Wednesday, 31 May 2023

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd


An interesting contemporary fantasy published in 2022.  To quote the blurb:

"Some places you won't find on any maps, others, only on maps.

Nell Young has lived her life in and around maps. Her father, Dr. David Young, was one of the most respected cartographers in the world. But this morning he was found - or murdered? - in his office at the New York Public Library.

Nell hadn't  spoken to her father in years, ever since he fired her over an argument over a seemingly worthless highway roadside map. A map which was mass-produced - and every copy of which is now being found and destroyed.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell will embark on a dangerous journey into the heart of a conspiracy beyond belief, the secrets behind her family, and the true power that lies in maps."

I must admit that I enjoy this kind of modern mystery, in which fantasy gradually intrudes into normal life. At nearly 400 pages this is a substantial book, and the author uses the space well to develop her characters and plot, leading the reader to follow the trail to its conclusion. Exra variety is provided by occasional changes in the narrator, giving different viewpoints. There is a lot of information about maps, ancient, recent and mysterious. Hints and sub-plots are scattered along the way, for example an infamous "junk box incident" which is frequently referred to without actually being explained for some time.

Peng Shepherd is an American fantasy author whose first book, The Book of M, was awarded various prizes; The Cartographers is her second novel and has deservedly collected even more awards. This is one book I'll be keeping, since the plot is sufficiently intricate and intriguing to merit a second reading.


Monday, 1 May 2023

A brief note on feminist SF - sort of...


I started to read Joanna Russ's The Female Man (I found it on a shelf where it had been sitting for decades, and I was in the mood for something short and interesting). It was published in 1975, and is regarded as a classic of feminist SF. The story involves four young women, basically four versions of the same woman each from a different parallel world. The worlds vary - one is just like ours but without World War 2 - but the one which obviously interests the author is the one in which all of the male humans were killed off by a plague several centuries before. Fortunately that world possessed a very advanced medical science so they were able to keep human reproduction going - female only, of course. 

The story is difficult to read because the author doesn't make life easy for the reader. Many chapters are very short and it is often unclear who the narrator is (possibly the narrator varied, but that isn't clear either) or which of the four worlds that section is set in. The social arrangements are explored in some detail, using the plot device of having the four women switch between worlds to feature the reaction of the characters to the different environments. 

I managed to get about a third of the way through the book before I gave up. There is only so much I will put up with in the way of confusion and this one is over-endowed with that. Basically, the author lost my attention. A pity, really, there were some good points in the story, but some of the author's contemporaries, such as Ursula Le Guin and Sheri Tepper, demonstrate how a book can pursue a feminist agenda while still being an excellent read. 


Slow Lightning by Jack McDevitt

Published in the USA as Infinity Beach.

Jack McDevitt (born 1935) has published a couple of dozen SF novels and many short stories, his novel Seeker winning the 2006 Nebula Award. Until now my reading has been confined to the Academy Series and I have posted reviews of most of them here. Slow Lightning, published in 2000, is a stand-alone novel. 

Slow Lightning is set several centuries into the future, when humanity has developed a hyperspace drive enabling the colonisation and gradual terraforming of eight other planets. Other changes include an expected lifepan of up to 200 healthy years,  Artificial Intelligence at people's beck and call, and enough wealth to be able to support (in moderate comfort) those who not wish to work at a job. A golden era for humanity, in other words, save for an unexpected problem: huge efforts had been made to search for other forms of life, without any result. Apart from the life spreading from the Earth, the universe seemed to be completely dead. 

This had a depressing effect on humanity, with many people feeling that there was no point in continuing with their efforts. Organisations began to close down, buildings and other facilities were abandoned, and the only major research effort being made was the Beacon project: using anti-matter bombs to cause a group of stars to go nova, thereby signally the existence of humanity to any other civilisations able to pick up the signals.

The story is largely set on one of the colonised planets, Greenway, and focuses on a young female scientist, Dr. Kimberly Brandywine (Kim). She learns of rumours of strange events taking place in a remote forest location and begins to investigate, spurred on by the fact that the focus of these events seemed to be the nearby fatal crash three decades before of a starship, the Hunter, returning from a research mission to search for life. Among its small crew was Kim's cloned elder sister, Emily. The plot thickens as Kim discovers that the official log of the Hunter had been tampered with, and goes on a hunt for her holy grail -  the original log. 

This pace of the story gradually increases as Kim battles to discover the truth and there is a series of shocks and revelations at the end.

I was intrigued by this book, because I had formed a rather different impression of the author when reading the Academy series (written in the same time period). As you will see if you look at my reviews in this blog, I enjoyed the spectacular breadth of his imagination but was lukewarm about the characterisation, and felt that he was over-fond of inserting events which added nothing to the story. Slow Lightning is quite different; it is more evenly paced, with good characterisation and is very well-written. Well worth reading. 

The link to feminism?  As with the Academy series, the principal character is a woman. This kind of setting might be regarded as a kind of post-feminism, in which the gender of the characters is no longer an issue.

Saturday, 1 April 2023

Missing airliners


Two very different novels were recently drawn together in my mind, since both feature missing airliners. One is a straightforward thriller with no SFF elements, the other is….rather different. So naturally I read them in quick succession, to compare and contrast.

Without a Trace by Mari Hannah begins with a disaster; an airliner disappears off the radar as it nears the end of its journey from the UK to New York. The recovery of fragments from the sea confirm that the plane was violently destroyed and there is little doubt that sabotage was involved. The main mystery is why? None of the usual suspects claims “credit” for the crime. 

However, the main focus of the story is on whether one particular passenger actually boarded the plane as planned. This is of desperate importance to DCI Kate Daniels, as the particular passenger is Jo, her lover. Finding out exactly what happened to Jo takes up most of the story, providing a  roller-coaster ride as all manner of diversions and red herrings drive Kate close to breakdown. 

The pace of the story is frantic, the mood tense and emotional. The investigation is also a classic police procedural, reflecting the law enforcement backgrounds of both the author and her partner. Difficult to put down. 

The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier is a contrast in every way. It begins by presenting a series of short chapters, each one focused on the life of a particular individual. One is a mathematician studying the probability of accidents to US passenger planes, another is a terminally ill cancer patient, one is an assassin, one an airline pilot, one a pop star, one a lawyer defending a medical malpractice case, and then there is a novelist working on a strange story called “The Anomaly”. At first there appears to be nothing linking them, until the Boeing  787 some of them are travelling in flies through a violent but unpredicted storm which damages the plane and nearly causes it to crash. The only other link is that several of the passengers are subsequently visited by the FBI.

At this point, the story moves up a gear. A hastily summoned high-level and very secret meeting was briefed by US security as follows:

The 787 on the tarmac is the reason we are all here: it opened communication with Kennedy Airport at exactly 19:03 hours today, 24 June. It identified itself as flight Air France 006 from Paris to New York. The plane reported significant damage. The captain states that he is David Markle. We are here because today’s Air France 006 flight already landed more than four hours ago, at the scheduled time of 16:35 hours. But it was a different aircraft with a different captain. On the other hand, an Air France Boeing 787, with the same reference Air France 006, with exactly the same damage as this one, piloted by the same Commander Markle, with exactly the same crew and passengers and identical in every way, landed at JFK Airport but at 17:17 hours on the 10 March. Precisely one hundred and six days ago. 

This causes some consternation, as might be imagined. Particularly when the "March" versions of the people meet with the "June" versions. Sometimes they get on well, sometimes they don't (only one of the assassins survives!) and there are various subtle changes....e.g. the June novelist is not working on a story called "The Anomaly".

It emerges that China has been the target of a similar incident, and the debates concerning possible causes are intense. The US panel of scientists and other experts draws up a list of possibilities, the simplest (albeit unpopular) being that our universe, and everything and everyone it, is merely a simulation running in some unimaginably vast and powerful computer, for what purpose is unknown.

Then another version of the 787 appears in the American skies...

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear


Greg Bear (1951- 2022) was a well-known SF writer who concentrated mainly on classic science-focused SF. However, early on in his career, he wrote two novels in the fantasy genre which are very different: The Infinity Concerto (1984) and its sequel The Serpent Mage (1986). These form one continuous story and have since been published together as Songs of Earth and Power


The blurb for The Infinity Concerto reads: 

There is a song you dare not sing, a melody that you dare not play, a concerto that you dare not hear. It is called a Song of Power. It is a gateway to another world - a gate that will lock behind you as you pass, barring you from the Earth forever. When the Song calls to you, you must resist. For it is a world of great danger as well as great beauty - and it is not good to be human in the Realm of the Sidhe.

Michael Perrin is a teenage poet who befriends a composer, Arno Waltiri, who has written a concerto whose performance had some strange effects on the audience. Some of them disappeared not long afterwards, including David Clarkham, another friend of the composer who had bequeathed him a book and a key to Clarkham's house. Michael acquires the key and enters the house, only to discover that it is a gateway to another world - the Realm of the Sidhe - from which there is no escape.  

The Sidhe (think Tolkien's elves, hostile to humans) only permit those humans who have arrived in the Realm to live in one town: Euterpe. There is another town nearby where the Breeds live (the result of mating between humans and Sidhe); Halftown. These towns, and the Blasted Plain desert surrounding them, are known as the Pact Lands. Beyond the Pact Lands, where humans are not allowed to travel, is Sidhedark. 

All of this was the creation of one of the Sidhe gods - Adonna, or Tonn - in order to provide a land where the Sidhe could live in peace after a ferocious inter-species war many millions of years before. More recently, tensions had arisen over Clarkham's ambition to establish hiself in power as the Isomage, the most powerful of the handful of mages (magicians capable of "grand magic") in the Realm.

Michael is "adopted" by the Crane Women, a trio of Breed sisters of great age, who train him in some of the skills he will need to survive. This enables him to cross the Blasted Plain and enter Sidhedark, where he learns a great deal more about the nature of the Realm and its various inhabitants. He discovers that a Song of Power does not necessarily consist of music, but also of dance or other art forms. He experiences a sequence of strange adventures before being sent back to Earth, where five years have passed. He finds that Waltiri recently died and left all his assets to Michael. But that is not the end of the story...

The Serpent Mage blurb:

He'd been held captive in the land of the Sidhe, and when he returned home to Los Angeles all he wanted was to live like a normal, average man again. But there were hauntings on the city streets, and strange bodies in a crumbling old hotel, a Song of Power in the air, and an ancient creature summoning him from beneath the waters of a loch in Scotland. Michael had returned to California, but the Sidhe were following him home.

The rapidly increasing flow of hauntings on Earth prompts Michael to continue his Crane Women training, steadily increasing his own capabilities as he understands that he is likely to play a central role in developments. He discovers the only surviving score for Opus 45, the notorious Song of Power by Waltiri which had caused the initial disappearances. Together with Kristine Pendeers, a music student at UCLA, they plan another performance of Opus 45.

Meanwhile, Earth society is feeling the strain of the hauntings and Michael forms an assocation with Lt Harvey of LAPD, who believes his explanation. Michael learns that the Realm 

is an artificial offshoot of the Earth and is steadily degrading as the (almost, but not quite, immortal) gods who made it are dying; among them Manus, the Serpent Mage who was originally human.  As a result, the Sidhe are moving back to Earth. Also needing help are five thousand humans who had been kidnapped by the Sidhe because their cultural impact was felt to be too threatening for the sterile Sidhe culture. 

Clarkham spends much of this volume influencing events without participating in them, but the Isomage still has ambitions to become the dominant mage and kidnaps Kristine to put pressure on Michael. Another serious distraction is the appearance of Shiafa, a beautiful young Sidhe woman who is the daughter of another mage. The climax of the tale is positive and satisfyingly low-key. 

 Songs of Earth and Power is a difficult work to summarise. The setting and the plot are highly unusual, making it frequently difficult to imagine the next turn of events. The story cludes a great deal concerning music, especially film themes, mentioning various composers and arrangers. 

To sum up, Songs of Earth and Power is an extremely impressive achievement, one of the best contemporary fantasies I have read. Highly recommended.

One point which I noted - I read the books straight through first, meaning to skim-read them again in writing this review. However, I ended up reading most of the story twice over, and I was surprised to realise that I was even more impressed with it after the second reading. Clearly, I read too quickly and thereby risk losing of lot of detail on the first reading; something to watch out for!

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

The Professor Challenger Stories of Arthur Conan Doyle


Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is of course most famous for inventing the private detective Sherlock Holmes, whose adventures are described in four novels and 56 short stories, published between 1891 and 1927. He also wrote a wide range of other fiction and non-fiction, of which the most relevant to this blog are the SFF / adventure stories featuring the scientist Professor Challenger. Three novels plus a couple of short stories emerged between 1912 and 1926, of which by far the most famous is the first; The Lost World. All of these were conveniently collected together in one volume, published by Wordsworth Classics in 1995, of which I have a copy: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World and Other Stories.

The Lost World is not just Doyle's best-known SFF novel, it is one of the great classics of science fiction. A scientist explorer, the cantankerous and belligerent Professor Challenger, returns from an expedition to the heart of the Amazon jungle with a claim that prehistoric animals still survive there. He is ridiculed, so organizes a follow-up expedition by a small team including the sceptical Proessor Summerlee, the big-game hunter and explorer Lord John Roxton, and a journalist, Edward Malone, who provides the first-person narrative of the journey and, apart from Challenger himself, is the only character who appears in all of these stories. 

After a difficult journey through the Amazon jungle the team arrive at the base of a plateau, with a circumference of more than 30 miles, which is entirely cut off from the surrounding land by steep cliffs. The team manages to find a way up but then become trapped there. They not only find dinosaurs and other long-extinct creatures, but people, including an earlier form of humanity. After many adventures (spoiler alert!) they manage to find a way off the plateau and return in triumph.

The story is a compelling one, just as gripping now as it was when first published. Of course, our modern knowledge of ecosystems allows us to poke various holes in the plot; but that does not reduce the drama of the story. I don't know if Doyle was aware of the fact that plateaus surrounded by high cliffs (known as Tepui) do actually exist in northern parts of South America, but they are much smaller and have no dinosaurs!

Doyle's next book in the series is The Poison Belt, set three years later. Astronomers begin to discover odd distortions affecting the visibility through their telescopes, and Challenger deduces that the Earth is about to pass through a belt of ether, with unknown consequences. (Ether, a term now used to describe certain chemicals, used to have a much more mystical meaning, as Wiktionary lists: a substance once thought to fill all unoccupied space that allowed electromagnetic waves to pass through it and interact with matter, without exerting any resistance to matter or energy). Challenger invites the same three characters to gather at his hilltop country home where they seal themselves into a room with a supply of oxygen cylinders. As the Earth sweeps into the ether belt, the team look on in horror as people and animals outside immediately collapse, apparently dead. 

Their oxygen supply lasts for long enough for the Earth to pass through the ether belt, and the team are able to emerge from their bunker and travel around. However, this is not an action adventure; for most of the story the characters engage in discussions, often of a philosophical nature. This is not a criticism - Doyle was a good writer who is still able to hold the attention of his readers.

The final Challenger novel was The Land of Mist. This is set several years later and Challenger is an old man - but still just as cantankerous. The subject of this tale is spiritualism. Malone is writing for his newspaper a series of articles about different religions, in collaboration with Enid, Challenger's daughter (and Malone's romantic interest). The focus of the story is on the spiritualist church so Malone and Enid attend various seances as well as church services. At first very sceptical, they soon become convinced by what they are witnessing. Interestingly, Malone is excused narrating duties this time - there is no viewpoint character.

At this point, I should mention a couple of background issues. The first is that spiritualism was very popular in the English-speaking world from the 1840s to the 1920s. The belief that the spirit survived death and could communicate with the living via seances moderated by mediums had a strong appeal (and indeed, still does in some quarters).  The second is that Doyle was himself a prominent spiritualist. 

Knowing this, The Land of Mist is clearly autobiographical; the author takes the reader "on a journey" (in modern parlance), through the stages by which he became a spiritualist (supported by detailed notes at the end of the story). I have to say that I found this unconvincing; the characters were too ready to accept the validity of what they witnessed without question. So was Doyle in real life; for example, he was convinced that a photo of "fairies" was genuine when it was actually a simple piece of fakery carried out by young children. 

This leads us to the final pair of Challenger stories included in this book (there don't seem to have been any others). Both stories are short, in fact The Disintegration Machine is very brief; it concerns a visit by Challenger and Malone to an inventor who claims to have developed a machine which disintegrates matter - everything from a person to a battleship reduced to particles - and can then reintegrate it with no harm done. This device clearly had immense potential in warfare. Unfortunately, by the time our heroes get to see it, they are too late - the inventor has agreed to sell it to an Eastern European power. Challenger finds an appropriate solution to the problem.

In the second story - When the World Screamed - we find that Challenger, having come into a considerable fortune, is spending it on testing a theory of his; that the Earth is actually one huge, living organism. A massive shaft has been driven eight miles deep, until it reaches a point at which the material of the Earth changes to something softer - which appears to have some of the characteristics of life. Challenger intends to punch a large hole in this material to see if there is any reaction (what could possibly go wrong?). Malone features in this story as usual, but narrating duties are passed on to a new character, an engineer called Peerless Jones.

Obviously these tales are somewhat dated and some of the language (unexpurgated in this edition) as well as attitudes are almost as prehistoric as the dinosaurs, but The Lost World in particular is just great fun, and I was reminded of why this was a favourite story when I was a child.

Friday, 30 December 2022

Star King and The Blue World by Jack Vance


Jack Vance (1916-2013) hardly needs any introduction to fans of classic SF, having produced a substantial body of work between about 1950 and 2004. While some of Vance's  work is famous (The Hugo Award-winning The Dragon Masters and The Languages of Pao being my personal favourites - both previously reviewed on this blog) others are a lot more obscure. When I picked them off my shelf, I recalled nothing about either of the two I'm examining this time - an increasing tendency as I've noted before. I will soon reach the stage of being satisfied with reading nothing but old books, which will save me a lot of money on new ones.  

First, Star King (published 1964). To begin with the blurb: 

Star Kings are a race of non-humans who disguise themselves as humans with a difference. Power alone is their goal, a goal they seek regardless of the price in human life. Kireth Gersen was not a Star King but he was looking for one - a very special Star King who had murdered his parents many years before. 

The action starts on Smade's World, which is uninhabited apart from Smade and his family, who run a tavern with a lurid reputation. Gersen has just arrived, on the hunt for the evil Star King called Malagate the Woe (great name for a villain!). Gersen is pretending to be a "locator", basically an explorer who hunts for planets with useful resources or other marketable qualities. One of the other guests is Teehalt, a genuine locator working for Malagate, who has discovered a planet which is of great value as it resembles a pristine Earth. Teehalt regards his find as too beautiful to hand over to Malagate and tries to conceal its location, which is encoded in a memory filament. Gersen is focused on acquiring the filament to act as bait to catch Malagate, involving a journey to the planet (which proves to have some distinctive wildlife) before the real Malagate is revealed.

The book has an interesting structure, with a copious use of inserts such as quotations from books, articles and interviews, a convenient way of providing a lot of background information. Vance has a lot of fun with descriptions of a variety of inhabited planets, how humanity has evolved on them and their political and social structures. The overall mood of the story is rather dark, but leavened with dry humour. I read the book without making notes, so skimmed it again before writing this review and found myself drawn in to reading most of it again - it repays a careful reading as it is rather better than I first realised.

I see from Wiki that this was the first of five volumes in The Demon Princes series, but I have never come across any of the others.

Next up: The Blue World (published 1966).

Sklar Hast lives in the Blue World. A water paradise of floating islands big enough to support houses and sea gardens and communication towers so the People of the Floats can wink messages to each other. All is harmony and perfection. Except for the sea monsters.

King Kragen is the ruler of the deep, a great beast who subdues others of his kind in exchange for certain things. Like food. And reverence. The submissive People of the Floats pay up, they know King Kragen is indestructible. Sklar Hast knows it too but he doesn't care - he's going to to try and kill him anyway.

As with Star King, there is a lot more going on in this story than the blurb suggests. In particlar, the intricacies of the social structure which has developed on the Floats are fascinating and, I suspect, provided Vance with much enjoyment to devise. The battle of the generations is played out against an exotic background.

The "floating islands" setting for this book seemed familiar to me - can anyone think of any other novels with a similar feature? Two which occur to me are James Schmitz's Nandy-Cline stories, Trouble Tide and The Demon Breed; but while Nandy-Cline has floating islands it is not an entirely water world. 

Anyway, these two novels make for agreeable light entertainment, being only around 200 pages each, with just enough meat to provide worthwhile sustenance.


Friday, 2 December 2022

The Jupiter Theft by Donald Moffitt


Yet another book I had forgotten (along with its author, whose name rang no bells), this being published in 1977. Moffitt (1931-2014), wrote only a handful of SF novels, but a larger body of shorter fiction as well as adult spy thrillers. 

To start with the blurb: 

Within hours after the Lunar Observatory picked up a strange new X-ray source in Cygnus, the disastrous picture was clear. An immense object was hurtling towards the Solar System at nearly the speed of light. And its intense radiation would surely wipe out all life on Earth within six months. There was nothing anyone could do. Then, incredibly, the rogue presence that had appeared out of nowhere suddenly changed its trajectory - and stopped in the region of Jupiter. But that was flatly impossible...

The story is set in a future in which humanity is recovering from devastating wars which had left American and China as the two major powers in uneasy co-existence. The inner planets had been explored and, in the case of Mars, settled, and a major expedition with a mixed Chinese/American crew of 100 had been organised to visit Jupiter and potentially establish a base on one of the moons.  However, the arrival of the Cygnus Object results in a rapid change of plan, with the mission repurposed to focus on examining the Object.

During the journey to Jupiter, the author provides lots of background information and introduces several key staff members who remain prominent for most of the story, in a variety of shifting relationships. The central character is Commander Tod Jameson and the events which unroll are largely seen from his viewpoint. 

The human crew are astonished when they arrive at Jupiter, since the Cygnus Object is not one but five spacecraft, each thirty miles long and with three folding arms in a configuration which can be adjusted to suit the different requirements of acceleration up to near-lightspeed, cruising at that speed for years, and then decelerating when approach the target system. The alien spacecraft are powered by gas stripped from giant gas planets, and are already stripping Jupiter's atmosphere to fuel their next journey. 

The Cygnans soon become aware of the arrival of the human Jupiter ship and swarm over it, capturing most of the crew. Many of them end up in a super zoo, where the tensions between the Americans and Chinese are intensified, and also between the democratic and dictatorial elements of the crews. To make matters even more unstable, the humans have nuclear weapons on board.

In contrast with their enormous ships, the Cygnans' standard method of inter-ship transport is by something like a rocket broomstick which the Cygnans sit astride and manoeuvre by shifting their body-weight around and judging direction by eye. Even more remarkably, they use spray-on space-suits which are almost invisible. This allows the humans to observe the truly weird Cygnans who (among other oddities) communicate by musical sounds;  a characteristic which gives Jameson (who has perfect pitch) a major advantage.

The Cygnans rely on a network of transparent tubes to move around at high speed within each ship. To avoid collisions, the tubes are directional and wrap around each other, forming a double spiral. To digress for a moment, this reminds me of a Victorian fort at Dover, Kent, in which the designers wanted to achieve rapid transport of large numbers of troops between the accommodation at the top of a cliff and the defended shore at the bottom. They built an ingenious 140-foot staircase with a triple spiral, known as the Grand Shaft - it still exists. The Grand Shaft was never used in anger, but the story goes that in order to maintain social differences in peacetime, the use of the three staircases was separated into "Officers and their Ladies", "Sergeants and their Wives", and "Soldiers and their Women".

Anyway, to cut a fairly long story short, most of the humans try to break out of the zoo and return to their ship, with some of them being aided by another zoo species who are highly intelligent and possess a unique inherent weapon system. 

The blurb credits the author with having the "world-juggling sweep of Larry Niven" and the  "scientific expertise of Arthur C. Clarke", and for once I would not disagree with this praise. I might add that Moffitt's handling of his characters is superior to both.

Friday, 4 November 2022

TV - First Contact: an Alien Encounter (2022)


This is an unusual 'dramatised documentary' with a rather misleading title (spoiler - no aliens encountered!), exploring what could happen if a very large object travelled through the Solar System. It was presumably inspired by the 2017 incident in which such an object, dubbed ʻOumuamua', made just such a fly-by. The one envisaged by BBC2 TV for their 90 minute prime-time programme has a similarly elongated shape but is very much larger and travelling at huge velocity. More to the point, it is first observed as a result of an apparently artificial signal received by the Voyager spacecraft in the 1420 megaherz channel for hydrogen, considered the most likely wavelength for interstellar communications. As a result of this and other characteristics it is determined that the object, dubbed 'Artefact' is artificial, but its trajectory poses no threat to Earth - nor is there any speculation concerning aliens (they are a serious and sober lot in BBC2!). 

The programme contains a mixture of interviews with actual scientists, 'repurposed' news feeds and fictional podcasts 'to explore the scientific, social and philosophical implications of this occurence, as well as pondering the responses that such a meeting could evoke in communities across the globe'.

As the Artefact departs, attention focuses on where it came from. The trajectory reveals that it probably originated in 21 Sagittarius, at a location some 400 light years away, an area which is nearly twice as old as our system at 8 billion years. Given its velocity, the Artefact is probably about a billion years old, and may be just a fragment of a larger object.

Kudos to BBC2 for making such a worthy effort to explain serious issues to a popular audience. It is definitely worth watching, if you get the chance.

One detail - I was intrigued to discover that the United Nations has an "Office for Outer Space Affairs". Is there something that they are not telling us?

Sunday, 9 October 2022

Science Museum SF exhibition and book

Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination Edited by Glyn Morgan

The Science Museum in Kensington, London is currently hosting an exhibition likely to intrigue any SF fan. Titled Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination, it "uncovers fascinating connections between significant scientific innovations and celebrated science fiction works through over 70 objects, brought together in the UK for the first time. On display in the exhibition is classic literature that has imagined and inspired new understandings of the world around us, set-pieces and props from iconic films and TV that envisioned new forms of life and other worlds – from a screen-used Lieutenant Uhura costume from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, to the Dalek from Doctor Who and a Darth Vader helmet created for Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back – and contemporary artworks from across the globe that explore alternative futures for humanity."

The exhibition includes "an immersive experience on board an alien spaceship" (I always wanted to know what one of those was like!) plus a series of live events including the Arthur C. Clarke Award (on 26 October). It sounds like a lot of fun, and priority has clearly been given to appealing to fans of all ages.

I have not (yet) visited the exhibition but I was sent a copy of the book, the back cover of which lays out the contents: 

"The exhibition does not attempt to contain this vast field, but rather to explore avenues through its terrain. Across five parts, contributors consider cyborgs and humans, space travel, alien communication, distant galaxies and earthbound futures shaped by nuclear warfare and climate crisis. The science of science fiction is traced through developments both scientific and speculative, from the influence of scientific advisers on mid-century classics to the new ways of living posited by contemporary climate fiction. These chapters are accompanied by interviews with five of the genre's most excting writers: Charlie Jane Anders, Chen Qiufan, Vandana Singh, Tade Thompson and Kim Stanley Robinson."

The book is lavishly illustrated, its 280 pages consisting more of images than text, and is worth having whether or not you are visiting the exhibition. It is available from amazon and other bookselling sites.


The exhibition opened on 6th October and is scheduled to close on 4th May 2023. Tickets are available from A trailer can be seen at: and images at: .


Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Odds & Sods


An assortment of offerings this time, varying in age and theme. 

The Deep Range by Arthur C. Clarke

This was first published in 1957, so was  relatively early novel by this prolific author. It is set in a future in which mankind was established throughout the solar system, but no further. The principal character is Walter Franklin, a spaceman who has had to give up his career as a result of the psychological effects of an accident in space. He joins the Bureau of Whales, an organisation which looks after great herds of whales in much the same way as ranchers used to manage cattle. The book follows Franklin’s story as he works his way up through the organisation, eventually becoming its head. 

Two points struck me about the story. The first is that the SF element is very restrained: the advanced technology included is either in existence now or entirely feasible. Even the sea monsters are believable. The second is that the attitudes towards animal welfare which develop later in the story are very modern. Taken together, this makes The Deep Range a serious and thoughtful read.


Brisingamen by Diana Paxson

Published in 1984 and set in contemporary San Francisco, this features Karen Ingold, a young woman who discovers an ancient necklace which seems to change her when she wears it. She eventually discovers that this is Brisingamen, the legendary necklace of Freyja, the Norse goddess of love - and war - who effectively takes over Karen's body when needed. The emergence of Freyja also triggers the manifestation of other former Norse gods, including Odin, Thor - and the evil Loki. This results in a ferocious battle over Ragnarok, the end of the world.

This is more serious than most such epic fantasies. The author clearly knows her subject, and the book is punctuated by snippets of Norse poetry. It is definitely aimed at adults, with frank descriptions of the activities Freyja is best known for. One of the better efforts in this genre. 


A Catalogue of Catastrophe by Jodi Taylor

This is volume 13 of the author's Chronicles of St Mary's, and continues to follow the life of Max the heroine of the epic, now separated from St Mary's and working as a kind of freelance bounty-hunter, tracking down those who break the laws of time travel and handing them over to the Time Police. 

The main problem in this adventure turns out to be a ruthless and well-organised gang from the future on a mission to change British history by intervening at critical moments - for instance, in the Gunpowder Plot. Much confusion is caused by people time-hopping in different directions, and to add to this, Max is beginning to suffer the serious effects of too much time-travel so needs to minimise her use of it.

There seems to be no end to Ms Taylor's ability to wring yet more mileage from her basic setting and this book will clearly not be the last, as it has a cliffhanger ending. I for one am not complaining! 


Fatal Islands by Maria Adolfsson

I have come across a rather curious novel: Fatal Isles, by Swedish author Maria Adolfsson. It is  set in the present day on Doggerland, an imaginary group of large islands in the middle of the North Sea, half-way between Britain and Denmark. The islands, three of which are inhabited, appear to be politically fairly independent, perhaps the closest real-life parallel being the Faroe Islands. The culture is a mixture of British and Scandinavian. The book is otherwise a fairly conventional - if very good - detective story, the heroine being a senior detective with the now customary hang-ups and mysterious past. 

Quite how this novel is categorised I'm not sure; it seems to have created a rather mixed sub-genre all of its own. This prompted me to consider the pros and cons of this approach. An invented country gives the author's imagination freedom to roam unconstrained by any need to adhere to the hard facts of real-life geography, history, politics and policing. On the other hand, Adolfsson doesn't do anything very different with this freedom.

I should add that in recent years there has been an increase in interest in the real Doggerland, which used to exist before being drowned by rising sea levels as the last Ice Age ended a few thousand years ago. The North Sea is still relatively shallow in this area (known as the Dogger Bank) and diving archaeologists have discovered the remains of human settlements. There is even talk of creating a new island in that location, funded by a forest of wind turbines. 

More stories in the Doggerland series are on the way from the translator, and they are apparently best sellers in Sweden. Worth a look at if you enjoy Scandi Noir with a fantasy twist.


TV - Missions Season 3 (2022)

The French SF series continues, mainly back on Earth, or rather Earths: two alternative timelines have become intermixed, leading to two different versions of the principal characters existing in the same place and time. If this sounds confusing, it is… There is the usual ambiguous conclusion to this season - is it the end of the world, or not?