Reviews: Kenstibec returns in Jon Wallace’s cracking Rig

Rig,

Jon Wallace,

Gollancz

Back in 2014 I was offered an advance copy of a novel by a writer I knew only from short stories in the likes of Interzone (still a great place for short SF). The publisher was excited and comparing Jon Wallace’s Barricade to Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut novel Altered Carbon. Which is one of my favourite debut novels (it would also be the very first book my long-running science fiction book group covered). So it had a big claim to live up to and by the literary gods, it damned well did and then some. It went on to become one of my favourite reads of the year (in fact a quote from my review can be seen in the new book), as did the sequel, Steeple. Fast-paced and action-packed, but still managing to layer in plenty of commentary on everything from the nature of being to environmental destruction, the refugee crisis, the classic Frankenstein monster that humans make in their pride only to then turn on them. Yes, they gave us gripping, tight, rapid action but also a good deal of thought too – a perfect having and eating the cake situation.

Given how highly I rated the first two books you’ll understand I was more than happy for a chance to read the new book, Rig. In Barricade Kenstibec – often shortened to just Ken – was a Power 9, a model of Ficial, an artificial being optimised for specific work (Ken is an engineer, others are medics, soldiers, even “pleasure models” – one of several nods to Blade Runner’s Replicants). Human-looking but a little too perfect, kept in perfect repair by clever nanotech, able to heal even horrendous injuries. Which is quite handy given this near-future world is ruined, chemical and nuclear pollution, a devastated world where the few remaining Reals (actual humans) now live a short, brutal life more like something from the Middle Ages, and like our centuries-ago ancestors heir to every infection going with little or no medical help any more. But a Ficial? They can shrug off almost anything. Until Ken is hit by a special virus which destroys his nano, leaving him, physically at least, almost human. And he’s not happy about it.

Where the first two books took us from the ruins of Edinburgh to a demolished London, and saw the fall from Ficial grace of Kenstibec, Rig opens up the setting, well away from the wretched mess left of the British Isles, with a group of Reals and a couple of Ficials working together on a new plan out in the Atlantic, off the eastern seaboard of  what had been American and Canada, using a beautifully designed, hi-tech floating base – the Lotus – as a sort of ark, rescuing youngsters from the barbarous slave markets in surviving settlements on the coast, to train for a new, better world to rise from the ashes. Ironically this modern Noah’s Ark had originally been part of the Martello Project – as the more historically astute of you will infer from the name, these were a form of fort, designed to repel unwanted visitors from the coast of the UK (mostly desperate refugees – a Daily Mail reader’s wet dream, no doubt).

Ken, now sporting a hi-tech mechanical arm to replace his real one, lost in Steeple (now that he can’t regrow damaged parts like a proper Ficial) is finding himself somewhat adrift on this new ocean life (pun intended, sorry). One of the Ficials now co-operating with the Real crew calls him brother, despite the virus having stripped his Ficial physical superiority from him. But Ken doesn’t feel entirely Ficial anymore – like a human he gets sick, he has to eat, excrete and all the other messy processes of life. And feelings, he’s developing feelings that the brutal Ficial conditioning would have kept burned out of his mind as inefficient. But he’s not human either, and he knows it – like Blade Runner’s Replicants he really doesn’t understand his emotions too well, he’s simply not had the experience. Fortunately he has some of the crew who have taken to him, not to mention Pistol, a dog who has become very attached to our Ken. In some ways he’s suffering a form of PTSD, and like similar sufferers of that condition his animal chum is a powerful device for helping him to hold it together.

Naturally the new human-Ficial plan to create a new, young population trained to make a better society and world from the spoiled ashes of the old goes awry. There are disagreements between the crew as to the correct way to do this, not least from a moral point of view. But their arguments are about to be rendered irrelevant by events – someone has been watching their trips to the coastal slave markets, someone who has designs on both their population and on the Lotus (which may now be an ark, but still carries a substantial military payload from the pre-devastation days, a rare and powerful prize).

And I am not going to spoil it for you by revealing any more of what happens, because this is a beautifully-paced roller-coaster, with some gripping, tight twists and turns and some major revelations. We get a little more of the history of the final days before the world collapsed and see more of the violent, small communities which are surviving it in the finest Mad Max style (yes, including some dangerous driving, a nice nod back to the first book when Ken had become a specialist in such driving trips), and the ways in which some groups will use even the end of the world for their own ends, power, privilege and enrichment. Slightly longer then the previous two books, Rig still maintains a cracking pace, delivering a number of high-octane action scenes. As with those earlier books it still healthily mixes these with a lot of observation and commentary to chew over alongside that action, from politics to religion, taking in a number of very current hot topics, from the environment to the refugee crisis to politics (including a reference to the last US president who reminded me a little of President Booth in Judge Dredd history) to the greedy one percent.

This is a terrific slice of action-fueled science fiction, but Rig, and the previous two books, are also a journey, not just the physical one Ken takes from Edinburgh to London to the Atlantic, but a journey of the self; he’s not properly Ficial, not Optimal anymore, but he’s not quite human either. But he’s slowly learning to be himself, whatever that now is, and to realise if he does there are others who will be with him on that journey. And those people, those friends, are perhaps more important than any Ficial efficiency, more important than anything else. All this served up with brilliant post-apocalyptic action on the high seas and the roads, delivering thrills and even some outright horror along the way. The Tin Man had it a lot easier than poor Kenstibec…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Biting satire in Hannah Berry’s Livestock

Livestock,

Hannah Berry,

Jonathan Cape

I’ve admired Hannah Berry’s work since her impressive, beautifully painted debut Britten & Brulightly, and since then, when it may have been easier to stick with more stories featuring those same characters, she’s created something totally different each time, and I’m pleased to see she continues to do so with Livestock. Here we have political chicanery, corprorate skulldugery, the deliberate manipulation of the media to mislead public opinion, the obsession with celebrity culture that permeates much of Western society, all wrapped up in a vicious satire which shows how all these different facets of modern society are interconnected, from manufactured celebs to Malcolm Tucker-tinged PR svengali (with great lines like “man’s drier than a taxidermied arsehole”. Yes, this is funny, often exceedingly so, but that humour is angry humour, and so it should be, because the Britain painted in Livestock is awfully close to the bone.

In this world the public relations firms are even more powerful than they are in the real world (a scary thought by itself), effectively taking Herman and Chomsky’s “manufacturing consent” ideas to a horrible and all-too-plausible extreme. Here Mr Rourke is the mover and shaker, organising both carefully contrived celebrities (of the type that would make the average boy band look like authentic indy rockers) and also PR work for the ruling government and major corporations. And here those are all very much entwined – we’ve had the nightmare of the “military-industrial complex” for many decades, and the mass media has played a role in promoting and normalising and legitimising for much of the 20th century (we can thank famous psychologist Freud’s descendants for much of that particular took becoming so commonly used to subvert democracy). Here the military-industrial complex comes with an entertainment division – I suppose some would argue it always has, to some extent, but here again it is taken to the logical and disturbing extreme.

Have a problem with a pesky government leak exposing some very dodgy legislation? No problem call Mr Rourke, he’ll have his minions spinning more than a legion of spiders on crack. In Livestock the story has broken that legislation passed several years previously contained laws concealed inside various clauses that actually made legal genetic research into human cloning. It will surprise no-one to learn this secretive law was pushed through by lobbyists for a large corporation; such shadowy deals sadly happen on a daily basis in the parliaments and congresses of most of our supposedly democratic societies. The bumbling, hapless minister responsible, a man who would make Jim Hacker look like Lloyd George, is flailing in public as the reporters pounce on a juicy story. Rourke’s team soon deflects public interest with a mixture of carefully-created personal stories (minister adopts hero dog who saved child!) and throwing every more equally carefully-created celebrity “gossip” (entirely manufactured and controlled) to deflect the public’s short attention span.

In Livestock the main glossy celeb in Rourke’s menagerie is Clementine Darling, twice winner of the Best Female Singer and Political Spokesperson at the Twammies awards. For all her celebrity power – media and public alike hanging off every word as this pop star is expected to speak on everything from her new (again manufactured) romance with a fellow star to the morality of genetic research and cloning, her thoughts (all finely rehearsed and fed to her in advance by the PR team) given as much, or indeed more, weight than those of actual experts, while light entertainment programmes are where these important issues are discussed (a total misuse of the term discussed) rather than on serious, hard news programmes. When Hannah was creating Livestock she couldn’t have known when it came out we’d be in the middle of another general election, and one that has seen the prime minister avoiding serious public discussion while happily appearing with her husband to talk inconsequential nonsense on lightweight entertainment shows, but we’ve had that just in the last few days and it makes Livestock feel all the more pertinent than it already was…

Clementine herself comes across as almost a blank slate, practically programmed for her public outings, be they making a new music video or a carefully orchestrated public spat with a rival. She’s treated almost like a child – her minders lead her to the limo after an event, strapping her into her seatbelt, asking if she wants her juice box and allowing her to “watch her programmes” (mostly a sickly soap opera which nicely parodies many aspects of the lives of the characters in Livestock). It’s exactly like parents taking a toddler on a trip, although there are hints that Clementine may be more than the quiet, docile, clay they shape, that she may be more aware of what’s going on. Her life may be even more arranged than those of a classic 30s Hollywood star (when the studio fixers would even go so far as to arrange marriages that suited the public persona of their big names), and her image may be used to not just sell records but sway the public focus on debates, but there’s a hint here that while she is exploited, and so are the press (and public), she may well be doing some exploiting of her own for her own gain.

It’s a very dark, bitter and entirely too plausible set of scenarios Hannah crafts here (all beautifully illustrated in her lovely, painted style), but fortunately there’s a lot of humour here to leaven those vicious barbs, from the ridiculous collapse of one of the few heavyweight news debates into celeb gossip oooh and ahhh-ing to a nice little aside at a celeb book launch (it took days to write!) where a group of real authors stand around looking at the media turnout and the champagne and muttering how their book launches aren’t like this. One of them adds “I didn’t even get a launch”; that particular author holds more than a passing resemblance to a certain Hannah Berry herself, to my eye. New headline pages of the clickbait variety punctuate the story; where RoboCop used hyped-up US style news programmes as a caustic sidebar to comment on the society portrayed in that film, here we’re down to quick soundbites and links which, frankly, while seemingly OTT for comic effect are actually not as bad as some actual media outlets use now (these also allow for a couple of other famous faces to cameo).

Livestock is dark, clever, bitter, biting and funny satire, laughing at the same time as it weeps at the way our media-saturated, high-channel, low-concentration level society is going, of how easily we can be manipulated, and how much of that blame is on the public as much as the companies, media and governments who try to spin that debate. It will make you laugh while also making you angry, and after the way politics has gone on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few months, Livestock is now even more topical and on the nose than when Hannah started it. Read it before our society devolves even further into the parody-satire that it seems to be becoming.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A Tango in the spring sunshine

Walking through the Grassmarket this afternoon, the busy square of pubs and restaurants right below the Castle’s southern flank (some of the pubs there were centuries old even when Robert Burns stayed in them during Edinburgh visits). Gorgeous, bright, spring day, pubs and restaurants all busy with tables outside, locals and tourists alike enjoying the weather. And then I just happened across a group holding an open-air Tango session:

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Right there in the old square, right below the Castle, couples dancing happily away in the spring sunshine, dappled by the new leaves on the trees. Seemed like it was begging for some black and white shots, so I started snapping away. A lot of the pics I had to junk – would just get lined up and focused on one couple and another pair of dancers would step into my line and I’d end up with a photo of their backs! But I got a few successful shot…

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This lady in the pics directly above and below looks familiar to me – I’m sure I don’t actually know her, but her face looks familiar and I have a feeling that perhaps I’ve photographed her before at some other event in Edinburgh, but given how many thousands of pics I’ve taken it may take a bit of browsing to verify! Anyway, while I was clicking away, I got this shot as she danced with her partner and looked right at the camera with this wonderful, big smile (one of those really good smiles, the kind that isn’t just the mouth moving but the eyes and the whole face smiling). Joyful scene to just come across all these people so happily dancing away in the sunlight in the middle of the Old Town.

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Film: psychological horror in The Resident

The Resident,

Directed by John Ainslie

Starring Tianna Nori, Mark Matechuk, Krista Madison

You could be forgiven for thinking the story concept for The Resident (also known as The Sublet in the US) sounds not unfamiliar – a mother and young child mostly alone in a new apartment with odd noises and things happening, it does stir memories of Dark Water and other such offerings. But Canadian film-makers Black Fawn are getting themselves a bit of a rep in horror circles (they also did The Bite which Garth reviewed on here last year), and there was something about this that sparked my Spidey-sense and told me this was going to be worth checking out, and so it proved, for while the main idea of mother and child in possibly haunted new home is far from new, The Resident plows a different furrow from others in that field, offering up a genuinely creepy, psychological approach.

Joanna (Tianna Nori), her husband and her new baby have to move into temporary lodgings for his new job, and right from the start this is an apartment block that just screams out that there’s something wrong. It takes several attempts buzzing the intercom just to get into the block, then on schlepping up the stairs (just what you want with a baby stroller) to the apartment for rent they find no-one there, no sign of the landlord. But the door opens and there’s a not telling them to look around but if they don’t like it then pretty much leave and don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out. Not exactly a warm welcome. Oh, and there is a locked room in the apartment. Which hubby surmises must be where the landlord stores his personal items, but which you just know is going to be something else…

There’s a palpable sense of unease right from the start, just viewing the apartment, but once they move in the sense of disturbance grows. Much of the increasing sense that things just aren’t right comes from Joanna basically being at home by herself with the baby, day after day, in a strange city while her husband is out at his new job. She doesn’t know anyone here and, mysteriously, she never seems to bump into anyone from the neighbouring apartments coming or going. But she does hear them. Sometimes. A banging, banging, banging on the walls and other sounds.

And this is where The Resident takes a different tack from some haunted apartment tales – director Ainslie wisely uses the more mundane, everyday elements of Joanna’s life as a new mother in a strange city to both heighten her feelings of isolation and dislocation and yet at the same time also make you second guess her state of mind. Like many new mothers she’s already dealing with major life changes – the physical and emotional sides of pregnancy and giving birth, then finding yourself now mostly at home on your own during the work day, totally cut out of your previous routines. That is a difficult thing for most first-time mothers to adjust to, and here in a new city she doesn’t even have friends or relatives to come round, take them out, babysit or help out, increasing her isolation, and it doesn’t help that her husband is busy with his new job and his stress there means he is less than supportive even when he is at home…

And I found this was the element that really made The Resident work for me – that real-world side of things, of Joanna trying to cope with her new life and baby and new home is something that is very easy to empathise with, and grounds the spookier aspects. In fact, it not only grounds them it also offers the viewer a dilemma – how much of the increasingly strange things that seem to be happening are real? And how many are the products of a woman in a heightened emotional state? And that really helps drive The Resident into a much more psychological level as the viewer is left wondering what is real and what is not – and realising that even if it isn’t real, the effect is the same on poor Joanna. And what if it is real, what are those noises from neighbouring apartments where nobody every seems to be home, what’s in that locked room, what happened here before… With a lean running time The Resident builds atmosphere right from the start and increases the psychological pressure throughout, not outstaying its welcome, so keeping the tensions nice and taught.

The Resident is released on DVD, on-demand and download by Second Sight from May 22nd; this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

You are here….

Taken by NASA’s Cassini probe earlier this month, the planet Earth is a bright pinpoint of distant light, viewed through the magnificent rings of mighty Saturn. Stunning.

This reminds me very much of one of my favourite photographs from space exploration, the famous “pale blue dot” image taken almost three decades ago by the Voyager craft, when the late and much-missed Carl Sagan argued for the probes, now passed the outer worlds, to be turned around and take a perspective of our world and our solar system, a “family portrait” as Carl put it, giving us a view that no human had ever seen before in all the ages of the world. In that image our world was even smaller, not even a full pixel. It gave a vastly different perspective on human affairs – those who consider themselves so important because they are rich, powerful, connected, from this distance – a small one in astronomical terms, vast in human terms – they mean less than nothing. Perhaps world leaders should all take a moment to look at such images and think about them for a moment… (via BoingBoing)

It’s a god’s life – Hamish Steele’s Pantheon

Pantheon,

Hamish Steele,

Nobrow Press

On the great sea of Nu a pyramid named Benben rose from the water with silent purpose. Benben flowered a lotus… And the lotus flowered the sun. The sun rose up, signalling the dawn of the first day. And the sun named itself Atum. With only eternal darkness for company, Atum did what anybody would do when faced with endless loneliness. He had a wank.”

Right from the start Hamish Steele makes clear that while he is going to cover the main points of ancient Egyptian mythology, he’s going to do so in a deliciously irreverent manner. That he manages to combine a light, fun touch and plenty of humour and yet still actually respects the source myths is quite impressive; taking the Mickey out of events or beliefs is fairly easy, to do so in a constructive way that shows affection and respect while still poking at the humour is a much more difficult task, but it’s one Steele handles with aplomb. With that opening prologue he touches on the very beginning, and the act of divine masturbation which was meant to have seeded creation, an actual piece of the real myth, but also here mined for yuks, an “any excuse for a wee fiddle” comment on the original story.

And that’s one of the great strengths of this book – multi-god pantheons are most often comprised of celestial beings who frequently show all-too-human obsessions and frailties, rather than the perfect divinity of later monotheistic belief systems. The different gods with their different responsibilities, abilities and duties weren’t just a way for a pre-scientific culture to understand how or why events like the Nile flood, or famine, or disease happened, they were also human analogues, and a way of understanding our own nature. And since the basic nature of humanity doesn’t really change those characters remain a source of endless fascination – we all still love, hate, marry, get jealous, have sex, children, and so did the gods of old. And just as there is a seemingly endless amount of natural humour that comes out of everyday life there’s even more to be had here between squabbling, imperfect god-families. Some are good, some are bad, most are a mix, and more than a few are totally blind to their own failings…

…Which is a good thing for the purposes of Pantheon. I mean perfect celestial beings who never make mistakes and are full of true wisdom and a well of compassion might be nice, but it would also be damned boring. That is not a worry here! Early on we see “l’il Osriris” and the other gods being left on Earth by Ra to rule over humanity, with the principle god extolling the virtues of their mission, to maintain balance between gods and men, and instructing them “now don’t fuck it up.” A grinning little version of Set happily mutters “I’m gonna fuck it up.”

And of course he does, he murders and dismembers his own brother Osiris, he causes endless mayhem among the pantheon family, and yet he’s never actually a figure you want to hate. In Steele’s hands Set is that irascible, cheeky relative every family has that somehow always seems to screw everything up, make a mess of things, annoy the hell out of everyone, and yet still has a certain charm (and is still family) so you can never bring yourself to hate them. And with the humour Steele extracts from these gods and myths it’s even harder to hate Set. I mean sure, he dismembers his brother and throws the body parts away, and yes, he does shag his own nephew (incest being a great pastime in ancient Egypt among gods and royals) and inject him with his concentrated evil semen (leading to his mother, in a priceless scene, to encourage him loudly to fart it out before it poisons him, “fart for your life!”), but, y’know, he’s Set, it’s what he does.

Many of the other major parts of Egyptian myth are covered – the afterlife, where the souls are judged (famously the soul’s sins weighed against a feather on scales) takes the form of a TV game show, and the now deceased Osiris muttering how unprofessional the afterlife is and that it would be better if there were a written guide, perhaps a “book of the dead”, he muses. And that friendly chap Anubis gives us a cut-out-and-keep style handy guide to How To Mummify Your Friends (you never know when you might need that). We have mummified, resurrected gods (with artificial dong), giant scorpions, “bird sex with a golden zombie dick”, test, trials, battles, treachery, sex, incest (well, all the gods are related, so…) and more, and the humour – and sometimes downright insanity – inherit in these tales is mined wonderfully.

Egyptian hieroglyphics have often been seen almost as a forerunner/inspiration to the comics medium (in the splendid Radio 4 series A History of the World in a 100 Objects it was a cartoonist, Steve Bell, they turned to as a guest for the episode discussing Egyptian pictorial art and language), and in a way it makes them and the myths and histories they depict ideal for comics. And Steele makes use of that Egyptian style, not just for the look of some scenes, but for further humour –  hieroglyphs are normally seen side-on, and in one scene Horus is wounded through the eye. But my eye is fine, he protests! No, your other eye. My… other eye?? Oh! He turns from side profile to face the reader in a way the Egyptian images didn’t and suddenly oh, yeah, there’s another side of my head and, ouch! It’s a lovely touch and indicative of the differing ways Steele uses the old myths and Egyptian art styles to tell the tales but also extract maximum humour, from the straight toilet humour of evil spunk and fart jokes to using Egyptian art perspectives for more subtle humour.

Taking a subject matter usually treated with a heavier hand and solemnity and instead pulling down its pants for a light spanking (but in a loving sort of way), Pantheon is an utter, cheeky delight, delivering some lovely, colourful art, the richness of Egyptian myth but lancing any pomposity with layers of humours that had me laughing all the way through. Absolutely brilliant.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

“Come together, right now….”

“This year, after a period of intense debate over the right future for our country, there is a sense that people are coming together and uniting behind the opportunities that lie ahead”. So speaks unelected prime monster Saint Theresa, the devout Christian Vicar’s daughter in her Easter message to her parishioners. She also likes to witter on about her “christian values” and those of the “nation”, despite the fact the majority of the nation doesn’t identify as Christians.

It’s also terribly nice that while she attacked a chocolate company for “undermining Christianity” by not having Easter in the headline of their annual egg hunt (although they had it multiple times in the accompanying copy, maybe Theresa didn’t read that far, or more likely care), she was in Saudi Arabia. A despotic regime of corrupt oil-rich sheiks who pay lip-service to their own supposed religion while oppressing their own people, torturing and executing them, and she was there to pimp British weapons sales to these vile people. Stuff your Christian values, Theresa, you do not get to do that then pretend you are some good “Christian”, Jesus would be sick over your hideously expensive designer leather trousers that you claim to stand up for Christian values while peddling weapons to murderous dictators. If you are Christian then bloody act like it.

Then few days later the so-called “rape clause” in your new social welfare bill, a vile, evil, hideous piece of legislation that I cannot concieve of anyone with a conscience creating. I am glad to see Scottish politicians almost universally decrying it, save, predictably, for the two-faced wee Scottish Tory Ruth Davison who has tried her best to ignore this issue – quick to shout at Nicola Sturgeon, when it suits her, not so good to respond to things like this from her own party.

And now St Theresa the “good Christian” tells us we are all “coming together”. Is this just mad delusional or just a willful fuck-you to the huge slice of the population who voted and demonstrated against Brexit? Is this willfull fuck-you to Scottish voters who demanded to stay in the EU? Is it a fuck-you to the Scots parliament that asked her, please, at least soften the Brexit stance, which she totally ignored and went for the hardest possible option? No we are not coming together, you delusional mad woman, and the fact you claim this shows how utterly removed from reality you are. Either you are trying to impose your version of twisted reality on us all, no matter how we feel, or else you are simply laughing at the millions who disagree strongly with you and your bigoted, right-wing, hate-lead minions. Either way you are pathetic, lying, delusional, and by doing this you actually contribute to the continuing division of the UK.

Happy Yuri’s Night

It’s Yuri’s Night, a world space party being marked around our little, blue marble to celebrate the great Yuri Gagarin, the very first human who really did go where no man has gone before, riding a column of fire into orbit on this day in 1961. A rocket, leaving the surly bonds of Earth and out into space, launched by the then Soviet Union, a remarkable achievement which came only six decades from the first fluttering powered flight of the Wright Brothers. Six decades from a few seconds in the air, only feet off the ground to a human being thundering into space and orbiting our planet.

There’s something wonderfully, romantically heroic about that first Space Age – engineers, programmers, designers, cosmonauts and astronauts, none of them truly knew exactly what they were getting into. It was all new – building on work that had gone before, of course, but now at a level never tried, at a level where some really did wonder if it would work, and if it did work as they hoped, could a human being travel in it? Could they survive? Nobody even knew if a human body could function in the microgravity environment – would your heart and lungs still function? How do you eat? Does it affect your vision? What about radiation? And how about getting home again safely? The inferno of re-entry, could their frail, basic craft really stand up to the intense heat? And what about the cosmonaut within, the re-entry blocking all communications so for those few moments they would be truly alone, unable to speak to ground control, ground control anxiously waiting for the interference to clear to hear their voice, to hear if they had survived the blaze of re-entry, a few moments which must have been an eternity

None of this had been tried, they simply didn’t know, it was all new, making those first pioneers like Gagarin, Tershkova, Leonov, Glenn, Armstrong all the more heroic in my eyes. Imagine being willing to train for this, to risk your life to push that envelope and achieve something which had only ever been a dream. So much optimism then, onwards, outwards, faster, further! Space awaited, orbit, then the Moon, maybe Mars and beyond… So different to our downbeat present when we have a new generation of spacecraft, but only for the super-rich, and Mars, let alone any further, is still decades off. The promises of my comics annuals that by the time I was an adult space would be in reach of everyone, we would take holidays there! Those promises never materialised, to my eternal regret – now approaching the big five-oh at the end of this year it looks like that’s something I will never get the chance to do.

Yuri became the most famous man on the planet on his return. Dragging his chute and suit from his landing in a field he smiled on his return to Earth and told them not to be alarmed, he was one of them, he was a comrade, a friend. One looked at his capsule and suit and asked if he had come from outer space. Yuri reportedly laughed and said as a matter of fact, yes! Suddenly an idea which had been science fiction, space flight, was now science fact. Sadly Yuri died young, killed, of all things, in a normal aircraft training flight, after having survived the rigours of the space programme tests and that history-making first manned mission. Years ago I read a joint autobiography on both sides of the space race by Alexei Leonov (first man to attempt a space walk) and David Scott; in Leonov’s memoirs of the Soviet effort the affection he and his fellow cosmonauts had for Yuri was still strong, even decades on.

Yuri flew before I was born, he died when I was just a baby, but he’s been one of my heroes all my life.

Books: Disturbing, personal horror on the Downs – Chalk

Chalk,

Paul Cornell,

Tor Books

(cover design by Peter Lutjen)

The great publisher of SF&F, Tor, has been doing a cracking run of shorter books recently, some by new talent, some by existing, some very short (like 90 page novellas), some a bit longer (as is the case here, although still a bit shorter than many modern novels – which is a good thing, actually, it’s just the length it need to be, nothing unnecessary). When this one arrived on my desk it went straight into my eternal tottering pile of must-reads because – well, it’s Paul Cornell. And I also had that mysterious vibe, the bookseller’s Spidey sense, that just whispers to me sometimes that this is a book I need to read. And yes, I did need to read it (bless you, Spidey-sense, you never lead to anything less than a great read).

Andrew Waggonner is a schoolboy in the early 1980s, at a private school that’s seen better days,  in rural Wiltshire, and like any school anywhere there are all the usual things any kid has to try to juggle – the expectations of parents, indifferent teachers “preparing you” for life, the different social castes of your fellow schoolkids, avoiding the bullies, wondering about the opposite sex with a mixture of eager desperation and terror, about trying to figure out who you are, or who you want to be, and, this being school, how not to have any of that stand out too much in case you get picked out as different, listening to music and trying to make sure it’s the “right” music – music that the other kids will approve of and not make fun of you for listening to.

Like pretty much every school ever there is, of course, a bully – Drake – and his clique all desperately trying to make themselves look hard in front of their leader. But when Waggonner becomes the target for their violent urges, they overstep the mark, going far beyond the normal name-calling or hitting to something much worse, far more damaging, both physically and emotionally, something that scars both victim and perpetrators. And it will have repercussions. Nobody here is entirely good or bad, entirely villain or victim; as Chalk unfolds, rather satisfyingly they become elements of each.

At only 265 pages I don’t want to go into too many plot details, because this is a beautifully compact, self-contained work and to describe too much of the events, especially that key moment of bullying abuse, would be to spoil too much. Suffice to say that it is extremely disturbing, even to a seasoned horror fan, and the chain of events it sets in motion, rippling forward is equally disturbing and unsettling. The story oozes a creeping sense of horror, and a sense of an inevitable dread, like something from Poe, that feeling of the world moving off-kilter with a slow but unstoppable, irresistible force, of darkness becoming visible.

Set in the West Country, Cornell makes great use of the location – this is ancient landscape, both natural chalk downs and the landmarks made by the hand of man, ancient man, like the eerie, haunting chalk figures, the great stone circles like Avebury, or West Kennet Long Barrow. This is a region steeped in the arcane, the ritual, myth and magic since the neolithic days of our distant ancestors and anyone who has walked there will be well aware that those long-distant times can still raise a tingle on the back of your neck, a feeling of … something… The people here were an old people long before Rome’s Legions marched across the land. There’s still a sniff of magic in the air now that even a modern world of motorways and television doesn’t erase, and what happens if that ancient magic starts pushing into the modern world, reshaping it?

Chalk bleeds atmosphere, a slow-burn build towards a satisfying, well-paced, faster and faster urgent climax that could go one way or the other, the sense of place and history and myth almost palpable. The atmosphere of 80s school life is just as well articulated by Cornell – Doctor Who on a Saturday night, the hidden world of classroom cliques and groups that no adult (parent or teacher) can protect you from (or often even wants to know about), and, this being the 80s, listening religiously to the Top 40 each week, because this is an era where the radio and singles are how you get your music (no multi-channel digital streams here, this is an era where the school is just getting its first Dragon 32 computers) and it is vital to know what the latest number one is in case another kid asks you. It doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, but it does evoke the era extremely well, and I found myself having more than a few flashbacks; Cornell invests the settings, character and tales with a personal touch that makes the reader empathise all the more (even the bullies are fully-realised, not cardboard cut-outs but complex, contradictory human beings).

There are moments of sharp horror, of violence, blood, fire, some from the now, some echoes from the distant past, but still recorded into the very landscape, almost like Kneale’s Stone Tapes (I found it also, for me, evoking something of another creepy tale of that era, the Children of the Stones). But mostly Chalk, like much of the best horror stories, thrives on atmosphere, the type that gets under your skin, of a growing disturbance, both personal and more widespread across the land, slowly but inevitably building; a creeping horror, the ancient meshing with the modern, a sickening sense of dread cresting like a dark wave that, sooner or later, must hit the shore….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Spring has sprung

Out walking along the nearby Union Canal a few days ago, the first properly spring weekend of the year – we’ve had nice, bright days but usually still cold, this was sunny and also warm for the first time in the year. Beautiful light and the welcome return of colour to the world after the long, dark winter. It happens every year and yet each year it still seems like some wonderful magic as the dullness of winter suddenly gives way to a riot of vibrant colours:

spring has sprung 04

spring has sprung 01

spring has sprung 03

I have always found the way light reflects from water to be entrancing, and as I walked under one of the canal bridges the bright spring sunshine was bouncing off the water and creating a flickering, rippling dancing pattern of changing light on the stonework. I had taken a photo then thought it would be better in video mode, just to capture the quality of the patterns and movement. In still photo mode it looked better in monochrome (I’m not a fan of altering my pics in PhotoShop, so when you see a black and white photo from me, it means I shot it in B&W, not colour then change in PhotoShop. I know I could do it that way, but it feels better to me to shoot in B&W if a scene feels like it works better in mono, rather than just greyscale it afterwards in an editor), and fortunately the video mode in the new camera allows me to shoot in mono as well as colour, so I took a few seconds:

water under the bridge vid

Singing to the sea

Singing to the Sea 01

Singing to the Sea 02

Earlier in the month, down on Portobello Beach on a very blustery, cold day, wind howling in off the Firth of Forth. I was having a walk with my chum and his hounds when we saw this group in white robes, who got out of their car, walked down to the beach then facing out to sea they began to sing. We couldn’t understand the words, but it had the feel of a religious ceremony, and although we didn’t know the words (and despite the biting, cold wind!) their song sounded joyful. My friend had seen them in previous days that week doing the same thing, singing out to sea. We still don’t know who they were or what the significance of singing towards the sea was. A friend online said he saw a religious group do something similar when working in Africa, but he didn’t know why they did it either. Anyway, it was an unusual and intriguing thing to see…

Singing to the Sea 03

Singing to the Sea 04

The Bridge

Burntisland 01

Since I have a few days off to use up, I took the train up the coast, crossing the mighty Forth Rail Bridge and round the coastal rail route to get off at Burntisland for a wee while. The railway runs right by the beach there, on a raised embankment above the promenade and the beach (quite a bit of this line hugs the Fife coast so you get some good views on your trip). There are tunnels under the line leading from the parkland behind it to the promenade.

Burntisland 02

Being early afternoon on a weekday in March it was pretty quiet, mostly either parents with very young kids or senior citizens and the odd dog walker – tends to be a bit busier in the warmer weather of spring and summer!

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Burntisland 011

Standing out (braving some seriously heavy wind, especially in an exposed position!) on a jutting bit of headland that projects out by the bay where the beachfront is I could just barely make out the volcanic bulk of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth, but it was too hazy to get a decent shot. Looking up river the haar had settled in too, and the bright light had turned grey (one of those days of sun, overcast, sun, overcast, always changing), and the bridges were barely visible through the mist and haze, although the iconic shape of the Forth Rail Bridge (often just referred to around here as “The Bridge” and everyone knows you mean the rail bridge and not the nearby road bridges) was just apparent, the diamond-shaped cantilever section like the humps of some vast sea serpent rising from the waters. Here you can see it and the 20th century suspension road bridge a bit further behind it, although the new Queensferry Crossing, now almost complete, is hidden by the mist. In the foreground you can just make out Inchcolm and the shape of some of the buildings on this island’s 12th century abbey (which you can visit via a Forth cruise – well worth the trip):

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Forth Rail Bridge 015

On the ride home I decided to jump off at North Queensferry for a while before heading back across river to Edinburgh, and walked down the steep slope to where the village nestles around the northern base of the Forth Rail Bridge, right by the banks of the Forth.

Forth Rail Bridge 01

At this side of the river you can walk right under the end of one of the vast “diamond” shapes of this massively over-engineered cantilever structure, and despite the now bitingly cold wind it was worth the chill to walk down by the lapping waters of the Forth past this iconic piece of engineering that has become a landmark.

Forth Rail Bridge 02

Forth Rail Bridge 07

This was the view standing right under the northernmost diamond, looking straight across the river through the Meccano Set of girders – you can see the next diamond shape behind it through the forest of red steelwork:

Forth Rail Bridge 08

It’s a massive Victorian structure, hugely over-built (a reaction to the earlier failure of the Tay Bridge), and you know it is large, I mean you can see if from parts of Edinburgh for goodness sake, you can see the top parts of the diamond shapes from the main Edinburgh-Glasgow railway line. But there’s nothing quite like going underneath a structure like this to really get a sense of the sheer size and strength of it. It’s like standing under the Eiffel Tower, but turned on its side. Magnificent piece of history and engineering.