charismatic leader of the anarchic Uplands; her rather ineffectual husband Paul Caunes; their two sons (though actually not his) Hope and Sol (for Solidarity), and an Army Lieutenant called Slater, who is based on a US orbital station called Fort Glenn. Here, Roberts introduces a mutated form of English in his text, though for me not a very logical one. It consists mainly of removing ‘ck’ in words like ‘suck’, making it ‘suk’, and ‘wh’ in ‘what’, becoming ‘wat’. But it often doesn’t work: how would you pronounce ‘baking up’? He goes a stage further in Part Three, in which words ending in ‘ing’, as in ‘beginning’, end with a new character: an ‘n’ with an inward-curving leg. There are a few other changes, too, but not sufficient for the way language changes in reality, and I found this quirk rather irritating. This section is concerned with sons Hope and Sol, now adult but very different, and what happens when they meet their father, Paul, whom they accuse of being responsible for their mother’s death after a ‘war’ between America and the Uplands, in which Gradisil had played a vital and pivotal part.
All in all, it is worth sticking with this book’s eccentricities, and I was almost surprised to find that by the end I had enjoyed it.
POLYSTOM by Adam Roberts
This is a pretty remarkable book. A lot more remarkable than it first appears, in fact. Indeed, I didn’t realize this until
some 50 pages before the end!
The individual elements are not really new or original but the whole is greater then the sum of the parts, or something. . . We have here a solar system in which the planets are mere thousands of miles apart, and in which space is full of air - very rarified as you ascend from a planet’s surface, but still breathable. Space is therefore not black, but pale violet, and it is possible for propeller-driven aircraft to fly from one to another within hours or days. There are also creatures, called Skywhals, which float around in this interplanetary medium. By now you may well be thinking, as I did: “Bob Shaw’s Wooden Spaceships!” And there is that similarity, though this is as far as it goes. It is, however, clear that here we have a universe in which the laws of physics are different from those we are used to. But the people appear to be entirely human in appearance and behaviour, as do the surfaces of their six planets and three moons, apart from the fact that the closest to the sun is very hot and the furthest (obviously) cold.
We follow the adventures of what must surely be the most gormless ‘hero’ I have come across. Polystom is an aristocrat who would probably win Monty Python’s ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ hands-down. He is the Fiftieth Steward of Enting (his planet), and we first encounter him flying his own ‘plane to Enting’s moon, 4,200 miles away, where his uncle Cleonicles lives. Cleonicles is a brilliant, but now old professor, who designed the Computational Device, a valveand- crystal machine th at could undertake huge mathematical calculations at incredible speed. We later learn that it is now mainly used to control the War which has been fought for years on the Mudworld - closest planet to the sun, officially called Aelop. But Cleonicles also holds very unorthodox views on the nature of the universe, asserting that at some distance there must be vacuum, and th at the stars are in fact distant globes of fire, burning in nothingness. He tries to explain this to Polystom, but his nephew constantly attempts to look at the world in poetic ways, and simply cannot grasp science. In fact, he grasps very little, passing his life in a haze of social events, waited on by servants.
Polystom falls in love with a girl called Beeswing and marries her, but she is strange, distant and uncommunicative, and the marriage fails. Beeswing runs away and eventually dies. Polystom’s uncle is also killed, apparently by vagrants from offworld who arrived by hitching a ride on a skywhal. He decides, as a ‘grand gesture’, to volunteer fifty of his servants to go to Mudworld to fight in the War, with himself as their Captain. He is allocated two lieutenants, Sophanes and Stetrus, usually known as ‘Sof and ‘Stet’, who make little attempt to hide their contempt for his effete ways. It is here that we discover that the Computational Device is hidden inside, or may even be part of, a mountain on this world, and that the War is mainly about protecting this from insurrectionists. Polystom and his men see ‘ghosts’, who seem very real, and these include his dead wife, Beeswing, who now seems much more communicative, and his uncle Cleonicles. To tell you more would give away too much, but this is a book which rewards the effort of reading to the end.
SALT by Adam RobertsSalt 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.
STONE by Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is the author of several novels and novellas. STONE is the third of his novels. This is very good indeed,
and the ideas and plot are excellent, but we feel that it is let down a little by some dubious science.
In this book, a criminal called Ae is imprisoned inside a star for the crime of being the only psychotic killer in an otherwise perfect, pleasure-seeking society called the t'T. The entire story is told as a series of flashbacks, which are in the form of Ae talking to a stone, hence the title.
As the story starts he is back in his prison again, having got out once already. He starts by giving the stone and therefore us, the readers, a little bit of background into his society. The t'T are hedonistic and carefree, with all disease and illness being eradicated by the use of nanobots called Dot Tech. The space that the t'T society lives in is bordered by the Palmetto and the Wheah, the former being mysterious and the latter fervently religious.
The story begins properly when Ae is contacted by some mysterious benefactors, who have promised to spring him out of prison, and give him riches beyond his imagining, if he will do one task for them. This task is to perform genocide on a grand scale: kill an entire planet with a population of millions. At first he thinks he is hallucinating, but then he realises that somebody on the outside has, in fact, contacted him.
He agrees and his mysterious patrons are true to their word: he is sprung out of prison. That is one of the parts that we both found interesting, as having set up a supposedly inescapable prison the author then comes up with an incredibly ingenious way to get him out of it. The next part of the book is very interesting, as he ends up being both killer and detective. He is trying to figure out exactly who it is that has asked him to do this job, whether Palmetto, Wheah, t'T or some as yet unknown alien race. When you eventually find out who it is, you'll be surprised as it is a very interesting and unique twist. He ends up back in prison where he starts talking to a stone and narrating what has happened, which brings us neatly back to the beginning.
This is an excellent book, but the only thing that spoiled it for us was the rather weak science behind faster than light travel in this universe. It involves being smothered in foam and travelling through the cosmos as a sort of mummy, with your Dot Tech putting you into a trance so you don't notice the passage of time. The actual method of propulsion involves electrons being excited up into high-energy shells and then back down again, and supposedly you move millions and millions and millions of times a second, but each time only moving one electron shell further forwards. However, although FTL is possible in this universe there are limits. One is a size limit, which immediately rules out the classic science fiction giant spaceships. Another is that the slower your processing power, the fewer trillions of shifts forward you can compute a second and thus the slower you go. The final limitation is that different areas of space have different properties, supposedly to do with the atomic weak force. Large amounts of matter disrupt it, as do other factors that are not very well known. The t'T live in the portion of space where you can travel at a few thousand c. The portion of space that limits travel to a maximum of around 3c is populated by the Wheah, and finally there is slow space where FTL is impossible. There is also some rather 'lies to children' style quantum mechanics, which unfortunately we cannot discuss in any detail as it would spoil the ending, which is very good. Other than those couple of gripes, we both recommend this book.
SWIFTLY by Adam Roberts
This novel is a kind of sequel to Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, published in 1726, though Lemuel Gulliver
and his adventures, are not even mentioned in this book, and whereas Swift’s novel was intended as satire, and
Roberts has a definite satirical edge, the original scenario is used more as a background for the story of two lovers
(though again, this term is open to interpretation).
It is now 1848, and the British Empire has thrived by exploiting the intricate and delicate mechanical expertise of the tiny Lilliputians (and Blefuscudans), who are treated as slaves. The French army has invaded Britain, reinforced by regiments of Brobdingnagians.
These giants have sunk Royal Navy ships and then swum the Channel, towing a French invasion fleet behind them. As the book starts the French have laid waste to London and are pushing north towards York.
We first meet our ‘hero’, Abraham Bates, in the office of an industrialist who depends upon the enslaved Lilliputians, Jonathan Burton.
Ostensibly, Bates is there to negotiate a contract for work, but Burton all but throws him out, having suspected him (correctly) of being an agitator against the slavery of the little people.
The young, penniless but beautiful Eleanor is destined, thanks to her domineering mother, to marry Burton, and thus to become rich and keep her mother in the manner to which she wishes to become accustomed. Eleanor detests and is repelled by Burton, and she also opposes the slavery of Lilliputians. Notwithstanding, in due course she does marry him, but the marriage is not consummated for quite some time, both people being clumsy, embarrassed and inexperienced.
Bates, now working with the French as an Ami de la France and travelling up to York with the Dean of York, briefly meets Eleanor Burton on the road. The convoy of carriages also contains a Calculation Machine, actually controlled by Lilliputians, which is needed by the French Army in York. The Dean, who is addicted to his white ‘snuff’ (presumably cocaine) has agreed to lead the French to a giant, mile-long cannon, set into a hillside and built with the help of Brobdingnagians and apparently aimed at Afghanistan (which sounds a good idea, perhaps) but, with the aid of the Computational Device, the French want to use it against the English. Secretly, the Dean intends to have himself propelled, inside a padded shell (rather like Verne’s Columbiad) to another country in order to escape the war, and it seems that Bates is destined to be his companion. During the journey Bates is struck down by some disease.
When he recovers he discovers that Eleanor has been picked up during an attempted ambush by British yahoos, and is travelling with them. She too succumbs to the disease.
Meanwhile a comet has appeared in the sky, and night by night grows in size, becoming a disc that outshines the Moon. Here Roberts’ originality also shines through, because he extrapolates on Swift’s original idea and turns it into SF by encompassing both microcosm and macrocosm: the plague has been caused by ‘animalcules’ which are as much smaller than the Lilliputians as the latter are than humans; and the comet (presumably inspired by the floating island of Laputa) turns out to be in effect a spaceship whose crew are giants even to the Brobdingnagians; all by a factor of twelve.
The war continues, the giant electromagnetic cannon is used against the ‘comet’, and at last this comes to rest upon the Earth and is invaded by the French, under an Italian captain. But for most of the rest of the book we are immersed in the stench of death and putrefying flesh, which does not make for comfortable reading. Usually the odours of Victorian times are downplayed, but I can’t help feeling that Roberts has gone too far in the other direction. Too many times throughout the novel Roberts goes into detailed descriptions of sex and bodily functions that is quite unnecessary - the expression ‘More than we need to know’ comes to mind! That apart, it is a clever, well-written, and quite original book, which captures quite closely, in its writing, the Swift original.
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.
THE SNOW by Adam Roberts
Tira is an Indian woman, leading a normal life, until one day there is a blizzard which goes on and on and on until
the snow is three miles thick and covers the whole world. The story is told by two people who gradually open up a
world of lies and intrigue and terrorism, as well as describing the new postapocalyptic world of beauty and mystery. It is
immediately apparent that the two main protagonists survive the snow onslaught – the emphasis is more on the web
of intrigue – who or what caused the snow, as it is too much to be natural, and what are the governments now trying to
I was fascinated by the idea that the world is ‘ended’ by snow and thus found the parts of the book which dwelled on this, gripping to read. The other parts of the story are rather political in nature, dealing as they do with terrorism, people’s beliefs and running for government positions. The story jumps about all over the place: first Tira tells her part of the story, then one of the other main characters, with whom Tira is familiar, takes over, all in the format of a confidential document recorded after the event. It is immediately obvious that the two are in some sort of detention, even though this is only revealed later, and confessing their stories, but the whys and wherefores do not become apparent till later on.
Slightly different to what I have been reading, with no coherent storyline structure as such. I found it an interesting read if a little slow-paced once the main apocalyptic events have happened. The parts where she is learning to live in a military base are a little slow, but the action comes back in patches a little later.
The deliberate confusion, for instance the blanks left in the text to hide names, etc., can be annoying as the novel moves along, but it certainly makes for interesting reading. There are a few themes throughout the book – whiteness, terrorism, racism which distract from the snow. All discussions about cause of snow seem vague and never explained properly, which annoyed me as I was more interested by the ‘natural’ than political events.
Tira has involvement as the wife of a prominent government minister and lover of a rebel seeking to topple the government, this is why her story is often questioned; can we trust her, or can we trust her lover who is unpredictable? The Americans and some other characters are a bit clichéd, but is this just her perception of them? I personally wasn’t that interested in any of the characters and more interested in the ‘snow’ so I was frustrated that this never got explained, or the unlikely bits such as how did the American helicopters, etc., survive the disaster when so much else didn’t?
The book in general is a claustrophobic read but with excellent descriptions of the world preserved beneath the blue and white expanses. I did enjoy some of it while other parts left me frustrated.
THE SNOW / LAND OF THE HEADLESS by Adam Roberts
I rather like Adam Roberts. He’s a relatively new British writer who first appeared in 2000 with SALT, a novel I enjoyed
for its novelty and freshness of style.
Since then he’s produced a whole slew of others with absolutely nothing in common except for those same two virtues; every time he comes up with a new and intriguing situation, something that hasn’t been done before – and in genre science fiction, that’s increasingly difficult to do. And he writes effectively in the first-person mode with a very distinctive ‘voice’.
Roberts has followed-up with titles like STONE and GRADISIL which have equally-unusual settings. Having said that, he doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes he has a good idea but just doesn’t seem to know what to do with it – I’d put his second novel, ON, firmly into that category; terrific concept (which I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t read it) but the story goes nowhere. To an extent the same applies with POLYSTOM, and now with SNOW.
It starts well; one day in London it begins to snow, and just keeps on snowing, day after day, until all normal life becomes impossible. So it’s a catastrophe story, but one in which the disaster is oddly muted and off-stage. The protagonist gets snowed-in and is holed-up for forty pages while almost everyone else quietly dies, off-stage.
Then there’s a sudden discontinuity; she is ‘rescued’, brought up to the top of the snow which is now three miles deep over the entire surface of the Earth, and then not-very-much happens for the rest of the book. Where did the snow come from? Early on, the author advances an explanation in a between-chapters aside, but later on he junks this and blames Ets. But by this time I didn’t much care.
LAND OF THE HEADLESS is much better.
It gets off to a cracking start in the first paragraph when our protagonist is beheaded – and while this seems a very odd idea at first, we rapidly get used to the idea that yes, perhaps the body could survive if the brain was transferred into a ‘black box’ implanted at the bottom of the spine, with artificial ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ to match.
Though it wouldn’t be much of a life – and that’s the point of this story, the way the headless have to survive as a discriminated-against (and very visible) minority!
This is one that does hang together, the story is convincingly-told and develops well, and there is a clever resolution. Very enjoyable!
THE SODDIT by Adam Roberts
Subtitled "or LET'S CASH IN AGAIN", this is a parody by Adam Roberts, better known for writing real science fiction
such as SALT or STONE, of a certain well-known and well-loved fantasy novel…oh alright, it's THE HOBBIT.
This is a very small hardback, more paperback-sized, which explains the paperback-sized price. It has the obligatory map, and a few illustrations, which all suitably send up the originals. The book starts as a fairly straight- forward parody with the description of the ‘soddits’, including "that they speak with a slight Birmingham accent, oddly." It continues with gay elves (in the modern sense), communist spiders and Gobblins who really do gobble because they are giant turkeys.
After the very silly riddle contest between Bingo and Sollum, Roberts appears to tire of the page by page approach, and takes the plot in more original directions. We find out who really did build all those vast dwarven halls, and the strange relationship between wizards and dragons. We learn about the Thing ® made by the nasty Sharon, which does far more than just make its wearer invisible.
At the end is an extended appendix of threatened spinoffery, films, computer games ad nauseam. Overall I did enjoy this book, as it was short and did not outstay its welcome. There is a sequel/prequel "THE SELLAMILLION" for the bits of Tolkien which survived this visit.
I AM THE GREAT HORSE by Katherine Roberts
I have followed Katherine Roberts with interest for some years now. I was introduced to her books when I booked her
for an event at Bath library a few years ago and was interested because she wrote about the Seven Ancient Wonders
of the world at the time, one book for each. I read the first one and was struck by how much I enjoyed it as an adult,
although they are apparently aimed at young people. Having finished the series, she now turns to weightier tomes,
such as this one, I Am The Great Horse. It is a far longer and more literary affair, focusing on the life of Alexander The
Great’s life through the eyes of his equine companion Bucephalus.
We see Alexander’s life and achievements from the perspective of this fierce but loyal and courageous horse, as they take over much of the known world from Greece through the Persian sands to the edges of India. At their side is Charm, a stable girl fiercely devoted to Bucephalus and his rider, with secrets of her own.
Now I really did like this book. The horse’s viewpoint was an interesting one and it was not very clichéd like you might expect a book written like this to be. As a stallion he tends to think everything is done in order to dominate the others, which explains nicely why Alexander does some of the more outlandish deeds such as certain executions etc. The glory and the excitement of battle and victory are there but also you get a sense of how much power can destroy the victor, and this seems to be a strong message of this book. Katherine Roberts has spent many years as a groom and this showed in her sensitive handling of the equine material and Charm’s lifestyle. The fear Charm shows when Bucephalus is sent into battle is very realistic – racing grooms feel much the same when their charges are sent to race.
The book should appeal to various people as it covers several genres, so it is hard to classify it. The supernatural element to put it in the ‘Fantasy’ camp involve ‘ghosts’ seen by the horse which make him particularly hard to control, and these seem to get stronger and more obvious the more the book progresses, as his sanity and that of Alexander disintegrate. I liked it particularly from the historical perspective, as from what I have read of Alexander myself, I appreciated how much work has gone into producing this book. It was unique to read about a character from ages past in a more lively context than the usual snippets from a rather uninspiring history book. Go ahead and try this book out, it’s well worth reading.
FIFTY DEGREES BELOW by Kim Stanley Robinson
I have been reading a couple of apocalyptic books recently and quite enjoyed this one! It is a long novel about the
stopping of the Gulf stream and general climate chaos that results, but never felt like the issues were being shoved
down my throat. Climate change happens, whether through man or nature, and this is about the consequences and
how mankind deals with it. Our main hero works for one of the many acronymic associations trying to work to fix
climate chaos, and thus we get a good insight into government workings in relation to the environment and the usual
cover-ups and intrigues there. Meanwhile his organisation want to act but of course diplomacy and discussions get in
the way, until finally some impressive action can be taken. Meanwhile our hero moves out of his flat and experiences
nature and the locals first hand, and we get a marvellous insight into Washington DC.
I didn’t realise it was part of a trilogy until I read more about it, which impressed me as all too often sequels and trilogy second parts expect you to know the first part. Though now it makes a bit more sense that certain characters (Charlie and Anna) didn’t seem that well drawn, and also a couple of events seemed to have happened ‘before’ the book. Scarily enough I read a lot more in the news after finishing this book which was quite reminiscent of the ‘fiction’ I had just read! Great bits about the animals from the zoo going feral and the Tibetan bits were good too – apparently the author has a fascination with Tibet.
Bad ending however – very sudden, but again this can be a ploy to make you read the third part, which I find very annoying.
It is a long book and maybe a little editing was required to bring the book down to more manageable levels, but I got through this huge tome fairly quickly and was generally impressed, especially by the fact that for the most part the book stood alone from the trilogy. I would read more by this author.
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.
GALILEO’S DREAM by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson has a reputation for scientific probability in his novels. His previous trilogy, (FORTY SIGNS OF
RAIN, FIFTY DEGREES BELOW and SIXTY DAYS AND COUNTING) is a near-the-knuckle climate change narrative
that every sceptic should be forced to read.
GALILEO’S DREAM is very much a divergence from the usual format. Most of the book is a biography of Galileo who, rightly, was considered the father of science. It was his scientific investigations that opened the way for advances in physics and mathematics, despite the opposition of the Catholic Church. This part of the narrative is excellent, giving a sure picture of the time and the constraints under which Galileo was working and a dynamic portrait of the man himself. Galileo was subject to a lot of ill health, especially later in life and prone to a condition known as syncope. Technically, this was fainting, but in his case this could last some hours. Robinson uses this condition to add on an SF element to the novel.
During these episodes, Galileo is taken to the Jovian moons by people from the thirty-first century. The moons have been colonised and an entity has been found beneath the ice of Europa which seems to have sentience. The reasons for taking Galileo there seem rather flimsy except to give the reader the idea of multiple futures – an idea explored by other writers and in many cases with more conviction. Of the characters on Europa, Hera wants to guide Galileo into surviving the ordeals he has to come in face of the Inquisition, while Ganymede wants to see him burnt at the stake as a martyr to science.
The two parts of the narrative do not quite gel together leaving the overall effect of the novel as unsatisfactory. Readers wanting to find out more about the life and tribulations of Galileo from the time when he started experimenting with lenses will find this contains an excellent, well researched history.
GOING UNDER by Justina RobsonThis is a series of books that is getting darker. In the first, KEEPING IT REAL, we were introduced to Lila Black and the world after the Quantum Bomb. In this event, the dimensions had split open revealing access to places such as Alfheim, Daemonia and Faerie. After an accident in Alfheim, Lila was rebuilt as part cyborg. That made her the perfect bodyguard for Zal. He is an elf and the lead singer in a rock band who has been threatened with death. The resolution involves a journey into Alfheim, and the revelation that Zal has somehow become a demon. Lila has also acquired the soul of a dead elf which has become part of her.
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.
SELLING OUT by Justina RobsonThe Quantum Gravity series, of which SELLING OUT is the second book, is delightful blend of science fiction and fantasy. In 2015, an event, known as the Quantum bomb, caused fault lines which made other dimensions accessible to us. These other dimensions include the realms populated by faeries, demons or elves. Don’t, however, expect Robson’s other races to be cute.
THE TALES OF CATT & FISHER: The Art of the Steal (After the War 3) edited by Justina Robson
The Doctors Catt and Fisher are collectors, consultants and traders of magical artefacts with occasional forays into
treasure hunting, although they prefer to let others take risks wherever possible. They are an enchanting pair of rogues
(from a reader’s point of view at least) and I was delighted to see them get centre stage in this collection of short
stories. They appeared initially as secondary characters in the After the War shared-world series. (REDEMPTION’S
BLADE by Adrian Tchaikovsky and SALVATION’S FIRE by Justina Robson). This series is set in a fantasy world after
the archetypal Dark Lord (the “Kinslayer”)has been defeated and explores the efforts of both people (including the Dark
Lord’s slaves and minions) and countries trying to rebuild and survive in a devastated and upturned world. This new
addition to the series is a collection of stand-alone stories all featuring Drs Catt and Fisher, and written by Adrian
Tchaikovsky, Freda Warrington, Juliet McKenna and K T Davies and edited by Justina Robson. Having four different
author’s interpretation of the same characters is risky, but thankfully the quality of all four stories in this collection is
excellent. Part of that I am sure is in the depth of the original characterisations. Dr Catt is supremely confident
(sometimes overly so which can precipitate many of their misadventures), amusingly grandiloquent, persuasive and a
little vain. Dr Fisher is the more taciturn partner, although he has a fine line in pointed, apposite observations. He is
more than he originally seems and often rescues Dr Catt from some of his more impetuous schemes. There is a
genuine affection between the pair who are united by their scholarly and acquisitive natures.
The first story, “Belts and Braces” (by Adrian Tchaikovsky) finds them in the country of Arvennir, where they have been selling magical artefacts to both sides in a nascent revolution, which unsurprisingly leads to complications! This culminates in a dodgy (and hilarious) prison rescue (complete with ill-fitting uniforms and fake moustaches!), encounters with shape-shifting “monsters” and elite guards, and accidentally helping to overthrow the despotic government. The plot is fast-paced, slightly ridiculous fun, and the prose and dialogue are a delight and almost Pratchettian at times.
In the second story, “Secrets and Lights” by Freda Warrington, the story is told from the point of view of a young man, Crombie. The plot is again slightly preposterous, involving a large country bullying a small island community into building a lighthouse, as “compensation” for a shipwreck. As they will use any failure of the lighthouse as an excuse to bankrupt and occupy the island, there then ensues a quest to obtain magical scales from a giant moth’s wing which will protect the lighthouse. This has unintended (although probably predictable) consequences relating to attracting the wrong things to a magical light! The author has a different prose style to the previous story, but still catches the essence of the characters. “Fisher quietly saved their skins and let Catt take the credit because he preferred to direct attention away from himself”.
The third story, “Taking Note” is by Juliet McKenna and concerns a magical pen that erases enchanted glyphs. There is an auction to acquire the item, in which Catt and Fisher craftily outmanoeuvre a rival, the use of the pen to lift a magical curse, and an epilogue back in Fisher and Catt’s shop. Whilst still enjoyable, this was probably my least favourite story, perhaps because Catt and Fisher are less prominent for much of the story. There are still some funny bits but the story felt to me more like three loosely connected stories and the ending didn’t quite fit my understanding of the doctors’ relationship.
The final story by K T Davies, “The Unguis of Maug” opens with Doctor Fisher who, via an encounter with a street gang, takes on a young apprentice, Ash, much to Dr Catt’s disbelief and doubts. When they send Ash on his first “mission” accompanied by an alcoholic, disillusioned ex-Templar knight, what should just be simple scouting for information and rumours soon becomes something much more deadly. This story is particularly adept at adding depth to its characters. The cosy domestic arrangements and verbal repartee really showcase Catt and Fisher’s relationship, particularly Fisher’s simultaneous fondness and exasperation with his partner “Fisher folded his arms. It was either that or strangle his partner”. The introduction of the street urchin apprentice adds another amusing, disruptive factor. Dannoch, the soldier/babysitter they hire also has to confront past issues as well as deal with the fraught situation which again makes for a more satisfying read.
While I had read the previous two books, I don’t think it is necessary, and this book could be early read and enjoyed by someone new to them. This collection is one which made me frequently smile and often laugh out loud at the antics. Catt and Fisher are flawed, complex, morally flexible but very entertaining characters who have outrageous adventures and I highly recommend them and this book.
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.
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.
GLOW by Amy Kathleen RyanPart one in a planned Sky Chasers trilogy, GLOW is a young adult SF thriller that follows two spaceships, the Empyrean and the New Horizon, as they travel the stars to New Earth, which they plan to terraform.
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.
THE FOREST OF HANDS & TEETH by Carrie Ryan
The afterword on page 310 talks of “going to that first zombie movie” and “debating how to survive the zombie
apocalypse”. This is the first time in the book that the word ‘zombie’ is used. Despite that, this is the story of a group of
people and their life in the aftermath of ‘the zombie apacalypse’. It's a book for teenagers so the strongest characters
are all of that age except for some repressive authority figures who are concealing the true nature of the world and
forcing the teenagers to comply with regulations that seem to have no real purpose.
Mary lives in a small village surrounded by chain-link fence. Beyond the fence is the Forest of Hands and Teeth where the Unconsecrated (zombies) are. If you go too close to the fence they will attack. They claw at the fence and sometimes a few will break through. They don't move too fast which makes them easy to destroy but there are many of them so the fence has to be kept up and patrolled regularly. The Sisterhood, who are the authority on most things, say that all there is beyond the forest is more Unconsecrated.
Then everything changes. An outsider comes down a fenced-off path to the village and is immediately confined by the Sisterhood. Mary is the only one outside of the order to see her arrive. Then the hordes of Unconsecrated finally break through into the village. Mary escapes with a few of her friends down the path that the outsider arrived from. All they can do now is follow the path and hope that there is life beyond the forest.
If you take this as a children's book and ignore the lack of credible adult characters along with the usual conceits of books for teens then this is a nice easy uncomplicated read.
AIR by Geoff Ryman
The one certainty about any book by Geoff Ryman, other than the quality of the writing, is that it will be unlike
anything else he has ever published. AIR is an insidious type of science fiction. It takes the current trends in
communication technology and asks the question, ‘but what about…’ In a remote valley probably on the borders of
China and somewhere like Tibet, is a village that does not have the internet. Because of the geography and climate
the signals cannot be received. The villagers’ lives do not have the luxuries that we have come to expect but they are
relatively content. Gradually, though, modern life is beginning to seep into their lives. Mae Chung, who has never
been able to read or write, is the village’s fashion expert. When one of the men is driving into the nearest town, she
and her client go with him and Mae takes her friend to the best places to have their hair done, buy cosmetics or buy
the latest dress. The Wings, who own several farms, are wealthy enough to own a television. Other villagers often
collect in their courtyard to watch. It is a place for social gatherings.
Outside the valley, technology is improving and they have discovered how to download the kind of information normally found by surfing the net, directly into the human mind. The authorities plan a trial broadcast. Although forewarned, the test does not go smoothly for everyone. Mae’s neighbour panics and is killed. Her elderly friend, Mrs Tung, who is visiting, dies of natural causes and Mae gets a web address. She also gets the ghost of Mrs Tung in her head.
This is a problem as the old lady’s memories have no concept of being dead and Mrs Tung keeps trying to take over Mae’s mind. Also, Mae discovers that now information from everywhere can be obtained from the television. She is out of a job and has to adapt.
With the technology, and the information she absorbed during the test, Mae slowly finds a way of becoming an entrepreneur. She also finds, due to her access to Mrs Tung’s memories, that the valley could become inundated by a flood. She begins to collect data but no-one else seems willing to take her warnings seriously.
This novel is an intriguing combination ideas. Mae is not only a Cassandra figure but she is also an example of what can be achieved without formal education but with the help of intelligent use of technology. It also looks at the resistance to change and how progress can come from unexpected directions. An excellent book.
WAS by Geoff Ryman
“Every work of fiction, however realistic, is a fantasy. It happens in a world alternative to this one.” says the author in
the book’s final section. Without this definition, I couldn’t call this book fantasy in any way. Surprisingly, the last edition
was as part of the “Fantasy Masterworks” series.
This is the story of several characters that are connected in some way by “The Wizard of Oz”. All of them seem damaged in some way and detached from their home. There’s Frances Gumm (later Judy Garland) whose father moves their family from town to town to conceal his secret and Dorothy Gael whose mother has died leaving her to live with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas. There’s also Jonathan, an actor who is dying of AIDS, trying to find Dorothy in historical records before he dies.
Somehow there are two massive absences here. Frank Baum appears briefly as a teacher at Dorothy’s school. This seems only to serve the purpose of validating Dorothy’s right to be here. Oz itself is generally missing too. A description of the film begins in detail and becomes more vague as it develops finishing entirely before the party reaches the city. Maybe this has to do with the common burden of the principal characters but they somehow seem to be deliberate gaps.
Ryman seems to delight in his historical accuracy and deliberately avoid anything that would be taken as genre Fantasy here. There are details of his research into 19th Century Kansas, books on the film and even a book about the original novel. If it was anyone else, this would be listed as Historical Fiction. It’s well done but it’s not a genre that really belongs in these pages.