Tuesday 20 December 2016

The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M Banks, and Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear

The Hydrogen Sonata is the final SF novel by Iain M Banks, who died in 2013. It is therefore also the final novel set in the Culture, the utopian galactic civilisation which formed the basis of nine novels published over a span of twenty-five years, commencing with Consider Phlebas in 1987. Reviews of three of these have already appeared on this blog, and this is what I said in them about the Culture:

"…a galactic humanoid utopia in which almost inconceivably advanced technology provides everything that is needed, immensely capable Artificial Intelligences sort out the mundane business of running civilisation (the most powerful, known as Minds, usually being established in vast spacecraft or space habitats with quirky names), and citizens are mostly free to do whatever they like – live forever, change gender or even species, travel the galaxy. There are various alien civilisations in close contact with the Culture and a lot of others that are not, plus human planetary settlements that don't enjoy the same benefits. Relationships with such peripheral groups are handled by an organisation called Contact, and they apply less diplomatic means when required by means of Special Circumstances, whose agents are kind of blend of James Bond and Jason Bourne with comprehensive bio-electronic enhancements."

The Hydrogen Sonata follows the story of Vyr Cossont, a young woman who belongs to the ancient Gzilt civilisation - which although not part of the Culture is almost as advanced.  The population consists of what appears to be standard humanoids; although Cossont is different in that she has had two extra arms grafted on, to enable her to play a complex musical instrument made for one almost unplayable piece of music called The Hydrogen Sonata.

The background to the story is that the Gzilt are shortly to Sublime -  to leave the material universe en masse for an eternal existence in a kind of virtual afterlife. However, the Gzilt's plans are in danger of being disrupted by a threatened revelation that their Holy Book – which unlike all other such, contains predictions which have all come true, thereby giving the Gzilt the firm belief that they are superior to everyone else – was actually the result of meddling by a superior civilisation which sublimed long before this story began. This prompts a division in the Gzilt between those who are trying to discover the truth (aided by a bunch of interested spaceborne Culture Minds with the usual outlandish names and personalities) and those who are determined, at any cost, to stop the truth from emerging.

There are various side-plots including the contest between a couple of minor civilisations for the right to inherit everything that the Gzilt would be leaving behind, and the hunt to find the oldest known being who might even remember exactly what had happened concerning the Holy Book.

Like most of Banks's novels this is not easy to get into. It is difficult to understand what is happening at first (and for some time thereafter), but connections between several sub-plots slowly emerge like a drowned village from a draining reservoir. The number of Culture Minds is also confusing as it is initially hard to recall who's who – this is one book where it might be helpful to write down every name as it appears, together with a note about their place in the story. The author does include a list of characters right at the end of the book which might have reduced the need for this if only I had discovered it before I finished. As is usual in a Culture novel, the generally slow pace accelerates as it approaches the end, which features some spectacular combat scenes.

This is not the best of the Culture novels – for instance, it lacks the baroque inventiveness of Surface Detail or the fascinating shell-world of Matter – but it is very typical of the meandering but engaging Banks style, which enables readers to explore all sorts of odd details of his world. It is sad that the author died at such a young age, but in these novels he has left behind a magnificent contribution to modern SF.


Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear, was published in 1999 but I've only just got around to reading it.  It is about the next stage of human evolution, although that does not become apparent until well into the story (not a great spoiler, you can gather that from the book cover).

At the beginning, two separate near-future plot threads are started: one follows a disgraced scientist (paleontologist Mitch Rafelson) who is shown a recently uncovered ice cave in Austria containing the mummified bodies of a couple of Neanderthals, plus their baby. The second follows another scientist (biologist Kaye Lang) in Georgia (the country, not the US state), who is called to investigate some strange bodies found in a mass grave. The viewpoint mostly alternates between these two throughout the book, but sometimes switches to Christopher Dicken, a US Government scientist concerned with tracking viruses.

The story focuses on a newly-discovered virus (an endogenous retrovirus, to be more precise) called SHEVA, which has the effect of causing pregnant women to miscarry a strange foetus, before an immediate second pregnancy which results in children being born dead. As this "plague" sweeps around the world, causing rising panic and threatening human civilisation, doubts begin to be raised about the nature of the virus and its implications for the future of humanity.

This story is extremely science-heavy. I try to keep up with scientific developments, but frequently reached the MEGO stage with this tale (My Eyes Glazed Over) and I skim-read a lot of the pages of detailed technical explanation concerning viruses and genetics. I also found that I had a problem recalling various secondary characters who, after being introduced to the reader, occasionally popped up again later without any help being provided in the way of reminders about who they were or what their significance was. As with the Banks story above, readers are advised to make notes of each character as they appear, it will be a big help later.

This may all sound negative, but buried in there is a story which was intriguing enough to keep me reading to the end; in fact I finished the last quarter of this rather long book in one session. I note that there is a sequel, Darwin's Children, and I might get around to reading it, sometime…

Saturday 19 November 2016

The Rook, and Stiletto, by Daniel O'Malley

Present-day London is the base for a centuries-old secret intelligence organisation, headed by people with a range of supernatural abilities, which supports the government in various ways including suppressing any uncontrolled supernatural occurrences.  These elements of contemporary urban fantasy in The Rook are not entirely original, you may think, and you'd be right. But the quality of a story lies in how the plot is handled, and this one is done very well.

A young woman gains consciousness and realises that she is standing in a park in the pouring rain, badly beaten and surrounded by dead bodies. She also realises that she has no memories at all, and has no idea who she is. She soon finds information, most particularly letters in her pocket from Myfanwy Alice Thomas, the first starting:  "Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine."

Following an information trail left by the letter-writer, the new Myfanwy gradually realises that she has some remarkable powers and that the previous occupant of her body was a senior officer (a Rook – they like chess names) in the Checquy, the aforementioned secret intelligence organisation. The old Myfanwy had received occult advanced warning about what was going to happen to her, which was the result of an attack by an unknown senior person in the organisation, so had prepared for her successor. New Myfanwy, with the help of the copious guidance notes left by her body's previous owner, has to convince the Checquy hierarchy that she is who she appears to be, while trying to work out who had attacked her. It doesn't help that her personality is very different from the shy original, being far more assertive. Or that she is constantly under pressure to deal with a range of weird emergencies, leaving her with little time to address the threat to herself.

The Rook is a fun mystery/adventure/crime thriller with horror elements which I was reluctant to put down and eager to get back to – something that happens too rarely these days. New Myfanwy is a resourceful  and likeable character and this reader was cheering her on from beginning to end. The only niggle which bothered me was, as usual, something rather more mundane than super-powers and vampires: I couldn’t help wondering how, if the original Myfanwy’s memories and personality were completely wiped, a functioning human being with a fully-formed – and very different – personality was left in her place; where did she some from? Our personalities are to a great extent the sum total of our experiences and memories, after all. With those all wiped, what would be left? Maybe this will be addressed in the sequel, Stiletto, which was released recently and is at the top of my “to buy” list.


Stiletto continues the story, with some significant differences: most noticeably, while retaining an important role, Myfanwy no longer provides the viewpoint. Instead, this is shared between two contrasting characters: Felicity Clements, a junior Pawn soldier of the Checquy, and Odette Leliefeld, a young medical specialist of a rival European secret organisation, the Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen, better known to the Checquy as the Grafters. The Grafters are fundamentally different from the Checquy in that they are not born with any special abilities but have mastered medical science to a phenomenal degree, using their skills to build a range of enhancements into their bodies.

We learned towards the end of The Rook that a deadly emnity had existed between the two organisations for centuries, following a brief, devastating war between them. But a tentative peace agreement had been reached (largely due to Myfanwy's involvement); this is where Stiletto begins, and it remains the main plot thread throughout. Odette is part of the Grafter delegation to peace talks in London and a reluctant Felicity is assigned to her as a bodyguard. The pair do not initially get on, but contribute their different skills in a series of crises, most particularly concerning an unknown third party which seems to be focused on destroying the peace agreement, the resolution of which forms the climax of the story.

Like the first volume, Stiletto is an intriguing page-turner with likeable characters and is written with sardonic humour – sometimes, perhaps, a little too much of it. The writing also shows signs of bloat, with time taken out for long biographies and descriptive passages, which slows the pace in parts of the story. Finally, for my taste the various monsters that have to be dealt with are somewhat extreme, although I have no doubt that other readers will enjoy this. Oh, and there is still no explanation for the arrival of Myfanwy's strong new personality, nor any further mention of the devastating "weapon of mass destruction" she deploys twice at the start of The Rook. Despite this, Stiletto is a worthy sequel which maintained my interest throughout.

Overall, these two novels are a significant addition to contemporary urban fantasy and I will be looking out for any sequels.

Sunday 16 October 2016

TV - Lost Girl seasons 4 and 5, and Orphan Black season 4

After 77 episodes, Lost Girl concluded with its fifth season. As this is the last we'll hear of it, I'll repeat some of the comments I've made before.

Lost Girl is a contemporary urban fantasy featuring Bo Dennis (Anna Silk) a bisexual young woman who is rather different from human. By touching other people she can make them do whatever she wishes; by having sex with them she feeds on their life force and kills them – usually unintentionally, but she can't help herself. She lives a nomadic life, forever moving on and leaving a trail of victims behind. At the beginning of the series she rescues Kenzi Malikov (Ksenia Solo), a streetwise young thief, from a rapist. The two become friends and partners. But Bo has come to the attention of other non-humans and discovers that she is a succubus – a member of a population of Fae with varied supernatural powers living as normal people.

Bo learns that the Fae are divided into light and dark factions and, after passing a test, she is expected to join one of them. She refuses to choose and sets up as a private investigator in partnership with Kenzi. She forms a liaison with werewolf Dyson (Kris Holden-Ried) who works as a police detective; she discovers that she can have sex with him without killing him, and that by doing so she can rapidly recover from any injuries. Her principal aim – and a plot thread running through the first season – is to discover her origin, as she was abandoned as a baby and given to human parents to bring up.

As well as the common threads running through the series, each episode contains a self-contained story. These vary considerably in nature (but usually involve some Dark Fae or other supernatural being causing problems), keeping the viewers interested.

Season 4 started on an unusual note, the succubus heroine Bo being nowhere to be seen, and none of the other characters apparently noticing her absence. The spell gradually breaks down and the characters take action to recover their lost memories before searching for Bo. The main thread in rest of the season concerns why Bo, previously determinedly refusing to join the Light or the Dark Fae but with leanings towards the Light, has apparently joined the Dark during her absence – something she cannot recall and refuses to accept.

There are lots of other novelties including a mysterious train which appears to contain the secret to her disappearance; the formidable Una Mens; Fae with a range of strange new powers; humans pretending to be Fae; a prominent Fae being turned into a human, and the departure of two of the principal characters in dramatic fashion.

The final season has more new characters and threats to be faced by our depleted band of heroes, particularly Bo's father, revealed at last. It wraps up the story neatly enough and has an ending which is satisfying without being over-emotional.

To sum up; this series is an original and entertaining fantasy, often amusing, sufficiently varied to retain interest, and heavy on interpersonal emotions and LGB relationships. As I concluded in a previous review; it has no pretensions to being anything other than engaging (if rather silly) light entertainment – at which it succeeds very well.


Orphan Black is a darker, science-fiction, story concerned with secret human cloning. It is based on a novel premise: Sarah Manning (played by Tatiana Maslany) is a young woman who is down on her luck when she meets her double, who turns out to be genetically identical. When her double dies, Sarah takes over her life. Then she meets another double, and another, and realizes that they are all clones. This is a constantly intriguing and frequently amusing drama as the clones try to figure out their history while being faced with an acute danger – someone is trying to kill them. By the end of the first season, it becomes clear that being hunted is only one of their problems; they are also under covert observation and their future hangs by a thread. Maslany has great fun playing the various, and very varied, clones and the constantly evolving plot gripped my attention from the start, with one unexpected twist after another.

The next season sees various additional threats facing the clone sisters, not least a lethal genetic illness: the efforts to find a cure to this become the principal plot thread thereafter.

The third season features the emergence of a second line of clones – this time men (played by Ari Millen) – providing more complications for the band of "sisters" as they try to find a way out of their multiple problems, with competing organisations taking an uncomfortably close interest in them. The drama is as good as ever, as is Maslany whose performance has rightly won awards (including an Emmy very recently). Her pony-tailed Alison made me smile every time she appeared – a wonderful portrayal of an obsessively conventional suburban "soccer mom" who develops criminal tendencies and of course does her best to justify them. As the tension increases in the first few episodes of this season, the dark humour which previously added to the entertainment is scaled down, although the seventh episode switches mood and returns to the original form, with a lot of laugh-out-loud scenes (mostly involving Alison, naturally). The finale sees the core of the mystery of the sisters' origins revealed and some problems solved – but others still lie ahead.

The fourth season is the most confusing of all, as it hops around the timeline without any warning. The first episode jumps back to before the beginning of Season 1, revealing what drove Beth the detective to commit suicide (the event which kicked off the whole series), and subsequent episodes keep returning to this time or slightly afterwards, filling in the story with a lot more detail. These scenes alternate with those showing the latest developments, keeping the viewer alert in order to stay on top of what is going on. There are new villains to deal with, in the form of Evie Cho (Jessalyn Wanlim) the head of the organisation responsible for the cloning programme, and a police detective under her control.

The finale of Season 4 is packed with the unexpected. I have no wish to spoil anyone’s enjoyment, but if you expect a nice, cosy, conclusion, you’d better brace yourself. I was under the impression that this fourth season was the last, so was shocked by the ending, but fortunately another season is coming along next year!

Overall, the result is a multi-layered, constantly developing and gripping plot which puts Orphan Black among the very best SF series. What makes this so entertaining is that, while it certainly isn't a comedy, there is enough humour in it to balance the drama.

Friday 16 September 2016

Drakenfeld and Retribution, by Mark Charan Newton

I don't read a lot of fantasy these days (of the swords, sandals and sorcery ilk, anyway) but Drakenfeld came well recommended so, when in the mood for something different, I decided to give it a try. There is the traditional pre-gunpowder feudal culture in the form of ten separate monarchies linked by a non-aggression pact overseen by the Sun Chamber, which maintains its own army and whose officers act as investigators. Lucan Drakenfeld is one such officer, a young man who has been working far from home with the assistance of Leana, a female warrior from another culture. He receives a message from the Sun Chamber to advise him of the death of his father, the resident officer in Tryum, the capital of Detrata and Lucan's home city, and to instruct him to travel to Tryum to tidy up his father's affairs.

Lucan has no sooner arrived than the King's sister is found murdered in a temple, locked from the inside. The circumstances appear impossible so Lucan has to use his wits to work out what happened. Another high-profile murder shortly afterwards tests his resources to their limits, and he is not helped by discovering that his father was not the pillar of respectability he had always believed. The rediscovery of the love of his life is also a major distraction. He eventually solves the problems, which all prove to be interrelated, although the finale leaves various loose ends, both personal and political.

I enjoyed this book: it is well-written with good characterisation, Lucan being an admirable and likeable hero although his right-on 21st century attitudes, especially towards women, seem a little improbable in this context. The ambivalent relationship between Lucan and Leana is intriguing; there is no more than a suggestion of possible magic, Lucan depending on his powers of logical analysis to unravel the plot; and the whole story has more of an adult feel than usual (although not in the sense of being sexually explicit, which it isn't). There is just one scene in which gruesome events take place (curiously, that is the very first one, so there is a risk that some people might be put off). If I were interested in writing fantasy, this is the kind of story which I would want to be able to write. I read it quickly and immediately sent off for the sequel, Retribution.


Retribution continues the story of Lucan and Leana, who have now left Detrata for the neighbouring state of Koton and specifically its capital city, Kuvash. A mystery about a missing priest soon becomes a murder enquiry, followed by a second and a third – and Lucan is racing against time to discover what links these high-profile killings before there are yet more deaths, against a background of increasing inter-state tension. So far, so much the same as the previous book, although the story is not as gripping as the plot is less complex and Lucan is not put through such a tough emotional mill.

What did surprise and disappoint me is the writing style, which is distinctly inferior to Drakenfeld. The first hint of this is on page 1, with the sentence: "The sudden deluge delighted them and their faces creased in innocent delight." The repetition of "delight" is a little jarring. I noticed many occasions on which the word choice, if not incorrect, seemed inappropriate for the context or for the speaker, and one (repeated) error in which "vagaries" is used when it is clear that "vagueness" was the meaning the author wanted to convey. Sentence construction can also be rather clunky, as in this extract from pages 3 and 4:

A figure tramped quickly up through the swamp-like gardens of the station post. As she marched along the deck her boots thudded on the wet wood. It was my companion Leana. She took the steps up towards me two at a time. Her wax coat was sodden, even though the journey to the gatehouse to check for any new messages was short. A thick leather cylinder was clutched in her hand.

All of this meant that my enjoyment of the book kept being undermined by shortcomings in the writing. I was left with the impression that Newton might have worked out the outline of the plot then passed it to some less talented writer to flesh out. At the very least, the writing needed much firmer editing to achieve the polish of the original book.

Curiously, Newton doesn't seem much interested in the series. His own website lists Retribution as "coming soon" (it was published in 2014), and while the conclusion leaves various loose ends which clearly set up a third volume, there is no sign of this appearing.