Wednesday, 4 May 2022

A Tapestry of Magics, by Brian Daley

 

Having recently enjoyed and reviewed Brian Daley's Coramonde books, I decided to re-read the only other book by this author on my shelves, A Tapestry of Magics. Daley creates an intriguing world (or more accurately, universe) centred on the Singularity, also known as the Charmed Realm. To quote: 


A fixed sphere amid the fluxes and flows of of the infinite Realities, the Singularity was buffered from them by the indefinite zone of mutability and access, the Beyonds. In the Beyonds, people and other things passed into and out of the Realities. If the opening were of the right sort, whole regions along with their populations might come into existence in the Beyonds, or leave them. Sometimes those who travelled between Realities found their way home again; sometimes they perished, or became lost and strayed into a Reality not their own.  Sometimes they arrived at the Singularity or simply found themselves a place, for a long stay or a short one, in the Beyonds. 


The Realities, better known to SF readers as the Multiverse, were apparently infinite in their possibilities (one of them being our very own Universe), although the story doesn't go there, all of the action being set in the Beyonds and the Singularity. The Beyonds were ungoverned and lawless lands in which almost anything might happen, and anyone turn up - including figures from our history and even those from fiction (Count Dracula making a cameo appearance at one point). 


The Singularity was, in effect, a small country in the usual medieval style expected of epic fantasy, with a feudal social structure and an apparently immortal King (no-one dared ask him about that, but since he was a highly competent ruler no-one was bothered). Magic sometimes worked, but what succeeded in one Reality might not work in the Singularity or the Beyonds.  Technology also sort of worked, but not reliably, so warriors generally preferred simple weapons. The story follows the activities of Crassmor, a young scion of a noble Singularity family and a reluctant knight who prefers the softer and prettier things in life, if only people would leave him alone. 


At the beginning of this three-part novel, the Beyonds are the stage for an epic contest between an invading barbarian horde, whose cavalry are mounted on giant lizards, and a seriously misplaced army from a technological Reality which sounds suspiciously like Nazi Germany.  These opponents pose a real threat to the Singularity, whose strategy is to get them fighting each other, which works well until the technologists run out of fuel and ammunition. 


Next we see Crassmor as a knight errant, patrolling the Beyonds and responding to appeals for help from various beleaguered citizens. In the final part, the Singularity faces an existential threat from within.


I wouldn't describe this book as a comedy, although it contains a lot of humour and is very much at the light entertainment end of the seriousness scale. Like the Coramonde stories, it is a lot of fun and well worth reading.


Friday, 8 April 2022

The Untold Story, by Genevieve Cogman; and Risen, by Benedict Jacka

 

The Untold Story, by Genevieve Cogman; and Risen, by Benedict Jacka


Two of the very best fantasy series of modern times have both come to an end with publication of the last of Cogman's eight-volume Invisible Library stories and Jacka's twelve-volume Alex Verus series.


The Untold Story sees Irene continuing her search for the evil Alberich while investigating the origin of the Library, aided by her dragon lover Prince Kai and the Sherlockian detective Vale plus the more recent addition of her young Fae assistant, Catherine. The finale is well up to the standard of the other books in the series and provides a satisfying solution to the mystery of the Library which also explains the entire structure of the strange multiverse.


Risen follows on immediately after the previous volume with Alex Verus trying to pin down his nemesis Richard Drakh while freeing his girlfriend Anne of her demonic possession and surviving his own possession by the Fateweaver. It is an all-action finale which I found difficult to put down.


I find it hard to determine which series I prefer. They have certain similarities: in both series the protagonists are relatively junior but highly capable; both of them are faced with powerful enemies with whom they clash throughout the series; they both have a few close, reliable friends and allies. One stylistic difference is that the Verus books are written in the first person, the Library in the third person, which gives the action in the Verus stories a higher-tension appeal. On the other hand, the Library series benefits from being set in an original and fascinating universe. Fortunately, we don't have to choose - read them both! 


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Incidentally, I've just finished Jodi Taylor's Doing Time, the first of her Time Police fantasies which are set in the same world as The Chronicles of St Mary's. It is basically a continuation of that terrific series, with most of the characters being familiar but with the focus on life in the Time Police which frequently butts heads with St Mary's. Unfortunately, the Police HQ is nowhere near as much fun as St Mary's, or as interesting as the episodes in history which the St Mary's historians get to visit. The laughs are much more scarce until the familiar characters from St Mary's appear on the scene about three-quarters of the way through the book. I enjoyed it in the end, although I'm not sure about continuing with this series.



Tuesday, 8 March 2022

The Fresco, by Sheri Tepper

 

This is set in the present day (well, 2000 when first published) and concerns the first contact by aliens, who choose an ordinary middle-aged American woman as their one and only official contact. The story is mainly about the impact this has on her life, but in parallel with that is a contest between two opposed groups. The "good aliens" who make the initial contact are dangling the prospect of membership of an interstellar civilisation provided the Earth tidies up a few odds and ends.... which needless to say involves putting right a lot of social and political problems which we are all too familiar with. Should humanity fail to qualify for membership, they will fall into the hands of the "bad aliens" who want the Earth to become a private hunting preserve - the prey being humans.


There's a lot of fun to be had in the relationship with the good aliens, who are logical and assume that humans mean what they say, leading to all manner of misunderstandings, especially concerning religions. They are also all-powerful - one of their first interventions is in the Middle East where they identify the old city of Jerusalem as the main focus of the problems, so they replace it with a large hole in the ground (dumping the residents unharmed into the surrounding countryside) promising to bring it back undamaged once the inhabitants sort out their differences. Other interventions follow, for example addicts suddenly being unable to tolerate alcohol and drugs. 


One feature of the good aliens is that they are  all the same until they reach adulthood, when they develop into specialised forms for different roles, as determined by tests carried out at the end of childhood. Some become males or females for breeding, another caste is concerned with bringing up children, some become politicians and so on. That way everyone ends up doing the work to which they are best suited so are (apparently) content with their lives. That might work for hypothetical aliens but I am not as comfortable with this idea for humanity as the author seems to be: it reminds me of Huxley's Brave New World.


Even the good aliens have issues, particularly over their own religion, whose story is told in a huge fresco in a building on their home planet. Over the centuries, the use of smoky candles to illuminate the fresco has completely obscured it, so they rely on descriptions from earlier times to interpret its meaning. When the fresco is cleaned, the aliens discover that the descriptions (inevitably) do not match reality, causing major problems for them. 


Tepper was a militant feminist and this becomes obvious as the story continues.  The heroine (one to cheer for) has a lot of trouble with her abusive husband and a son who's almost as bad, and the US "pro-life" lobby is savagely satirised. If Tepper were alive today I suspect she wouldn't have much time for the "woke" movement.


Overall, this book is worth reading - Tepper was a natural story-teller and carries the readers along - but she pushes her beliefs so stridently that the balance of the story is adversely affected. 




Wednesday, 9 February 2022

To Here and the Easel, by Theodore Sturgeon

 

The US author Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was a significant fantasy, SF and horror writer and critic, most active in the 1940s and 1950s. He wrote 11 novels (including the award-winning More than Human), 120+ short stories, around 400 reviews and several Star Trek scripts. 


To Here and the Easel is a collection of several longer stories and was first published in 1973, although the individual stories were published earlier (the dates are shown with the titles below). 


The Skills of Xanadu (1956). A scout from a militaristic world arrives on the planet Xanadu in order to make covert preparations for an invasion. He is increasingly puzzled by the apparent contrast between its sophisticated culture and apparently simple technology, but sees nothing that might cause his armed forces any problems. Until, that is, he encounters a certain item with deceptive capabilities. 


There is no Defence (1948). A military SF story set in a future in which the Terrans had recently defeated the Jovians, only to find that both planets face a new threat, apparently from outside the Solar System. The alien ships prove to be untouchable but the Terrans have a secret weapon, too terrible to use except as a last resort.


The Perfect Host (1948). Alien possession is the theme of this detective story, with the interesting twist that essentially the same events are reported from the very different perspectives of several different characters - ultimately including the alien.


The Graveyard Reader (1958). A widower grieving for his wife meets a stranger at the cemetery - a stranger who can "read" graves, learning all about the lives of the occupants. He offers to teach the widower how to do it, so he can understand the mystery of his wife's death, but the outcome is unexpected.


Shottle Bop (1941). A wryly amusing ghost story, told by a rather unpleasant man jilted by his girlfriend, who stumbles across a small and strange shop dealing in bottles containing liquids with some very bizarre properties. One bottle enables the man to see and converse with the ghosts of the recently dead, opening up a profitable career as a medium; but there is a penalty if his new ability is misused.


To Here and the Easel (1954). This longer story (a novella of over sixty pages) is actually the first in the book, but I left it to the end of this review because of its strange and challenging nature. It is told by the main character, Giles, who is a painter. Except when he is Rogero, a knight. Both aspects are controlled by Atlantes, a magician who has a deadly hippogriff at his beck and call. There is also a staggeringly beautiful woman who keeps appearing in his life. The writing is almost stream-of-consciousness in places, and I find it virtually impossible to provide a coherent summary of the plot. Suffice to say that I was fascinated, and certainly want to read it again.


What is apparent from these very varied stories is that Sturgeon was a highly versatile and accomplished writer who is well worth reading.


Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

 

Two newly published fantasy novels this month, very different in content and style.


Piranesi is by Susanna Clarke, the internationally acclaimed author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A very strange tale, in the form of the diary of a young man living in a vast and apparently endless building consisting of hundreds of huge statue-lined halls, the lower ones of which are regularly flooded by oceanic tides. This is the only life the man can recall, and he has no concept of what might be outside the building; he does not even know his own name. He is the only occupant, except for "the Other", a man who visits twice a week to give him research tasks to carry out in the building. This routine begins to be shaken by signs of other visitors and the discovery of forgotten volumes of the young man's journal, which gradually reveal to him what is going on.


The writing is highly atmospheric, with the creation of the building reminding me, in its scale, complexity and baroque weirdness, of Peake's Gormenghast. I read the entire 250-page book in one session, which must be a record for me, and I have sent off for the author's other books.


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The Midnight Library is an unusual fantasy set in the present day. It concerns a woman in her mid-30s who is in a deep depression because, although she had considerable potential in her youth, a series of life choices haven't worked out for her and she no longer wishes to live. But after taking an overdose, she regains consciousness in the Midnight Library: an endless space filled with bookshelves. She meets a guide who explains to her that all of the books represent different options for her, so that choosing a volume immediately results in her entering that world. If she doesn't like it, she can return to the library and choose a different book. So she experiences what life could have been like for her as a philosopher, an Olympic swimmer, a pop star, a glaciologist, or a happily married mother, among many other things. But (there is bound to be a 'but...') other things change in her alternative worlds and the changes are enough to keep sending her back to the Library. All of the time, she is adding to her knowledge of herself and her understanding of her condition. She is finally forced to act quickly and choose the life she wants.


Matt Haig appears to be a popular philosopher who has published various non-fiction books including Reasons to Stay Alive as well as novels for adults and children. The Midnight Library is described as a "multi-million copy best-seller" and the audiobook version is read by actor Carey Mulligan. As you might guess, it is a "feel-good" type of book which the reader finishes on something of an emotional high. Interestingly different, and possibly even useful to those who are dissatisfied with life.


As a postscript to the above two reviews, I found it curious that within a few weeks of reading them Piranesi remains vividly complete in my memory, but I quickly forgot what The Midnight Library was all about.




Tuesday, 14 December 2021

The Coramonde books by Brian Daley

 

Brian Daley (1947-1996) was a US SFF writer who co-authored much of his output with James Luceno (the pair using the Jack McKinney pseudonym), specialising in novelisations of TV series, e.g. Robotech. He did write some original fiction by himself, of which the Coramonde books are perhaps the best known. There are just two books in this series; The Doomfarers of Coramonde and The Starfollowers of Coramonde, published in 1977 and 1979 respectively. The two books effectively comprise one continuous story (with a brief pause for breath between them), totalling around 700 pages. This is a story of epic fantasy, comparable with the work of current authors Mark Lawrence and Michael J Sullivan, but with an interesting additional twist - it is possible for people to travel from Earth to the land of Coramonde. This has the usual medieval castle-based society plus magic.


The first part of the book follows the life of Springbuck, a prince of Coramonde who should by rights inherit the throne recently vacated by his late father. However, there is another contender; Strongblade, his younger half-brother, son of the late king's second wife.  A challenge is being arranged, but Springbuck is well aware that he stands no chance of beating Strongblade. He goes on the run, and meets up with a small group of people who are opposed to Strongblade. Among them is a pair of wizards, brother and sister, plus a strange man who wears on his head a frame holding pieces of glass, through which he can see. He also has a curiously shaped metal and wood stick which he calls a "rifle". The man is Van Duyn, a maverick scientist from Earth, who has found a way to travel between worlds involving a mixture of magic and science.   


The group is in trouble, faced with both physical and magical attack (the latter by a powerful wizard called Yardiff Bey, who summons a dragon), so Van Duyn and the wizards call for  help from Earth - and it arrives in the form of an Armoured Personnel Carrier and its crew led by Gil MacDonald, lifted directly from combat in the Vietnam War. The battle between the APC and the dragon is my favourite scene! The group are soon in even more trouble, as the female wizard is captured by Bey; once more, the APC comes to the rescue, right to the Gates of Hell. The APC can't stay for long as most of the crew want to return home (and it would be running out of fuel and ammunition anyway), but Gil has nothing much to return to except a lowly job in a supermarket, so after paying a brief return visit to Earth, he decides to move permanently to Coramonde and the main focus of the story switches from Springbuck to Gil. The story develops into the traditional good vs evil quest, with both sides locked in a protracted and titanic contest, both physical and magical. The climax of the story, with our assorted group of heroes tackling the enemy fortress, is reminiscent of the finale of The Lord of the Rings, but retains its own distinctive flavour. The book covers include praise from Poul Anderson and Gordon R Dickson.


A few general comments on the Coramonde stories: Daley enjoyed playing with language, digging up obscure words and also including quotes from literature (mostly genuine but some invented) at the beginning of chapters. A noticeable element is the very strong ring of authenticity in his descriptions of the battling APC and its crew. I was not at all surprised when checking his biog to find that Daley joined the US Army when a young man and spent a year serving in Vietnam - he was obviously very familiar with APCs and the weaponry they carried!


He also tackled some of the usual logical issues arising from this kind of story. For instance, when Gil wondered how he was able to understand the language of Coramonde it is explained  by Van Duyn as a side-effect of the magic used in transferring between worlds, a kind of mental reprogramming. However, that has consequences; on his return visit to Earth Gil collects a number of textbooks full of information which would be valuable on Coramonde, only to find that he could then no longer read them.


One unusual (for the time) feature of Daley's writing is that he included some terrific and very strong female characters, both wizards and warriors. He reinforced this in his invention of  the country of Glyffa, whose male rulers had become so extreme, regarding women merely as possessions with no legal status, that a powerful goddess had descended on them in fury and reversed the entire social structure, so that women were in charge of everything.


Finally, these stories could prompt all sorts of "what would you do?" Fun debates about what you would take with you on a one-way trip from Earth to Coramonde (to use yourself or perhaps as gifts). Firearms feature in the books (the author knew his stuff about these too), but only for a while as they run out of ammunition. Still, having a gun would provide a huge initial advantage as well as buying time to become proficient with swords etc. Choosing guns which use compact and lightweight ammunition, enabling more of it to be carried, would obviously be helpful, as long as you aren't planning to tackle an angry dragon! A good general-purpose knife would be useful, as would binoculars, a compass (assuming that the world of Coramonde has a similar magnetic field to the Earth), and one of those wind-up torches which require no batteries. Perhaps even more useful as gifts would be a selection of varifocal glasses (prompted by the author making Springbuck severely short-sighted). Then there is clothing: a lightweight layer system with a waterproof jacket and trousers plus a series of liners (including one incorporating knife-proof kevlar), and tough walking shoes for everyday use plus even tougher knee-length waterproof boots (off the main road, travel is via rutted and muddy tracks). That should about do it....


Saturday, 20 November 2021

The Chronicles of St Mary's, by Jodi Taylor

 

A few posts ago I reviewed Another Time, Another Place, the twelfth and latest volume of The Chronicles of St Mary's by Jodi Taylor. I enjoyed that so much that I promptly purchased the first eleven books, and have now read all of them. First, a scene-setting extract from my previous review:


Those of you who are familiar with Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog will feel right at home, as the basic setting is similar. St Mary's is an offshoot of a British university sometime around the middle of this century, a separate department dealing solely with time travel which takes place by means of disguised transport pods which can be set to travel to a specific time and place. The sub-sub genre which this occupies could be summarised as a time-travelling comedy thriller, with the emphasis very much on the laughs. The story focuses on Max, the (female) Head of History at St Mary’s, who has overall responsibility for ensuring that information, and sometimes artefacts about to be destroyed, can be retrieved from the past without changing history (or more to the point, the future) as a result. Meanwhile, the dead hand of bureaucracy has Max's outfit in its sights, so she has both past and present crises to battle with. 


I should add that St Mary's has some sworn and deadly enemies, initially the Time Police (although relationships fluctuate), plus Clive Ronan and "Bitchface" Barclay, former members of staff who have gone rogue. Characters keep popping up rather confusingly as a result of the effects of time travel; it is a bit disconcerting to kill an old version of an enemy only to encounter a younger version later on. It is also something of a handicap to have to let an enemy live because you know he isn't due to die yet, and the one golden rule of time travel is never to do anything which might alter history, even in the smallest way. To ignore this rule is likely to result in severe consequences for the transgressor, and not just from the Time Police but from History itself. Having said that, I noticed that a couple of the villains have been killed at least twice, which ought to be impossible. Also, there appear to be two versions of St Mary's in existence for at least part of the time, which also ought to be impossible - I am baffled by the relationship between the apparent multiverse and the insistence on preserving one sacrosanct time-line.


It's probably better not to fret over technicalities, and just enjoy the ride. I frequently found myself laughing out loud and cannot recall ever finding a book series so amusing. It isn't all fun as the laughs are balanced by some powerful tragedies, creating something of an emotional roller-coaster. These darker moments don't just concern the historical events being witnessed, some of them impact directly on the historians. The good guys don't always win - or survive. In particular, brace yourself before reading Volume 8: And the Rest is History.


The series is also educational; for every mission into the past the Historians research the culture and current affairs in detail, which I found very interesting.  I commented in my previous review on the quality of the descriptive writing. The author is skilled at bringing other times and settings to vivid life; smells, dirt, sewage, disease, brutal violence and all.


Overall, this is just the sort of engaging escapism we need in times like the present, but you should note that the twelve volumes essentially tell one continuous story, so don't do what I did - start from the beginning!



Saturday, 23 October 2021

The Alien Stars and other novellas by Tim Pratt, and If Then by Matthew De Abaitua

 

The Alien Stars and other novellas, by Tim Pratt


This book is part of the Axiom series, reviewed here a couple of months ago. It consists of three novellas: The Augmented Stars, The Artificial Stars, and The Alien Stars. Each of them focuses on one of the characters from the series - but not Callie and Elena who are the main protagonists in the original trilogy. 


In The Augmented Stars, the focus is on Ashok, the augmented man who died in the previous story (but thoughtfully always maintained a full and up-to-date personality and memory backup in reserve, hence his reappearance here). He is now effectively an AI, with his ship as his usual "body" but able to download a copy of himself into any suitably sophisticated electronic host. The story viewpoint is that of a new member of the crew, Delilah Mears, who has a lot to learn (an excuse for lots of explanations to bring all readers up to speed). An anomaly in space ensnares Ashok's ship, and the crew encounter a truly bizarre band of pirates. 


The Artificial Stars features Shall - the AI who has become the president of the revived Trans-Neptunian Alliance and also has the use of a spaceship "body" if required. An earlier version of Shall (named Will) was thought destroyed, but gets in contact five years later to warn of a threat to the stability of the universe as the "gates" connecting planetary systems are beginning to break down. This story gives more attention to the scientist Uzoma who turns out to have a key role to play.


The Alien Stars takes a different approach to story telling: the narrator is the alien Lantern (a member of the Free, previously known as the Liars) who is trying to locate the dangerous central council of her race to determine their future strategy. The means of communication Lantern uses is in the form of messages to her friend Elena, explaining what she has found and what she is trying to achieve.


Overall, a worthwhile addition to the Axiom series for those in search of light entertainment.


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If Then, by Matthew De Abaitua


This book must have been sitting in my reading pile for several years, judging by the fact that I bought it not long after publication, which I see was in 2015. I suspect that my reluctance to begin was caused by the dystopian plot summary; it must have come with some glowing recommendations to prompt me to buy it in the first place. It is a difficult book to describe, but the summary on the back cover does it fairly well so I’ll pinch that:


In the near future, after the collapse of society as we know it, one English town survives under the protection of the complex algorithms of the Process, which governs every aspect of their lives. The Process both gives and takes. It allocates jobs and resources, giving each person exactly what it has calculated they will need. 

The Process also decides who stays under its protection, and who must be banished to the wilderness beyond. Human life has become totally ruled by its algorithms and James, the town bailiff, is charged with making sure that the Process’s orders are implemented. But now, it seems, it has started making soldiers - terrifyingly, the Process is readying for war.


The author spends considerable time familiarising readers with life in the AI-controlled town of Lewes (an actual English town) then switches the narrative to a very detailed and atmospheric account of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, a brutal World War 1 battle which the Process has decided to recreate. The truth about what is going on is only gradually revealed and even at the end, there were aspects of the plot which remained mysterious (to me, at any rate). However, it is very well written with strong characterisation and held my attention. I’m not sure if I can provide a general recommendation - I suspect this is a very Marmite story (translation for non-Brits: either loved or hated!).



Sunday, 3 October 2021

The Grid, by Nick Cook; and The Institute, by Stephen King

 

The Grid has some things in common with King's The Institute, reviewed below. Both are set in the present day and concern conspiracies making use of psychic powers to alter government policy. Both books are also simply classified as "thrillers" even though they clearly qualify as SF. Is this expected to benefit sales, I wonder? 


A different coincidence is that Nick Cook and myself both worked as editors for the Jane's defence and security intelligence publishers at around the same time, although as far as I can recall we never met.


The protagonist of The Grid is Josh Cain, a former combat medic who is now the medical adviser to the President of the USA. He has been called in because the President keeps suffering intense and agonising dreams of his own murder, which seem all too real to the sufferer. At the beginning of the story, Cain is called in to talk down a suicidal ex-Marine who is in a church tower close to the White House, and who has specifically asked for Cain. The Marine tells him of a threat to the President's life. When the Marine's hideout is located, it contains material which reveals that he knows more about Cain's past than anyone should. From then on, the investigation proceeds at several levels, into the nature of the assassination threat and Cain's own psychological problems, with the story becoming increasingly strange and metaphysical.  


I should warn readers that the main revelations in The Grid do not come until late in the book so some spoilers are difficult to avoid. (like the one in the second sentence of this review!). Those who prefer not to know what's coming next had better stop here.


The core of the story concerns remote viewing: the ability of some psychics to see a given target, not just in the present day but in the past - or the future. This skill had been particularly developed in the USSR, where it was known as "instrumental psychotronics", but the US version was called The Grid; and the part of the US state which secretly controlled this research was using the results to push their own agenda. Research had also taken place into what happens when people die, with their consciousness passing through various levels, each being more remote than the last. This was of particular interest to Cain, who had never recovered from the death of his wife fifteen years earlier. The conclusion of the story is literally world-changing as the conspiracy is exposed.


This is not the easiest of reads, as there is a large cast of characters and a lot going on. I found myself continually referring to the Dramatis Personae helpfully provided at the beginning, as well as re-reading the last few pages at the start of each reading session. Nonetheless this intriguing story held my attention through to the end.


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The Institute, by Stephen King


I have of course been aware of Stephen King's existence for decades, but I can't recall reading anything by him - the horror genre is not one which has ever appealed to me. However, the reviews of The Institute were not just very good, they also made it sound more SF-like, so I thought it was worth a try. 


The focus of the plot, set in the present day, is the existence of a secret Institute in a remote part of the USA which is set up ostensibly to meet the needs of children with special talents (generally, Telekinesis or Telepathy). However, this is no benevolent organisation - the children are kidnapped and held against their will, their parents disposed of. The children are put through a range of unpleasant tests apparently aimed at strengthening their talents, before they are transferred to the "Back Half" - a separate part of the Institute - and never seen again. 


The story starts on a very different note, with a chapter following the life of an ex-policeman who is travelling rather aimlessly, looking for suitable work to do. He ends up in a small town called Dupray and we leave him settling in there and getting to know a lot about the town's principal characters. Dupray comes back into the story a few months later, when its sleepy existence collides with the extreme violence of the Institute. In the meantime, the focus switches to a new arrival at the Institute, Luke Ellis - a twelve-year old with only weak talents but an intelligence which is off the chart. Most of the book is concerned with the battle of wits   between the children led by Luke and the staff of the Institute, as the children plot their escape.


This book is not really what I expected. It is mostly slow-paced and thoughtful, spending a lot of time in establishing the characters in their environments, before a change of gear leads up to the tense finale. I was totally gripped by it and fully understand why Stephen King is such a wildly successful author.



Monday, 13 September 2021

Future Crimes: Mysteries and Detection through Time and Space, edited by Mike Ashley

 

This latest British Library Science Fiction Classics anthology sent to me for review combines my favourite genres, as I read almost as many detective stories as I do science fiction or fantasy.  The Editor's introduction is quite brief this time, pointing out that there has always been a strong science element in both (forensic) crime and science fiction, with many examples being given of stories including both. The ones reproduced here are essentially SF, with the addition of a crime to be solved.


Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943). This is the most common pseudonym for William A.P. White (1911-1968), who started writing crime fiction but later focused on SFF, with a light and often humorous touch. Elsewhen concerns the secret development of a time machine by a private inventor, who decides to use its capabilities to remove his rival for the heart of a young woman with whom he is obsessed, while simultaneously accelerating his inheritance of a large fortune. He devises an ingenious plan which appears to be foolproof, but open-minded detectives are soon on his trail.


Puzzle for Spacemen by John Brunner (1955). John Brunner (1934-1995) has recently featured a couple of times in this blog. Although he mostly focused on SF, he also wrote mysteries and this one combined both. A spaceship from Pluto arrives at a space station at Jupiter with one dead pilot inside, killed by explosive decompression resulting from the sudden loss of the cabin's air. This should have been impossible, and a special investigator is sent to discover how this happened. The answer involved not just technical trickery but also psychology, a discipline which has developed to a much more advanced level.


Legwork by Eric Frank Russell (1956). Russell (1905-1978) was one of my favourite authors in the 1960s and I still enjoy his tongue-in-cheek humour. A hostile alien from Andromeda secretly arrives on Earth in order to assess whether the planet is worth taking over.  His task is  aided by the possession of a super-power: he can make people believe anything he wants them to, including that he is a normal-looking human. This power has an effective range of about a mile and is permanent, reversible only by the alien. One of his first acts is to rob a bank in order to amass enough money to fund his activities. However, this brings the police into the picture, who find various impossibilities to explain. In the end, it is systematic, painstaking collection and analysis of routine data - legwork - which provides the answer.


Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972). Another famous SF author - in this instance, the one whose achievements I most admire after those of H.G. Wells (with Jules Verne in the No.3 spot). Asimov (1920-1992) wrote detective stories as well as well as SF (and non-fiction popular science books), and the two main characters of this story - a human investigator and his robot sidekick - also featured in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. The robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, presents investigator Lije Bailey with an impossible problem: Two scientists, accompanied by their robot assistants, are travelling in a starship to a conference in another system. Each scientist accuses the other of stealing a new idea and presenting it as their own. Their robots back them up. An answer is needed before the start of the conference, but it is impossible to determine which human (or robot) is telling the truth. The answer was obtained by a neat piece of psychological reasoning - one of those mysteries which has a satisfying "yes, of course!" ending.


The Flying Eye by Jacques Futrelle (1912). A generation or two older than the other authors in this collection, Futrelle (1875-1912) focused mainly on mysteries to be solved in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. His death at such a young age was exotic; he went down with the Titanic. In this story, a pair of investigators are mystified by an image of a huge eye which keeps appearing and disappearing over an isolated pond. The investigators explore all kinds of more or less likely explanations but are even more incredulous when the see a man dropping from nowhere into the pond, then slowly rising up into the sky before vanishing again. The immediate mystery is soon (improbably) explained, but that isn't the end of the story.


Nonentity by E. C. Tubb (1955). Tubb (1919-2010) is best known for his 32-volume Earl Dumarest series, beginning with The Winds of Gath (which I feel I probably ought to read sometime -  at least the first volume!). As well as SF, he wrote a few straight detective stories and some combinations of the two, as in this story. Following a disaster in space, an assorted group of survivors has escaped in a "lifeshell" - an unpowered pod with enough food, water and air to last until rescue - usually - but the lifeshell is overcrowded and help seems certain to arrive too late. The survivors are reluctant to face up to their options, but then the lights fail and people start to die, one after the other. 


Death of a Telepath by George Chailey (1959). This author is known only for this one published story plus a non-fiction article. In a world in which telepaths are common (if very unpopular), committing crimes is a risky business - and murdering a telepath would seem to be impossible. So when a detective investigates the death of a telepath on a two-man spacecraft, he is initially inclined to accept the explanation of suicide. But this doesn't seem to accord with the evidence.


Murder, 1986 by P. D. James (1970). The author (1920-2014) was a highly regarded specialist crime writer, best known for her Inspector Dalgliesh series. She also wrote a few SF stories including this one, which is coincidentally topical as it is set in a future in which humanity's survival is threatened by a virus. Carriers of the disease are subject to draconican laws and forced to live in colonies away from the Normals. When a detective discovers the body of a young female Carrier who has clearly been murdered (not considered a major crime), he decides to investigate despite attempts by senior officers to prevent him. The outcome is the kind of surprise which makes the reader want to go back and re-read the story from the beginning in the light of the final revelations.


Apple by Anne McCaffrey (1969). Anne McCaffrey is too well known to need introducing, especially as another of her stories was only recently reviewed here. The background to this story is reminiscent of the X-Men films: a small minority of 'Talents' - humans with superpowers - live in an uneasy relationship with the rest of humanity, tolerated because they provide specialist services such as security and criminal investigations. This only works if the Talents can be trusted to manage themselves to ensure that they pose no threat to humanity, so there is great alarm when an impossible crime takes place - and the hunt is on for a wild Talent.


The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965). DeFord (1885-1975) was an author who did not just write SFF and crime stories but also true crime studies. In this story, time travel has been invented and the opportunity to take short trips back in time is available - at a high price. Our hero is very unhappily married to an appalling woman he cannot get rid of, so he spots the opportunity to avoid his fate by ensuring that his wife is never born. Everything is perfectly planned and executed, but with an unexpected result.


I enjoyed these stories - particularly the ones by Asimov, Russell and McCaffrey - but the outstanding tale in terms of plot, characterisation and writing quality has to be that by P.D. James.


Monday, 23 August 2021

TV - Missions Series 2 (2021)

 

I reviewed Series 1 of Missions in 2017 as follows:


This a French TV serial (with subtitles), set in the near future, about the first manned missions to Mars. Ulysses, a European space craft funded by William Meyer, a fabulously rich Swiss entrepreneur, is arriving in Mars orbit when they learn that they have already been beaten to the planet by a much faster American craft, funded by an equally wealthy US businessman, Ivan Goldstein. It becomes evident that the US craft experienced major problems on landing, so the European crew decide to attempt a rescue. They manage to land nearby (not without their own problems) and find one survivor in a spacesuit, but he has a surprise for them. After this, the plot evolves from a routine "trip to Mars" to something of much greater significance.


The serial ran for ten episodes of 25 minutes each (on BBC4 in the UK) and is structured in such a way that it isn’t possible to say any more about the plot without spoilers. I will just say that I was reminded of the film 2001, not so much in the specifics of the plot as in the atmosphere of a cosmic mystery gradually unfolding. It is intriguing and well worth seeking out.


Series 2 (also consisting of ten 25-minute episodes) has recently been shown on BBC4, and both series are currently available on the BBC iPlayer, but I don't know for how long. Reviewing the second series will inevitably involve comprehensive spoilers for Series 1 and it is difficult to avoid some for Series 2, but I will at least try to leave some surprises!


During Series 1 we discover that the survivor found by the Ulysses crew was not from the American craft as initially supposed, but was Vladimir Komarov, an actual Soviet cosmonaut who died in a spacecraft accident on Earth more than half a century before. It becomes apparent that there is a powerful intelligence on Mars which is capable of creating artificial environments and people. Furthermore, this intelligence is focused on one of the crew - psychologist Jeanne Renoir - whose arrival has been anticipated for millennia.  The crew discover a vast, ruined building which contains a huge wall filled with human skulls. At first, they think it shows that humanity had previously visited Mars during an earlier era of high technology, but then the truth dawns: humanity evolved on Mars, and only moved to Earth after wrecking the environment of Mars. 


At the end of Series 1 the explorers have to leave Mars in a great rush due to a sandstorm, and Jeanne is left behind. She is unconcerned, however, knowing Mars will take care of her. 


Series 2 starts with Jeanne living a simple life in small village in a forest, having forgotten her earlier life. She appears to be part of an experiment to discover a way in which mankind can survive without wrecking the Earth. Meanwhile, five years after their return to Earth, the other members of the Ulysses crew become aware that Jeanne needs them on Mars. They are joined by two new crew members, one of them being Alice, Meyer's daughter. On Mars, they discover a portal allowing access to Jeanne's forest world. It emerges that Alice is not who she seems, and conflict breaks out. In the end, the survivors are faced with another possible future.


My conclusions remain much the same as before. I found the continuous air of mystery intriguing, but those who like everything tidied up and clearly explained are likely to feel frustrated.  In my opinion, there is room for another Series but no indications so far as to whether or not that might happen.



Saturday, 31 July 2021

Riyria Revelations, by Michael J Sullivan

 

Regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you!) might recall that I posted reviews of the four volumes of the Riyria Chronicles on 28 December 2019. These told the story of the meeting, and eventual partnership, of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melbourne, two adventurers for hire (who come to refer to themselves as Riyria). The three books of the Riyria Revelations, of which Theft of Swords is the first, continue their story; this volume originally appeared in two parts,  The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha


There is a complicating factor, however; Sullivan actually wrote the Revelations first, then went back to write the Chronicles as an extended prequel (the Chronicles end a few months before the Revelations begin). So readers have a choice between reading the books in publication order, or following the internal chronology. As you may have gathered by now, I chose the internal chronology (as usual). I have to say that Sullivan did the stitching-together very well, and I noticed no anomalies.


Swords are the main theme of this book: Riyria are commissioned to steal a famous sword, but find themselves arrested on the most serious charge imaginable. It is clear that they have unwittingly become involved in some top-level manouvring for power but fortunately they have some allies as well as enemies this time, and they end up escaping with a prince of the realm in tow. The climax of the story is a battle for the crown.  


In the second part of the book, Riyria meet a young girl, Thrace, who is desperate for them to come with her to her remote village which is being gradually destroyed by a magical dragon-like creature, a Gilarabrywn. She needs them to steal another sword, this one reputed to be the only weapon capable of killing the creature. The only problem is that the sword is held in an inaccessible elvish tower, which is also where the Gilarabrywn has made its home. The conclusion is both dramatic and unexpected.


The second volume of the Revelations trilogy is Rise of Empire (originally published  as two stories: Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm). The Nyphron Church’s long preparations have climaxed in a play for power with the creation of the New Empire, intended to draw together all of the little kingdoms of the land under one overall nominal leader, the Empress Modina. Much of the focus is on Arista, Princess of Melengar and sister to the young King Alric, for whom Riyria are (usually, more or less) working. Arista is intelligent and determined to do whatever it takes to support her brother, and there is much enjoyment to be had from observing her development from a pampered member of the court to a toughened and inspirational leader with growing powers. In the meantime Royce is following up some snippets of information about his friend Hadrian which suggest that he has a much more important role to play than anyone realises.


The second part of the book sees Riyria out of their comfort zone and undertaking a long sea voyage. Brushes with pirates inevitably follow before the pair find themselves marching through the jungle territory of the dreaded Ghazel. In the meantime, the hidden leadership of the New Empire are seeing all of their plans gradually approaching fruition.


The final volume of the trilogy is Heir of Novron (consisting of Wintertide and Percepliquis). It is some months after the end of the previous volume, and the New Empire is growing in strength, rapidly absorbing most of the old kingdoms. A major celebration is planned at Wintertide, culminating in the execution of two captives; Degan Gaunt, known as the "heir of Novron", and the Witch of Melengar, otherwise known as Princess Arista. The young Empress Modina, firmly under the control of the Co-Regents Saldur and Lord Ethelred, is to marry Ethelred in order to consolidate the Regents' power. Needless to say, Riyria take a dim view of all of this and plan to free the captives, but this proves to be an unusually difficult task, particularly since the Regents have Merrick Marius, Royce's formidable old enemy, working for them.


 Percepliquis is the name of the legendary capital of the Old Empire, lost for a thousand years.  A group led by Riyria need to find its ruins and locate the mysterious Horn of Gylindora which is said to be hidden there. Without it, humanity will be overrun by the newly militant elves. 


The climax of the story - and of the Revelations - is particularly well done, with various unexpected outcomes all fitting neatly together and explaining the clues which had been scattered around during the story, just like a good detective novel. About the only element which was totally predictable concerned Hadrian, but I'll say no more about that.


Taken as a whole, the Riyria sequence is one of the great achievements in the modern epic fantasy genre, right up there with Mark Lawrence's Red Queen's War and Thorns trilogies. On a trivial note, I did find a few of the names unnecessarily awkward, being difficult to spell or pronounce. Curiously, as it is relatively short and simple, Riyria is one of the worst offenders - I have to check the spelling, letter by letter, every time I type it.


For those whose appetite for Sullivan's world is still not sated,  the author clearly sees no reason to abandon a carefully created world without getting a decent mileage from it, so is using it for other stories: most notably The Legends of the First Empire, a (very) distant prequel series to the earlier books, consisting of six volumes to date. 



Saturday, 10 July 2021

Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void, edited by Mike Ashley

 

The theme for this British Library Science Fiction Classics anthology sent to me for review is living in space: in space stations, spaceships and generation ships (sub-light-speed starships which take several generations to reach their destinations).  The editor includes in his usual introduction mention of earlier writers who tried to address the problems of living in space, such as the lack of air and the low temperatures. Some well-known names were promptly on the case... Edgar Allen Poe mentioned technology to provide fresh air (Hans Phaall, 1835) while Jules Verne added thickly padded walls (Autour de la Lune, 1869). By the end of the 19th century, scientifically-mined writers were tackling such issues as long-term survival in the light of the expected length of journeys, including growing food, and even the indelicate question of how to cope with human waste. Moving closer to the present time, the ultimate in living space was envisaged in Larry Niven's marvellous Ringworld. Now to the stories:


Umbrella in the Sky by E.C. Tubb (1961).  The Sun is building up to going nova. A huge but lightweight movable shield is being contructed in orbit, which will protect the Earth from the effects. But progress is much slower than expected and time is running out. So a special investigator is sent undercover to join the construction crew and discover the cause of the problem. An interesting plot focusing on the psychology of those working in space.


Sail 25 by Jack Vance (1962). This time, a steerable sail ship is the technology of choice and a trip in one of them is the basis of a "finishing school" for trainee pilots, with an assessor who is notoriously tough. Only the best will survive.


The Longest Voyage by Richard C. Meredith (1967). The sole survivor of a devastating explosion which wrecked his space ship struggles to make it back to Earth - from the orbit of Jupiter. He has to work with what he has and knows, and with a much lower level of technology.


The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (1961). The subject of a space ships having their own minds - either by "plumbing in" a human brain or via developing artificial intelligence - is a popular one nowadays but this rather poetic story is an early example.


O’Mara’s Orphan by James White (1960).  This is an early one of the Sector General series of stories about huge orbiting hospitals equipped to minister to the health of a large number of alien races. O'Mara is assigned to look after an orphaned baby Hudlarian, a race about which very little is known. I have to say that I find the whole concept problematic; in my (secondhand) experience of the medical profession, the tendency is to specialise, e.g. in major repairs to limbs and joints (human, naturally!) - and a surgeon who does that usually does nothing else.


Ultima Thule by Eric Frank Russell (1951). Hyperspace was an easy and very fast way to travel around the Galaxy; your spaceship disappears from one location and appears in another one. But what happens if it doesn't reappear? This story follows the fate of a small crew who find themselves stranded in hyperspace.


The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox (1940). This is an early example of a "generation ship" story, but it also incorporates suspended animation: one member of the crew is a monitor who spends almost all of the time asleep, only waking about once a century to check that the descendents of the original crew are still following the plan. The story consists of a series of glimpses showing the cultural and social evolution of the generation crew from the monitor's viewpoint. 


Survival Ship by Judith Merril (1951). A curiously high level of security surrounds the crew of a space ship intended to preserve human civilisation by establishing a colony on a planet in orbit around another star. Suspended animation is the method chosen for surviving the trip but, to obtain the maximum diversity among the settlers, the gender distribution is unconventional... No doubt shocking at the time, but would hardly cause a flicker now.


Lungfish by John Brunner (1957). Another "generation starship" story, this time with the emphasis on the relationships between the "earthborn" and the "tripborn".  After all, those born on the voyage did not volunteer for the journey, and might develop entirely different priorities from those of the original crew.


An interesting point about these stories I noticed compared with earlier BL collections is that they are mostly relatively recent: one in the 1940s, three in the 1950s and five in the 1960s.  Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the fact that the problems of extended living in space hadn’t really been thought through until then.


My pick of this bunch would be Brunner's Lungfish. He really was a very good writer. Wilcox's effort was also very commendable considering when it was written.