Saturday 23 October 2021

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


The Alien Stars and other novellas, by Tim Pratt

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

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

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

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

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


If Then, by Matthew De Abaitua

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

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

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

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

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.