Monday 30 July 2007


The interview with Paula Berinstein of The Writing Show about my novel Scales is now available for downloading as a podcast here: (it lasts for almost 50 minutes...)

Mental note - if I ever get interviewed again, I must acquire a microphone and so on, rather than talk over a telephone - it sounds much better!

Saturday 28 July 2007

A review for Scales

A rare sighting - a review for Scales (with thanks for Google Alerts for locating it)!

It's by Laura Stamps and appears on the 'Book Reviews and Discussions' site for 27 July 2007:

Modesty forbids but honesty compels that I post some extracts....

"If you’ve been searching for a science fiction novel with a touch of fantasy and the pace of a thriller, look no more. SCALES is the story of Matt Johnson, a man whose home mysteriously explodes one evening. Engulfed in flames, Johnson is rushed to the hospital, his entire body badly burned. When he recovers against all odds, doctors discover his skin is now covered with a fine layer of scales, which change color according to his moods.Thus begins one man’s journey to discover not only what happened to him but also what he has become...

In an effort to adjust to his startling new appearance, Matt changes his name to Cade, and soon realizes he has also acquired the ability to heal certain diseases. Cade’s quest leads him from one mission to the next, from healer to world diplomat to harbinger. I can’t say too much, because there are so many twists and turns in this ingenious plot I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises. However, this is such an original and unusual story I wouldn’t be surprised if a filmmaker snapped it up one day. Hollywood, are you listening?

This well-written novel was a pleasure to read, and I look forward to enjoying future efforts from this incredibly talented novelist. Highly recommended."

Thursday 26 July 2007

SF and the prophets of doom

Deborah Orr, a regular columnist in The Independent newspaper, has written an interesting piece (in the 25/7/07 edition) on the place of science fiction and fantasy in modern literature, with particular reference to dystopian thinking in general and the disasters (actual and potential) of modern life in particular.

Her starting point is the attitude people have to such major problems, especially the way in which we try to interpret events in a way which suits our preconceptions while resisting any implications which run counter to them. Climate change is a good example of this, with the evidence being seen through the filter of politico-economic beliefs. Those who firmly believe in the rightness of the untrammelled free market style of capitalism are unable to accept the implications of the theory of human-caused climate change and tend to regard it as some kind of socialist conspiracy (this is my paraphrase of her argument).

She refers to Black Mass, the latest book by the philosopher John Gray, in which he traces the history of Western millenarianism – the belief in some ideal future society. He suggests that the Iraq war is the result of an apocalyptic fantasy that it is possible to achieve by force a dramatic change, in this case in the direction of liberal democracy. He argues that all such projects will inevitably end in tears, and blames utopian thinking for believing that they are possible. Instead, he argues that we need more dystopian thinking, and should be paying more attention to such works as Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Wells' Island of Dr Moreau or Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Other suggested works, perhaps less familiar (at least to yrs trly), are Zamiatin's We, Nabokov's Bend Sinister, Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Ballard's Super-Cannes.

Orr argues that SF, formerly not taken seriously by the literary establishment, is now achieving a degree of credibility to the extent that such SF themes are now becoming part of the mainstream fiction. She points to Pulitzer Prize-winning (and, more significantly, Oprah-approved) Cormac McCarthy's The Road, concerning a post-climate catastrophe USA, and Sarah Hall's The Carhultan Army, "a futuristic fantasy in which a group of radical feminists make a stand in Britain against a repressive, authoritarian economic collapse", as well as recent works by Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing. Even children's fantasy is not immune; Orr refers to Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, set in the aftermath of a future war. However, she points out that all three of these books contain their own wish-fulfilling optimism which indicates the problems which we are going to have in changing our attitudes sufficiently to be able to divert the perilous course being taken by our civilisation.

I can recall various SFF stories (apart from the novels mentioned above) which have been been truly dystopic, just getting worse until the grim ending. However, these rarely seem to be very popular - they're admired at best, rather than liked. The problem, I suspect, is that people cling on to hope, to the belief that even if everything isn't all right on the night, at least there is room for optimism. But is Orr right? Are we too optimistic for our own good? Or would a diet of unbroken pessimism just pitch us into apathetic despair?

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Interzone 211

For the uninitiated, Interzone is a British SFF magazine currently celebrating its 25th anniversary year. It has been through various changes in that time, and is now a glossy, full-colour, 60-70 page mixture of news, reviews, interviews and short stories, published every other month. There is a strong emphasis on art, with named artists producing illustrations for the stories as well as the cover, and artist as well as author bios often provided. The news is in the form of David Langford's Ansible Link (wryly humorous insider chat) and the reviews of books, manga and (especially) films and TV programmes have a tendency towards erudition.

I have had an on-off relationship with the magazine, subscribing for a while in the early 1990s before dropping it because I wasn't getting around to reading them. Now that I'm focusing much more on reading and writing SFF, a few months ago I decided to subscribe again. I am not a natural short story fan – when I think of SFF I think of settling down to a good novel – but I've being toying with the idea of trying to write some, and magazines like Interzone are a good way of becoming familiar with the kind of work which is popular these days.

I find the stories which appear in Interzone a very mixed bag: they include everything from quite traditional to experimental. Regular readers of this blog (hi, how are you both?) will have realised that I am a traditionalist myself, so I usually find stories to like and dislike in each issue. I do not like stories where the reader has no idea what is going on until all is explained in the final paragraph, and, even less, ones in which the author is impressing himself so much with his obscure and oblique writing style that the story becomes impenetrable (you know who you are…).

So to Issue 211. This is a Michael Moorcock special, featuring a long interview, an extract from his memoir of Mervyn and Maeve Peake, a short story (The Affair of the Bassin Les Hivers) and an extract from a work in progress: a novel titled London, My Life, or The Sedentary Jew. I have also had something of an on-off (remote) relationship with Moorcock, this time starting in the 1960s. Over the years his output has varied greatly in genre, style and quality. I still have his Elric saga, a classic fantasy series, and Gloriana, and more recently have enjoyed Mother London and King of the City – which are mainstream novels with nothing sfnal about them. Both of his fiction contributions to this issue of Interzone start with a large infodump to set the scene. Unusual these days – especially in a short story – and I wonder what progress that one would have made out of the slush pile if it had been sent in by an unknown author. That story introduces a lot of strange characters in a strange environment, and doesn't work too well as a stand-alone; too many introductions, not enough conclusions.

There are three other longish stories, plus a rather sardonic piece Elevator Episodes in Seven Genres by Ahmed A. Khan, which tell a very short story, switching between genre conventions as it does so. For once, all of the stories are conventional and thereby eminently readable. Exvisible by Carlos Hernandez is the least successful for me, about a man paying to have his estranged, terminally-ill, father downloaded onto a hard drive. I was unable to relate to his emotions and reactions. Deer Flight by Aliette de Bodard is a very traditional fantasy about shape changers, wood magic and love; but the stand-out for me is Knowledge by Grace Dugan. A student starts to see faint numbers appearing over people's heads. She realises (almost as soon as the reader) that these numbers are indicating how many days everyone has left to live, down to a hundredth of a day. I usually forget short stories quite quickly, but I feel that this one will stick in my memory.

Monday 23 July 2007

Review: Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling

I must first have read this soon after it was originally published in 1985. I thought it was a terrific story at the time, and rated it as one of my favourites. I decided to re-read it last week, to see if my view had changed.

The story is set at an unspecified future time in which the Earth has largely been abandoned as a result of wars and environmental catastrophes, leaving the only advanced civilisation living in artificial habitats scattered around the solar system. Most of these are created by scooping out the interiors of asteroids and spinning them to create artificial gravity. As a result of this fragmentation, a wide variety of social and belief systems has become established, with each 'world' having its own distinctive culture (in more ways than one). There is a broad division between the 'Mechanists', who rely on hardware and computing systems, and the 'Shapers', who aim to increase humanity's potential through intensive psychological training and fiddling with biochemistry and genetics. Relationships between these groups are very strained but actual warfare is considered too horrifying to contemplate, not only because of what happened on Earth but also because the habitats are so fragile and easy to destroy. Early in the story, the first aliens visit the solar system – the Investors, who are nomadic traders. Their presence has major consequences for human activities, providing shifting opportunities for some habitats to become wealthy while others fall into decline.

The plot focuses on one man, Abelard Lindsey, who, while brought up in a Mechanist environment, has received Shaper diplomatic training which gives him powerful persuasive abilities. He rebels against the leadership and is expelled, and never really settles again, becoming a 'sundog', or itinerant, moving between the different worlds. He obtains influence with the Investors (via an amusing accident) and becomes a major player in the human habitats as a result. The story stretches over a period of some 70 years, rejuvenation techniques having extended human lifespans. The first four chapters (130 pages) follow an unbroken chronology up to the point of Abelard's meeting with the Investors. After that, the story jumps 20 years and thereafter becomes very episodic, dipping into Abelard's life from time to time (often with long gaps) until the unexpected conclusion.

I was not so impressed with the story this time as I was originally. The long gaps in the narrative broke my involvement with Abelard's story, especially as important things were evidently going on in the gaps (including Abelard getting married and raising a family in one gap, then deciding to abandon his wife to return to his sundog ways during another). Considering that the story is so focused on Abelard (he appears in virtually every scene) his personality is rather opaque and he is not easy to relate to. The main appeal of the novel is not so much in Abelard's story as in its rich descriptions of the future of humanity, covering ecosystems, cultures and politics. In those respects it was trailblazing at the time, and it is still well worth reading.

Saturday 21 July 2007

I had an unusual experience a couple of days ago, when I was interviewed over the phone by Paula Berinstein of the The Writing Show ( which posts podcasts online. The subject of the interview was my novel Scales, and the questions made me think harder about my approach to writing the story than I actually had when writing it!

The plot concerns a present-day Englishman - Cade - who wakes up months after being almost killed in an explosion and fire, and finds that he is no longer entirely human - he is not only covered in reptilian scales, but also has acquired some non-human abilities. The inspiration for this came from a dream I had in which such scales were growing over my skin. I wanted to explore the implications of this, so I used the first person point of view, and a linear chronology: the story is told as it happens, and the reader knows exactly as much as Cade at any given moment. This does place certain limitations on the story-telling, as every scene features Cade and we only know his viewpoint; we can't find out what's happening elsewhere, unless Cade learns about it from someone else or from a news item. However, I think it provides more immediacy and tension than a more conventional third-person narrative, and is better suited to this kind of story.

The first part of the book developed organically - I basically started writing to see where it would lead. This took me so far then left me stuck, so I put it to one side for almost a year until the outline for the rest of the story came to me (in one of those valuable sessions when lying half-asleep in bed one lazy morning).

I regard this as a rather traditional kind of novel, in various ways. There is nothing clever in the construction or techniques used, it's just a straightforward story. I don't claim any particular originality for the plot elements, which come from standard SF conventions; psi powers, parallel worlds, alien civilisations and threats to humanity (partly self-generated, partly from outside). Its length of 220 pages is on the short side by today's standards (although typical of the 1950s/60s fiction I grew up with), but it does mean that it is fast-paced. The phrase "I couldn't put it down" has been used by Paula and other readers, which is gratifying.

The interview on The Writing Show should be available for downloading in about a week. You can read the first couple of chapters online on my publisher's website, by following the link from my home page.

Thursday 19 July 2007

Review: The Skolian Empire series by Catherine Asaro

Catherine Asaro has created a classic space-opera world with this Nebula Award-winning series, which is currently at eleven novels and counting. They are set in the far distant future, in which variations of humanity have populated a large number of star systems. The starting point in Asaro's timeline is 4,000 BC, when a group of humans were transported to another planet and helped to develop an advanced civilisation. This was based on the development of psionic abilities, reaching their greatest expression in the Rhon - a family of adepts which formed the Ruby Dynasty. Within a thousand years, space travel had enabled them to form the Ruby Empire, aided by the creation of a psionic web enabling instant communications across human space. This could only be driven and controlled, with the aid of highly sophisticated machinery, by the Rhon. The Empire collapsed after a few centuries, leaving its worlds to develop independently, and it took until the 19th century for them to rediscover interstellar flight. The psions of the Ruby Dynasty had almost died out by then, until a successful Rhon genetic programme re-established them. Further experiments unfortunately produced a different breed of sadistic psions – the Aristos - whose principal satisfaction was gained by feeding on the emotions of tortured psions – and the stronger the psion, the greater the pleasure.

By the time of the stories in the Skolian Empire series – set in approximately 2,200-2,300 AD – the Aristos had formed a powerful empire based on slavery known as the Eubian Concord (aka the Trader Empire) while the remnants of the Ruby Empire had formed the Skolian Imperialate, ruled by an uneasy combination of democratic institutions and the small number of Rhon psions. The Earth had by this time developed interstellar flight and become known to the Skolians and Eubians, but was very much a weak third party in between the two empires, whose relationships were in a state of cold – and occasionally hot – war.

The plots as well as the background follow the classic space-opera format: there are space battles between vast fleets, ancient and little-understood technology, human fighting machines in the enhanced Skolian Jagernauts, awe-inspiring psi powers, and (characteristic of Asaro) a lot of romance (although - unlike in her other fiction - not so much as to dominate the plots). The individual stories are all focused on members of the Ruby dynasty – the Rhon psions. They do not follow a chronological sequence, nor do they all feature the same individuals. Some of the novels are sequels to previous volumes, but others are free-standing. Some are written in the first person, most in the third. This provides a pleasing variety which prevents the stories from becoming too repetitive, although the later novels are, I think, beginning to show signs of 'series fatigue'. The stories are fast-paced, fairly light in tone and relatively short – an easy read.

It is best to start with the first one published and my personal favourite – Primary Inversion – which features one of the strongest and best-realised characters, Sauscony ('Soz'), a young woman who is also a Rhon and a Jagernaut.

This is a very good modern version of the traditional space-opera, and recommended to anyone who enjoys this sub-genre.

Monday 16 July 2007

Review: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner.

This was first published in 1960 and, while it is a children's book, it is well-enough written to grip adults too. The story is set in contemporary Cheshire and features many geographical locations around Alderley Edge and Macclesfield (the author still lives in the area). The plot involves two children (brother and sister) who stay with friendly adults in a farm by Alderley Edge (a large hill and also the name of a nearby village) while their parents are abroad for a few months. The trouble starts when the girl's bracelet is recognised as containing a strange stone – the weirdstone of the title – which has ancient magical significance and has long been missing. This brings all kinds of witches, wizards and non-human denizens of the underworld (literally – Alderley Edge is honeycombed with old mine workings) out into the open to battle for control of the stone in a classic good vs evil contest.

There are Tolkienesque echoes here, but the use of a real setting in the contemporary world, with two normal (if brave and resourceful) children as the heroes gives an entirely different feel. The quality of the writing, fast pacing and relatively short length (236 pages in my paperback edition) make this a story to be devoured in a couple of sessions. Alan Garner was one of the best-regarded children's fantasy authors of the 1960s and it is easy to see why. Highly recommended, and easy to obtain – it was reprinted as recently as 2002. Also available is a sequel – The Moon of Gomrath – which is high on my 'to be read' list.

Friday 13 July 2007

Review: Paris in the Twentieth Century by Jules Verne

This is Verne's famous "lost novel". It was one of his earliest efforts and was rejected for publication when written in 1863. The manuscript was rediscovered in the 1990s and saw its first publication then.

The story is set a century in the author's future, in Paris in 1960. It is a world in which industry and commerce have triumphed to the extent that most of the creative arts are derided as useless or forgotten. The plot concerns an orphaned young poet, Michel Dufrenoy, who is a complete misfit in this world, and largely consists of tracking his futile efforts to find some gainful employment.

Along the way, Verne presents a picture of a future Paris, in social as well as technical terms, and the fascination of the book is in seeing what he got right – and what he didn't. On the credit side can be listed the dominance of major corporations over governments; the growth of commerce and the civil service in the city, pushing the poor to live on the outskirts; the sharp drop in the birth-rate within marriage, with a large proportion of births being illegitimate (women are displayed as lean and hard-headed; no longer curvaceous and romantic); the mechanisation of warfare; and various technical innovations such as the Metro, electric lighting, cars, computers and fax machines.

The mis-hits include a similar mixture of the broad sweep and the detail. Most poignantly, he envisages that the growth in the power of industry and commerce, and the interconnectedness of nations this would bring about, would make war obsolete, with armed forces being disbanded. He also has politicians losing so much power that they become unimportant, so elections die out. Despite this, he proposes much more central organisation of society, with a large civil service governing most activities (for instance, all theatres having salaried playwrights, whose job it is to produce anodyne productions which won't get anyone excited). Journalism as well as most arts dies out, except for that praising the achievements of industry. One baroque technical proposal is to use the old catacombs to store air under high pressure (pumped by a large number of windmills) which is then tapped to drive the Metro and other machinery throughout Paris. The canalisation of the Seine enables vast passenger ships to berth in the city. Despite the technical advances, he still has quill pens plus a huge ledger for a bank which is painstakingly kept up to date by hand. Surprisingly, there is no mention of aircraft.

Even in the misses, there are aspects which can be recognised. The strong central organisation and control, including the arts and the news media, is reminiscent of Soviet Russia, while feeding the populace mindless entertainment is not unknown in today's television and magazine offerings.

So much for the background – now to the story. This is quite promising at first, as the hero finds some like-minded individuals and has some amusing experiences in his efforts to fit in. He even falls in love. But the last part of the story becomes both less interesting and progressively darker in tone. In the end, it finishes in rather a rush with several plot threads left hanging. I had the impression that he had got tired of it and decided to finish it off quickly – or, perhaps, that he had backed the hero into a corner which he couldn't get him out of. Anyway, I found it disappointing.

Overall, this is something of a curio. Intriguing for its predictions, but of little merit as a story. Still, the first part of the book shows some of the story-telling flair which was later to make Verne famous.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Yet another review for The Foresight War (they're coming thick and fast at the moment), this time on the Classic Science Fiction forum here (it's the full review by Bill, who commented on my last post):

It starts: "I just this minute finished "The Foresight War" (2004) by Tony Williams, and I must say that I loved it. I had a hard time putting it down."

Well, I'm not going to argue too much about that :)

Now to focus on getting more (decent) reviews for Scales. As a self-published author, I have to do my own marketing, and that does require a fair amount of effort. I made life hard for myself with this novel, because it's likely to appeal to a different audience than my first one. Which of course explains why you see so many trilogies or novels set in the same universe...they have a guaranteed market among readers who enjoyed the first one.

The problem for me is that I would find it rather tedious to keep writing about the same characters or places. The writer I would most like to emulate is the late British SF writer, Bob Shaw. He wrote a large number of novels and short stories, nearly all of them stand-alone with no shared worlds or characters. They have very varied plots and settings, but what they have in common is that they are well-written and exciting, and the novels are short enough to read in two or three sessions.

Perhaps it's because I was brought up on SFF in the 1960s when 200 pages was a full-length novel, but I often find the modern 'doorstops' rather offputting. There are some honourable exceptions, but for me they often fall into one of two traps: either they stretch out the plot with lots of detail, which slows everything down (sometimes to a level of tedium) or they pack in so much that I lose track of who's who, or what's going on. But maybe that's just my age...

Monday 9 July 2007

The Foresight War has been out for a few years now and has accumulated several reviews (summarised on my website). Today I found another one, thanks to Google Alerts - although it is a year and a half old! The full review can be found here - - but the conclusion is:

"In total, a rather realistic, aside from the obvious, "what if" scenario of WWII, that clearly shows the author's bias towards the technical and politcal aspects of his story, as opposed to character. Probably an interesting read for the initiated but will definitely be a snore for the average history layman. Which equates to most of the population of the world. 7/10."

I don't have any argument with the comments in this review; the story will certainly be most appreciated by people with a reasonable knowledge of the Second World War, and especially by those who are intrigued by the "what ifs" of the conflict.

The particular characteristics of the novel are a result of its rather unusual genesis. My interest in military history had caused me to spend a lot of time over the years, rather idly ruminating over the many mistakes made by all sides in that war, and contemplating what might have happened if the worst ones had been avoided. Eventually I decided that I'd never get these thoughts out of my head unless I wrote them down. For some time I puzzled over how best to do this. I was used to writing non-fiction and did not initially think of fiction (despite being a long-time SFF reader), until the idea of a novel based on time-travelling historians occurred to me one night. A novel needs characters as well as ideas, so a suitable squad was duly recruited for the task (although they didn't always follow orders...), but their task was clearly to carry the plot, which dominates the story.

As an exercise in exorcism, writing the book certainly worked as I have hardly thought about the subject since, except to respond to comments about the story! It has also stimulated much debate among readers, and even a spin-off story about an American 'throwback' (see my website) plus an Italian work-in-progress on the same theme. So I am happy with the outcome. Despite this, it is unlikely that I will be writing any similar story in the foreseeable future. I thought I was familiar with World War 2, but when it came to writing about specific places, people and events I found that I needed to do a huge amount of research to get the historical bits accurate, and the fictional parts realistic. I think I'll bury my WW2 reference library somewhere in deep storage to make sure that I don't get tempted again...

Thursday 5 July 2007

Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

A time-travelling comedy, following Ned Henry who is kept shuttling between the 21st century, World War 2 and late Victorian England, in order to rescue a grotesque piece of statuary from Coventry Cathedral before it is destroyed in the Blitz, so that it can be installed in a recreation of the cathedral. His task is not helped by the arbitrariness of the time-travelling system, which has its own bizarre logic and sometimes misses the planned target, nor by the fact that repeated use of the system tends to fog the mind. During all of this, he undertakes a boat journey on the Victorian River Thames which is an hommage to Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. Much misunderstanding, humour, chaos and romance occur before victory is achieved.

This is a well-researched and well-written book, with many amusing scenes, but I did find it a bit much at times. The comic misunderstandings come so thick and fast that it reminded me of a Whitehall farce (in which people keep hopping in and out of bedrooms, hiding in wardrobes and mistaking each other's identities). This is alright in small doses, but became a bit of a strain for me when sustained over a nearly 500 page book. I nearly gave up at one point, but kept going by means of rationing my reading to a chapter or two each evening. I'm pleased I did, because I enjoyed it in the end and will keep it for a re-read - but not for quite a while!

Review: the Nulapeiron sequence by John Meaney

This is a trilogy, consisting of Paradox, Context and Resolution. It is set on the world of Nulapeiron, which is almost entirely built over with many levels of construction, so hardly anyone ever goes onto the "roof" to see the open sky. This is not a new concept, but it is well-realised here, with a mix of human societies occupying different levels, largely according to their position in the hierarchy. It is ruled by despotic Logic Lords, each of whom owns a geographical territory, and above all are the Oracles - who really can see the future.

The story follows the life of Tom Corcoran, a youth from humble origins who gradually (with many ups and downs) rises to the highest rank. It is full of bizarre societies, strange modes of transport, violent conflict, tales of the legendary Pilots - who command space - and a final struggle to the death against a powerful alien presence which is gradually corrupting the population of the world.

The trilogy might be might be best described as a modern iteration of a classic space opera - without much space! At over 1,600 pages in all it is not a quick or light read, and requires concentration. Much the same can of course be said of a lot of modern SF, such as that by Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter, but in my opinion Meaney has the edge on these two. Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

Review: The Marianne Trilogy by Sheri Tepper

This is a very unusual contemporary fantasy trilogy about a young woman living in the present-day USA, although with ancestry stretching back to a small (and fictitious) country in a very remote part of the Middle East, where magic is still practised - and it works. She unwittingly becomes involved in a battle between representatives of the two parts of her divided ancestral country: one good, the other evil. As a result, she is thrown into several other, totally bizarre, magical worlds, where she has to rely on her wits to survive. This is a beautifully written, exciting and romantic adventure story, with a plot quite unlike anything else I have ever read. It is my favourite contemporary fantasy.

Monday 2 July 2007

Review: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

I re-read this last month, for the first time in 15 years. The really strange thing is that I didn't remember anything at all about it from my first reading - not a single bell was rung all the way through. This is highly unusual for me - maybe I'm becoming senile To look on the bright side, it will save me money on new books, I'll just keep re-reading the old ones...

Anyway, I became decidedly irritated with this book during the first half, because I found it very difficult to get into. Several different story lines are set running, and the author throws in lots of beings, concepts and other names with no description or explanation as to what they are. I think it's a good idea to keep some sense of mystery-to-be-revealed-later in a book, but this one takes it to extremes. I had reached page 170 before I found a clear description and explanation for some of the key characters - the skroderiders - and the physical appearance of the heroine wasn't described until close to the end.

In fact, the characterisation was very patchy. The heroine - Johanna - never came alive for me, perhaps because of the belated description. OTOH the second character - Pham - seemed much more clearly drawn and convincing (despite not being entirely human). The pacing also varied. It was very slow at first, with lots of extraneous detail which I could have done without, and only got going about half way through. From then on it got a lot better, although the climax (with a ship being chased by a fleet, which was in turn being chased by another fleet, which was in turn being followed by another...) had an element of Keystone Cops farce about it.

Having said all of that, the concepts were powerful and imaginative and much of the latter part of the book was good, so overall it was worth reading. What I would definitely not do is recommend it to anyone who wasn't familiar with SF, because I fear it would put them off for life.

A problem with Vernor Vinge...

Had a slightly bizarre experience with Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. I was just getting into the book when the name of one of the characters (Qiwi) struck me as oddly familiar. I flipped through it and realised that, yep, I'd read it before. But I couldn't have thought much of it then because I hadn't kept it - which didn't prevent me from unwittingly buying it again!

Vernor Vinge's writing seems to have a strange effect on me. A few months ago I re-read A Fire Upon the Deep, the Hugo award winner, for the first time in about 15 years. And I couldn't remember one thing about it - it rang no bells at all. I would have sworn I'd never read it, except that it obviously had been read, and was sitting in the "read" part of my bookcase. Anyway, for the record, I wasn't that impressed by Fire; some good ideas, but a messy and irritating book (see my separate review). I didn't read Deepness again this time because I remembered it, with a bit of effort (and life's too short to slog through a 750-page novel again unless it's absolutely brilliant), but from what I recall it is much better - a very good space opera - and I can't make out why I junked it before - I was probably going through a phase of being thoroughly tired of doorstop novels which I was never going to take the time to re-read. Oh well, I'll keep it this time, just in case...