Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Devil's Nebula by Eric Brown, and Gunner Cade by Cyril Judd


Ed Carew is the owner of a spaceship in a distant future in which the huge human Expansion has collided painfully with the empire of the ruthless and alien Vetch. With the aid of his two crew members, Carew has been living on the fringes of the law, making a living by means of occasional smuggling and other activities frowned upon by those in control of the Expansion. So he is more than a little surprised to find himself and his crew forcibly recruited and sent on a dangerous voyage through Vetch space to discover what happened to a long-ago human expedition to a remote part of space known as the Devil's Nebula. What they discover poses an even greater threat to humanity than the Vetch.

I have read and reviewed on this blog three other books by Eric Brown and have formed a high opinion of his story-telling ability. I therefore regret to say that, although the story keeps the pages turning effortlessly, in my view this one fell short of the standard set by the others. The reason is that it seems to have been written with an adolescent audience in mind; it is too simplistic in its content and style, too superficial in its characterisation, too focused on introducing extravagantly weird aliens that make little or no sense.

While it is complete in itself, the ending of the story suggests that The Devil's Nebula is intended to be the beginning of a series, but I won't be looking out for any sequels.

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Cyril Judd is a pseudonym for Cyril M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril who collaborated over two novels, both published in book form in 1952: Outpost Mars and Gunner Cade. I have owned a copy of the second of these since the late 1960s so thought it might be worth seeing if the story still stood up today.

On a far-future Earth, Gunner Cade is an Armsman; a cadre of professional soldiers highly trained from childhood, living ascetic and celibate lives completely detached from those of the Commoners. They are in the service of the aristocratic Starborn, who are constantly fighting each other, but swear allegiance to the Emperor who rules the planet – and Mars, colonised long before. This situation has lasted for 10,000 years, which was officially the date that the world and everything in it was created. There is no concept of evolution or change – everything must always stay exactly as it is and has always been.

Cade's rock-solid belief in the rightness of all of this begins to be shaken when he falls among Commoners who are planning rebellion, and he is unwillingly forced on a journey of discovery that steadily erodes his faith. Almost everyone he meets seems to want either to use him or kill him, but it should surprise no readers that he works out a satisfactory solution in the end.

While people can draw various lessons from this tale, it is more than a didactic thriller. The observations are laced with humour, and I especially enjoyed the official "Klin philosophy", based on an ancient book whose text is solemnly interpreted by Klin teachers to support the status quo – but we can understand that Klin was a cynic who usually meant something very different.

At almost 200 pages Gunner Cade is fairly long for the period in which it is written, but it's still a quick page-turner. It benefits from a relatively strong characterisation, at least as far as Cade is concerned – the viewpoint character throughout, whom the reader comes to understand and empathise with as he is gradually changed by his experiences. The only jarring note to modern sensibilities was the statement that the atmosphere of Mars, although thin, was breathable. Well worth reading again.


Saturday, 9 August 2014

Interzone 253


The July/August issue of the British SFF magazine arrived on my doorstep recently. The R.I.P. section noted the loss of Daniel Keyes, author of Flowers for Algernon, arguably the most carefully constructed and most moving short SF story ever written (later expanded into an award-winning novel), also Jay Lake, author of Green (reviewed here in August 2013), and H. R. Giger, the artist and designer most famously responsible for the terrifying monster in the Alien films. Another name from the distant past of my reading history was Mary Stewart, author of the Arthurian Merlin trilogy, who has died at the age of 97.

The interview this month is with John Joseph Adams, better known for his editing than writing, having jointly edited: Robot Uprisings (also reviewed in the magazine); The Apocalypse Triptych; Seeds of Change; and various others. I have to say that apart from Interzone's own offerings I read very little short fiction, preferring to get stuck into a novel. Talking of which, there are the usual book reviews (three of the ten of which are collections). The only one which sparked my interest (I become ever harder to impress – too many books to read, too little time) was Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica, which sounds like a fun read involving an alternative world and a girl from our time who finds herself somewhere very different, with a lot of questions she wants answering.

In the screen reviews, there's warm approval for Under the Skin (the plot summary of which doesn't much appeal to me), also reasonably favourable takes on: Edge of Tomorrow; X-Men: Days of Future Past; and Transcendence, all three of which will no doubt end up on my viewing list.

Six short stories this time:

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James Van Pelt, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A nostalgic story of a childhood with an imaginative dad who believed in UFOs, seen in flashbacks by a now adult son looking after his elderly father. Not science-fictional until the ambiguous ending – might he have been right after all?

Flytrap by Andrew Hook, illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey. Three parallel plot threads following people who feel that they don't belong in the world; which may be true, given the fascination that The Body Snatchers has for one of them. Mysterious.

The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson, illustrated by Martin Hanford. An olfactory specialist – a "nose" – finds himself becoming redundant as scientific scent analysis takes over, until he acquires the legendary golden Habsburg Nose, which transforms his fortunes. But there is a powerful downside….

Beside the Dammed River by D. J. Cockburn (James White Award Winner). In a future Thailand, in a region suffering permament drought from the Chinese damming of the Mekong river, a former professor provides help to a foreign woman whose vehicle has broken down. A gently humorous tale of clashes between cultures and age groups, with an environmentalist point.

Chasmata by E. Catherine Tobler. A hallucinatory story of a couple living alone on Mars whose grasp of reality is steadily slipping away. Confusing.

The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussoff, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A man and his daughter find themselves on our Earth after their parallel version has vanished. He finds our version of his late wife married to someone else but forms a connection with the psychiatrist who is helping him to adjust to his new life.

Cockburn's story deserved its award, but I also enjoyed Gussoff's. Both of these are worth second readings.


Saturday, 2 August 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This new novel has received rave reviews and awards (Arthur C Clarke and Nebula Awards so far), so was selected as one of the monthly reads by the Classic Science Fiction
discussion group. This is a story in which the circumstances are only gradually revealed, some of the major revelations occurring late in the book. So if you prefer to discover everything as the author drip-feeds it, it's best to avoid reviews like this one. Suffice it to say that after a slow first half, the story gathers pace and turns out to be an original and intriguing tale.

To explain the context some spoilers are necessary but I'll avoid any major ones.


Ancillary Justice is set in a far future in which humanity has spread over a large volume of the galaxy, living uneasily alongside a powerful alien empire, the Presger. The human zone is ruled by the Radchaai in general and the immortal Anaander Mianaai in particular, relying on a fleet of powerful starships inextricably linked to their Artificial Intelligences and given names accordingly (in this respect, reminiscent of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels). Each ship carries a force of soldiers, mainly ancillaries: captives who have been given various enhancements to turn them into super-soldiers but have had their personalities wiped, being replaced with advanced fighting skills and an absolute obedience to the Radchaai. They are mentally linked to each other and to their ship, and are considered to be no longer human.

The story is told in the first person by Breq, whom we soon learn is an ancillary from the One Esk fighting unit of the starship Justice of Toren. Uniquely, she has been separated from her ship for nineteen years. Now on a remote, frozen planet, she rescues from death a drug addict called Seivarden, a Radchaai former starship captain who had escaped the destruction of his ship in a survival pod and had been recently found – a thousand years later (echoes of Campbell's Lost Fleet here, but Seivarden is no hero). Breq is on a mission, but exactly what and why we only discover later in the story.

Reading this book requires some concentration since there are two aspects liable to cause confusion. One is that the story frequently hops between events in the present and the past. The other is the question of gender. The Radchaai language does not distinguish between male and female, and Breq refers to everyone as "she" regardless, including Seivarden (although we know from the start that he is male). In fact, we only know that Breq is female from a remark made by a non-Radchaai at the start of the book. Working out the gender of other characters requires a degree of guesswork, since Breq frequently can't tell herself.

I am not sure whether this gender-blindness is just a gimmick, or if the author has a serious point to make. It does deflect attention away from all of the usual gender prejudices and male/female interaction issues that fill most novels, but on the other hand Jack Campbell – to give one example – achieves that quite effectively in his Lost Fleet series (the first one, anyway; all I've read so far) without concealing the gender of the characters.

The ending is satisfying in that it brings Breq's mission to a conclusion while still leaving plenty of scope for sequels, and in fact we learn in an interview attached to the end of the novel that the author is planning a trilogy. I wasn't at first sure that I was going to like this story, as the pace is slower than I prefer and the gender ambiguity is confusing and somewhat irritating. However, the writing quality is very good – I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin – and I was intrigued from the start, so I persevered. My involvement in the story and the characters gradually increased to the point at which I didn't want to put the book down, so I will certainly be looking out for the next volume.


Saturday, 26 July 2014

Films: Ice Soldiers (2013), and Oblivion (2013)


The Canadian SF thriller Ice Soldiers received a favourable write-up in the last edition of Interzone so it duly went on my watch list. It begins fifty years in the past with a commercial plane, carrying three genetically modified Soviet super-soldiers, crashing in the Canadian Arctic. The soldiers survive but then disappear. Switch to the present day, and an academic who has devoted his life to researching this incident is accompanying an oil exploration team in the same region, trying to discover what happened to the soldiers. Needless to say, he finds more than he had expected.

What happens next is fairly predictable, resulting in a running battle with much murder and mayhem before the end. That isn't to say that the film isn't worth watching: it grips the attention from start to finish. It is strong on the wintry atmosphere of the region and, by the standards of typical Hollywood action films, it is quietly understated and restrained in its handling of the straightforward plot. There is just one (over-long) vehicle chase and only a few small explosions, with no CGI that I noticed. Dominic Purcell makes a good fist of the principal role, aided by Adam Beach who provides a dash of humour.

It isn't particularly memorable, but is well enough done to merit a viewing.

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I had read rather lukewarm opinions of Oblivion so my expectations weren't that great, but I was pleasantly surprised. The date is 2077 and Earth is a very different place, devastated by an alien attack sixty years earlier that had destroyed the Moon and destabilised the planet. The war had been won at a terrible cost and the few survivors are gradually being transferred to Titan, via a huge space station in orbit above the Earth. Meanwhile, the Earth's oceans are being slowly drained by vast fusion generators, to provide power for colonising Titan.

The generators need maintenance, as do the flying drones whose job is to defend them from the Scavengers – small alien machines still on the planet. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Vika (Andrea Riseborough) are a maintenance team based in a hi-tech living pod above the surface. They have been there for five years, but their memories of the past had been erased as a security precaution in case they were captured by the Scavengers.

Jack is a troubled man, though. His dreams are filled with incidents before the invasion involving a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he is sure he knows – but this makes no sense to him. He is also unhappy with the move to Titan and believes that humanity should stay on Earth, parts of which are still worth living in.

I can't say more without spoilers, but suffice to say that all is not as it seems, and Harper has to cope with one revelation after another as the plot twists and turns. The story is original and intriguing, requiring a higher than usual degree of concentration to keep up; the pace accelerates steadily; and the CGI is spectacular. So unless you are tired of SF action movies or allergic to Tom Cruise (one of which is entirely understandable) Oblivion is well worth watching.


Saturday, 19 July 2014

London Falling by Paul Cornell


Believe it or not, I've just read yet another contemporary urban fantasy featuring supernatural doings in London! You could (almost) fill a shelf with books which fall into that category – as I've said before, it's creating a sub-genre all of its own.

This one is called London Falling and is by Paul Cornell. Unlike most of the others, the story starts out as a straightforward (and rather gritty) police procedural featuring undercover police officers pursuing a mysteriously untouchable gang leader, and remains that way for the first few chapters. Then the police are shocked and baffled by a spectacular death for which they can find no practical or medical explanation, and a special unit is set up to investigate the circumstances.

We know, of course ('cos we've read the blurb), that the explanation for the death is decidedly supernatural, but the police have no idea that such a thing is possible. Not until they stumble across a horrific find when searching for the potential killer do they begin to realise what they are up against, and then they become involved in a way they had never dreamed (or rather, nightmared). As the only people who have any understanding of what is going on, they battle against the odds to catch the formidable killer. They have to adapt their normal police procedures to try to track down the villain, who has a close and decidedly macabre connection with a certain London football club. The tension racks up as their struggle becomes intensely personal, stretching the team to the limit.

The four members of the special unit – two undercover officers, an intelligence analyst and a senior officer in charge – are thoroughly realised and complex characters, with their histories and motivations gradually emerging as the story develops. Although the senior officer (Detective Inspector Quill) is given "top billing", they are in practice given equal treatment by the author, the story's viewpoint switching between them. Even the principal villain is given space for a not unsympathetic explanation of the events that had resulted in the development of this terrifying individual. The conclusion is satisfying while at the same time setting the scene for the next book in what is planned to be a series, under the overall heading of Shadow Police.

London Falling is the first novel by Paul Cornell, but he is by no means new to SFF. To quote from his website: "Paul Cornell is a writer of science fiction and fantasy in prose, comics and TV, one of only two people to be Hugo Award-nominated for all three media. He’s written Doctor Who for the BBC, Action Comics for DC, and Wolverine for Marvel. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his television." He brings all of this experience to bear in a most impressive way and I am very much looking forward to reading the next Shadow Police instalment, The Severed Streets, already out in hardback.

How does this compare with the other London fantasies I've been reading? Not an easy question to answer, as they are all very different. Jacka's Alex Verus stories are the most fun – relatively light, quick reads – with Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series being the closest in style and content to Cornell's work. London Falling manages to stay more in touch with reality than the others, with the team remaining more or less grounded in the real world of police work, even though they are permanently changed by their experiences. Looked at as a piece of literary craftsmanship, Cornell clearly has the edge on the others, and I'd be surprised if he didn't pick up some more awards to add to his collection.