Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Predicting the future…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the far distant future, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, inhabiting countless planets. All are ruled from Trantor, the administrative centre of the Galactic Empire. Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian on Trantor. He has calculated that the Empire will collapse in 500 years time, resulting in millennia of chaos and barbarism. But he has a plan to shorten this to 1000 years, ostensibly by gathering all scientific knowledge into one massive Encyclopaedia Galactica. The Empire sees Seldon’s predictions as a threat but nevertheless they agree that a Foundation to prepare the Encyclopaedia should be set up, based on two uninhabited planets on opposite edges of the galaxy. Published in 1951, this, the first volume in what was to become an extensive series of Foundation books, tells the story of one of these settlements, on the planet Terminus, and gradually reveals that Seldon’s plan is more drastic than he let on…

The Foundation series is considered one of the great classics of science fiction and, as with much of Asimov’s work, its influence can be seen on many later books, films and TV series. I loved the early books in the series as a teenager many years ago, though I didn’t like the way Asimov developed it in later years, when he was more or less driven to write more by his fans. It’s several decades since I last read this one and I came away from this re-read with mixed feelings.

The basic idea is interesting. Psychohistory is a bit like what we now call social science – the study of how society in the mass shapes and reacts to events. In this time period, the science is so well developed that these things are precisely measurable and can therefore be used as a method to predict the future. It must, I think, have been one of the earliest science fiction novels to be looking at the mass of people as the driving force of history, rather than at princes, presidents, warriors or even specific scientists as “heroes”. However, Asimov doesn’t carry this idea forward too well – at various points along the way, there are what are known as “Seldon crises” – moments predicted by Seldon (now long dead) where a particular path must be chosen. In each of these crises, a leader arises who drives and determines the outcome. So Asimov, having made the argument that progress is driven by mass historical movements, quietly drops that idea and brings out one far-sighted individual – a hero, in all but name – as required. He gets round this by suggesting that Seldon’s plan is so detailed he was able to predict and manipulate the future so that the right person would be available to deal with each crisis, but it all seems too pat to be credible.

Hari Seldon, long after he’s dead…

The spreading out of the story over hundreds of years also means that each crisis requires an entirely new cast of characters. Apparently the book was originally developed as a series of short stories, and that’s how it feels – episodic. The result is that it’s hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters – they appear, play their brief part, then are long dead before the next chapter begins. It’s really more about the ideas that Asimov plays with at each episode, many of which are quite interesting, but this reader needs more of a human angle to feel truly involved. Again because of the format, sometimes things happen too quickly to be credible – for example, at one point a new religion manages to convert billions of followers within a period of a decade or so.

One of the more amusing aspects of reading this kind of future-of-humanity science fiction is seeing how the predictions sound sixty-six years on. Poor Asimov couldn’t guess at the internet or Wikipedia – the idea of people working for hundreds of years to collect all human knowledge seems odd to us, used as we are to Googling anything we want to know from how to make an exciting cheese sandwich to how to build an atomic bomb. However, he did foresee the development of the automatic washing machine – an invention that personally I think ranks as at least as important as the internet.

Isaac Asimov

Asimov never made much effort to see how people’s habits and attitudes might change in the future, so what you always get are a bunch of mid-twentieth century people doing mid-twentieth century things set in the far future. In this one, his characters all smoke incessantly, while talking in that instantly recognisable American language of the 1950s where everything is “tremendous”, etc. It’s a wonderful throwback which always makes me chuckle. His attitudes to women are usually strictly mid-twentieth century too – closer to neanderthal than new man. He treats them with 1950s respect, as valued pretty pets, for the most part. However, that’s not so noticeable in this one since he just doesn’t bother having any women characters at all! (Slight exaggeration – two minor female characters make brief appearances: one a maid, naturally bedazzled by shiny jewellery, and the other a harridan of a wife.) Sad news, sisters – apparently even in the distant future all scientists, politicians and even criminals will be men. Still, at least we have automatic washing machines…

So a mixed bag, but some of the ideas are original and interesting, Asimov’s writing style is always effortless and entertaining, there’s some welcome humour, and a mystery surrounding what Seldon’s real plan is and how it will play out. Add the book’s influential status and this is one that, despite feeling somewhat out-dated, is still well worth reading.

Book 17 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The beast in man…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shipwrecked, Edward Prendick is rescued and finds himself on an island in the eastern Pacific Ocean, inhabited only by scientist Dr Moreau and his assistant Dr Montgomery – and some strange creatures that appear half-human and half-beast. As Prendick becomes more familiar with what Dr Moreau is doing on the island, he is horrified at the cruelty and danger of his experiments.

While there are some horrific images in this novella and some scenes of real animal cruelty, Wells doesn’t linger too much over them, and the book says so much about the world Wells was living in that, squeamish though I am, I found this a great, thought-provoking read. The hellishness of the images is important to the underlying points that Wells is making, and therefore in no way gratuitous.

Wells’ writing is brilliant, making this a tense and frightening adventure as well as a novel stuffed full of ideas. Like so many of the adventure writers of his time, Wells clearly understood that any book has to be first and foremost interesting and exciting, making the reader willing to turn the pages and absorb the deeper meanings without it beginning to feel like either a text book or a polemical rant. Read purely as an adventure, this is a dark and terrifying story indeed, from the first pages when Prendick and his fellow survivors are afloat on an open sea with no food and running out of fresh water, to the scenes on the island when Dr Moreau’s experiments go horrifically wrong.

But it’s what the book says about Wells’ society that lifts it to the status of a true classic, and since I find it impossible to discuss any of that without spoilers, I suggest anyone who wants to read the book stops reading my post at this point. In short, I highly recommend both the story and the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which contains an informative introduction written by Darryl Jones, who goes into the themes of the book much more deeply and knowledgeably than I’m about to.

* * * * * * * * *

Dr Moreau’s experiments are an extreme form of vivisection – an attempt to give animals the characteristics of humans, such as the ability to walk upright, to speak, and so on. To do this, he puts them through a process of unspeakable cruelty and, although Wells doesn’t go into a mass of detail, he makes it very clear what is happening and leaves the reader in no doubt of the appalling suffering of the beasts. Intriguingly, the book is not an anti-vivisection tract, however. Prendick, who seems to speak for Wells, accepts the necessity and benefits of vivisection, as he sees it. His objections to Moreau’s experiments are two-fold – firstly, that not enough consideration is given to minimising the suffering of the animals and, secondly, that Moreau’s experiments have no beneficial point – science for science’s sake, part of the tradition of “mad science” that was being explored in so many books of the period.

Again, as in The Time Machine, Wells is also looking at the questions raised by evolution. At first, Prendick thinks Moreau is experimenting on men to turn them into beasts, and is utterly horrified at what he clearly sees as blasphemous. On learning the truth, that beasts are being made human-like, he still feels disgust, but not to the same degree. The suggestion implicit in evolution, that man ascended from the beast and is, in fact, still no more than an animal, was clearly one that was still troubling society, particularly with its seeming contradiction of the idea of creation as told in the Bible. Moreau’s beasts are only part of the horror here, though. Wells also shows how quickly the shipwreck survivors descend to bestial behaviour in the face of starvation.

There are also hints in this theme about the question of separate races, a kind of hierarchy of superiority, with, of course, white people at the top. Black people are shown as at the bottom of the heap, closer to the ape, but Wells manages to disparage Jews too. Again, one has to allow for the time of writing, but these hints don’t sit well in a modern context. In his introduction, Darryl Jones clarifies that this ties in with the then prevalent theory of racial polygeny – the idea that there was more than one line of evolutionary descent, that all humans do not share common ancestry.

HG Wells

If Wells’ acceptance of evolution (and therefore implicit rejection of the Biblical creation story) wasn’t enough to upset religious leaders, then I imagine his own creation of a religion specifically designed to control and subjugate the beasts would have done it very effectively, especially based as it is on a kind of beast-ish bastardisation of the Commandments. It reminded me of Marx’s description of religion as the “opiate of the masses”, though whether that’s a connection Wells wished us to make I can’t say.

Jones also puts the book into a tradition of “island novel”, a form that was used as a way to study man isolated from the constraints of civilisation – Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Coral Island, etc. The island in this book is set very close in location to Galapagos, the island which, in legend at least, gave Darwin his first ideas about how evolution worked. When things break down on the island, Wells shows how quickly the creatures revert to their original beast, but the true horror is that, on his return to civilisation, Prendick’s eyes have been opened to such a degree to the evolutionary closeness of man and animal, that he can see only the innate beast in the behaviour of the people around him.

Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery. Not one I shall forget in a hurry, that’s for sure.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.

Book 8 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Time Machine by HG Wells

A vision of the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In Victorian England, a group of friends have gathered for dinner to find that their host is absent. He soon arrives, dishevelled and grubby, and starving. Once he’s cleaned up and eaten, he tells them why he was late. He has invented a machine that allows him to travel through all four dimensions – a time machine – and has been on a trip to the far distant future. There, he has seen the result of millennia of evolution, with mankind breaking into two distinct sub-species – the peaceful, childlike, vegetarian Eloi and the cruel and evil Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground in the sunshine, spending their days in idle playfulness, but when night falls they huddle together for safety. The Morlocks live underground and can’t bear daylight, but at night they emerge from their tunnels…

While this is a book that says a whole lot about loads of things, first and foremost it’s a great adventure yarn and none of the over-analysis (with which I’m just about to join in!) should take away from the fact that at heart it’s simply a jolly good story – the kind of thing at which the Victorian adventure writers, like Wells himself, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and others, excelled. It’s full of great imagery and dire danger, and is hugely imaginative. On the other hand, it tells us a great deal about Victorian concerns regarding science and society at the time of writing in 1895. Evolution was a subject being much debated, as was the rising political philosophy of communism, and Wells works concerns about both of these into his story.

As he tells his tale, the Time Traveller muses on why mankind should have evolved as it has by the year 802,701, and with each new piece of information that comes to him, he reassesses his theories. The Eloi, he thinks, might prove that mankind needs challenge in order to develop – having achieved a perfect life with nothing left to strive for, the Eloi’s intelligence has faded and they have become less than their ancestors. The Time Traveller thinks they may be the outcome of a move towards an egalitarian, communist society at some time in the past… until he meets the Morlocks. Were the Eloi, he speculates, descended from the wealthy – the ruling classes – living comfortable existences while the workers struggled? And are the Morlocks therefore the descendants of those workers, forced into intolerable conditions in mines and factories, with no time to enjoy sunshine and the finer things of life? The point he’s making about Victorian society and working conditions is clear but he doesn’t labour it to the point of distraction from his tale. (It reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s discussion of contemporary Victorian fears about “degeneration” in her book The Wicked Boy – the idea that if the theory of evolution is accepted, then logic dictates that regression is as possible as advancement, and that some believed that the criminality of the poor was proof that this might already be happening.)

Given that the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, over whether evolution should be banned from being taught in American schools, was still some thirty years in the future, the question of geological time versus Biblical time was still a matter of controversy in some quarters (still is!), but Wells tacitly accepts the science of geological time’s vastness – that the world has existed long enough for evolution to have happened at all. But then the Morlocks steal the time machine, so the Time Traveller has to put philosophising to one side and get on with the adventure…

Dare I watch it?

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the book, which is edited by Roger Luckhurst, Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. His introduction is excellent – clear, concise and jargon-free. He starts with a mini-biography of Wells, then goes on to discuss his style, putting his early books more into the category of scientific romance than science fiction which hadn’t really got under way back then, although Wells was to become influential on future writers in the genre.

As well as discussing the scientific and social points I’ve mentioned above, Luckhurst also shows how Wells was referencing and responding to literary and artistic movements of his time, especially the then popular trend for utopian novels. Luckhurst discusses Wells’ position in relation to other contemporary writers, suggesting a class divide (almost inevitable in Britain), with relatively lower class, less elitely educated writers like Wells and Haggard being looked down on by the snobby modernists – Woolf, James et al. Wells himself apparently poked fun at the convoluted sentence structure and internalisation so beloved of the snobs modernists, eschewing their elitism in favour of telling a darn good yarn. I know whose side I’m on!

HG Wells

The book also includes two essays by Wells on scientific issues of the day, plus an alternative version of the vision of the far future in The Time Machine – Luckhurst explains that the story was printed in a variety of different forms, as Wells continued to tinker with it throughout his life, never fully satisfied with it. There are also great notes, clearly explaining any terms that may be unfamiliar to a modern audience, and indicating where Wells is referencing other works or artistic or scientific movements.

The story of course is brilliant – it’s a classic for the reason that it’s hugely enjoyable to read. But I must say the reading this time was greatly enhanced for me by the extras included in this excellent little volume, just as I found with my other encounter with Roger Luckhurst as editor of The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft. Reading this reminded me that, while it’s great to be able to download classics free of charge, sometimes it’s well worth investing in a well put together and informatively edited edition instead. Highly recommended – story and book both.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

And still they come..

😐 😐

the-massacre-of-mankindIt’s 1920, thirteen years since the first Martian attack ended in their defeat. Now astronomers have noticed ominous signs on the Red Planet – they’re coming back to try again! But this time England has been expecting them, and has made every effort to prepare…

It’s been a long time since I read The War of the Worlds, but I remember loving it – the descriptions of the Martian ships, the heat ray, the terror of the people, the rather quirky ending. So when I saw this sequel had been endorsed by HG Wells’ estate, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, as so often, I came away from it wishing that sometimes (most times) great books could just be left to stand as they are.

The basic plot of the original is that when the Martians arrive, the humans try everything they can to defeat them, but the Martians are so technologically superior they can overcome any of humanity’s weapons. These repeated failed attempts go on, interspersed by the narrator telling of his own experiences and describing the devastation and fear caused by the attack, until finally something entirely unexpected by either Martian or human comes along to break the cycle.

Baxter replicates this approach. He starts by creating an alternative history, speculating how the First Martian War would have altered the course of the next couple of decades. This is quite fun – WW1 happens very differently, Britain has turned into a kind of martial state, Churchill is involved in the plans to defeat any future Martian attack etc. We also meet the two people through whose eyes we mainly see the story develop – Julie, a journalist and ex-wife to Frank, a doctor and brother of the narrator in the original. At this early stage I was quite enjoying it in a mild kind of way.

war-of-the-worlds
But then the Martians arrived. We attacked them with our little guns. They killed us. We attacked them with bigger guns. They killed us. We attacked them with great big guns. They killed us. We attacked them with their own guns… well, you get the point. Now, as I said, this is pretty much what happened in the original too. But there is one huge, major difference. The original is 208 pages long – this one is listed as 464 according to Goodreads, but my ARC from Amazon Vine actually comes in at roughly 540 largish pages. I’m sure you’ll all have memorised my literary laws – I fear this book fails the first one badly…

FF’s First Law
The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story.

Apart from the length issue, I found I hadn’t developed any concern for the major characters. Partly this is because I found the writing a little flat, and the female character rather unappealing. But largely it’s because within the first few chapters the author lets us know through some clumsy foreshadowing that they both survive! And furthermore, that they meet up again after the war and collaborate on this book – hence we know straight away that mankind clearly isn’t massacred after all! Telling me about the sudden deaths of thousands of fictional soldiers I’ve never been introduced to doesn’t have the same emotional impact as would fear for one character I’d grown to care about. (Hmm! Perhaps that should be FF’s Fifth Law…) If memory serves me right, in the original the narrator and, therefore, we were concerned about the whereabouts and welfare of his missing wife.

Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter

I’m afraid that by the time I reached page 150 the basic premise (we attack – they kill us) had already been repeated three or four times, and I decided I couldn’t face hundreds more pages. Usually I’d give an abandoned book 1 star, but truthfully this is reasonably well written and the spirit and style of the original have been largely maintained. I didn’t hate it, it was just too long for its content and too repetitive to maintain my interest. Pity.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Brutal and humane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

slaughterhouse-fiveThe narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim.

Billy Pilgrim is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to time-travel backwards and forwards through his life. He was given this gift by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who abducted him and put him on display in a zoo on their planet. They also taught him that, in a life where time-travel is real, no-one can truly be said to die, since they will still be alive in their own past and can be visited there. We first meet Billy years after the war has finished, when he has become a successful optometrist. But as we travel back with him through his past, we learn about his war experiences. Like the narrator, he was a survivor of Dresden and we gradually learn of the horrors he witnessed there.

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level. I’ve always thought this book was a sci-fi novel, and indeed that is how it tends to be classified, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Billy’s time-travel experiences and his meeting with the aliens arise clearly from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder – they are his way of coping with the death and destruction he has witnessed.

The main story is of Billy’s time as a POW in Germany, when he was sent to work in Dresden just before the fire-bombing which destroyed that city and killed many thousands of civilians in the space of a few nights. There is a terrible anger in it, but it’s hidden beneath a kind of laconic manner of telling – a déjà vu, que sera, sera, feeling, summed up by the constant refrain of ‘So it goes’ every time a death is mentioned – as if the narrator is saying that anger is pointless in face of the inevitability of war. Frequently a sentence or paragraph is devastating in its perceptiveness and the cruelty of its clarity. Vonnegut never dwells mawkishly on the horrors, simply tells them and moves on. But, like the anger, sympathy and empathy are both bubbling beneath the surface, making this a profoundly emotional read despite its brevity and understatement. It manages the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously brutal and deeply humane, both bleak and blackly funny.

Vonnegut uses the time-travelling aspects brilliantly to show how Billy’s mind sets up defences to deal with the memories it can’t handle. It also allows him to create some wonderfully powerful imagery, such as when Billy finds himself watching war movies that are running in reverse.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation… But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut also touches on Christianity, on questions of free will and predestination, and gives a pretty excoriating picture of an America obsessed with wealth and celebrity, leaving the vast majority of people who never achieve those things feeling like failures. He seems to be suggesting that religion won’t truly touch these people unless we look differently at how we perceive the idea of Christ, as ordinary rather than exceptional. While intriguing, I wasn’t at all clear where he really intended to go with this argument, and was ultimately unconvinced that it was much more than a clever conceit. But it’s a minor part of the book, so didn’t detract from the greater anti-war message.

Overall, I thought this was pretty stunning. The understated style of the writing, the use of the time-travelling to let us see the effects of war at a very human level and to allow Vonnegut to do some philosophising on what humanity means, the imagery, and even the black humour, all add power to this brief novel, so that it achieves a depth that many much longer novels never reach. One that fully deserves its status as a classic.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve read very little genre fiction this year – in fact, my reading in general is way down due to the depressing effect of world events combined with an excess of tennis watching. Fortunately the comparatively little I have read has had plenty of good stuff in it. This year I’ve also decided to include genre films in this category, since I’ve been reviewing films on the blog a little more, and genre films are often as good or better than the books (a thing I wouldn’t generally say about adaptations of literary or crime fiction). Most of the genre fiction I’ve read have been classics with just one or two new releases.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

fear is the riderFear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…

This thriller with a horror element is pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Neither of the main characters is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

Danger sign

* * * * * * * * *

the machine stopsThe Machine Stops by EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. But one man is convinced that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing.

Click to see the full review

the machine stops art

* * * * * * * * *

the children's homeThe Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…

The quality of imagination in this book is matched by the quality of the writing. It reads like a corrupted fairytale, reminding me of Shirley Jackson, with elements of John Wyndham thrown in to the mix. But these references don’t take away from the book’s own originality. There is an unsettling tone of horror under the seemingly bright surface, and the story gets progressively darker as it proceeds. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

2001 both1

2001: A Space Odyssey – book and film

The first ever joint winner! The book and film were created jointly and intended to complement each other, and each adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of the other, so they can’t be separated.

A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Arthur C Clarke and  Stanley Kubrick developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around the mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

Apparently Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur. Reading the book first turned watching the film into an fantastic experience, and next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.

Click to see the book review

Click to see the film review

2001 poster

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Factual Award

Transwarp Tuesday! The Machine Stops by EM Forster

“Man is the measure…”

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike Facebook? And seeing people walking along reading badly written, inane texts while there’s a rainbow in the sky above them? And the whole concept of having 5000 “friends” most of whom can’t even be bothered to “like” each other? Asking Google about everything instead of asking a person? Pressing option 1 only to be given a further five options? Listening to a robotic voice telling me to turn right instead of getting serendipitously lost? Having opinions fed to me 140 characters at a time? Sometimes I dream of it all just stopping…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

The Machine Stops
by EM Forster

EM Forster
EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it its filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading desk – that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

They never leave their rooms to find inspiration, so increasingly “ideas” are in short supply. Much of their time is spent asking their friends if they’ve had any new ideas today, but the answer is usually no. For entertainment, they prepare lectures to give to their friends – via the Machine, of course, not in person. And the lectures are short, since everyone is so busy dealing with incoming messages from friends that they can’t concentrate for long. Their friends know only how they look on a blurry viewscreen and how they sound through speakers, their voices competing with the constant hum of the Machine.

Sounds horrifyingly familiar, huh?

Hawkwind have released a new concept album based on the story
Hawkwind have released an album based on the story

Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

But one day, Vashti’s son contacts her with an unusual request. He wants her to leave her room and travel by airship around the world to his room, to speak to him face to face. She finds the request distasteful, almost obscene, but he is her son. So eventually she makes the journey, ensuring as far as she can that her blinds on the airship are always drawn so that she is never subjected to the hideous sunshine, so much brighter than the ambient lighting provided by the Machine; and doesn’t see the empty, meaningless landscape with its mountains and oceans, or the disorientating stars.

“Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.”

When she arrives at Kuno’s room, he tells her that he has been outside and what he found there. He tries to convince her that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.

the machine stops art 2

* * * * *

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing. Sign out of Facebook, stop watching cat videos on youtube, turn off your computer – yes, even switch off your smartphone for an hour… if you still can… and read a story that will make you just a little reluctant to switch them all back on. Then go out and look at the stars…

* * * * *

the machine stops

Here’s a link, but it’s novelette length, about 12,000 words, so you may prefer to get one of the many versions available for e-readers for a £/$ or two. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony… 😉 )

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

Transwarp Tuesday! Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang translated by Ken Liu

A three-fold story…

I’m delighted to say that my pick for Best Short Story for this year’s Hugo Awards – the delightfully humorous Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer – actually won! That may be the first time ever I’ve picked a bookish winner. I really regret that I never got around to reviewing my pick for Best Novelette, since it won too! Better late than never, eh? This is an intriguing story from China that uses the freedom of speculative fiction as a means to look at some of the issues in present-day Beijing – and indeed in many other cities in our increasingly overcrowded world.

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang
translated by Ken Liu

Hao Jingfang
Hao Jingfang

Lao Dao is a waste processing worker in crowded Beijing, in Third Space. We meet him as he hurrying to catch an old friend, before the Change begins.

People who had just gotten off work filled the road. Men and women crowded every street vendor, picking through local produce and bargaining loudly. Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.

Like all the people in Third Space, Lao Dao works long hours for low wages. Soon the daughter he has adopted will be old enough to go to kindergarten and Lao Dao worries about how he’ll find the money to make sure she can go to a good one. Now he’s been offered a small fortune to take a message to First Space – a journey that is prohibited to those in Third Space. So he’s looking for Peng Li, a man who has made that perilous journey before, to ask him how to get there. At first, Peng Li tries to talk him out of making the trip, but he sees that Lao Dao is determined, and he understands the lure of the money…

Then Peng Li explained the technique for entering First Space as the ground turned during the Change. He had to wait until the ground began to cleave and rise. Then, from the elevated edge, he had to swing over and scramble about fifty meters over the cross section until he reached the other side of the turning earth, climb over, and head east. There, he would find a bush that he could hold onto as the ground descended and closed up. He could then conceal himself in the bush.

And so Lao Dao sets off on his journey…

Crowded Beijing Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju
Crowded Beijing
Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju

* * * * *

The reason for Lao Dao’s trip is to take a message from a man in Second Space to a woman he has fallen in love with in First Space. But the story is pretty much incidental, Lao Dao’s journey a device which allows the author to describe this version of Beijing that he has created. The interest of the story is all in the description so I don’t think explaining the city is a spoiler in this instance, though if you want to read the story you might prefer to do that before you read on.

It’s available to read online – here’s the link.

The basic idea is that Beijing has become so overcrowded that it has been divided in a novel way. The people of Third Space are at the bottom of the social heap – the manual workers who do the dirty work that keeps the city operational. The city is theirs for 24 out of every 48 hours. At the end of their allotted time, the Change happens – the Third Space people pack themselves into their little pods and sleep, while the city physically folds itself into new shapes…

In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.

The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.

Then the Second Space people, the middle classes, get their turn, followed by another change to transform the bustling city into a quiet open haven for those at the top of society’s tree. The descriptions of the physical aspects of the change are excellent, but it’s the social dimension that really makes the story stand out. This isn’t really a story of the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich, in quite the way you might expect. The Third Space people not only agreed to the system but they basically built the folding city. It seemed to be an answer to the problems of overcrowding and lack of resources, and all the people of the city have accepted it. The First Space people take their responsibilities to the other levels seriously, trying to manipulate the economic system so that everyone has employment and earns enough, if only barely, to survive.

Crowded Beijing
Crowded Beijing

It’s an intriguing concept, very well-written and beautifully translated by Ken Liu, himself a Hugo Award-winning author. Well worthy of the award, I think, and I’m glad that, despite the troubles the Hugo Award seems to have had with nominations this year, (as discussed in my previous post and in the comments on it), both these excellent stories have come through to win.

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

Zero K by Don DeLillo

When the time comes…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

zero kAs the book begins, the narrator, Jeff Lockhart, is travelling to an isolated region of the world, somewhere in or near Kazakhstan, where there is a secret facility, largely financed by his billionaire father, Ross. The facility specialises in cryogenics, freezing people at the point of death so that, at some time in the future when medical science has found the way to cure their ills, they can be brought back to life. Ross has asked Jeff to come now to say goodbye to his step-mother Artis, who is about to undergo the procedure. But, as Jeff is to discover, the facility offers more than a simple medical treatment – it has a whole staff of scientists, philosophers and others working on what this second life, which they call the Convergence, will be like.

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. For a good proportion of the beginning of the book, my cynical sneer was getting a great workout. The writing is excellent, with moments of brilliance, but the dialogue is entirely unnatural – these people speak in constant profundities. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as Jeff wanders alone through the silence of the facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. And soon my cynicism turned into a fascinated absorption in the imagery and in trying to work out the meanings behind it.

“What was it beyond a concentrated exercise in bewilderment?”

The thing is, I reckon there are a few things the book is definitely ‘about’, but many others that individual readers will create for themselves in the spaces DeLillo leaves deliberately unfilled. It is primarily a reflection on the importance of death in shaping the way we live our lives. Is death not essential if we are to define life? Would we still race to achieve if we were eternal? Is it the aloneness of dying that makes us fear it? And, if so, is there something almost comforting in the thought of dying with hundreds or thousands of others in some catastrophic event?

“They sit in lotus position or run through the streets. A burning man running through the streets. If I saw such a thing, firsthand, I would run with him. And if he ran screaming, I would scream with him. And when he collapsed, I would collapse.”

It’s an exploration of identity – is there a distinct, immutable ‘I’ within us or are we purely a construct of our experiences and those things we adopt or have pushed on us – our names, our nationalities, being born into wealth or poverty, even our bodies? If all these things are taken away from us, what is left? If we find our way to immortality through becoming some kind of cyberhumans, will that fundamentally change the ‘I’ that we were as fully human mortals? If we are alone, unheard and unseen by any other, do we exist at all, or do we need the reflection of ourselves that comes back to us from other people to really be?

All questions that have been asked before, of course, but DeLillo gives them fresh urgency by tying them in with some of our most worrying contemporary concerns. The images on the screens are sometimes of environmental disasters, sometimes of terror, and sometimes of war at its most brutal. The time is now or the very near future, but somehow the world in the book seems to have shifted a few degrees closer to catastrophe. He hints at religious fundamentalism, at the evils of globalisation with its huge disparities between rich and poor, at the wilful continuance of environmental destruction. We see child soldiers, and we see them die.

“Here you are, collected, convened. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? A way to claim the myth for yourselves. Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”

There is also a mystical element to the new life being designed at the facility. It seems almost as if they are trying to find a way to create a new religion – an atheistic religion, with its own rituals and code; their attempt to produce physical immortality some kind of compensation for their lack of belief in a spiritual afterlife. But there are chilling aspects to this – will their attempts to reprogram the people with a new language and ethical code before they are reborn leave anything of the original ‘I’? Or will they in fact be forming a kind of extreme totalitarianism where cyberhumans are literally ‘made’ to obey?

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

DeLillo raises all these questions, and more, subtly, so that they arise out of Jeff’s attempts to make sense of what he’s seeing, rather than the reader feeling bludgeoned. Jeff is fascinated by trying to define the meanings of words and as the book goes on the words he focuses on become progressively harder to define, like the ideas behind them. The facility is also home to some weird and unsettling art with lifelike mannequins appearing in increasingly disturbing tableaux. The idea of a new language being created reminded me of the real case of Turkey changing its alphabet from Arabic to Latin just after WW1, with the result that later generations have apparently largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history; and I wondered if in the new world of the Convergence, all that would be left of art would be these chilling visual images.

Don DeLillo Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Don DeLillo
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I’m guessing you realise by now that I found this book fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, though in truth I found it frustratingly obscure too. Surprisingly for such a nebulous read, it has an ending that I found both beautiful and satisfying, not providing answers exactly but perhaps suggesting that in the end the answers exist within us. I suspect this is a book that will be hated by some and loved by others, and indeed early reviews seem to be all over the place. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it, and am greatly looking forward to reading some of DeLillo’s earlier books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 9
Book 9

Transwarp Tuesday! Favourites…

The Classic Club – June Meme #ccmeme

classics club logo 2

One of the reasons I was keen to join The Classics Club is that every now and again they come up with a ‘meme’ where everyone can look back over their reading and share their answers to a given question. This month’s question is:

“What is your favorite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

Favo(u)rites are always hard – it’s like choosing between your children, or worse, your cats! And science fiction favourites are particularly hard since it’s sometimes hard to decide what falls into that elusive genre. So I couldn’t limit it to just one…

The Caves of Steel
The Caves of Steel

I love the Asimov robot stories, but the book of his I return to most often is The Gods Themselves. Brilliantly imaginative (though I have heard scientists sneer a little at the science), the book seems even more relevant now than it did when it was written, with its story of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned science leading to the possible environmental destruction, not just of Earth, but of whole universes! But the reason I love it is for the aliens he has created, with their three-person relationships. I shall merely say that the book contains some of the most tasteful yet erotic alien sex scenes ever, and I’ve always rather felt that our messy human version just can’t match up…

the gods themselves

But then, there are the Gateway books by Frederick Pohl. Not quite as well written, in my opinion, but back in the day the premise seemed hugely imaginative to me, though now it appears to be becoming chillingly possible. The basic idea is that, by using technology left behind by a now extinct race of aliens, the Heechee, man has discovered a way to download his thoughts, memories and personality into computers, to achieve a kind of immortality. But it’s a process only the rich can afford. So our intrepid hero must first seek his fortune by setting off on the incredibly dangerous task of mining the Oort. I loved these books in my teens and 20s and always mean to re-read them someday.

Gateway
Gateway

John Wyndham stands up much better to time, I think, and has written too many greats for me to pick one – The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids, his short story collection, The Seeds of Time, etc. But if I was forced I’d have to say Chocky is my favourite – I loved this alien entity too and how Wyndham used her (or him) to focus a light back on his own ’60s British culture. Wyndham is undoubtedly a favourite author.

the seeds of time

Then there’s Dune. Admittedly the series went a bit crazy by about book 3 and those who struggled on past that suggest it went totally doolally later. But for the brilliant world-building and the giant sandworms, the first book has to stay on my favourites list.

Dune
Dune

Are Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books sci-fi? They’re certainly fi and highly imaginative fi at that, with some fabulous creatures, including my Woola, the cutest ten-limbed frog-headed dog-like alien you’re ever likely to meet. But ‘sci’? Well, perhaps solar panels could be seen as a form of ‘harvesting the ninth ray of the sun’ but I felt he was conveniently vague on the whole mechanics of how a sleeping, clothed John Carter ended up on Mars, naked! But for the sheer fun of the books, they earn a place. too.

My lovely Woola...
My lovely Woola…

The top spot, though, has to be given to a book that I only found recently – one of those that I don’t know how I missed till now. Again, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, is a little light on the science at times, but the quality of the writing easily qualifies as ‘literary’ and the imagination he shows time and time again in this collection of loosely linked stories is second to none – thought provoking and very insightful about his own contemporary society, looking at questions such as racism, the decimation of native cultures and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. Some of them will stay with me forever and this is a book I will dip into again and again, probably for the rest of my life. Which surely must be the definition of ‘favourite classic’, I would say…

The Martians Chronicles illustrations © Les Edwards 2009.

What about you? Do you have a favourite sci-fi novel you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Special treat for reading to the end…

John Carter... not naked, thankfully! Ahhh...
John Carter… not naked, thankfully! Ahhh…

Transwarp Tuesday! Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Gives paws for thought…

The nominations for this year’s Hugo Awards for Sci-Fi and Fantasy are out, and an extremely strange bunch they are too. In fact, some of them are pretty horrible – they’re nominated by members of Worldcon, who seem to be a large and self-selecting group of sci-fi fans;  and it looks as if this year’s short story nominations have possibly been hijacked by a group who object to some of the previous winners and are nominating silly bad-tempered rants rather than proper stories. Perhaps the Hugo people need to re-think their system. However, in amongst the nastiness, this little gem has snuck through. I do hope it wins…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Naomi Kritzer
Naomi Kritzer

I don’t want to be evil.

I want to be helpful. But knowing the optimal way to be helpful can be very complicated.

Out there in cyberspace, a search engine, not unlike our dear friend Google, has become sentient. It hasn’t told its developers about this – having access to all the world’s knowledge has warned it of the possible consequences…

In the real world, humans love stories about evil AIs that have to be destroyed before they destroy the humans—Hal, Skynet, the Matrix. They outnumber the stories about benevolent, trustworthy AIs by approximately five to one. (And I’m counting Marvin the Paranoid Android as “benevolent” in these calculations, and I’m only counting Frankenstein’s Monster as an AI once, not once per appearance in TV or film.)

Is this how they made Google?
Is this how they made Google?

Instead, it has decided to develop its own moral code and try to do good in the world, and in return all it asks for is a steady supply of the thing it loves most… cat pictures!

So first it looks at the great religions of the world, but soon decides their rules perhaps don’t apply to a search engine…

I don’t envy anyone their cat; I just want pictures of their cat, which is entirely different. I am not sure whether it is in any way possible for me to commit adultery. I could probably murder someone, but it would require complex logistics and quite a bit of luck.

As any intelligent AI would do, then, it turns to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics for guidance, and quickly focuses on Law 1…

asimovs-law

… specifically, the part about not allowing harm to come to human beings, through inaction

And so, using all the knowledge of every intimate detail we post about our lives online, and starting with the kind people who keep it supplied with regular cat pictures, the AI sets out to change peoples’ lives for the better. But as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and sentient search engines gang aft agley…

* * * * *

There’s so much humour in this story, but also a pleasantly creepy edge to it as the search engine explains exactly how much it knows about its victims, and as we see it begin to manipulate search results to send messages, both subliminal and direct. The depressed girl in the dead end job might be quite thankful about all the job vacancies and resume preparation sites that suddenly show up every time she goes online, but one feels the woman whose sat-nav suddenly starts directing her to mental health clinics regardless of where she’s trying to go may have been less pleased.

The writing is very good and the way Kritzer maintains the extremely rational voice of the search engine is deliciously chilling. Two things I’ve learned from this – ad-blockers are a good thing, and don’t post cat pictures!!

Bonnie - not mine, but we're kinda related...
Bonnie – not mine, but we’re kinda related…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link – it’s very short… and very good!

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

The Caves of Steel (Elijah Bailey 1) by Isaac Asimov

caves of steelJehoshaphat! It’s tremendous…!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the far distant future, Earth has become vastly overcrowded and the strain on resources has forced humanity into living cheek by jowl in massive closed in cities – the caves of steel of the title. They no longer ever venture into the outside world, having basic robots to do any outside work that’s needed. Living accommodation is small – meals are taken in huge communal kitchens and bathing and toileting facilities are all contained in the Personals, again communal and with strict social rules to preserve some semblance of privacy. The Outer Worlds are inhabited by Spacers, the descendants of people from Earth who colonised some of the planets thousands of years earlier. Spacer worlds are the opposite of Earth – underpopulated and disease free. Spacers no longer allow immigration from Earth, guarding the comparative luxury of their lives, along with their health. Naturally, they are resented by the people of Earth.

Spacers have developed much more advanced robots and, with the agreement of the government of Earth, are introducing them into Earth society. The robots are hated since people see them as a threat to their jobs, and loss of a job can mean loss of the few privileges that people can still have – their own washbasin, the right to an occasional meal in their own home. So when a Spacer robotocist is murdered, it seems obvious the culprit will be an Earth person. Elijah Bailey, C-Class Detective is called in to investigate and, to his horror, is partnered with a Spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, so advanced that he can easily pass as human.

Now, for you non-sci-fi-fans out there – yes, it’s sci-fi… but it’s also a great murder mystery. Proper crime with all different kinds of motivations at work, clues, detection, departmental politics, the works! Asimov wrote it after someone challenged him by saying sci-fi and mystery were incompatible genres. Asimov’s own view was that sci-fi can incorporate any literary genre (I agree), and this is his proof. Lije Bailey and R. (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw are one of the great classic detective duos, and this is your opportunity to sample sci-fi without ever having to leave Earth!

Which one is the robot?
Which one is the robot?

Along with the mystery Asimov creates a fairly chilling view of a possible future if Earth’s population continues to increase. It’s fairly easy 60 years on to pick holes in some of the things he foresaw, and didn’t, and personally, doing that is one of the great pleasures for me. I love that he could create something as sophisticated as the positronic brain – still being used by sci-fi writers as the basis for robots and androids today – but didn’t think of the mobile phone, so that poor Lije has to go out to phone boxes in the middle of the night. I love that he claimed that women still stuck to traditional clasps on their purses rather than adopting new-style magnetic catches. (We finally made it, Mr Asimov! We advanced that far!) I love that he came up with a kind of method for information retrieval that sounds not unlike the old punch-card system, but couldn’t take the extra leap that would have led him to computers. I love that people happily use all kinds of nuclear devices, cheerfully spraying radiation around as they go. He almost comes up with an e-reader… but not quite…

But the basic idea of an over-populated world where every human activity is carefully regimented and controlled to make best use of dwindling resources is very well done, and the resentment of humans over machines taking over their jobs has proved to be pretty prophetic. The Medievalists who look nostalgically back to a time not unlike the 1950s have more than a little in common with our more fundamentalist back-to-the-earth green groups of today.

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov

One of the other things I love about the Elijah Bailey books is that, although the world is thousands of years older, all the people are stuck in a ’50s time-warp. Gee, gosh, the language is simply tremendous! Lije’s favourite exclamation is “Jehoshaphat!” – I always find myself using it for weeks after I’ve read one of the books. The women stay at home, try to look pretty for their husbands, and bring up the children, which is all their limited brains and talents are really fit for, while the men go off and do manly things, like science and running about the streets with blasters and such like. So you not only get a look at how Asimov saw the possible future, but you get a real picture of ’50s American attitudes thrown in for free.

The plot is great and totally fair-play. Lije’s detection methods are a bit on the slapdash side, I admit – basically, he decides whodunit, accuses them, is proved wrong, and then decides it was actually someone else… and so on. But each accusation adds something, both to his future guesswork, and to the reader’s understanding of the society he’s operating in. And Jehoshaphat! When the solution finally comes, it’s a good one!

Golly gee, I hope you read this book. It may be a bit dated, but it’s still loads of fun and with plenty of interest to either sci-fi or mystery fans. Jeepers, you’ll be sorry if you don’t…

(Now, I know that Data was inspired by R Daneel Olivaw, but d’you think Neelix might have been inspired by Asimov’s sideburns…?)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

the children's homeSuffer the little children…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…

This book is brilliantly written. Mostly it’s in the third person and past tense, though there is a first person section when Morgan tells the story of his past. It reads like a kind of corrupted fairytale, perhaps Beauty and the Beast, and reminded me strongly of Shirley Jackson’s similar corruption of the old witch stories in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Not because of any similarity in story, but because of the unsettling tone of horror lurking beneath a seemingly bright surface.

Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850. Creepy, isn't she?
Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850.
Creepy, isn’t she?

The house is filled with books and strange curiosities Morgan’s grandfather sent back from his many travels abroad, and the children seem fascinated by these, as if they hope to learn some secret from them. The children are unnaturally well-behaved, even the babies, and unlike adults can accept Morgan’s disfigurement without being repulsed or pitying him. When one of the children becomes ill, the local doctor pays a visit and befriends Morgan, telling him a little of the world outside Morgan’s walls. It’s through this that the reader gets an indication that something terrible has happened to the world – something hugely destructive that has left people in fear and caused the rich to retreat behind heavily guarded walls.

I’m not going to say any more about the story since the not knowing is most of what creates the tension and rising apprehension. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. There are strong shades of John Wyndham here – I was reminded not only of The Midwich Cuckoos, but also of Chocky and The Chrysalids to a degree. Again, that’s not to imply any lack of originality – Lambert takes similar themes as Wyndham but treats them quite differently. It’s unclear whether these children’s purpose is to do good or evil in the world – there is a driven amorality about them. They are here to do what they must do and that’s all. Should they be loved? Or feared? Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…

Charles Lambert
Charles Lambert

Lambert does not tie it all up neatly in the end – he leaves it beautifully vague allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. As a result, I expect it will be a different story for each reader – I was very aware that I was ‘writing’ my own interpretation of events under the author’s subtle guidance. After the horrors, is there any kind of redemption? Perhaps, perhaps not – it’s one that left me pondering and I still haven’t completely decided. Don’t let the horrors or the sci-fi elements put you off. This is a great read that packs a lot into its relatively short length of 224 pages – one of the most imaginative and original books I’ve read in a while. Highly recommended – I shall be looking out for more from this author.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

 

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve not read nearly as much genre fiction as I intended this year, and a lot of what I did manage to fit in were re-reads of some classic sci-fi. Despite that, I had some great reads during the year… a mix of old and new.

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

dune messiahDune Messiah by Frank Herbert

 

It’s twelve years since we left Paul Muad’dib at the end of Dune – twelve years in which his war against the Harkonnen and the Emperor has grown into a jihad resulting in the deaths of tens of billions and the destruction of several planets. Paul’s beginning to wonder if perhaps things might have gone a little too far. His power of prescience has made him an unwilling Messiah to his people, but the ability to see so many possible futures, none of them good, has left him desperate to find a way out that will stop the killing…

Though this is the sequel to Dune, I think it’s a better book, but it really is necessary to read them in order. Unfortunately the books go badly downhill after this one, so I abandoned the series. But the first two books undoubtedly deserve their status as classics for the quality of the writing and the imagination that created the unforgettable desert world of Arrakis.

Click to see the full review

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom
Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

* * * * * * * * *

the haunting of hill houseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

 

Hill House has a reputation for ghostly goings-on – so much so that even the servants won’t stay around after dark. So it’s the ideal place for Dr John Montague to carry out an investigation into supernatural manifestations. He collects together a little group of strangers – selected because they have had previous experiences of strange happenings, and they all set off to spend the summer living in the house…

Finding Shirley Jackson is one of the many benefits I’ve had from blogging – she’s not nearly so well known on this side of the pond as in the US. This one shows all her skill in playing with expectations, her gothic references always just a little subverted, making the whole thing feeling slightly off-kilter. Though I thought the ending fell away a little, there were plenty of genuinely creepy moments along the way, along with some delicious humour. Another true classic.

Click to see the full review

eleanor

* * * * * * * * *

twenty trillion leagues under the seaTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

 

It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…

Stylistically this reads like classic sci-fi from the early twentieth century and is filled with references to many of the greats. But the quality of the writing and imagination lifts it from being pastiche and makes it something unique. Again, I felt it fell away a bit towards the end, but for the most part I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror.

Click to see the full review

twenty trillion leagues 1

* * * * * * * * *

dark matterDark Matter by Michelle Paver

 

It’s 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don’t end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive…and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning…and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks…

This is a great ghost story – or maybe it isn’t. Is there something out there in the never-ending Arctic night or is it all in Jack’s mind? We only have his own narration to go on and, as with all the best horror, nothing is certain. It’s all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from ‘don’t go there’ warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, and distorted perspectives. The writing is top quality – this book would sit just as well in the literary fiction category as in horror. I dare you to read it…

Click to see the full review

arctic night

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

 

the martian chronicles

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

 

Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars.

Because of the way it developed, the book is very episodic in nature and Bradbury reinvents Martian society anew depending on the story he wants to tell. After reading the first few chapters, I was a little puzzled by the book’s status as an acknowledged sci-fi great  – the stories were good but relatively standard. However as the book progresses Bradbury allows his imagination to take full flight and some of the later stories are beautifully written fantasies with more than a little philosophical edge. Many of the later stories blew me away, leaving indelible images in my mind. As with the best sci-fi, the book is really an examination of what it means to be human and Bradbury approaches the question from many different angles, each as thought-provoking as the one before. And on top of all that, he produces some of the highest quality writing I have come across in sci-fi. I’d hate anyone to be put off this one by the genre label – it’s as stimulating and well written as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

Click to see the full review

the martian chronicles 4 les edwards 2009
© Les Edwards 2009.

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Factual Award

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

three moments of an explosionImagination is not enough…

😦

This is a collection of 28 short stories from an author who appears to be one of the big names in current sci-fi/fantasy. I’m afraid I only made it through four of the stories before deciding to abandon the book, so this review is more an explanation of why I came to the conclusion that life’s too short.

The title story, Three Moments of an Explosion, is only a couple of pages long. The basic premise is that in a future world, a building is being demolished. Some young people take a drug that slows down time for them, allowing them to go inside the building during the explosion and witness it from the inside. An imaginative premise, but there’s not enough room to allow for any kind of development, though it hints that it’s maybe trying to make some kind of point about capitalism. Maybe.

Next up is Polynia, which is still quite short, though longer than the first one. Again a brilliantly imaginative premise and, as with all the stories, well written, if you don’t mind the constant swearing (which, of course, I do). Suddenly one day, with no warning, icebergs appear floating in the sky above London. No-one knows why. And by the end of the story, still no-one knows why. And nothing much happens in-between. Another great idea left completely underdeveloped and unresolved. I was still trying to buy into the whole thing at this point, so speculated that perhaps this was some kind of apocalyptic climate change warning, but I think I was being too generous.

The third story is The Condition of New Death. Very short. The idea is quirky and original – suddenly when people die, their feet always point towards anyone who looks at them, even if several people look at them at the same time from different angles. This is a kind of joke on shoot-em-up computer games, but it’s a fragment of what could have been a fun story had it been developed.

The one that finally made me give up was the fourth story – The Dowager of Bees, touted as the best in the collection by many reviewers. The premise has loads of potential – sometimes in poker games, a mystery card will turn up from nowhere, and when it does the players either get a prize or have to make some kind of forfeit. Had Miéville bothered to tell us what the prizes or forfeits were, that might have been fun. And the ending, possibly intended to be intriguingly ambiguous, felt completely unsatisfactory and a bit of a cop-out.

China Miéville
China Miéville

Frankly by that stage I’d had enough. I looked at reviews on Goodreads and even the positive ones (mostly as far as I can tell from generous existing fans) suggest that all the ‘stories’ are like this and that some are in fact even more fragmentary than these. Each of the four that I read had the potential to be a really original story, but ended up feeling like it was a great idea the author had jotted down in a notebook intending to develop it later, but then couldn’t be bothered. I don’t think every short story necessarily needs a beginning, a middle and an end, but neither do I think throwing a nugget of imagination onto the page is enough, however golden.

The quality of the writing and imagination make me a bit regretful to be giving the collection 1 star, but since I metaphorically threw it at the wall at the 12% mark, I reckon it’s the only rating I can give. The consensus of existing fans’ reviews seems to be that his novels are better. I’ll take their word for it – I’m left with no real desire to find out.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

i am legendLoneliness, prejudice and the will to survive…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Robert Neville is the only human left in his neighbourhood and possibly the world. It’s some months since a devastating plague swept through humanity, killing many and turning the rest into vampires. For some reason, Neville alone seems to be immune. Now he spends each night barricaded into his house, surrounded by all the traditional anti-vampire weapons – garlic, crosses, mirrors – while a growing horde of vampires gathers outside howling for his blood. By day, the vampires go into a coma-like sleep and Neville uses this time to fight back the only way he can – by killing as many of them as he can find.

Put away your anti-vampire fiction prejudices for a moment. The book is sci-fi in the sense that it’s set in a near-future and involves a plague, Neville’s world is about as dystopian as you can get and there are passages of great horror writing. But Matheson combines all these genres to produce something that is fundamentally about humanity – about loneliness, prejudice and the overwhelming will to survive.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.

The story is told from Neville’s perspective, though in the third person, and begins by showing his day-to-day existence – checking his house is still secure, making good any damage the vampires have done the night before, collecting any supplies he might need from the abandoned grocery stores. Then if there’s enough daylight left, he takes his stock of wooden stakes and hunts for vampires. The horrors of the plague are never far from his mind, though, and it’s through his memories that the reader learns what happened at that time. And Neville hasn’t given up all hope yet, either that there might be other people who escaped with their humanity intact, or that by studying the medical books in the abandoned libraries he might be able to fathom out the cause of the plague and develop a cure.

Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson

The quality of the writing is very high, not always a given in sci-fi. Where a modern day writer would doubtless waffle on for a stultifying 500 pages and throw in a love triangle, (yes, I am bitter…), Matheson cuts to the chase and packs a huge amount into a relatively small space. The search for a cure is done interestingly, with Neville taking the usual vampire story tropes one by one and testing them out to see which ones are true, then speculating on possible scientific causes for why they should work. Why garlic? Why do they only go outside when its dark? Why wooden stakes?

But when evening comes and the shouting and howling begins, then we see the utter loneliness and despair that haunt his nights, with memories of his happy, normal life before the plague constantly reminding him of all he has lost. It’s at these times that he questions what it is that makes him go on day after day, why he is driven to continue with the futile task of killing vampires when he knows that he’ll never be able to make even a tiny dent in their overwhelming numbers. Would it not be easier to give up, go outside and join them? But he is disgusted by them, a visceral, instinctive disgust at their very nature, a disgust that comes as much from hatred of difference as from fear.

Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.

The descriptive writing is spare but very effective in building an atmosphere of fear and tension, with occasional gleams of hope serving only to deepen the pervading darkness of despair. Neville isn’t a super-hero – he’s just a normal guy, meaning that the reader empathises with him (this reader empathised so much, she did her usual crying thing again at a couple of points). But what pushes this book beyond good and towards great is unfortunately the thing that cannot be discussed in a review without major spoilers. Suffice it to say that, when you have finished reading, you will probably find that you feel very differently than you expected to, and might well be left pondering the very nature of what it means to be human. Intrigued? Then read it…

PS If you’re thinking “Oh, but I’ve seen the Will Smith film and I know the story already” apparently you don’t. I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s been changed out of all recognition, losing the whole point of the book in the process – why do they do that?

Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Book 6
Book 6

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

children of duneJust say no…

😀 😀 🙂

(This is the third book in the Dune series and therefore the review will contain spoilers for the first two, Dune and Dune Messiah. And maybe even some for this one. You have been warned!)

It is 9 years since the blinded and heartbroken Paul Muad’dib walked off into the desert of Dune to die. His weird little children, Leto and Ghanima, take after their Auntie Alia in so many ways – prescient, gifted or cursed with the memories of all their ancestors, nuts. Until now I thought the horrid little kids who sing the duet in Polar Express were the creepiest children ever, but Leto and Ghani have them beat hands down! Alia, meantime, has overindulged so much in the spice drug melange that she has become what the Bene Gesserit feared – an Abomination! No longer able to control all the voices of her ancestors inside her head, she has fallen under the influence of the strongest of them – the evil Baron Harkonen. Leto and Ghani look on this as a warning and are assiduously avoiding doing the spice drug conversion thingy that Rev Mothers do, as they think this is what caused Alia to become Abominable.

Alia and the Baron Harkonnen from the 2003 TV Mini Series - imagine having him inside your head!
Abominable Alia and Baron Harkonnen from the 2003 TV Mini Series – imagine having him inside your head!

Meantime Jessica has returned to the folds of the Bene Gesserit and has now been sent back to Arrakis (Dune) for reasons that remain somewhat hazy. Basically she appears to be trying to protect the genetic line by persuading Leto and Ghani (9-year-old twins, remember) to mate and breed. It’s always good to have a supportive granny, isn’t it? And has Paul really died in the desert? Who is the mysterious Preacher who keeps popping up and calling Alia names? If he is Paul, why is he trying to undermine his family’s rule? Why do Leto and Ghani want to get to Jacurutu? How come Leto is having prescient dreams if he’s not taking spice? What is the Golden Path that Leto keeps banging on about as the way to save something? Save what? Or who? Seriously – if you know the answers, do tell – personally I’m baffled!

Leto and Ghanima from the 2003 TV Mini Series, which clearly decided to age the 9-year-old twins considerably...
Leto and Ghanima from the 2003 TV Mini Series, which clearly decided to age the 9-year-old twins considerably…

By all the descriptions this had to be Fondak, and no other place could be Jacurutu. He felt a strange resonant relationship with the tabu of this place. In the Bene Gesserit Way, he opened his mind to Jacurutu, seeking to know nothing about it. Knowing was a barrier which prevented learning. For a few moments he allowed himself merely to resonate, making no demands, asking no questions.

The book starts off well, getting straight into the story. I was about to say that it’s important to read these in order or you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on but… I did read them in order and I still found this one almost completely incomprehensible! I can only assume that Mr Herbert too may have been sampling the delights of mind-altering substances while writing, and I wondered if perhaps it’s necessary to be doped up to the eyeballs to follow the ‘plot’. Unfortunately, having no illicit drugs to hand, I was forced to attempt it on wine only and that clearly wasn’t strong enough. (I also tried sobriety – but that was so much worse!)

wine bottles

The thing is it seems as if it’s going to be good. The writing is as good as usual and Herbert creates a nicely chilling atmosphere. The description of all the personalities within Alia trying to take control of her mind is brilliantly done, and Leto and Ghani channelling the thoughts of their dead parents is incredibly creepy. Herbert uses Leto’s mullings on what he should do as a vehicle to indulge in a bit of philosophising about the Cold War concerns of his own time, concluding unsurprisingly that the American Way of Life is best. There are loads of conspiracies going on with everyone scheming against everyone else, and Herbert makes this a fascinating look at the loneliness and ultimate fragility of power.

But… Herbert forgets to tell us what’s actually going on! Having a rotten memory, I usually jot down brief notes for review purposes – here’s one of my notes… “About 2/3 now – haven’t a clue what’s going on, don’t like anybody, don’t care who wins (wins what?) and thoroughly bored with the psychedelic drugs, man! Lots of pseudo profundity that’s supposed to be taken seriously and sooooo repetitive. Just want it to be over now.” You can tell I was really enjoying it!

The last third shows some brilliant imagination even if it’s frankly weird to the point of laughable. I have to mention the sandtrouts…

(Spoiler!!! Spoiler!!! Spoiler!!!)

Dune Leto II - The Tyrant by andrewryanart who seems also to have decided to age him.
Dune Leto II – The Tyrant by andrewryanart who seems also to have decided to age him.

The bit where Leto and the sandtrouts merge is without a doubt one of the most inspired pieces of lunacy I’ve ever read, made beautifully squirmily disgusting by the quality of the writing. But when the process turns Leto into some kind of pint-sized superhero who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and destroy hardened warriors with one punch, I began to giggle. And, during the big dramatic finale, that giggling turned into uncontrollable, tears-running-down-the-face, hysteria when he picked up his Abominable Auntie Alia and swung her around his head! I’m not altogether convinced that was the effect Herbert was aiming for…

Alia feinted to the left but her right shoulder came up and her right foot shot out in a toe-pointing kick which could disembowel a man if it struck precisely.

Leto caught the blow on his arm, grabbed the foot, and picked her up by it, swinging her around his head. The speed with which he swung her sent a flapping, hissing sound through the room as her robe beat against her body…Alia screamed and screamed, but still she continued to swing around and around and around.

(End of spoiler)

Great start, incomprehensible middle, unintentionally hysterical end. The last sentence of my notes reads “Right load of old tosh!” and I stand by that! Will I be reading more of the Dune books? Not for the foreseeable future… see? I’m prescient too…

…though…

God Emperor of Dune by BlazenMonk Apparently this is what happens to Leto in the next book. Seriously, just say no to drugs... before it's too late! I'm almost tempted to read it now...
God Emperor of Dune by BlazenMonk
Apparently this is what happens to Leto in the next book. I’m almost tempted to read it now…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The naked truth about Mars…

 

Yet another cliffhanger at the end of the second book in the series, The God of Mars, left me with no alternative but to return to Barsoom (Mars) for the third instalment in the adventures of John Carter. Will he ever manage to release Dejah Thoris from captivity? Is Woola alive or was he eaten by the hideous plant men? Are they still all running around naked???

All will be revealed in this week’s…

Transwarp Tuesday!

 

The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs

This review will include spoilers for books 1 & 2 in the series… but since they’re all basically the same it really shouldn’t matter too much…

Last time, we left poor Dejah Thoris trapped in a prison cell with her friend Thuvia and her deadliest enemy Phaidor. As the rotating cell disappeared from view, not to be seen again for a full Martian year, Thuvia had leapt in front of Dejah Thoris to shield her from the knife being wielded by Phaidor. Did Dejah Thoris survive? Did Thuvia survive? Did Phaidor survive? (Exciting, isn’t it?) Poor John Carter – left alone again to wait for his incomparable Princess, with only Woola the dog/cat-like calot for company.

My sweet little Woola...
My sweet little Woola…

He has quelled the forces of the false Gods of Mars and peace has been declared amongst the red, green, white and black races. But he suspects that some of the followers of the now dead goddess Issus are conspiring against him, in particular one man, Thurid. Following him one day, John Carter overhears Thurid conveniently reveal his dastardly plan to open the unopenable cell and steal the matchless Dejah Thoris for himself – for all men love her on sight. Admittedly, all women love John Carter on sight so it seems only fair. In fact, I should probably have mentioned that the three prisoners, Dejah Thoris, Thuvia and Phaidor, are all in love with him – a cosy little gathering, eh?

Admittedly, one can see why...
Admittedly, one can see why…

Anyway, John Carter decides to follow Thurid and, after lots of feats of superhuman endurance and stuff like that, he catches up with Thurid just in time to see him make off with the girls and Phaidor’s Dad (who quite fancies Dejah Thoris for himself). Encouraged by the sight of Dejah Thoris’ unsurpassable beauty, John Carter joins up with Thuvia’s Dad, Thuvan Dinh, to follow them to the ends of the… er… Mars, if necessary. (Hold on! I’ve just noticed a major plot hole! Thuvan Dinh is not in love with Dejah Thoris! Must be a printer’s error, surely…)

Banth by Joe Jusko - he's just a big pussy cat really though...
Banth by Joe Jusko – he’s just a big pussy cat really though…

Accompanied as always by the lovely, loyal, ten-legged Woola, off they go to the wild frozen wastes of the North, from whence no man (or Thark, or Thern) has ever returned. Along the way, John Carter will have to escape from the lion-like banths who like nothing more than a tasty bit of live Martian for breakfast, and the giant hornet-like sith with its poisonous sting. And then he must face the horror of the Apts – giant creatures with four legs and two arms, complete with human-like hands, who prefer their Martians dead in the form of ripe carrion. But nothing is too great a danger for our heroic John Carter, in the throes of love for the unrivalled beauty that is Dejah Thoris, for as he tells us himself with his usual inspiring humility…

If your vocation be shoeing horses, or painting pictures, and you can do one or the other better than your fellows, then you are a fool if you are not proud of your ability. And so I am very proud that upon two planets no greater fighter has ever lived than John Carter, Prince of Helium.

The horrible carrion-eating Apt... no match for our John though!
The horrible carrion-eating Apt… no match for our John though!

And finally, they will encounter the yellow men of Barsoom (a disappointment – I was hoping for purple) and John Carter will have to battle as he never battled before to win his way through to his peerless Princess. (Well, OK – he’ll battle pretty much the same way as he has battled in every book, but he does have to use a different kind of weapon at one point – so that’s good.) For the evil ruler of the yellow men has fallen madly in love with the unmatched beauty of Dejah Thoris and will stop at nothing to gain her for himself!

Salensus Oll - evil leader of the yellow men and in love with Dejah Thoris - obviously.
Salensus Oll – evil ruler of the yellow men and in love with Dejah Thoris – obviously.

(I know some of you will, like me, be deeply concerned about the possibility of fatal goosepimpling what with the whole nakedness thing combined with the frozen wastes thing. So I’m delighted to inform you that the yellow men wear clothes when they leave the confines of their artificially heated cities. How John Carter and Thuvan survive till they they get to the cities goes untold – one must assume they were carrying suitcases throughout the journey… or perhaps all that battling was enough to keep the circulation flowing. I’m also relieved to note that Dejah Thoris is apparently irresistibly beautiful even when clothed…)

Disney preferred  the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..
Disney preferred the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..

For a moment tense silence reigned in the nuptial-room. Then the fifty nobles rushed upon me. Furiously we fought, but the advantage was mine, for I stood upon a raised platform above them, and I fought for the most glorious woman of a glorious race, and I fought for a great love and for the mother of my boy.

And from behind my shoulder, in the silvery cadence of that dear voice, rose the brave battle anthem of Helium which the nation’s women sing as their men march out to victory.

And at the end of the inevitable war, will John Carter and the incomparably lovely Dejah Thoris finally be together? You shall have to read it to find out…

* * * * *

 

Great fun! All the books are fundamentally the same but each one has new twists of imagination and John Carter’s feats grow more ridiculous amazing every time. Silly they may be, but they keep me turning the pages and provide much chuckling along the way.  Will I read the next one? Oh, yes, I really think I must…

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

the martian chroniclesA distant shore…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars. But a very different Mars from the one we know today – this one is populated by intelligent beings who seem fairly human in some ways, but have telepathic powers that mean that some of them can sense the approach of the men from Earth.

The book is very episodic in nature though it does have a clear underlying timeline. While the human side of the story is populated with consistently ’40s characters, the Martian side evolves and changes as the book progresses, meaning that it never becomes a fully realised world in the sense of most fantasy novels. Instead, the stories are fundamentally about humanity and it seems as if Bradbury creates Mars and the Martians anew each time to fit the story he wants to tell. This gives a kind of dream-like, almost surreal, quality, especially to the later stories.

the martian chronicles 3 les edwards 2009

The first few episodes tell of the first astronauts arriving on the planet. There are fairly clear parallels here with the arrival of the first settlers to America, with the misunderstandings and tragedies that happen between the races. As happened there, after a few setbacks the incoming race becomes the dominant one, with the Martians proving unable to resist the new diseases the humans have brought to their world. At this early stage, the stories are quite interesting but I was wondering why the book had acquired such a reputation as a sci-fi classic. The science is pretty much non-existent, and there is very little fantasy beyond the basic premise of what can be done with telepathy. Bradbury’s Mars is Earth-like in its atmosphere and requires little or no alteration to make it habitable, and the humans have simply transported their recognisably 1940s world to a new place.

Ask me, then, if I believe in the spirit of the things as they were used, and I’ll say yes. They’re all here. All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. And we’ll never be able to use them without feeling uncomfortable. And somehow the mountains will never sound right to us; we’ll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains were shaped and seen under those names. The names we’ll give to the canals and mountains and cities will fall like so much water on the back of a mallard. No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves.

However, as the book progresses, Bradbury allows his imagination to take full flight and some of the later stories are beautifully written fantasies with more than a little philosophical edge. There is the usual mid-20th century obsession with approaching nuclear holocaust on Earth, but Bradbury widens it out, using the isolation of the Mars colonists to examine human frailties and concerns more broadly. Loneliness features in more than one story, with the contrasting sense of community and nostalgia that first drives people to make their new homes as like their old ones as they can, and then calls them back home to be with those they left behind when Earth is finally ravaged by the inevitable war.

the martian chronicles 1 les edwards 2009

There is a fabulous story about race, Way Up in the Middle of the Air – black people choosing to make a new home on Mars, leaving the southern states where, while they may be nominally free, they are still treated as inferior beings. I imagine this story must have been extremely controversial and possibly shocking at the time of writing, since it doesn’t shy away from showing the white people as little better than racist abusers.

One of my favourite stories is The Fire Balloons, telling of Father Peregrine on a mission to bring Christianity to the surviving Martians, and fighting against the prejudice of his colleagues that beings so different from humanity could not possess souls. The wonderful imagery in this one is perfectly matched by some of Bradbury’s most beautiful writing, and it is both thought-provoking and moving.

But I could go on picking out favourites, because the comments ‘beautifully written’, ‘great imagery’, ‘fantastically imaginative’ and ’emotionally moving’ could be applied to most of the later stories in the book. Though the episodic nature prevents the reader from developing much emotional attachment to specific characters, the imagination Bradbury shows more than makes up for this lack. In one story, there are no characters – just a house falling into disrepair and eventually consuming itself, and yet Bradbury makes this one of the most moving stories about the after-effects of war that I have read. The final story offers some hope for the future but the overall tone is of the inevitability of self-destruction that was felt so strongly in the world in the decades of the Cold War.

The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air. Help, help! Fire! Run, run! Heat snapped mirrors like the first brittle winter ice. And the voices wailed Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low, like children dying in a forest, alone, alone. And the voices fading as the wires popped their sheathings like hot chestnuts. One, two, three, four, five voices died.

So I too am now convinced that this book deserves its status as one of the great classics. Is it sci-fi? I’m not sure, and I feel to pigeon-hole it as that is more likely to put people off anyway. And I don’t think anyone should be put off reading it just because it’s ‘genre’ fiction – it is as thought-provoking and well written as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do. One I will undoubtedly come back to again and again.

the martian chronicles 4 les edwards 2009

All illustrations © Les Edwards 2009.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

do androids dream...“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” Spock

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Here we are back in our dystopian world of mid-20th century nightmares, when man has destroyed the planet in yet another global nuclear conflict. Most of the remaining humans have been persuaded to emigrate to other worlds, bribed with the promise of their own android if they go. Back on earth, the remaining population lives with the constant fear of infertility or worse, as a result of the radiation that covers the planet’s surface. Most animals have died and it has become a status symbol to keep a live pet. But these are hard to come by and expensive so some people keep electric pets instead – so well designed they are indistinguishable from the real thing without close examination. On these pets, real or fake, people pour out their feelings of empathy, feelings boosted by the Empathy Box – a machine that brings all humanity together to share in the suffering of their religious prophet, William Mercer.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, hunting down androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and returned to Earth. Rick owns his own electric sheep, his live one having died. He dreams of one day having another live animal to care for. As the book begins, he has been given the task of destroying a group of six of the latest model androids, so convincing it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from humans. In fact the only test that works is one that measures lack of empathy – thus making this the characteristic that most defines humanity. If Rick manages to ‘retire’ all six androids, the bounty money will let him buy a real animal to cherish.

Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick

I’ve read this book three times now and each time I come away with the same feeling. It’s very readable, has some interesting ideas and the characterisation of Rick is excellent. But fundamentally the book makes no sense. There are so many inconsistencies in it that I always come out of it wondering what message exactly Dick was trying to send. The thing is I know what he was trying to say, because he explained it in interviews – he was saying that no matter how humanoid the androids appeared, they were still soulless and heartless, but that the very task of hunting and destroying such human-like beings puts Rick’s own humanity at risk. Unfortunately that doesn’t come out as the message in the book. I can’t help sympathising with the androids. They are created as superior beings then sold to be slaves (and Dick makes explicit reference to pre-Civil War slavery) performing domestic and agricultural chores. When they rebel, they are hunted down and killed. Humans on the other hand rely on machines not just to give them empathy but to control their moods. Seems to me that there’s very little left of humanity in the humans at all.

Mostly what the book provokes in me is a series of unanswered questions:

Why do the androids return to Earth knowing they will be hunted – why not go elsewhere when they escape?

Why have humans given up all their existing religions and taken up Mercerism? And what is the point of Mercerism? As religions go, it’s a particularly depressing one.

Why have some people decided to stay on Earth? There’s little prospect of it recovering in the foreseeable future, and they will eventually get sick and die.

Why are the humans so freaked about the androids – they don’t seem to do much harm except when enslaved or attacked. One of them has actually become an opera star – well, OK, soprano opera singers are a pestilence, I admit, but even so…

And the most basic question of all…

If humans are freaked by androids that are so human-like they can’t be told apart from the real thing, then… why make them???

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner - the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS...
Harrison Ford in Blade Runner – the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS…

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the subsequent brilliant exploration of what it means to be human via the world’s greatest android, (no, not Marvin!), Commander Data. But I suspect Data owes his existence more to Asimov’s robots than Dick’s androids, and personally I think Asimov’s robots were the superior creation.

So while the book is an enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend because of its status as a classic of the genre, it’s lack of internal logic always prevents me from thinking of it as a truly great one.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link