Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie by Keith Brooke

This recently published book, which has an introduction by Adam Roberts, is the tale of an overweight teenager, the butt of cruel humour at school, who escapes into vivid daydreams of the way he would like his world to be. He is shaken when he discovers that the real world is gradually changing to match his dreams - his broken family is reunited and even his twin sister, killed in an accident two years before, reappears as if nothing had happened. He finds that he is able, with an effort of will, to change events to suit himself. But no sooner does he master this than he realises that his control is being challenged and is beginning to slip; for there is a rival power in the town, the mysterious, never-seen Owner, who seems to know exactly what Frankie is up to.

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie has a clearly-written style which will appeal to young and old alike, with an engaging combination of closely observed reality against a surreal, dream-like background. The story of Frankie's forced growth to maturity holds the attention to the unexpected but satisfying conclusion. I suspect that this is one which will stay in my mind for a long time, and will remain on my shelf for a future re-read.
A rare sighting recently - a new review of my novel Scales. It has appeared in THIS blog. An extract from the introduction to the review:

Most likely you haven’t read this book because you didn’t know it existed. The novel was published through Authors Online LTD a British company formed in 1997 which publishes novels online and can also now print novels on demand.

Before I say anymore, I have to be honest here, I know the author of this novel through cyberspace. Tony and I have both been active posters at Yahoo’s Classic Science Fiction Message Board for many years. So, I will admit that I might have some bias. But those who know me and/or those who have read some of my reviews, know that I’m not one that minces words or lets authors off easy.

So you know I am being completely honest when I say that Scales is such a great Science Fiction novel it deserved a Hugo Award nomination.

I’m sure those who haven’t read the book are sort of checking out mentally or thinking to themselves, “this guy is a really good friend.” But those who have read the novel understand why it is worthy of such high praise.

A reminder: you can read my thoughts on writing the novel, plus all published reviews, on my website HERE , where you can also download the entire novel as an e-book free of charge - and you're not likely to get a better offer than that all week!

Friday, 22 October 2010

A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer

This novel, first published in 1965, was one of my favourites from the period and I still have my well-worn 1967 paperback. It's several decades since I last read it so I thought I'd see how it stood up today.

I've already posted one review of a novel by this author (A Trace of Memory, reviewed 15 December 2007) which I started as follows:

"Keith Laumer (1925-1993) was a prolific American SF author who specialised in fast-paced adventure stories (of which the Bolo series, concerning intelligent tanks, is best known) and comic satire, notably in the Retief books about an interstellar diplomat. A Trace of Memory, published in 1963, is a stand-alone novel in the former category."

A Plague of Demons falls into the same category, being a short (170 page) and exciting adventure thriller. It is set on a near-future Earth and features a government agent, John Bravais, who is tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of large numbers of soldiers involved in the formalised battles then being used to settle disputes. He observes a dog-like alien - one of the demons of the title - decoying soldiers away from a battle and attacking them. He is able to kill one of these extremely tough creatures and take back evidence of its alien origin. His task then becomes the investigation of what is going on, and to assist him he is given a new programme of internal biomechanical enhancements which greatly increase his strength, endurance and survivability. The demons are quickly on his trail, assisted by their ability to manipulate people's minds so they can appear to be ordinary humans, and what follows is a running battle which ends up off the Earth as Bravais desperately tries to fulfil his mission against heavy odds. I can't say more without spoiling the surprises for any new readers, but I will say that this is the book whose popularity inspired the Bolo series.

The story is told in the first person with the laconic hard-boiled style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, including one-liner gems such as: "I was as weak as a diplomatic protest". There is also something of the flavour of Eric Frank Russell's novel Wasp, reviewed here on 26 August 2007. The introduction in particular reminded me of the start of a James Bond movie - I could visualise the film scenes as I read. In fact, the whole book would make a good film, with little need to change anything. Inevitably, the complex plotting and character development which feature in most modern novels are notable for their absence, but in this kind of story they would only slow the pace.

I was intrigued by a couple of scenes for a personal reason. In one of them Bravais, having just received his enhancements, breaks the machine used to test his strength. In another, he is able to use his mind (in this case aided by radio) to analyse and overcome electronic locks. As I read these I realised that I had included similar elements in my novel Scales, without being aware that I might be borrowing them from somewhere else. This isn't the first time this has happened to me and does make me think about the process of imaginative writing. Clearly, our imaginations are developed from and informed by our own experiences and previous reading, and it can be difficult to determine which are our own original ideas and which are those we might subconciously have recalled from a consciously long-forgotten story.

Anyway, to return to Laumer: I can well understand why I liked this book so much and can warmly recommend it to readers who enjoy the style and pace of these 1960s SF thrillers. It's such great fun, with an added dash of nostalgia!

Friday, 15 October 2010

Film - Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

I quite enjoy popcorn movies when I'm in the mood for some mindless amusement, and I was encouraged by the fact that Prince of Persia was produced by the same man responsible for the entertaining Pirates of the Carribean trilogy, so I thought I'd give a spin.

Like PotC, PoP is an adaptation of a video game, but as I've never felt motivated to dabble in that field I can't comment on the relationship. The plot is the usual hokum, with the hero Prince, on the run after being wrongly accused of the murder of his father, having to prove his innocence while preventing bad guy Nizam from using the Dagger of Time to change the past to put himself on the throne. The CGI city looks impressive, the fireworks when the Dagger is used are spectacular, and the Prince (Jake Gyllenhaal - or at least his stunt double) puts on a suitably athletic display of parkour, free-running around the rooftops.

That's most of the good bits. Unfortunately Ben Kingsley's talents are wasted on a rather cardboard Nizam and Gemma Arterton is woefully miscast as the princess who is supposed to guard the Dagger of Time. This role calls for grace, gravitas and mystery, but I was constantly aware that Ms Arterton is a modern miss in dark makeup. In dramatic moments I kept expecting her to squeal "Oh My God!" and whip out her mobile phone to text to her friends. That's a pity considering that Bollywood is awash with beautiful Indian actresses who could do a more convincing job in their sleep, but I suppose Hollywood has its own parochial priorities.

On the other hand, perhaps they should have given Ms Arterton a mobile phone and played it for laughs, since the best bit of the film - and the only element which made the whole farrago enjoyable - was the comic performance by Alfred Molina as the bandit chief who cultivates a ferocious reputation in order to keep the tax collectors at bay, while he gets on with his favourite pastime of ostrich racing. I laughed out loud on several occasions when he was on screen, uttering decidedly modern-sounding opinions and reacting with Pavlovian fervour to the enticement: "It's tax free!".

Overall, the film lacks the panache of the PotC series, and sorely needs a strong central love/hate character like Johnny Depp's Captain Sparrow. Judging by the presence of the subtitle more films in this franchise could be on the way, but I doubt that I'll bother to watch them unless the fun quotient goes up markedly.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 2)

More stories from the anthology, following on from the first instalment posted on 18th September.

Glory by Greg Egan. Set in a far galactic future. Embodied virtual facsimilies of two explorers are sent to a newly discovered planet to find out what a previous alien civilisation had learned about advanced mathematics. But the current inhabitants have a war to fight.

Against the Current by Robert Silverberg. A man from the present day suffers a sudden reversal and watches in dismay as history rapidly rewinds before his eyes. More of a psychological mood piece than a story with a clear plot or purpose.

Alien Archeology by Neal Asher. A retired secret agent discovers an artifact of great value from an extinct alien race, only to have it violently taken from him. The star-hopping chase for restitution and revenge involves murky dealings in the galactic underworld, rogue AIs and the uneasy threat of what exactly it was that destroyed all previous galactic civilisations. A modern version of traditional SF by a rising star in the genre, densely-packed and fast-moving; the kind of writing that you have to read twice to make sure you've grasped it all. An unusual aspect is that the story is at first told from the villain's viewpoint (in the third person) before switching to the hero's (in the first person). One of the highlights of the anthology so far.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang. A merchant in long-ago Baghdad tells a fantastic tale to the Caliph, concerning a gate through which people can travel twenty years into the future - or into the past. He recounts the varied fortunes of those who have used the gate, including himself. More of an Arabian Nights tale than conventional SF but a fascinating read. An intriguing contrast with the author's award-winning Exhalation, reviewed in this blog on 15 May 2009, which demonstrates the remarkable versatility of this master story-teller.

Beyond the Wall by Justin Stanchfield. Another complete contrast, as if to illustrate the vast range of modern SF. An enormous alien structure has been discovered on Titan and is promptly put out of bounds while countries try to decide what to do about it. A group of wardens tasked with protecting it from illegal explorers are compelled to enter it and find their hold on reality slipping as they experience alternate futures. An unsettling tale.

Kiosk by Bruce Sterling. A real oddity this one; a man living in eastern Europe after yet another major economic crisis makes use of a "fabrikator" - a machine which spins 3D models of anything it can scan - to start an economic revolution.

Last Contact by Stephen Baxter. I've commented before about the fundamental optimism of many of the stories in this collection, but here's a tale from the opposite end of the spectrum. Near-future astrophysicists discover that the Universe is unravelling, right down to the atomic level - and the Earth has just few months of existence left. This poignant story follows a middle-aged woman, the mother of one of the scientists who made the discovery, as she copes in mundane ways with the inescapable fact of impending annihilation.

The Sledge-Maker's Daughter by Alastair Reynolds. I'd read this one before and was sure I'd blogged about it, but I can find no reference so my memory must be at fault (again). Another one on the pessimistic side as far as human civilisation is concerned. A girl lives in a post-industrial Tyneside with a medieval level of technology, but discovers that the folk tales of winged men falling from the sky have substance, and that there is a lot going on behind the scenes. An intriguing tale, with a setting which would justify a full-length novel - which I would buy.

Half-way through the anthology - more later.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Interzone 230

The September/October edition of the SFF magazine celebrates 25 years of Nick Lowe's analytical and well-informed film reviews under the "Mutant Popcorn" banner, with a long article by Jonathan McCalmont, reviews of several current films (including an ambivalent one of Inception, which is on my must-see list), and a reprint of his first column from 1985 in which he reviewed Brazil, Night of the Comet, Trancers and Ghoulies. An interesting point is made that despite the fact that SFF novels are regarded as specialist reading for geeks (Harry Potter excepted), the genre has nonetheless produced seven of the ten biggest grossing films of all time. Discuss, as the exam paper says.

The usual book and DVD review columns include The Stainless Steel Rat Returns by Harry Harrison, the twelfth in his comic SF series which started in 1961 with the last addition being in 1999. I'll have to get this book, if only for pure nostalgia. There's also a welcome return of an old master with the publication of Fritz Leiber Selected Stories.

Five short stories this time:

Love and War by Tim Lees, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A dystopian near-future in which a war against vaguely humanoid jumblies from Earth X, a version of Earth in a parallel universe which is beginning to emerge in random patches on the Earth's surface, has led to the imposition of a dictatorship of "the Party" to defeat the threat. The eventual ending of these incursions does not, of course, lead to any more liberal government but instead the emergence (or invention) of yet another threat to maintain the Party in power. A parable for our security-obsessed times, in which our civil liberties are being steadily eroded to meet the terrorist threat. But how likely is it that all those laws extending government power will ever be repealed?

Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders by Aliette de Bodard, illustrated by Darren Winter. A surreal fantasy in which a robotic being parades a former god around the country, putting him to an agonising death (from which he returns) time and again to demonstrate to the people that the old gods are no longer in power. This author focuses on limited but intense scenes from fantastic futures, steeped in atmosphere and mystery.

The Insurance Agent by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A near-future thriller with a fantastical twist. A security consultant who specialises in bodyguarding celebrities is assigned to protect a Significant Entity (SE), a young woman who has achieved a god-like status as a result of the popularity of the Alien Theory of Spiritual Beings; a rather sardonic send-up of the tendency to elevate the status of the leaders of religious cults. He finds himself with more trouble than he expected when his SE meets a rival.

Camelot by Patrick Samphire, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A tale of immortals cast out from Camelot, who have lost the memories of their past existence. An ageless man searches endlessly for his brother who went missing in World War 2, aided by a beautiful woman who knows about his past and has her own reason for finding his brother. However, success in his quest does not bring the expected result.

The Upstairs Window by Nina Allen, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. Another dystopian future in which the return of religious authority leads to censorship of the arts. A war correspondent is caught up in the fate of a controversial artist friend whom he tries to help.

A rather depressing batch of stories this time, distinctly lacking in optimism both in terms of their settings and their events. These stories make a stark contrast with the ones I reviewed a couple of weeks ago in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, which are far more to my taste. I hope the mood improves in the next issue.