Saturday, 8 May 2021

Heavy Weather: Tempestuous Tales of Stranger Climes, edited by Kevan Manwaring


The British Library’s series of classic SF anthologies continues to expand and has spun-off a related series, Tales of the Weird. Heavy Weather is one of these, recently sent to me to review. The editor’s introduction provides a brief history of well-known examples of extreme weather in literature, going back to the various tales of a great flood in the Middle East. In this collection, the editor has focused on stories in which the weather has “an exceptional, supernatural or other-worldly quality” to it. The result is an assortment of tales contrasting greatly in content and style.

History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (extract) by Mary Shelley. The Frankenstein author here describes some extreme weather she encounters on a trip to Switzerland - a story with a basis in fact as the explosion of Mount Tabora in 1815 led to the “year without a summer” in 1816, when Shelley’s journey took place.

The Lightning Rod Man by Herman Melville. A short and rather sardonic fantasy of an encounter between a man who attracts the lightning, and the sceptical narrator.

A Descent into the Maelström by Edgar Allan Poe. The second most memorable story in this collection, this consists of a tale told to a visitor to a dramatic part of the coast of Norway, where the seabed configuration causes the formation of a huge whirlpool at certain points of the tidal flow. Anything which falls into that is lost, but the story-teller claims to have survived.

The Great Snow by Richard Jeffries. A winter of such severity that movement is prevented by massive snow banks, and people begin to starve.

The Horror-Horn by E. F. Benson. A couple of Alpine climbers are trapped in their hotel by extreme weather conditions and pass the time by exchanging stories of their adventures. They are staying close to the “Horror-Horn”, their nickname for a forbidding peak which legend has it is inhabited by primitive humanoids. Which is, of course, nonsense…

May Day Eve by Algernon Blackwood. A fantasy more traditional than most, as a man visiting his friend has some strange encounters with supernatural beings as he crosses the wild countryside.

August Heat by W. F. Harvey. On an intensely hot day, an artist finds himself drawing a compelling figure - a man in a courtroom, a picture of despair. By chance he sees the man later that day, and discovers that he is a stone mason who makes headstones for cemeteries. There is one new headstone which catches the artist’s eye…

A Mild Attack of Locusts by Doris Lessing. A plague of locusts hits an African farm; a different kind of “weather”!

Through the Vortex of a Cyclone by William Hope Hodgson. A sustained passage of dramatic writing describing the battle for survival of the crew of a sailing ship which sails right through a powerful cyclone. Rather exhausting to read…

The Wind-Gnome by Jonas Lie. The story of a man who wins the protection of a wind-gnome who uses her control of the weather to ensure he always succeeds in his endeavours while his rivals founder.

Summer Snow Storm by Adam Chase. A weather man accidentally forecasts snow in the middle of a heat-wave, only to find that his forecast comes true. In fact, it becomes apparent that whatever he forecasts always comes true. The opportunities for financial gain become obvious to his friends.

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes by Margaret St. Clair. Something of a follow-on from the previous story - a young boy makes a couple of predictions a day concerning events within the next 48 hours, and they always come true. But one day, he is strangely reluctant to speak…

Monsoons of Death by Gerald Vance. A one-man scientific research base on Mars has ceased sending vital meteorological data, so an officer is sent to investigate. What he finds is not just extreme weather, but something more.

The Purple Cloud (extract) by M. P. Shiel. This is taken from a 1901 novel about an expedition to reach the North Pole. The narrator is one of the explorers who is determined to be the first to reach the Pole, and is ruthless in ensuring that he is. But it is not just extreme weather he has to deal with; he sees purple clouds in the distance and when he arrives at their locations he finds nothing living.

The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. This is the 1952 story which prompted the famous 1963 Hitchcock movie, although the plot was considerably changed. I hadn’t read it before (or seen the movie), and was impressed; this is the standout story of this collection, the only one to stick firmly in my mind as if superglued. It is a genuine horror story, made even more so by the undramatic matter-of-fact writing style. The focus is on Nat, a Cornish farm labourer, who finds himself fighting for survival when all the birds suddenly start lethally attacking people, hurling themselves en masse at every person or inhabited building. Nat is smart enough to react quickly in protecting his family by securing his isolated home but, within a few hours, the devastating slaughter causes societal collapse. We feel for Nat as he does everything he can to keep his family safe, collecting food and drink from the nearest farm during the occasional “quiet” periods when the birds are inactive. [spoiler warning!] 

Despite these efforts the story is a much darker one than in the movie (judging by the Wiki movie summary).  It is obvious that the attacks are happening everywhere with few if any other survivors and, however hard Nat tries, his limited resources will soon run out with no chance of rescue. 

I will conclude by noting that although the format of these British Library anthologies remains the same, with a general introduction plus editorial notes about the author with each story, there are variations in style and content of these notes. One of the things I like about Mike Ashley’s Classic SF series notes is that he always includes not just the first date of publication of each story but also the dates of the author’s birth and death. I find this very helpful in putting the stories, and the author’s contribution to the field, into context. Other editors please note!

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Assorted novels, new and old(ish)


Forged, by Benedict Jacka

The continuing story of Alex Verus, modern magician. My comments on Fallen, the previous volume of the series, were as follows:

At the start of this volume, Verus has achieved a degree of acceptance, being appointed to the magical Light Council with his friend (and now girlfriend) Anne also accepted as his assistant. Needless to say, this does not last and Verus's world comes crashing down around his ears, with the support he has enjoyed from various others being brutally kicked away. Almost alone, he has to take drastic, life-changing measures to acquire the ability to defend himself against his powerful enemies. He succeeds – at a cost. The story ends abruptly, so we'll have to wait for the next (and last) two volumes to discover what happens. This whole series is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys this kind of contemporary urban fantasy.

In Forged, Verus is now almost alone, with the powerful magicians of the Light Council on one side, the Dark magicians on the other, and Verus stuck uncomfortably in between. His newly enhanced powers provide him with a considerable advantage over his unsuspecting enemies, but as his battle for survival continues he becomes ever more desperate and ruthless, racking up an impressive, but disconcerting, body count.

There is just one more volume scheduled, which doesn’t surprise me because so many issues are coming to a head in Forged that there won’t be a lot left to write about!


Spaceside and Colonyside, by Michael Mammay

These are the sequels to Planetside (reviewed here on 26 July), of which I said: 

At one level this is a fast-paced and enjoyable thriller, well-written in a laconic, understated military style. At another level are some fundamental issues about the relationships between humanity and other intelligent forms of life. 

Spaceside continues the story of Carl Butler, who has now left the military and attained considerable notoriety after the dramatic conclusion of the previous volume. The Cappans are still around, however, and trying to make use of him. The result is lots of dramatic tension and military action, as the very human Butler tries to find a way through the usually desperate situations he keeps finding himself in. Just as good as the previous volume. 

Colonyside is the third volume (will there be any more?). Butler is hauled out of retirement to investigate the death, on a jungle-covered colony world, of a daughter of a very rich man. He find himself juggling with several opposed organisations; the civilian governorship, the military arm, an industrial organisation the daughter worked for, and some militant environmentalists. And that’s just the humans - there are some particularly nasty native inhabitants (can’t really call them aliens as it’s their planet; it’s the humans who are the aliens, right?). Great fun again, but I did find it quite similar to the last one. 


Tea with the Black Dragon, and Twisting the Rope, by R. A. MacAvoy

These two books, first published in 1983 and 1986, were among the first of the fifteen novels (to date) published by this author. I have previously (February 2010) reviewed another of her stories, The Book of Kells

Tea with the Black Dragon is set in the modern world. Martha Macnamara, a talented violinist, is visiting California in search of her daughter, an equally talented computer programmer, who has mysteriously disappeared. She meets Mayland Long, a strange and apparently elderly man of Chinese descent, who claims to have once been a dragon - and an Imperial black dragon, no less. This unlikely pair get on very well and combine their efforts to discover what has happened to Martha’s daughter, a search which takes them through the more dubious aspects of the world of information technology (early 1980s vintage). 

This is a beautifully written story with two well-drawn and engaging characters in what is, for a fantasy, an unusual plot. In fact, the plot could have belonged to a contemporary mystery thriller, were it not for some unusual capabilities possessed by Mayland Long.

Twisting the Rope picks up the story of Martha and Mayland some five years on. Martha is now touring in California with her Celtic folk music band, managed by Mayland. This book takes some time to get going, with nothing much happening for the first 100 pages or so, until a member of the band dies in curious circumstances.  Then it is Martha’s young granddaughter who disappears, with the whole band drawn into the search as well as a perceptive detective. The conclusion has some unexpected twists and turns but again, apart from one fantasy element, the story is a conventional mystery thriller.

If you only read one of these books it should be the first. The second one doesn’t really offer anything new, and is most likely to appeal to readers who loved the first.


Friday, 26 March 2021

Born of the Sun, edited by Mike Ashley


The British Library’s series of classic SF anthologies is now growing into a substantial resource which is well worth acquiring by anyone with an interest in the roots of SF. The format is now well established: the introduction by editor Mike Ashley sets the stories in their historical context and he supplements this with brief biographies of the authors at the start of each story. 

Born of the Sun (subtitled Adventures in Our Solar System) has one story set on (or near) each planet of our system - except Earth. There is even an imaginary one - Vulcan. The chosen stories were generally written when there was sufficient uncertainty over the physical characteristics of the planets to allow authors to exercise their imaginations, some more freely than others. It comes as something of a surprise to be reminded how recently some discoveries have been made: Pluto was only found in 1930; until the mid-20th century it was thought possible that Mars had a breathable atmosphere; Venus was thought to be a watery world until the mid-1950s; and Mercury was believed to be tidally locked to the Sun (with the same hemisphere always facing the Sun) until 1965. The cloud-covered worlds of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune still attract imaginative writers to consider what kind of life might be able to survive there, although the larger moons of these worlds are also favoured, presumably as they seem to be more manageable and less hostile. 

Sunrise on Mercury by Robert Silverberg (first published 1957). This is one of the “tidally locked Mercury” stories, with an impossibly hot sun-facing surface, a brutally cold dark side, and a narrow band in between in which human technology can function. If any life were able to exist on this planet, it would bear no relationship to “life as we know it, Jim”, as demonstrated by Silverberg.

The Hell Planet by Leslie F. Stone (1932). For half a century, beginning in the middle of the 19th, it was believed that an undiscovered planet orbited the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury; it was dubbed Vulcan. The orbital irregularities which had prompted the search were subsequently explained by Einstein’s work, but that didn’t stop some writers being attracted to this notion.  This story falls into the “planetary romance” category, with humanoid natives living in dense jungle. Incidentally, the author was a woman, despite the spelling of her name.

Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcey (1954). A small child is found abandoned on Venus, a world colonised by mankind although the air was barely breathable. The child turns out to be very mysterious indeed.

The Lonely Path by John Ashcroft (1961). Longer and more ambitious than most of the stories in this collection, this concerns a team of explorers on Mars who are focusing their research on a vast, ancient and clearly artificial tower. Much dedicated cogitation is necessary to persuade the tower to give up its secrets and the adventure that follows opens up the history of the planet.

Garden in the Void by Poul Anderson (1952). Pushing the boundaries here, Anderson imagines what must be the smallest of celestial bodies to have generated visible (i.e. not microscopic) life in the Asteroid Belt. 

Desertion by Clifford D. Simak (1944). This is the original short story which was later incorporated (with a modified ending) into Simak’s classic novel; City. Humanity has established some precarious bases on the surface of Jupiter, and is trying to colonise it by converting humans to “lopers”; native animals. However, every one who has undergone the change leaves the base, never to return. Eventually, there is only one thing left to try.

How Beautiful with Banners by James Blish (1966). A rather poetic short story concerning an unexpected “romance”, set on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Where No Man Walks by E.R. James (1952). Diamond mining on Uranus, where conditions are so extreme that the remotely controlled mining machines have a high wastage rate. Sometimes, only a human there in person can get the job done. 

A Baby on Neptune by Clare Winger Harris & Miles J. Breuer (1929). A fascinating story with an unusual combination of elements - some very unscientific, others remarkably advanced. In this story, every known planet except Neptune has its own intelligent life form, and there is an interplanetary communication system - but physical travel  has not been attempted.  Earth scientists eventually work out that as communications take much longer the greater the distance from the Sun, messages from Neptune are too slow to be recognised unless they are considerably speeded up - similarly, the Neptunians don’t pick up Earth messages as they are much too fast. Once this problem has been corrected and communications are established,  it is decided to attempt a physical journey to Neptune. This runs into a related chronological  issue, and it is fascinating to follow the reasoning of the human visitors in resolving the problem.

Wait it Out by Larry Niven (1968). A short, punchy story concerning an exploration of Pluto which goes wrong, and how one of the crew decides to survive until rescue can arrive.

The usual interesting mix of stories, of which my favourite is Ashcroft’s Martian exploration - in the best traditions of classic SF.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

For the Good of All, by Ian J Ross


This novel has had a most unusual gestation. The author, a journalist, describes his experience of major heart surgery in 2015, followed by post-operative complications which led to three weeks in a coma. He had been warned by the surgeon that some memory loss might occur, which was surely an understatement. On returning home, he checked his laptop and discovered the text of this novel. He had written it in a seven-week period not long before his operation, but had no recollection of doing so. I received a publicity email from the publishers - something I normally ignore - but in this case I thought the plot sounded interesting so they supplied me with a copy to review.

So, what is it about? It is set in present day England and features Steve Diamond, a thirty-something unemployed journalist who has terminal leukemia. Fortunately, he has two loyal supporters; his girlfriend Noreen, and Toby, a life-long friend who works at the Porton Down government research centre. Toby is increasingly fed up with his job and intends to leave, and one day after rather too much alcohol has flowed he reveals the big secret he has been working on: a mysterious device of World War 2 invented by Wernher von Braun and known as Die Glocke (the bell). 

[I should say at this point that, not taking any interest in conspiracy fantasies featuring mythical Nazi wonder-weapons which could have changed the course of the war, I had never heard of “Die Glocke” but a couple of minutes on Wiki told me all I needed to know.]

Anyway, in this story Die Glocke is a large bell-shaped machine with room for one person to sit inside. It has a complicated control panel, a mysterious power source and its function is not obvious. After the war, it was found and transported to the USA and von Braun provided some information about it, but much remained mysterious. An experiment revealed that it was a time machine; but one which was lethally dangerous to travel in, the only person who tried it dying of leukemia not long afterwards. There were also major concerns about the risks of inadvertently changing history, so when the British government expressed interest in examining the machine, the Americans were relieved to be rid of it, which is why it is now sitting in a secure store at Porton Down, under threat of destruction.

Steve realised that as he had terminal leukemia anyway, he was the obvious person to try it.  He particularly wanted to extend the lives of two of his heroes who had died young: Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. He reckoned that he could do this without any dire consequences, acting “for the good of all”. He discovers, however, that life is not as co-operative as that…

I noted a couple of coincidences involving other books I have read recently: one is V2 by Robert Harris, in which Wernher Von Braun is a major character; the other is Mark Lawrence's Impossible Times series, in which the protagonist also has cancer and is also involved with time travel. Fortunately, the plot of that series is entirely different from Ross’s story, but one other comparison is the writing style. Ross and Lawrence both write very well in a similar style, with a thread of sardonic humour lightening what could otherwise be depressing tales.  Put it this way; if you enjoyed Impossible Times, which I did - very much - then I predict that you will like this one. Ross’s story takes its time to get going and is always more philosophical than action-orientated, but that is an observation, not a criticism. It held my attention from start to finish and I’m certainly hanging on to my copy for another read sometime.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

The Society of Time, by John Brunner


The English author John Brunner (1934-1995) was very well-known when I was in my youth: what may be regarded as his peak writing years of 1968/70 coincided with my time as a student, during which I belonged to the university’s Science Fiction and Fantasy club, a small group of us who packed together in a room for weekly discussions of all things SFF. In 1968 Brunner’s most famous work - Stand on Zanzibar - emerged and won both the Hugo and British Science Fiction Awards in 1969. In 1970, The Jagged Orbit also won the BSFA. I am sure that I read quite a few of his books at the time, although the only one I can recall was SoZ. I have to confess that while I admired the ground-breaking SoZ as a technical achievement, I didn’t actually enjoy it much (too dystopian) and never read it again.

On reading Mike Ashley’s introduction to this volume I was astonished to learn that Brunner wrote more than 100 books and over 200 other stories. Considering that he died aged 60, that is a remarkable achievement; particularly since he was far from a fount of production-line pot-boilers. He was concerned with exploring major and often controversial issues: the consequences of population growth; weapons proliferation (he was a leading figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament); ecological collapse; global warming; genetic engineering; interracial violence; and aspects of IT including worms and viruses.

The full title of this British Library publication (sent to me to review) is The Society of Time: the original trilogy and other stories. This is not as daunting as it sounds, as it consists of five novellas totalling just under 300 pages, all originally published in the early 1960s. The first three stories are set in an alternative Earth in which history took a different turn in 1588 - the Spanish Armada defeated the English fleet, thereby crushing the Protestant religions and establishing the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe right up to the present day. Brunner portrays the very different world which would have resulted, with innovations controlled or suppressed, leading to a technologically backward society. However, there was one exception to this; a means to travel in time had been discovered. This had led to the Society of Time being established with the aim of controlling time travel in order to prevent history (and thereby the present day) being changed by accident or design. The agents allowed to travel in time are known as Licentiates and all three stories follow the activities of one of these, the Englishman Don Miguel Navarro.

In Spoil of Yesterday, Navarro discovers an elaborate Aztec mask in new condition, which must have been brought forward from the past - a huge crime requiring drastic action. I should note at this point that Brunner’s treatment of time-travel paradoxes is considerably more sophisticated than most and I had to read through the logic chains in these stories more than once to grasp exactly what was going on - and why. In the second story, The Word Not Written, there is an appalling breach of Society rules resulting in a band of mythical Amazons appearing during celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Spanish Armada. Once more, Navarro is in the thick of it, trying to straighten out the mess. Finally, The Fullness of Time sees Navarro investigating an apparent breach of the rules when a North American gold mine reports finding evidence of ancient mining - using modern equipment. The resolution of this problem - and of the whole series - is unexpected but neat.

Father of Lies is set in the modern world in which a group of students have discovered a “dead patch” in the countryside; an area in which machinery of any kind does not work, a village with an ancient castle is not shown on any maps, and the inhabitants speak an ancient dialect. The students soon find themselves in trouble, and need their collective ingenuity to solve the mystery and save themselves.

The final story is The Analysts, in which an architectural firm is offered a lot of money to oversee the construction of a new building which appears to make no sense at all. The explanation for this makes for a highly original plot.

In all of these stories, the quality of the writing and the story-telling is impressive, and I enjoyed them far more than I expected to.

Friday, 22 January 2021

The Expanse series, by James S. A. Corey


Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games and Babylon's Ashes are the sequels to Leviathan Wakes (reviewed here on 23 May) in The Expanse series.  My conclusions about that book included the following:

The writing is of a high standard. The environments in which the story takes place are well thought through and the writing conveys the atmosphere of the various places strongly. The main characters seem very real and both have significant flaws, which makes identifying with either of them a bit more difficult than usual. In parallel with this, the plot contains some real dilemmas, with strong issues of law and morality prompting intense arguments. This is very much SF for adults...

Caliban's War continues the story of James Holden and his crew aboard the good ship Rocinante.  Eighteen months have passed since the events of Leviathan Wakes, during which time they have worked for the Outer Planets Alliance. However, the threat of the dangerous protomolecule, suppressed at the end of the last volume, is beginning to re-emerge in the form of deadly non-human combat troops. There is much about Solar System politics, which are teetering on the brink of outright war, plus on a smaller scale the search for a missing young girl. This is as readable as Leviathan Wakes, but is a little disappointing in its relative lack of innovation and dramatic tension: it is really just more of the same.

That cannot be said of Abaddon's Gate, which changes up a few gears. The alien protomolecule, which had been crashed into Venus, had since launched a vast, mysterious ring-like structure into position outside the orbit of Uranus. Spacecraft from Earth, Mars and the OPA were in close attendance, with war always likely to break out over what to do about the structure. James Holden and company are in the thick of the action as usual, in their attempts to discover the nature and purpose of the structure, with help from a surprising source.  Very gripping, and about as good as SF gets.

Cibola Burn continues the story of the alien structure and the new worlds which it provides access to. The focus is on one of these 1,300 worlds, claimed by Mars but immediately settled by OPA miners, leading to a conflict in which blood begins to be spilled. James Holden is sent in to try to resolve the problem, but meanwhile among the ancient ruins and wrecks of the long-dead civilisation who originally settled the planet, something seems to be stirring… This is my favourite volume so far, due to the gripping alien interventions.

Nemisis Games takes a different track: For once, Rocinante is not at the centre of the story as she is in dock at Tycho Station for several months undergoing rebuilding after the major damage suffered in the last volume. Her crew splits up, with only James Holden staying at Tycho. Alex the pilot heads home to Mars, to meet up with old acquaintances; Amos the lethal engineer also goes home to Earth (Baltimore to be precise); and Naomi the executive officer disappears among the Outer Planets on a mission concerned with her secret past. We learn far more about the crew and their histories, adding more depth to the characterisation. In the middle of the story a devastating event occurs which changes everything, for everybody, with the Rocinante's crew desperately fighting for survival in their struggle to get back together again.

Babylon's Ashes continues the story from the previous volume, concentrating on the political and military in-fighting which followed the attack on Earth. The Free Navy which had broken away from the Outer Planets becomes a major player in the Solar System, controlling the access to the 1,300 worlds beyond the Medina Gate. The action boils down to the vendetta between Jim Holden and the leader of the Free Navy, Marco Inaros. The end of this volume sees a possible solution of sorts to the conflicting priorities of the various groups within the Solar System. Clearly, there is much more that could be written about the new worlds on which humanity is settling – and the potential dangers still existing from the ancient civilisation, plus whatever force destroyed it.

Persepolis Rising is the seventh volume of the series, and marks a major change in that the story jumps thirty years into the future.  The solar system has achieved political stability with the inner planets and the Belters sharing responsibility for managing the development of the 1,300 worlds accessed via the alien gates. However, one of those worlds - Laconia - has cut itself off from the rest of humanity since it was occupied by a renegade part of the Martian Navy, and no-one knows what is going on there. Until the Laconian government abruptly makes contact again, with an ultimatum backed by devastating evidence that the technology of the aliens did not die with them. The crew of the Rocinante have been pursuing their usual freelance transport service, but some retirements are in prospect until the Laconian crisis breaks, and James Holden is in trouble and far from safety. This volume ends on a real cliff-hanger. 

Tiamat’s Wrath is, for now, the last of the series (another volume titled Leviathan Falls is scheduled for release in autumn 2021). This starts some months after the previous book finishes, with the Rocinante team dispersed and most of them fighting guerilla actions against the overwhelming power of the alien technology fielded by Laconia. Another plot thread is set on Laconia itself, where the powerful inner circle around the immortal High Consul Winston Duarte is scheming and manoeuvring for advantage. The story is a good blend of action and politics, with the characterisation as strong as ever, and the continuing story introduces a new element; there are signs that a second alien race - the one which killed off the first one billlions of years ago - is beginning to wake up to the presence of humanity, and not in a friendly way. 

The Expanse series is a major achievement (literally - at 4,000+ pages so far!) which deserves a prominent place in any SF hall of fame. I await the next phase with great interest.

Friday, 25 December 2020

The Invisible Library series, by Genevieve Cogman


This review gives an overview of The Invisible Library series to date, incorporating the first volume (previously reviewed on 26 July) which has the same title. First, the background to the series:

The heroine is Irene Winters, a professional librarian but not in any ordinary library. She is an investigator for the Invisible Library, a mysterious and secret multiverse-spanning organisation which aims to rescue the rarest of fiction, and in so doing helps to preserve the stability of the worlds. The Library exists somewhere in between the alternative worlds, with access to all of them. Some of these versions of Earth are strictly technological, some entirely magical, but most have elements of both. They also vary in their position along a scale with chaos at one end, and order at the other. 

As well as humanity (which includes the Librarians, although they have some unique abilities connected to their use of Language, a kind of magic peculiar to them) there is a menagerie of magical creatures including vampires and werewolves, of which the most significant are the Fae and the Dragons. The Fae appear to be human but have a powerful persuasive ability and thrive in the chaos worlds. The Dragons can take human form or that of giant flying lizards and are basically on the side of order, but have little patience with humanity and are best avoided. Then there is, out there somewhere, the evil Alberich, a renegade librarian.

In The Invisible Library, we first see the resourceful Irene retrieving a very rare and ancient book from a magically-protected library, which she survives only because of her use of the Language. For her next task she is instructed to take with her Kai, a student Librarian. Also joining the team is Peregrine Vale, a private investigator who is an exact incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – Irene's favourite fictional character. Finding the book she is looking for is complicated by the intense interest in it from several important people – and other beings – and Irene is tested to her limits in her attempt to complete her mission.

The Masked City begins with a disconcerting incident in which Kai, Irene's student of many powers, is kidnapped and taken to another world, specifically to a bizarre Venice where chaos dominates. The threat of a war between the Fae and the Dragons is building rapidly, and Irene is the only person who might stand a chance of stopping it. She is opposed by Lord Guantes, one of the most dangerous Fae who is determined to start a war which would be catastrophic for the hapless human inhabitants of the multiverse. To prevent this, Irene has to go to Venice in the hope of rescuing Kai.

In The Burning Page, a different threat has emerged: the Gates used by the Librarians to travel between worlds of the multiverse are beginning to fail. This is soon linked to the return of Alberich, the renegade librarian who aims to destroy the Library altogether. Once again Irene, Kai and Peregrine Vale become involved in a complex plot to thwart the villain's plans and save the Library.

The Lost Plot is mostly set in a 1930s-style New York City, with gangs and speakeasies, which forms the backdrop to a ferocious battle between rival dragons. Irene of course gets involved, but finds that there is a high price to be paid for her interference. 

The Mortal Word is set in another of the endless variations of Earth, this time in a Paris which seems to be late Victorian (horse-drawn carriages mixing with motor vehicles). This setting is the venue of a peace conference between the Dragons and the Fae, moderated by the Librarians. It is not going well, however, so Irene is despatched to the scene along with detective Vale and of course Kai, to investigate a murder and try to avert an all-out war.

The Secret Chapter provides yet another new environment for Irene, when she is sent to meet a powerful Fae collector on his private Carribbean island in order to negotiate the acquisition of a book which is very important to the stability of one of the worlds. However, to obtain this she has to join a team of criminals in stealing for the collector a huge painting in a Vienna art gallery, which turns out to have a particular significance for the Dragons. As usual, events develop at such a speed that Irene needs all of her wits about her.

The Dark Archive sees Irene and her friends under threat from the start, fending off various attempts at kidnapping and assassination. Furthermore, her work is complicated by the arrival of her new student trainee Catherine, an undisciplined young Fae who wants to become the first Fae Librarian. There are shocks for Irene as she discovers the identity of her enemies, who are determined to destroy the Dragon/Fae peace treaty - and an even greater shock concerning her own history. 

These books are very well-written, with a constant thread of humour giving them something of the flavour of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. Irene is a very likeable character and the stories are immensely enjoyable. This series is among the high spots of my fantasy reading in recent years, and is highly recommended. Fortunately, the conclusion of The Dark Archive promises more books to come.

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Odds and ends

 A couple of films and a pair of novels this time:

Film: Jumanji - The Next Level (2019)

I finished my review of the previous film (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) with this: 

The film is lively and amusing, with a healthy dose of moralising concerning the importance of developing trust and cooperation. This sequel manages the rare achievement of being a considerably better film than the original. I see that a third film in the series is due at the end of this year, and I'll be looking out for it.

Sadly, The Next Level (or Jumanji 3) was a considerable disappointment. It is basically just a re-run of WttJ with a few changes to the scenery, and without the fresh ideas or much of the humour. The one plot innovation – having the characters switch avatars between them – did not work at all for me, as I lost track of who was meant to be whom, and thereby literally lost the plot.  To be fair, if WttJ had not been so good I might have been more tolerant of the flaws, but as it is, I am now not looking forward to the reported Jumanji 4; it would take rave reviews before I could be persuaded to watch it.


Film: Tomb Raider (2018)

This is the one with Alicia Vikander in the title role, as opposed to Angelina Jolie (and should not be confused with the computer games which kicked it all off). I won’t bother to describe the plot here - you can read it on Wiki - but it is basically inspired by the Indiana Jones movies only featuring a resourceful young woman as the explorer Lara Croft. She battles through various dangers before ultimately defeating the bad guys (sorry about the spoiler!). 

I have to say that I was sceptical about the choice of leading lady; Vikander has always struck me as being naturally quiet and enigmatic, coming across as portraying rather passive characters. Lara Croft is the exact opposite of this, being very physical and violent. Despite this, Vikander makes a decent fist of the role (she seems to have spent a lot of time in the gym) and the film is entertaining enough to watch. However, among all of the fantastic adventures she has, there was one totally impossible scene which blew my suspension of disbelief apart; at the end of the film, Croft walks into a pawn shop in present-day London - and walks out with a pair of automatic pistols! As if….


Automated Alice, by Jeff Noon

This is definitely a one-off in modern fantasy, purporting to be the third volume of the adventures of Alice Liddell, the first two being Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll (first published in 1865 and 1872 respectively. I have both stories on my shelves but it is several decades since I read them. However, this “trequel”, published in 1996, can be followed easily enough without reading the others. 

In Automated Alice, our heroine finds herself translated to late-20th century Manchester, only (as usual!) not as we know it. The people are no longer human, but a blend of human and animal characteristics, and their roles in society are largely determined by the animal part of them; policing is carried out by dogmen, while those in charge of managing the local government are the civil serpents. This is just one of the multitudinous puns packed into the story and they sometimes become rather elaborate, for example: 

Captain Ramshackle then knocked over a pile of his miscellaneous objects (one of which was a croquet mallet, which fell ont the shell of the Indian lobster, cracking it open). ‘That looks like a very crushed Asian lobster,’ Alice stated. ‘That lobster is indeed a crustacean!’ the Badgerman replied.

Alice is desperate to return to her own time, but has to collect a dozen lost jigsaw pieces to complete her puzzle, involving many surreal adventures. The author (who includes his own name in some of the jokes) has made a good job of evoking Carroll’s writing style, and I was pleased to see that the book (a Corgi paperback published in 1997) contains many drawings by Harry Trumbore, in the style of the original. Not really my cup of tea, but unusual and intriguing enough to read, and short enough to do so in a couple of sessions.


In Great Waters, by Kit Whitfield

This book, published in 2009, has an unusual setting in an alternative version of Europe.  The technology is at the usual medieval level commonly found in fantasies, but there are two intelligent races: the human landsmen, and the acquatic deepsmen (the mental image I formed combined the top half of a human with the bottom half of a seal). The two races can interbreed, but have a complex relationship.  It is essential for the landsmen to maintain an alliance with the deepsmen who live around the coasts, otherwise shipping could be totally disrupted. This is arranged by relationships between the races within the royal families. But half-breeds born accidentally are rejected by the deepsmen and killed by the landsmen.

In Great Waters follows the lives of Henry, a young half-breed living on land in secret, being used as a pawn in positioning nobles competing for the crown, and Anne, a young princess who has inherited some deepsman traits. This 400-page book is very well written and richly descriptive of the environment and the characters within it. Recommended.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Nature's Warnings: Classic Stories of Eco-Science Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley

 Another of the excellent Science Fiction Classics series of anthologies edited by Mike Ashley and published by the British Library, who sent me a copy for review. The Introduction by the editor sketches in the background to environmental concerns, concentrating particularly on the lack of general understanding until very recently of the concept of ecosystems; the interconnectedness of life of all kinds in a particular environment. This has historically provided some classic examples of the principle of "unintended consequences"; e.g. the introduction of rabbits to Australia, and the liberal use of insecticides as described in Rachael Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. However, even before this, SF authors were raising concerns about environmental issues and the possible consequences for humanity, as illustrated by the selection of short stories in this volume. 

Credit is given to the hugely influential Prussian polymath, Alexander von Humboldt, described as the "godfather of ecology". His work inspired Jules Verne among many others; one of the first to recognise that while some environmental changes may bring benefits, this will be at the cost of the livelihoods of others. The editor goes on to describe numerous early stories featuring sometimes drastic environmental changes, some of which are featured in this anthology. I was interested to read that in Murray Leinster's The Mad Planet (published 1920) the climate had been drastically changed by the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels, resulting in global warming. 

There are eleven stories to illustrate various aspects of environmentalism: 

Survey Team, by Philip K Dick (first published 1954). The setting is a future Earth so devastated by robotic warfare as to be uninhabitable, with the few survivors living underground. Their only hope seems to be to make a fresh start on Mars. But when the first explorers arrive, what they discover is a bitter irony.

The Dust of Death, by Fred M. White (first published 1903). An epidemic of diptheria sweeps through an upmarket new London housing suburb. The cause is found to lie underground.

The Man Who Hated Flies, by J. D. Beresford (first published 1929). A scientist suffers from phobia concerning flies [there's a word for it, of course; to save you looking it up, it's pteronarcophobia!]. After much work, he is able to develop a highly infectious disease which is lethal to all flies. But then it is discovered that it affects more insects than just flies, and the consequences begin to pile up.

The Man Who Awoke, by Lawrence Manning (first published 1933). A man finds a method of developing suspended animation, such that he can sleep for millennia but still survive to wake up at a pre-arranged time. His first experiment lasts for three thousand years, and on awakening he discovers a radically changed world mainly covered by forest, with humanity distributed among small villages, each depending on the surrounding trees for food and other necessities of life. The man discovers that the period he has left behind is known as the Age of Waste, regarded as an horrific time during which all the resources available to humanity were used up.

The Sterile Planet, by Nathan Schachner (first published 1937). A world devastated by the over-use of all natural resources can only maintain civilisation in a few heavily-protected cities. These happen to be situated on acquifers which provide a supply of the most precious of all resources - water. Outside, and a constant threat to the cities, is a subhuman, savage population. The cities can defend themselves, but what if they were challenged by a technologically equal group?

Shadow of Wings, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (first published 1954). Something is happening to the birds – every day, they head off to unknown destinations in huge mixed flocks, and ignore their usual insect food, leaving the insects to flourish and devastate food crops. Famine threatens, but one resourceful man sets off to discover the source of the problem.

The Gardener, by Margaret St Clair (first published 1949). On another planet occupied by humanity is a grove of sacred trees. Cut one down, and there are consequences.

Drop Dead, by Clifford D. Simak (first published 1956). A survey team lands on an unexplored planet and discovers something very strange: the land is covered by one type of grass, and there is just one type of animal which happens to be remarkably tasty.

A Matter of Protocol, by Jack Sharkey (first published 1962). An intriguing story of a survey of a planet with interlinked life forms – trees, insectoids, and bear-like animals, with strict protocols governing their intricate reproductive cycle.

Hunter, Come Home, by Richard McKenna (first published 1963). Another planet with interlinked life forms, but this time they are all one plant. Human settlers are desperate to clear the native vegetation to replace it with their own ecosystem, but the plant has other ideas.

Adam and No Eve, by Alfred Bester (first published 1941). A scientist takes one risk too many with fundamental physics, with devastating consequences.

There is perhaps an even greater variety among this group of stories than in the companion anthologies from the British Library. Some tend toward fantasy rather than SF (e.g. The Sterile Planet and The Gardener), and they also vary in terms of the quality of the storytelling. I enjoyed Shadow of Wings, although this focuses on the vulnerability of our ecosystems to external interference (humanity has a well-proven record for creating its own ecological problems without needing outside help), and also Hunter Come Home, which reminded me of Harry Harrison's Deathworld series. For me, the outstanding story is Beresford's The Man Who Hated Flies, as it not only has the most realistic plot – a cautionary tale which illustrates the dangers of messing with our ecosystem – it is also well-written with some humour and characterisation. 

Sunday, 18 October 2020

When it Changed, edited by Geoff Ryman

 Published in 2009, this is an unusual anthology as it consists of short stories written by British SF writers in consultation with scientists. Writers were paired up with scientists whose work interested them in order to explore the fictional possibilities, then went away and wrote their stories. The result is a collection of stories which are more firmly based in science than usual, although that doesn't preclude some fairly wild imaginings (anyone who tries to keep up with astrophysical speculation, as I struggle to do, will not be surprised by this). Each story is followed by an Afterword by the scientist involved.

The subjects covered include a wide range of different futures: the consequences of global warming; artificial intelligence; the potential of a huge particle colliders; the effects of dangerous new military drugs; the social consequences of personal armour as a response to increasing terrorism; living virtual, life-blogging existences; human cloning; a merger between astronomy and astrology; using advanced MRI to assess criminal potential; human photosynthesis and others.

The sixteen stories are as follows, with the names of the scientists in brackets:

Carbon: Part One and Carbon: Part Two, by Justina Robson (Prof Andrew Bleloch). A 'stream of consciousness' story, following the thoughts of a sceptical researcher working on a polymer/carbon material to make cables strong enough to support a space elevator.

Global Collider Generation: An Idyll, by Paul Cornell (Dr Robert Appleby). Snapshots in time of the construction of the Global Muon Collider, a vast particle accelerator circling the Earth, and what it is expected to achieve, as seen from the pespectives of two immortal characters: Li Clarke Communication, a promoter of the scheme from the People's Republic, and Jerry Cornelius. That name will be familiar to anyone who has read British SF from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, as he is a rather bizarre anti-hero in a series of books written by Michael Moorcock. 

Moss Witch, by Sara Maitland (Dr Jennifer Rowntree). A young bryologist (an expert on mosses etc, to save you looking it up) is carrying out a solitary survey of ancient woodlands to check their biodiversity when he encounters a Moss Witch. She is an ancient humanoid whose life is bound up with that of mosses, and is one of the last remaining ones of her kind. There is much moss lore to appreciate in this story of a clash of cultures.

Death Knocks, by Ken MacLeod (Dr Richard Blake). The term comes from journalism, and refers to the practice of visiting relatives of those who have recently died in unusual circumstances, to see if there is a story worth publishing.  John Kirkland is a journalist investigating a series of suicides of soldiers home on leave – but not from PTSD, these were soldiers whose jobs did not involve combat. He suspects designer drugs, and learns about the Virtual Man – an integrated software model of every organ and system in the human body – which runs on the Grid, using up spare time on home computers, and is used to research the effects of new drugs. He discovers the hard way what is going on.

Collision, by Gwyneth Jones (Dr Kai Hock). Another collider story, this one concerning the Torus, a vast Instantaneous Transit Collider constucted in the Kuiper Belt by the Aleutians, an alien race which had visited the Earth for a while before departing some decades before the story. This enabled people to travel, in virtual form, to new worlds, but very few returned. The World State which had developed was divided politically into Reformers and Traditionalists, and the formation of a new Traditionalist government threatened the survival of the Torus. One of the scientists takes drastic action to try to prevent its closure. 

Without a Shell, by Adam Marek (Dr Vinod Dhanak). Technologically advanced clothing acted as body armour and also could detect and repair any injuries suffered. But is was costly and only available to the rich. What effect might this have on society?

You, by Geoff Ryman (Dr Manolis Pantos). An intriguing story with two interlinked plot threads. One concerns a future exploration of Mars, with an in-depth analysis of evidence to determine whether the extinct life form was intelligent or not. This is seen through the eyes of multiple observers, living and dead, via "lifeblogs"; recordings of what they saw and heard through the generations, which others can experience via virtual reality within their minds. 

In the Event Of, by Michael Arditti (Prof John Harris). An Earth which has become so polluted that almost everyone lives underground, except those who have evolved to survive the conditions. Underground society is highly stratified socially, surface society is primitive. Against this background, a privileged and independent young woman sets out to discover what really happened to the "sister" she was cloned from.

Zoology, by Simon Ings (Dr Matthew Cobb). Life among the staff of a future university, with a strong element of the bizarre as researchers try to analyse a maggot's sense of smell.

Temporary, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Dr Tim O'Brien). An odd future society stratified by birth sign; in some ways a reflection of a distant past, with scientific astronomical observations sitting uneasily alongside astrology.

Doing the Butterfly, by Kit Reed (Dr Steve Williams). The justice system of the future, following the life of a criminal as his behaviour is analysed using an advanced MRI which can recreate his thoughts and determine his suitability to return to society.

White Skies, by Chaz Brenchley (Dr Sarah Lindley). Flooding due to climate change has resulted in new divisions within society, with this story following a pair of precocious adolescents living aboard an oceanic floating "township" created by linking a large number of "seedships" together. Their main task is to sow iron dust in the oceans to feed plankton which absorbs carbon dioxide and carries it to the ocean floor.

Enigma, by Liz Williams (Prof Steve Furber). This takes place in the far future, in a virtual world set in a Cambridge college around World War 2, within which Turing and Wittgenstein (who were both alive at that time) discuss their situation.

The Bellini Madonna, by Patricia Duncker  (Dr Tim O'Brien). A young American student, visiting Rome to appreciate the art and architecture, experiences a vision which blends science and religion.

Hair, by Adam Roberts (Dr Rein Ulijn). Can science devise a type of photosynthesis which will enable humanity to live on sunlight, without needing food? And if that's possible, will it actually be permitted?

These stories provide glimpses of a wide range of futures – some which could happen quite soon, others could only be very distant. There is also a wide range of different approaches to the craft of story-telling, providing interesting exemplars of the modern approach to SFF in the UK. Those who only enjoy traditional "space-opera" kind of writing will probably not like these at all. I would pick a couple of stories which particularly impressed me: the editor's own You, which successfully delivers an ambitious concept, and Moss Witch, a hauntingly strange story which is also informative; you will probably learn a lot about mosses from reading it!

Overall, an intriguing collection worth reading more than once.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley

Yet another of the educational anthologies in the Science Fiction Classics series published by the British Library, this one concerned with a subject which is currently topical in real life: the potential threat posed by the development of artificial intelligence (AI). As usual in this series, there is a long introduction by the editor, supplemented by biographical notes on the authors at the start of each story. 

 The editor briefly summarises the current debate on the merits and dangers of AI before pointing out just how far back this issue goes. Concerns about the impact of growing mechanisation on people's jobs first became a major public topic early in the nineteenth century, when the Luddites attacked the new factories of the textile industry (some of the rioters being executed for smashing the machinery). 

 The most significant early novel exploring these issues was probably Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), set in a world in which all machinery has been banned due to concerns "that machines would evolve, become self-replicating, and eventually challenge mankind for supremacy". This was inspired by Darwin's theory of evolution: if it applies to all living things, why could it not to machines? This was of course published during the industrial revolution; a period of rapid development of technology. 

 A separate and much older idea is that of automata; complex machines, often driven by clockwork, which replicate some of the behaviours of people or animals. The concept of such automata becoming intelligent predates Darwin: the editor cites Der Sandmann (1816) by E. T. A. Hoffmann, featuring a "mesmerising automaton". In parallel with technological developments, steam and then electrically-powered automata with human-level intelligence began to appear in fiction – with a name change to "android", first used in L'Ève future by Villiers de l'Isle Adam (1886). A year later, a much broader view of a mechanised society emerged in The Republic of the Future by Anna Bowman Dodd, in which everyone became part of "a colossal machine". Such ideas inspired many writers to postulate societies in which entirely artifical humanoids did all the hard labour in society, and were often shown as rebelling against their human masters, most famously in Čapek's R.U.R. (1920), which introduced the term "robot". Another popular concept is the combination of human and artificial elements, in various ways, resulted in the concept of the "cyborg"; the idea goes back a long way, even though the actual name first emerged in 1960. 

 So there are many different themes on this subject which authors have plundered for their work. The dates of publication of the fourteen stories in this collection range from 1899 to 1965, thereby avoiding any stories written before the internet was conceived. 

 The short story selection is as follows:

  Moxon's Master, by Ambrose Bierce (first published 1899). This begins with a debate between the narrator and his friend Moxon over the nature of thought, and whether the term could be applied to plants and machines as well as people and animals. It transpires that the argument is not a theoretical one – for there is someone, or something, else in the house. 

  The Discontented Machine, by Adeline Knapp (first published 1894). A shoemaking firm installs an advanced and very expensive new cutting and shaping machine to carry out much of its work. The benefits to the firm's owners are in reducing the numbers of their strike-prone employees, and as a way of intimidating the remainder to accept pay cuts. But then the machine stops working, for no obvious reason.

  Ely's Automatic Housemaid, by Elizabeth Bellamy (first published 1899). Written with wry humour, this recounts the tale of an "automatic housemaid" which seems ideal to begin with, but whose operation is full of unintended consequences. 

  The Mind Machine, by Michael Williams (first published 1919). An unusual start in the form of an historical account, looking back to the 50 years of (fictional) chaos following the end of the (factual) Great War – which had only just finished at the time of writing. The problem was to try to explain why the spreading chaos destroyed our civilisation. The start of the trouble was a huge growth in major industrial accidents with heavy casualties, which seemed to be connected to a mysterious blue liquid found at the scenes, and to a mind machine with the claimed potential to control all machinery. 

  Automata, by S. Fowler Wright (first published 1929). It is curious that, according to Ashley, "Wright was Britain's leading writer of SF in the years between the wars, seen by some as a natural successor to H. G. Wells", yet he is unknown today – I had never come across his name before. The story begins with a presentation to an academic conference summarising the effect of increasing mechanisation – not only had the horse disappeared from farms, but in the future, humanity might eventually disappear also, replaced by automata increasingly capable of doing everything a human could, but better. The story then jumps to a future when "flesh-children" are rare, being considered too much trouble to bother with by most women, and without any occupations or activities for them once they were grown. A further time-jump takes us to the last survivor... 

  The Machine Stops, by E. M. Forster (first published 1909). A future in which everyone spends their life in their own enclosed cellular room, with all of their needs met by automated systems. There are, effectively, video telephones to provide instant communication with anyone else on Earth; video conferencing is used so that any number of people can "tune in" to any presentations. Very few go outside, as the surface of the Earth is dead, but airships provide transport for essential purposes. Everything is governed by one overall and all-powerful Machine; but what happens if the Machine begins to fail?

  Efficiency, by Perley Poore Sheehan & Robert H. Davis (first performed 1917). Unusually, this is not a story, but a one-act play. There are three characters: the Emperor, the Scientist and Number 241 – what would now be called a cyborg, with a 50/50 mix of human and artificial parts (conveniently, a character easily played by a normal human!). The scientist is presenting the results of his work to the Emperor; to return crippled soldiers to the battlefield by fitting them with artificial limbs, eyes and other organs as required. But the cyborg has retained a mind of his own. 

  Rex, by Harl Vincent (first published 1934). The mechanical brain of a highly sophisticated robot-surgeon experiences a minor change with major consequences: he is freed from human control. He researches human behavior, and begins to carry out a programme of remodelling humanity, to try to produce ideal beings with the best points of humans and robots. Having removed the capacity for emotion from many people, he then tries to add emotions to his own brain. 

  Danger in the Dark Cave, by J. J. Connington (first published 1938). Connington was best known for intricate detective stories, but wrote some SF: this story combines both. Two former fellow-students meet by chance on a long train journey, and the conversion turns to a mutual acquintance, a famous scientist, who had disappeared on a boat trip. One of the two, who was an assistant to the scientist, had been there, and told a remarkable story. The scientist had been trying to make an intelligent machine, but in providing a capacity for self-defence, he built in a problem... 

  The Evitable Conflict, by Isaac Asimov (first published 1950). The world is divided into four regions, each with a Machine which organises production, labour etc. These Machines had developed beyond the possibility of detailed human control, as each generation of robots designed the next. But something seemed to be going wrong with the machines. Perhaps the Society for Humanity is right in being opposed to the Machines? 

  Two-Handed Engine, by C. L. Moore & Henry Kuttner (first published 1955). Criminal justice was determined and carried out by robots. Once a criminal had been condemned, a robot was assigned to follow them around until, at some point, executing them. But one man believed that he had found a way to avoid the sentence. 

  But Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian W. Aldiss (first published 1958). An amusing tale of a farm run by robotic machines, with varying levels of intelligence to match their designed functions. Humans lived in the cities and sent work orders to the farms, but one day the orders failed to arrive. What would the robots do? 

  A Logic Named Joe, by Will F. Jenkins, more commonly known as Murray Leinster (first published 1946). This story is notable for introducing the concept of "logics"; TV-based intelligent machines and communication devices, pretty much the same as the computer on my desk today. Written in a vernacular style, this tells the story of a logic repairman who has a logic displaying unintended capabilities: it answers all questions, including how to commit undetectable crimes including forgeries and murders. 

  Dial F For Frankenstein, by Arthur C. Clarke (first published 1965). With the completion of satellite links, every communication network in the world becomes part of a single, integrated system, more complex than a human brain. And begins to slip out of control. 

 The stories in this collection are inevitably rather pessimistic, being mainly concerned with what happens when intelligent machines go wrong, or become uncontrollable. They do cover a wide variety of approaches to the subject, including a few relatively lighthearted ones (by Bellamy, Aldiss and Jenkins). My pick, for its combination of forward-looking imagination and writing quality, is Forster's The Machine Stops.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Dispel Illusion, by Mark Lawrence

This is the third volume in Lawrence's Impossible Times series; the first two (One Word Kill and Limited Wish) were reviewed here in August and December 2019 respectively. These three books constitute one continuous story so the novels – and the reviews – should be read in the right order. 

 I commented before about the author's darkly humorous style, revealed in the very first sentence of Dispel Illusion: "The two saving graces of explosions are that from the outside they're pretty and from the inside they're quick." The young genius Nick Hayes, the narrator and hero of these tales, is busy developing time machines and becoming very rich by sending wealthy but terminally ill people through to the future when a cure might be available. More secretly, he is also working on the much more difficult problem of sending people backwards in time – including himself. He knows that he will do this because he met his 40-year-old self when he was only a teenager; his problem being that his older self died at that time. His other problem being that he is under pressure from a ruthless, wealthy man who has a psychopath as his personal assistant. As in the earlier works, the real-life action is paralleled by the ongoing Dungeons and Dragons game played by Nick and his close friends. 

A consequence of his time-travelling is that the action takes place at several different times. Most of this story is divided between 1992 and 2011, but there are also chapters set in 2007, 2009, 2010, 1985 and finally a return to 1986 when the first volume ended. Fortunately the author flags up the date in each chapter heading, so events are not that difficult to follow. 

As ever, Lawrence's writing is excellent – thoughtful and engaging. The familiar problems of time travel are given a fresh airing, with the older Nick's desperate efforts to ensure that while in the past, he sticks to the exact actions that his younger self remembered him doing, in order to avoid setting up a paradox which would result in a different time-line being created. This involves some amusing circular cause and effect problems. 

These stories constitute one of the best time-travel series I can recall reading. The conclusion contains some unexpected twists and is satisfyingly positive. One strong feature of this series (and, come to think of it, his other books that I've read, though not to the same degree) is that the main plot driver is love. Not the slushy, hearts and flowers, Mills & Boon sort of passion, but the development of a realistic and entirely credible relationship between the hero and his girlfriend. She has the last word, too, in a final twist which left me smiling. What more can you ask for? 

Impossible Times is a self-contained trilogy, but mention is made of another two volumes to come, so maybe he will be writing a second trilogy?