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.


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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!).



Sunday, 3 October 2021

The Grid, by Nick Cook; and The Institute, by Stephen King

 

The Grid has some things in common with King's The Institute, reviewed below. Both are set in the present day and concern conspiracies making use of psychic powers to alter government policy. Both books are also simply classified as "thrillers" even though they clearly qualify as SF. Is this expected to benefit sales, I wonder? 


A different coincidence is that Nick Cook and myself both worked as editors for the Jane's defence and security intelligence publishers at around the same time, although as far as I can recall we never met.


The protagonist of The Grid is Josh Cain, a former combat medic who is now the medical adviser to the President of the USA. He has been called in because the President keeps suffering intense and agonising dreams of his own murder, which seem all too real to the sufferer. At the beginning of the story, Cain is called in to talk down a suicidal ex-Marine who is in a church tower close to the White House, and who has specifically asked for Cain. The Marine tells him of a threat to the President's life. When the Marine's hideout is located, it contains material which reveals that he knows more about Cain's past than anyone should. From then on, the investigation proceeds at several levels, into the nature of the assassination threat and Cain's own psychological problems, with the story becoming increasingly strange and metaphysical.  


I should warn readers that the main revelations in The Grid do not come until late in the book so some spoilers are difficult to avoid. (like the one in the second sentence of this review!). Those who prefer not to know what's coming next had better stop here.


The core of the story concerns remote viewing: the ability of some psychics to see a given target, not just in the present day but in the past - or the future. This skill had been particularly developed in the USSR, where it was known as "instrumental psychotronics", but the US version was called The Grid; and the part of the US state which secretly controlled this research was using the results to push their own agenda. Research had also taken place into what happens when people die, with their consciousness passing through various levels, each being more remote than the last. This was of particular interest to Cain, who had never recovered from the death of his wife fifteen years earlier. The conclusion of the story is literally world-changing as the conspiracy is exposed.


This is not the easiest of reads, as there is a large cast of characters and a lot going on. I found myself continually referring to the Dramatis Personae helpfully provided at the beginning, as well as re-reading the last few pages at the start of each reading session. Nonetheless this intriguing story held my attention through to the end.


***************************************


The Institute, by Stephen King


I have of course been aware of Stephen King's existence for decades, but I can't recall reading anything by him - the horror genre is not one which has ever appealed to me. However, the reviews of The Institute were not just very good, they also made it sound more SF-like, so I thought it was worth a try. 


The focus of the plot, set in the present day, is the existence of a secret Institute in a remote part of the USA which is set up ostensibly to meet the needs of children with special talents (generally, Telekinesis or Telepathy). However, this is no benevolent organisation - the children are kidnapped and held against their will, their parents disposed of. The children are put through a range of unpleasant tests apparently aimed at strengthening their talents, before they are transferred to the "Back Half" - a separate part of the Institute - and never seen again. 


The story starts on a very different note, with a chapter following the life of an ex-policeman who is travelling rather aimlessly, looking for suitable work to do. He ends up in a small town called Dupray and we leave him settling in there and getting to know a lot about the town's principal characters. Dupray comes back into the story a few months later, when its sleepy existence collides with the extreme violence of the Institute. In the meantime, the focus switches to a new arrival at the Institute, Luke Ellis - a twelve-year old with only weak talents but an intelligence which is off the chart. Most of the book is concerned with the battle of wits   between the children led by Luke and the staff of the Institute, as the children plot their escape.


This book is not really what I expected. It is mostly slow-paced and thoughtful, spending a lot of time in establishing the characters in their environments, before a change of gear leads up to the tense finale. I was totally gripped by it and fully understand why Stephen King is such a wildly successful author.



Monday, 13 September 2021

Future Crimes: Mysteries and Detection through Time and Space, edited by Mike Ashley

 

This latest British Library Science Fiction Classics anthology sent to me for review combines my favourite genres, as I read almost as many detective stories as I do science fiction or fantasy.  The Editor's introduction is quite brief this time, pointing out that there has always been a strong science element in both (forensic) crime and science fiction, with many examples being given of stories including both. The ones reproduced here are essentially SF, with the addition of a crime to be solved.


Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943). This is the most common pseudonym for William A.P. White (1911-1968), who started writing crime fiction but later focused on SFF, with a light and often humorous touch. Elsewhen concerns the secret development of a time machine by a private inventor, who decides to use its capabilities to remove his rival for the heart of a young woman with whom he is obsessed, while simultaneously accelerating his inheritance of a large fortune. He devises an ingenious plan which appears to be foolproof, but open-minded detectives are soon on his trail.


Puzzle for Spacemen by John Brunner (1955). John Brunner (1934-1995) has recently featured a couple of times in this blog. Although he mostly focused on SF, he also wrote mysteries and this one combined both. A spaceship from Pluto arrives at a space station at Jupiter with one dead pilot inside, killed by explosive decompression resulting from the sudden loss of the cabin's air. This should have been impossible, and a special investigator is sent to discover how this happened. The answer involved not just technical trickery but also psychology, a discipline which has developed to a much more advanced level.


Legwork by Eric Frank Russell (1956). Russell (1905-1978) was one of my favourite authors in the 1960s and I still enjoy his tongue-in-cheek humour. A hostile alien from Andromeda secretly arrives on Earth in order to assess whether the planet is worth taking over.  His task is  aided by the possession of a super-power: he can make people believe anything he wants them to, including that he is a normal-looking human. This power has an effective range of about a mile and is permanent, reversible only by the alien. One of his first acts is to rob a bank in order to amass enough money to fund his activities. However, this brings the police into the picture, who find various impossibilities to explain. In the end, it is systematic, painstaking collection and analysis of routine data - legwork - which provides the answer.


Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972). Another famous SF author - in this instance, the one whose achievements I most admire after those of H.G. Wells (with Jules Verne in the No.3 spot). Asimov (1920-1992) wrote detective stories as well as well as SF (and non-fiction popular science books), and the two main characters of this story - a human investigator and his robot sidekick - also featured in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. The robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, presents investigator Lije Bailey with an impossible problem: Two scientists, accompanied by their robot assistants, are travelling in a starship to a conference in another system. Each scientist accuses the other of stealing a new idea and presenting it as their own. Their robots back them up. An answer is needed before the start of the conference, but it is impossible to determine which human (or robot) is telling the truth. The answer was obtained by a neat piece of psychological reasoning - one of those mysteries which has a satisfying "yes, of course!" ending.


The Flying Eye by Jacques Futrelle (1912). A generation or two older than the other authors in this collection, Futrelle (1875-1912) focused mainly on mysteries to be solved in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. His death at such a young age was exotic; he went down with the Titanic. In this story, a pair of investigators are mystified by an image of a huge eye which keeps appearing and disappearing over an isolated pond. The investigators explore all kinds of more or less likely explanations but are even more incredulous when the see a man dropping from nowhere into the pond, then slowly rising up into the sky before vanishing again. The immediate mystery is soon (improbably) explained, but that isn't the end of the story.


Nonentity by E. C. Tubb (1955). Tubb (1919-2010) is best known for his 32-volume Earl Dumarest series, beginning with The Winds of Gath (which I feel I probably ought to read sometime -  at least the first volume!). As well as SF, he wrote a few straight detective stories and some combinations of the two, as in this story. Following a disaster in space, an assorted group of survivors has escaped in a "lifeshell" - an unpowered pod with enough food, water and air to last until rescue - usually - but the lifeshell is overcrowded and help seems certain to arrive too late. The survivors are reluctant to face up to their options, but then the lights fail and people start to die, one after the other. 


Death of a Telepath by George Chailey (1959). This author is known only for this one published story plus a non-fiction article. In a world in which telepaths are common (if very unpopular), committing crimes is a risky business - and murdering a telepath would seem to be impossible. So when a detective investigates the death of a telepath on a two-man spacecraft, he is initially inclined to accept the explanation of suicide. But this doesn't seem to accord with the evidence.


Murder, 1986 by P. D. James (1970). The author (1920-2014) was a highly regarded specialist crime writer, best known for her Inspector Dalgliesh series. She also wrote a few SF stories including this one, which is coincidentally topical as it is set in a future in which humanity's survival is threatened by a virus. Carriers of the disease are subject to draconican laws and forced to live in colonies away from the Normals. When a detective discovers the body of a young female Carrier who has clearly been murdered (not considered a major crime), he decides to investigate despite attempts by senior officers to prevent him. The outcome is the kind of surprise which makes the reader want to go back and re-read the story from the beginning in the light of the final revelations.


Apple by Anne McCaffrey (1969). Anne McCaffrey is too well known to need introducing, especially as another of her stories was only recently reviewed here. The background to this story is reminiscent of the X-Men films: a small minority of 'Talents' - humans with superpowers - live in an uneasy relationship with the rest of humanity, tolerated because they provide specialist services such as security and criminal investigations. This only works if the Talents can be trusted to manage themselves to ensure that they pose no threat to humanity, so there is great alarm when an impossible crime takes place - and the hunt is on for a wild Talent.


The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965). DeFord (1885-1975) was an author who did not just write SFF and crime stories but also true crime studies. In this story, time travel has been invented and the opportunity to take short trips back in time is available - at a high price. Our hero is very unhappily married to an appalling woman he cannot get rid of, so he spots the opportunity to avoid his fate by ensuring that his wife is never born. Everything is perfectly planned and executed, but with an unexpected result.


I enjoyed these stories - particularly the ones by Asimov, Russell and McCaffrey - but the outstanding tale in terms of plot, characterisation and writing quality has to be that by P.D. James.


Monday, 23 August 2021

TV - Missions Series 2 (2021)

 

I reviewed Series 1 of Missions in 2017 as follows:


This a French TV serial (with subtitles), set in the near future, about the first manned missions to Mars. Ulysses, a European space craft funded by William Meyer, a fabulously rich Swiss entrepreneur, is arriving in Mars orbit when they learn that they have already been beaten to the planet by a much faster American craft, funded by an equally wealthy US businessman, Ivan Goldstein. It becomes evident that the US craft experienced major problems on landing, so the European crew decide to attempt a rescue. They manage to land nearby (not without their own problems) and find one survivor in a spacesuit, but he has a surprise for them. After this, the plot evolves from a routine "trip to Mars" to something of much greater significance.


The serial ran for ten episodes of 25 minutes each (on BBC4 in the UK) and is structured in such a way that it isn’t possible to say any more about the plot without spoilers. I will just say that I was reminded of the film 2001, not so much in the specifics of the plot as in the atmosphere of a cosmic mystery gradually unfolding. It is intriguing and well worth seeking out.


Series 2 (also consisting of ten 25-minute episodes) has recently been shown on BBC4, and both series are currently available on the BBC iPlayer, but I don't know for how long. Reviewing the second series will inevitably involve comprehensive spoilers for Series 1 and it is difficult to avoid some for Series 2, but I will at least try to leave some surprises!


During Series 1 we discover that the survivor found by the Ulysses crew was not from the American craft as initially supposed, but was Vladimir Komarov, an actual Soviet cosmonaut who died in a spacecraft accident on Earth more than half a century before. It becomes apparent that there is a powerful intelligence on Mars which is capable of creating artificial environments and people. Furthermore, this intelligence is focused on one of the crew - psychologist Jeanne Renoir - whose arrival has been anticipated for millennia.  The crew discover a vast, ruined building which contains a huge wall filled with human skulls. At first, they think it shows that humanity had previously visited Mars during an earlier era of high technology, but then the truth dawns: humanity evolved on Mars, and only moved to Earth after wrecking the environment of Mars. 


At the end of Series 1 the explorers have to leave Mars in a great rush due to a sandstorm, and Jeanne is left behind. She is unconcerned, however, knowing Mars will take care of her. 


Series 2 starts with Jeanne living a simple life in small village in a forest, having forgotten her earlier life. She appears to be part of an experiment to discover a way in which mankind can survive without wrecking the Earth. Meanwhile, five years after their return to Earth, the other members of the Ulysses crew become aware that Jeanne needs them on Mars. They are joined by two new crew members, one of them being Alice, Meyer's daughter. On Mars, they discover a portal allowing access to Jeanne's forest world. It emerges that Alice is not who she seems, and conflict breaks out. In the end, the survivors are faced with another possible future.


My conclusions remain much the same as before. I found the continuous air of mystery intriguing, but those who like everything tidied up and clearly explained are likely to feel frustrated.  In my opinion, there is room for another Series but no indications so far as to whether or not that might happen.



Saturday, 31 July 2021

Riyria Revelations, by Michael J Sullivan

 

Regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you!) might recall that I posted reviews of the four volumes of the Riyria Chronicles on 28 December 2019. These told the story of the meeting, and eventual partnership, of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melbourne, two adventurers for hire (who come to refer to themselves as Riyria). The three books of the Riyria Revelations, of which Theft of Swords is the first, continue their story; this volume originally appeared in two parts,  The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha


There is a complicating factor, however; Sullivan actually wrote the Revelations first, then went back to write the Chronicles as an extended prequel (the Chronicles end a few months before the Revelations begin). So readers have a choice between reading the books in publication order, or following the internal chronology. As you may have gathered by now, I chose the internal chronology (as usual). I have to say that Sullivan did the stitching-together very well, and I noticed no anomalies.


Swords are the main theme of this book: Riyria are commissioned to steal a famous sword, but find themselves arrested on the most serious charge imaginable. It is clear that they have unwittingly become involved in some top-level manouvring for power but fortunately they have some allies as well as enemies this time, and they end up escaping with a prince of the realm in tow. The climax of the story is a battle for the crown.  


In the second part of the book, Riyria meet a young girl, Thrace, who is desperate for them to come with her to her remote village which is being gradually destroyed by a magical dragon-like creature, a Gilarabrywn. She needs them to steal another sword, this one reputed to be the only weapon capable of killing the creature. The only problem is that the sword is held in an inaccessible elvish tower, which is also where the Gilarabrywn has made its home. The conclusion is both dramatic and unexpected.


The second volume of the Revelations trilogy is Rise of Empire (originally published  as two stories: Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm). The Nyphron Church’s long preparations have climaxed in a play for power with the creation of the New Empire, intended to draw together all of the little kingdoms of the land under one overall nominal leader, the Empress Modina. Much of the focus is on Arista, Princess of Melengar and sister to the young King Alric, for whom Riyria are (usually, more or less) working. Arista is intelligent and determined to do whatever it takes to support her brother, and there is much enjoyment to be had from observing her development from a pampered member of the court to a toughened and inspirational leader with growing powers. In the meantime Royce is following up some snippets of information about his friend Hadrian which suggest that he has a much more important role to play than anyone realises.


The second part of the book sees Riyria out of their comfort zone and undertaking a long sea voyage. Brushes with pirates inevitably follow before the pair find themselves marching through the jungle territory of the dreaded Ghazel. In the meantime, the hidden leadership of the New Empire are seeing all of their plans gradually approaching fruition.


The final volume of the trilogy is Heir of Novron (consisting of Wintertide and Percepliquis). It is some months after the end of the previous volume, and the New Empire is growing in strength, rapidly absorbing most of the old kingdoms. A major celebration is planned at Wintertide, culminating in the execution of two captives; Degan Gaunt, known as the "heir of Novron", and the Witch of Melengar, otherwise known as Princess Arista. The young Empress Modina, firmly under the control of the Co-Regents Saldur and Lord Ethelred, is to marry Ethelred in order to consolidate the Regents' power. Needless to say, Riyria take a dim view of all of this and plan to free the captives, but this proves to be an unusually difficult task, particularly since the Regents have Merrick Marius, Royce's formidable old enemy, working for them.


 Percepliquis is the name of the legendary capital of the Old Empire, lost for a thousand years.  A group led by Riyria need to find its ruins and locate the mysterious Horn of Gylindora which is said to be hidden there. Without it, humanity will be overrun by the newly militant elves. 


The climax of the story - and of the Revelations - is particularly well done, with various unexpected outcomes all fitting neatly together and explaining the clues which had been scattered around during the story, just like a good detective novel. About the only element which was totally predictable concerned Hadrian, but I'll say no more about that.


Taken as a whole, the Riyria sequence is one of the great achievements in the modern epic fantasy genre, right up there with Mark Lawrence's Red Queen's War and Thorns trilogies. On a trivial note, I did find a few of the names unnecessarily awkward, being difficult to spell or pronounce. Curiously, as it is relatively short and simple, Riyria is one of the worst offenders - I have to check the spelling, letter by letter, every time I type it.


For those whose appetite for Sullivan's world is still not sated,  the author clearly sees no reason to abandon a carefully created world without getting a decent mileage from it, so is using it for other stories: most notably The Legends of the First Empire, a (very) distant prequel series to the earlier books, consisting of six volumes to date. 



Saturday, 10 July 2021

Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void, edited by Mike Ashley

 

The theme for this British Library Science Fiction Classics anthology sent to me for review is living in space: in space stations, spaceships and generation ships (sub-light-speed starships which take several generations to reach their destinations).  The editor includes in his usual introduction mention of earlier writers who tried to address the problems of living in space, such as the lack of air and the low temperatures. Some well-known names were promptly on the case... Edgar Allen Poe mentioned technology to provide fresh air (Hans Phaall, 1835) while Jules Verne added thickly padded walls (Autour de la Lune, 1869). By the end of the 19th century, scientifically-mined writers were tackling such issues as long-term survival in the light of the expected length of journeys, including growing food, and even the indelicate question of how to cope with human waste. Moving closer to the present time, the ultimate in living space was envisaged in Larry Niven's marvellous Ringworld. Now to the stories:


Umbrella in the Sky by E.C. Tubb (1961).  The Sun is building up to going nova. A huge but lightweight movable shield is being contructed in orbit, which will protect the Earth from the effects. But progress is much slower than expected and time is running out. So a special investigator is sent undercover to join the construction crew and discover the cause of the problem. An interesting plot focusing on the psychology of those working in space.


Sail 25 by Jack Vance (1962). This time, a steerable sail ship is the technology of choice and a trip in one of them is the basis of a "finishing school" for trainee pilots, with an assessor who is notoriously tough. Only the best will survive.


The Longest Voyage by Richard C. Meredith (1967). The sole survivor of a devastating explosion which wrecked his space ship struggles to make it back to Earth - from the orbit of Jupiter. He has to work with what he has and knows, and with a much lower level of technology.


The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (1961). The subject of a space ships having their own minds - either by "plumbing in" a human brain or via developing artificial intelligence - is a popular one nowadays but this rather poetic story is an early example.


O’Mara’s Orphan by James White (1960).  This is an early one of the Sector General series of stories about huge orbiting hospitals equipped to minister to the health of a large number of alien races. O'Mara is assigned to look after an orphaned baby Hudlarian, a race about which very little is known. I have to say that I find the whole concept problematic; in my (secondhand) experience of the medical profession, the tendency is to specialise, e.g. in major repairs to limbs and joints (human, naturally!) - and a surgeon who does that usually does nothing else.


Ultima Thule by Eric Frank Russell (1951). Hyperspace was an easy and very fast way to travel around the Galaxy; your spaceship disappears from one location and appears in another one. But what happens if it doesn't reappear? This story follows the fate of a small crew who find themselves stranded in hyperspace.


The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox (1940). This is an early example of a "generation ship" story, but it also incorporates suspended animation: one member of the crew is a monitor who spends almost all of the time asleep, only waking about once a century to check that the descendents of the original crew are still following the plan. The story consists of a series of glimpses showing the cultural and social evolution of the generation crew from the monitor's viewpoint. 


Survival Ship by Judith Merril (1951). A curiously high level of security surrounds the crew of a space ship intended to preserve human civilisation by establishing a colony on a planet in orbit around another star. Suspended animation is the method chosen for surviving the trip but, to obtain the maximum diversity among the settlers, the gender distribution is unconventional... No doubt shocking at the time, but would hardly cause a flicker now.


Lungfish by John Brunner (1957). Another "generation starship" story, this time with the emphasis on the relationships between the "earthborn" and the "tripborn".  After all, those born on the voyage did not volunteer for the journey, and might develop entirely different priorities from those of the original crew.


An interesting point about these stories I noticed compared with earlier BL collections is that they are mostly relatively recent: one in the 1940s, three in the 1950s and five in the 1960s.  Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the fact that the problems of extended living in space hadn’t really been thought through until then.


My pick of this bunch would be Brunner's Lungfish. He really was a very good writer. Wilcox's effort was also very commendable considering when it was written.



Friday, 18 June 2021

Tim Pratt: The Axiom series

 

The author is best known for writing fantasies, of which I can’t recall reading any, but the Axiom series is conventional SF. The setting is the Solar System many centuries in the future, in which Mars and various moons of Jupiter and Saturn are settled with substantial populations, and there is political tension between the inner planets and the outer moons of the system. The action is focused on the small crew (led by Callie - Kalea Machedo) of an independent spacecraft who earn their income by providing transport and recovery services. If this all sounds familar then you’ve probably read the Expanse series, which has clearly had an influence (as is acknowledged by the author) but more of this later. 


The Solar System was discovered by aliens a few centuries before the events of this story. The aliens, which bear a certain resemblance to starfish and octopuses, appear friendly and helpful, in that they have provided a method of travelling to a number of distant stars with habitable planets (now being colonised), using “bridges” for which the only access point is close to the outer planets. However, little is known about the aliens who are popularly known as the Liars, since nothing they say about themselves can be trusted. 


Book 1: The Wrong Stars


The story begins with the discovery by Callie and crew of an ancient human spacecraft in the Solar System, which contains one survivor - Elena - in cryosleep (deep freeze). It transpires that the craft was a “Goldilocks ship”; one of many sent out from the Solar System centuries before aimed at promising-looking stars in the hope that they might have habitable planets. These were sub-light-speed ships equipped with everything which might be needed to establish colonies. However, this particular craft had run into a mysterious structure in space and had somehow been sent back to the Solar System - with the addition of a peculiar alien device which terrified the Liars who saw it. One of the Liars, who called herself Lantern, became attached to Callie’s ship and revealed the existence of a much older race of aliens with god-like powers, known as the Axiom. 


Book 2: The Dreaming Stars


The book starts with Callie and crew in hiding on board a commandeered pirate asteroid, pretending to be dead so that the aliens (of either variety) would not be coming after them to kill them and destroy the Axiom equipment they had found. Once Lantern confirmed that they were no longer at risk of this fate, the crew head for the Taliesen system, where spacecraft had been mysteriously vanishing without trace. What they find there alerts them to the presence of a vast Axiom base, one in which it was possible to lose themselves in virtual reality - and they began to discover why the Axiom withdrew from active participation in galactic affairs. 


Book 3: The Forbidden Stars


This time Callie and crew investigate the Vanir system, one of those which humanity settled, but which has been inaccessible for decades. The crew manage to find their way in but have a much harder job in puzzling out exactly what is going on. They are joined by a representative of the Benefactor, an obviously powerful individual who shares their wish to see the Axiom eliminated, and they find out far more than they want to about the Axiom. Needless to say, the resourceful Callie tackles the situation with her usual courage and competence but finds that she has to pay a price.


I mentioned at the start that the setting is reminiscent of The Expanse,  but the mood is very different. The Axiom series is great fun, light entertainment maintained by the amusing banter between the crew members. The Expanse is more serious with far more depth in the story-telling and characters, and is likely to prove a lot more memorable. It is, if you like, the adult version. 


A couple of points I noticed about the Axiom series: the Liars look suitably alien but they think and speak exactly like humans, which I found slightly disconcerting. The other is that the author has a fondness for inserting substantial infodumps, in the form of pages-long conversations while one character brings others up to date. In Book 2 this is particularly incongruous as it is used to provide basic information about the politicial arrangements within the Solar System despite the fact that the audience had been sitting around in hiding doing nothing much for months during which it is hard to imagine they didn’t find out such basic stuff for themselves.


Despite these niggles I enjoyed the story, and I haven’t yet finished with Callie and crew as there is another book of novellas set in the same world, so that will be on my shopping list.



Saturday, 29 May 2021

Another Time, Another Place, by Jodi Taylor

 

Another Time, Another Place is the twelfth and latest volume of The Chronicles of St Mary's by Jodi Taylor. 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. 


You might wonder why I started with the latest volume (I am normally a bit retentive about reading a series in the right order); the explanation is simply that I was offered a copy to review. I don't recommend tackling the series in this way, as there are lots of unexplained references to events which were evidently covered in previous volumes. The cast (regular and passing) is quite large so I was pleased to find a list of the characters at the front - and less pleased to find out very quickly that the list is not entirely helpful. The worst case was someone called Leon, who from the start was obviously on very good terms with Max, but surfaces only occasionally and does not appear on the list. It wasn't until half-way through the book that I realised that Leon is actually Max's husband, and he appears in the list only under his surname. This kind of glitch would not of course bother anyone who had got to know the characters by working through the series, but it did mean that my grasp of the finer points of the plot was somewhat shaky.


So, is it worth reading? I wasn't too sure to start with, partly because of the lack of explanations for what was happening and why, and also because the humour is piled on rather heavily whereas I generally prefer a lighter touch (although to be fair, the same applies to the Willis book). However, the story and characters gradually got their hooks into me and by the end I was reluctant to put the book down.  The quality of the descriptive writing about the past cultures that the characters visit is particularly impressive: I obviously don’t know if ancient Babylon was really like that, but the author makes a convincing case, creating images in my mind which will last for a long while. I am happy to recommend this series, but just make sure that you read them in publication order.


I noticed that the first ten volumes in this series are (at the time of writing) available on special offer from amazon for a price of £25. That's a lot of entertainment for the money, so my order for the first eleven volumes has already been fulfilled!



Saturday, 8 May 2021

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

 

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Saturday, 17 April 2021

Assorted novels, new and old(ish)

 

Forged, by Benedict Jacka


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


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


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


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


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Spaceside and Colonyside, by Michael Mammay


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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