Friday, 12 August 2022

Yesterday's Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley


This is another publication in the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series (for which thanks are due for sending the review copy). Unlike most of the others in the series, this is not an anthology of short stories on a particular topic, nor a reprint of selected, largely forgotten, novels. Instead, the author identifies themes in British SF published between 1895 and 1966 and provides two-page summaries of the plots of 100 selected stories (plus mention given to many more). The fourteen themes are arranged more or less in chronological order, with some overlaps. I have limited myself to mentioning just a couple of stories in each theme with emphasis on authors who are better known (althought not necessarily for SF).

1. Wells, Wells and Wells Again No doubting the father of British SF! The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898) would have to feature on anyone's list of classics.

2. Wars to End All Wars  I have discussed some of these on this blog before, a whole sub-genre prompted by anxiety concerning the threat posed by the growing power of the German Empire, and in particular the usually predicted disaster should an invasion take place. Two of the best-known examples mentioned here are The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux (1906) and When William Came by Saki (1913).

3. Doom and Disaster  This time the disasters are from causes other than warfare; plagues, floods, drought, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other catastrophes. Two of the examples listed here are the prescient The Machine Stops by the famous non-SF novelist E.M. Forster (1909), previously reviewed here, and The Violet Flame by Fred T. Jane (1899). The latter is of particular interest to me as it is the only novel written by this author, who is far better known as the originator of Jane’s Fighting Ships, the annual survey of the world’s navies and warships. This is still published today, along with parallel volumes concerned with aircraft and various categories of military and transport equipment, including Jane’s Infantry Weapons: Ammunition, which was edited by yours truly for about a dozen years.

4. Futures Near and Far  Famous non-genre authors imagining the future: The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904), and With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling (1909).

5. The Old and the New  One of my favourite childhood novels was The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912), a story which needs no introduction as it has inspired the Jurassic Park series of feature films. 

6. Escape or Reality?  When the World Shook by H. Rider Haggard (1919), and  A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920).

7. Brave New Worlds  Ten examples here, but I wasn't familiar with any of the authors except for Marie Corelli, one of the few women to have made an impact in the genre in this period. She is included here for The Secret Power (1921).

8. Super, Sub or Non-Human?  Even more to choose from, with thirteen authors listed.  One who may be surprising is George Bernard Shaw, for Back to Methuselah (1921), but Aldous Huxley's inclusion, for Brave New World, is much more predictable.

9. Philosophical Speculations Only a couple of stories included here: The World, The Flesh and the Devil by J. D. Bernal (1929) and If it Had Happened Otherwise by J. C. Squire (1931).

10. Into the Cosmic. Now we are beginning to move into more recognisable territory with Olaf Stapledon, (Star Maker - 1937), C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet - 1938) and Eric Frank Russell (Sinister Barrier - 1939). I was rather surprised to see A. M. Low's Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937) which I had summed up as folllows when I reviewed it some years ago: 

Sadly it was a major disappointment, being a barely readable fantasy in which hardly any of the "science" is correct or even remotely feasible.  

Fortunately the editor includes an explanation: 

The book is dreadful...I have included it because it is representative of the boys' adventure fiction of the day and unfortunately of how appalling much of that was.

11. Preparing for War.  Seven stories listed, imbued with the uneasiness of the increasingly inevitable second major war of the first half of the century. Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933) and The Peacemaker by C. S. Forester (1934) date from the early years of this period, but Murray Constantine's Swastika Night (1937) is obviously later, and looks centuries ahead to the nature of the world resulting from a Nazi victory (short version - not pretty!).

12. Our Darkest Hours. Into World War 2, and a relatively quiet period for publishing fiction in the UK due to strict paper rationing. That didn't stop people writing, of course, and Arthur C. Clarke was one who was developing his skills at this time. 

13. Post-Atomic Doom. This is where things really become grim, with the threat of nuclear devastation generally considered to be a matter of when, not if. As a teenager in the 1960s I can well recall deciding that if war did come, I would much prefer the first bomb to explode directly overhead so I would know nothing about it. People in the UK, at least, had no illusions about surviving such a war for any longer than it would take to die horribly of radiation poisoning and/or starvation as the food supply chain was destroyed. Famous books listed include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951). 

14. Science Fiction Boom.  Despite the spectre of nuclear war haunting the 1960s, this was also a period of cheerful optimism in SF, perhaps in reaction to the threat. This was also a time of expansion in SF readership, assisted by the success of some magazines (it should be noted that British SF mags tended to be aimed at an older audience than the popular US comics). Another factor was the development of broadcast SF series, at first on the radio; my family would sit in front of the wireless to listen to each episode of Charles Chilton's Journey into Space. This was quickly followed by TV series  such as The Quatermass Experiment  (Nigel Kneale, 1953) and A for Andromeda (Fred Hoyle and John Elliot, 1961). Anyone with an interest in classic SF will be familiar with most of the names of the authors mentioned in this section: Arthur C. Clarke, E. C. Tubb, Kenneth Bulmer, Brian W. Aldiss, Edmund Cooper, James White, and Charles Eric Maine. 

15. Old Worlds for New. An interesting development towards the end of this period concerned the appearance of links between SFF and "literature", by which is meant "serious" non-genre mainstream fiction. The mainstream authors dabbling in SF themes have sometimes denied they are writing "SF", whose reputation suffered from the comic-strip era of rocket-ships and scantily-clad young women whose virtue was under threat by hideous monsters. Literary SF tales featured in this book are by Naomi Mitchison and L. P. Hartley. Simultaneously, many established SF writers became more "literary" in their approach, e.g. Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard, and John Brunner: the result was known as "New Wave" SF.

That really marks the end of this period of development of British SF. The result has been a spectrum of approaches to SF writing rather than a series of ghettoes. One further development since that time has been the growth of fantasy at the expense of SF, kick-started by the huge success of Tolkien. But that is a whole 'nother story!

Tuesday, 19 July 2022

War Stories


Three very different SF novels concerning warfare in the past, present and future.

No Retreat by John Bowen (published 1994) is a story of the aftermath of an alternative World War 2. The exact point of departure is never quite spelled out, but something goes wrong in 1942 leaving Britain defeated. The story begins in a very different 1990, with Britain thoroughly integrated into a German Empire which spreads across Europe. A community of die-hard “Free British”, preserving their traditions in exile in the USA, decide it is time to stir up a rebellion prior to liberating their homeland. 

The problem is that entry to Britain is forbidden, so the exiles don’t know quite what to expect. A small group of agents is landed by submarine and does manage to locate a local resistance group to work with, but are disconcerted to discover that the great majority of the British people are quite content with the status quo and regard their “liberators” as an embarrassing nuisance. It transpires that the initial horrors of strict Nazi rule have long ago been replaced by a tolerant regime of self-governance. The result has been well described as a wry narrative treading a fine line between thriller and black farce.


Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole

I've re-read Ghost Fleet, published in 2015. It is set a few years into the future, and commences with a brief, devastating (but non-nuclear) assault on the USA by China and Russia, focusing on massive cyber attacks as well as physical destruction of US communication and monitoring satellites. Advanced technology proves to be a weakness for the US, with equipment like the F-35 fighter planes dependant on vast numbers of complex electronic chips - many of which turn out to have been made in China. The US loses, with China seizing the Western Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands. A few years later, the US is planning its revenge…

The viewpoints include USN, Chinese and Russian officers, plus the leader of an accidentally left-behind US resistance group on Hawaii, and many other individuals. 

The authors are professionally involved in defence planning, and it shows. This story is very tech-heavy and realistic. A rather unusual touch is a 24-page Endnotes section which provides references for many of the ideas and proposed weapon systems. However, there are hazards in being too specific about such matters: much is made of the Metal Storm close-in defence gun, but in fact that proved unsuccessful and was dropped some years ago.

Novels with a plot like this are rare, and this one is a very good effort. 


The Misfit Soldier by Michael Mammay

Mammay provided a lot of fun (and obviously enjoyed himself) with his trilogy Planetside, Spaceside, and Colonyside. His new stand-alone novel is written in a similar laconic military style but instead of being a pensionable veteran,  the principal character - Sergeant Gastovsky - is an unwilling young space soldier with criminal tendencies whose main aim in life is to acquire enough money to buy himself out of his service contract. This requires far more money than he could possibly accumulate legally, but he regards this as a manageable problem and starts planning. 

Those who enjoyed Planetside are likely to enjoy this one as well, but perhaps not quite as much. The hero is not as sympathetic, the plot is more straightforward (with no aliens to add another dimension) and is rather more forgettable. Let’s hope that future stories return to displaying more inventiveness.


Wednesday, 22 June 2022

The Sky Lords trilogy by John Brosnan


On browsing through the dustier corners of my book stacks recently I came across an unfamiliar book by an unfamiliar author: The Sky Lords, by John Brosnan, which was published in 1988. I initially assumed that I had read it, but I could not recall anything about it. However, the cover displays some impressive endorsements from Robert Holdstock, Terry Pratchett and Brian Aldiss, so I thought it was worth a try. When I got to the end I discovered that it is only the first volume of a trilogy, but as I enjoyed it I obtained the other two: War of the Sky Lords (pub. 1989) and The Fall of the Sky Lords (1991).  This review covers all three volumes.

The plot starts out being fairly routine in SFF terms, in a distant future in which the Earth's civilisation has collapsed as a result of the Gene Wars - an advanced form of biowarfare. The only organised powers remaining are the Sky Lords of the title - a handful of heavily-armed mile-long airships whose aristocratic rulers demand food and other tribute from the scattered and impoverished settlements on the ground. However, there is a lot going on including pre-collapse genetic modifications of humanity which had led to the wars of destruction. To make matters worse, the blight - mutant fungus - is spreading over the land, destroying its agricultural worth. And the airships are gradually failing as as their inhabitants no longer possess the skills necessary to repair them.

Jan Dovin is a Minervan, a female member of a ground-dwelling culture which had solved the  problem of male violence against women by genetic modifications. These made the women bigger and stronger than the placid males which were kept only for breeding. An attempt to resist the tribute demanded of the Minervans led to Jan's transfer to the Sky Lord where she meets Milo Haze, whose genetic modifications are more radical - although not at first evident. After various adventures, Jan discovers how to communicate directly with the AIs which control the Sky Lords.  

In the second volume, we are introduced to a new element; a submerged habitat under the Antarctic, the home of the Eloi, drastically modified humans who live only for pleasure. There is also a new hero, Ryn, a young man who is a genetic throwback to earlier times. He and Jan become involved in battles between the rulers of the Sky Lords, not just in the air but also on the ground.

The third volume pulls the various plot strands together and sees the Eloi's habitat becoming involved in the struggle for supremacy. Its powerful AI retains much of the advanced capability now lost to the survivors of humanity. This enables it to develop a permanent solution to the constant warfare which is preventing the recovery of human civilisation, but this comes at a cost.

I found this trilogy rather puzzling: the basic setting of warfare between giant airships (emphasised by the cover illustrations of the paperback versions) has a very old-fashioned feel. It has more of the flavour of fiction from the 1950s or even earlier. The most obvious clue to its modernity is the frank treatment of sexual relations. However, the inventiveness shown  throughout the books is engaging, and makes them worth reading.

Sunday, 29 May 2022

The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens - and Ourselves, by Dr Arik Kershenbaum


I don't usually review non-fiction books, but this one is a very relevant exception. The author is a zoologist used to applying Darwin's theory of evolution to the development of life on Earth, and he applies the same analysis to explore how and why life might develop on other planets.  The Contents list gives a good idea of the author's approach:

Form vs Function: What is Common Across Worlds?

What are Animals and What are Aliens?

Movement: Scuttling and Gliding Across Space

Communication Channels

Intelligence (Whatever That Is) 

Sociality: Cooperation, Competition and Teatime

Information: A Very Ancient Commodity

Language: The Unique Skill

Artificial Intelligence: A Universe Full of Bots?

Humanity, As We Know It

Each of the characteristics of life are explored in detail, and the author's summary of how life logically has to have developed is worth quoting in full:

Early life was simple, gaining energy from non-living sources, perhaps mostly from the star around which the planet orbits, but also directly from the heat of of the planet and maybe from other sources, like radiation. 

The first innovation was that some life forms (I'll call them 'predators') began to get their energy from others ('prey'), exploiting the work of others in harnessing energy from nature. Freeloading is always an option, and game theory would seem to indicate that the evolution of this kind of 'cheating' is inevitable.

Both predators and prey are competing to achieve their goals of eating, and avoiding being eaten. Movement would then evolve.

Once organisms can move, social behaviour follows. Prey animals can reduce their chances of being eaten by aggregating, and this opens the possibility of more active defence strategies: sentinel behaviour, building structures etc. 

If any two organisms are to associate together, communication is necessary, at the very least so that they can find each other.

At this point (if not before) the complex interactions between organisms, both those that are helping each other and those that are competing (either with similar organisms or with predators/prey), lead to the evolution of intelligence: the ability to predict the world and to make decisions that are beneficial to you.

The combination of communication, social behaviour and intelligence leads to the evolution of communication system that can contain large amounts of information, leading to an ecosystem that would be very familiar to us. Alien creatures will be singing like birds, roaring like lions and whistling like dolphins, even if their precise forms, and even the chemical makeup of their bodies, will be entirely unexpected.

How long such an ecosystem continues like this, we don't know. Perhaps the next step is incredibly unlikely. We know that it occurred at least once in the universe, but it took at least 3 billion years from the first step in our story. Whatever the reasons and whatever the mechanism, at some point, complex communication evolves into language.

Finally, possibly inevitably, a social and intelligent organism, with the skill of language, develops complex technology. It is hard to see how any other outcome is possible. Soon, they will be building spaceships and exploring the universe - if they manage to avoid destroying themselves first.

Of course this summary doesn't do justice to the author's case; the book contains a mass of evidence to support his argument that Darwinian evolution seems inevitable, regardless of the setting, and that this is likely to result in intelligent life. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

A Tapestry of Magics, by Brian Daley


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 April 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

The Fresco, by Sheri Tepper


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

To Here and the Easel, by Theodore Sturgeon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

The Coramonde books by Brian Daley


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 November 2021

The Chronicles of St Mary's, by Jodi Taylor


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 October 2021

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


The Alien Stars and other novellas, by Tim Pratt

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

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

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

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

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


If Then, by Matthew De Abaitua

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

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

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

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