Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt

I'd not come across this author's work until this one was chosen by the Classic SF discussion forum as a monthly read, but it sounded interesting enough for me to get hold of a copy.

The Engines of God does indeed have a classic SF plot: ancient alien remains are found scattered around the galaxy following the discovery of faster-than-light space travel. Most of them are elegant sculptures – including one in our Solar System on Iapetus, a moon of Saturn. But more puzzling are some starkly contrasting blocky structures, to a rigid arithmetical formula, close to planets which have, or had, civilisations apparently incapable of space travel. Furthermore, these structures seemed to be linked in some way to disastrous collapses of the native civilisations.

Archeologists are on the case, trying to discover more about the various aliens and their relationships. But their best hope – a well-preserved ancient temple on a planet where the natives have died out – is threatened by a terraforming project to create a new Earth, as the old one is heading steadily into the environmental disaster zone. 

The heroine of the tale is space pilot and amateur archaeologist Priscilla Hutchins, who works alongside the professionals as they battle with deadlines and try to grasp the significance of what they are finding. The plot steadily widens in scope and accelerates in pace as more discoveries are made, and there is a thunderous finale in the best traditions of wide-screen SF when what had appeared to be an abstract historical problem becomes horrifyingly real.

The book has some flaws: the story contains some padding in stretching to over 500 pages, for example detailed descriptions of the play-acting the characters get up to while on a long voyage. There is also an irrelevant and rather long section concerning a visit to a planet that ends disastrously, but which doesn't advance the plot at all. And while the characterisation is generally adequate, the heroine never really comes alive and the treatment of all of the female characters is a bit clichéd: they are all amazingly attractive, and Hutchins is repeatedly told by admiring men just how beautiful she is. Despite these criticisms it is a gripping tale, its hugely ambitious plot the first in a long while that has managed to spark in me some of the "sense of wonder" which drew me to SF in the first place. Recommended.

I see that although this was written as a stand-alone, several other tales subsequently appeared which are set in the same universe and feature the same principal character. More to add to my reading pile!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Ring of Ritornel by Charles L Harness

Charles Harness was an American SF writer whose first novel, The Paradox Men, I reviewed on this blog in November 2007. The Ring of Ritornel was his second novel, published fifteen years later in 1968.

The story is set in the far-distant future when humanity has settled this galaxy and spread to neighbouring ones. In the first part of the story, the principal character, James Andrek, is a young boy and the action focuses on his father, a spaceship captain, and his brother Omerle, Poet Laureate to Magister Oberon, the ruthless absolute ruler of the Home Galaxy. Disaster strikes when his father dies and his brother disappears from the Great House of Oberon, and the search for Omerle comes to dominate Andrek's life.

Fifteen years later, Andrek has qualified as a lawyer and obtained a post in the Great House in order to further his investigations into his brother's disappearance. He soon finds himself in deep trouble and is sent on a dangerous mission, but acquires some unlikely allies who enable him to discover what has been going on. Andrek then faces decisions which are critical not just for him but for all of humanity, and the conclusion is unexpected and unconventional.

Like other stories by Harness, this is on the far-out fringe of SF and contains some mystical aspects which add a distinct element of fantasy, particularly concerning the tussle between the rival religions of Alia (everything occurs as a result of chance) and Ritornel (everything is cyclical and keeps returning to the beginning). The emphasis is on the major themes of humanity's future and especially the capacity for enhanced abilities. A lot of scientific and pseudo-scientific explanation is included, some of which is decidedly dated in its assumptions, and some events had me scratching my head; it's best just to go with the flow and not try to pick it apart. Despite this, Ritornel is a fast-paced page-turner that I enjoyed reading again. There is a strong flavour of A E van Vogt in the themes and writing style, so if you like fiction similar to Vogt's Weapon Shops and Null-A series, you will probably enjoy Harness' work.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

TV – V (2009-11)

What is it about female law enforcement officers, or is it just me? The SF series which I've enjoyed the most over the past year have all featured these as their lead characters: Fringe (with the excellent Anna Torv as FBI/Fringe Agent Olivia Dunham); Continuum (with Rachel Nichols as Protector Kiera Cameron) and now V, with FBI Agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell). At a stretch, even the quirky Orphan Black could be included, since Tatiana Maslany plays multiple characters including a police officer. And in a different genre, there's the return of the terrific Danish/Swedish serial The Bridge, featuring Sofia Helin as the strangest detective you're ever likely to meet. However, enough of my predilections and on to the review.

The plot of V is an SF classic: vast alien spaceships arrive over the world's major cities, with a message of peace, love and all that. The aliens, who are called Visitors (or V for short) seem indistinguishable from humans, are physically very attractive and want only to help, as they demonstrate by setting up healing centres where their superior technology can cure many previously untreatable ailments. Anyone might think that all this sounds too good to be true, and of course it is – otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story!

Agent Evans has her suspicions confirmed when she discovers that the Visitors have had sleeper cells operating on Earth for many years, with one being very close to home. Not knowing whom to trust, she soon becomes involved in a secret campaign against the aliens, aided by a few friends and renegade Vs. As well as these concerns, she worries about her teenage son, who is literally being seduced by the Vs. Normally I dislike family dramas being added to SF stories, but this one is integral to the intriguing plot and adds to the tension.

I've so far seen the first six episodes of Season 1, and have been gripped by the story. Mitchell is no Torv, but she makes a decent fist of the role. Much more compelling is Morena Baccarin as the creepily flawless leader of the Vs. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the series, although I understand it was cancelled before reaching a satisfactory conclusion. There's apparently a campaign going on to get it reinstated, so all may not be lost.

I also saw the pilot episode of another US TV serial, The Tomorrow People. Yet another familiar plot, this time of adolescents acquiring super-powers and being hunted by a shadowy organisation; shades of Jumper (the film, not the vastly superior book), and the X-Men films. This is actually quite watchable but is clearly aimed at the teen market so I'm not sure how long I'll persevere with it.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Cursed, Taken & Chosen, by Benedict Jacka

These are the second, third and fourth of Jacka's Alex Verus novels, the first being Fated. I reviewed this in July 2013 and had the following to say in the way of introduction:

"Alex Verus is a young man who runs a present-day magic shop near Camden Market (which will surprise no-one who knows Camden!). The difference is that while most of the shop's contents are mundane and sold to passing tourists, some are not – because unknown to those tourists and to the overwhelming majority of the population, a world of magic coexists with our own. Verus is a diviner, whose skill is the ability to see the consequences of future choices so he can pick the best course of action to obtain the outcome he wants. This is highly useful in a world in which he has to contend with formidable Light and Dark mages, some with lethal powers. Fortunately he has some magical non-human friends, plus his assistant, a young woman called Luna who suffers from a strange hereditary curse." 

Cursed is set a few months after the events described in Fated. There are various references to the earlier adventure, which it is desirable to read first, but Cursed nevertheless stands on its own. This time, Verus finds himself the target of several assassination attempts and becomes involved with a literally enchanting young woman while he tries to work out who is after him, and why. There are the usual twists and turns in the plot and the resourceful Verus finds his closest friends in deadly danger as he is apparently faced with nothing but bad choices.

Taken is the next episode in the saga, in which apprentice magicians keep disappearing and Verus becomes involved in trying to discover what is going on. It all seems to focus on a combat tournament between apprentices being held in a curious old mansion. On the way, he has to deal with a powerful non-human being, an inimical Dark Mage, and an attractive young apprentice with an unusual power, before bringing the house down in a rousing finale.

In Chosen, Verus' past as an apprentice to a Dark Mage comes back to haunt him as is relentlessly pursued by a vengeful group for something he'd much rather forget. We learn a lot more about his early history and what formed his personality and attitudes. This is his toughest trial yet, and sees him finally running out of choices as he is stretched to the limit of endurance.

These are just as good as Fated and proved an equally quick read, being just as difficult to put down. I actually read Taken in one evening, and Chosen is the author's best yet. Fortunately, there is a clear hook in the final paragraph that indicates not only that we will hear more of Verus, but also that he will be faced with problems far worse than anything he's dealt with so far.

I am still undecided about whether I prefer these tales to Ben Aaronovitch's somewhat similar series, the first of which, Rivers of London, I reviewed last December. I am beginning to conclude that Jacka's addictive novels are more fun, more of a quick, feel-good read (albeit getting more serious as we learn more about Alex Verus), with the Aaronovitch ones being a little more complex, slower and a shade darker. I'll be doing some more reading of Aaronovitch's work before reaching a conclusion.