Reviews: The Doors of Eden

The Doors of Eden,
Adrian Tchaikovsky,
Tor/Macmillan
Hardback, 608 pages,
Published August 2020

After the recent Children of Time and Children of Ruin, as well as Firewalkers, it is fair to say I was very eagerly anticipating Tchaikovsky’s new stand-alone novel. As with the Children series, this is a huge tome of a book, but don’t let the size daunt you – like Peter F Hamilton’s books, when you start reading them they are so engrossing and so well-paced it doesn’t feel like you are working through a massive page count, you will be quite happily enraptured with both the story and the myriad of ideas it sparks inside your head.

Two young girlfriends, Mal and Lee, take a short holiday of sorts – they love exploring reports of cryptids together, and even write them up for publications like the Fortean Times. Naturally both like the idea of mysterious creatures, unknown to science, but they are also intelligent enough to know that most reports are mistaken identities (it turns out the giant panther was a domestic cat and someone couldn’t judge distance and size in the dark) or out and out fabrications. What happens, though, when it starts to seem like there may be more to a sighting on the lonely moors than they suspected? What happens when a set of three ancient standing stones, known as the six sisters, despite only numbering three, becomes, right in front of their eyes, a circle of six? And when snow blows across the midsummer moors in an instant, with strange beings glimpsed in the storm? What happens when Mal vanishes?

Four years on and Lee, still wondering what happened, if she imagined things, if she went mad, is still missing her friend and lover, when Lee returns, looking different, but definitely her. Where has she been? Why so long before returning to London? Lee’s return is linked to a number of other events though – other strange disappearances, a remarkable breakthrough in computational maths and physics that could bypass all the top-secret encryption used by security services the world over, a manipulative billionaire with connections to both political heavyweights and low-life Neo-Nazi boot boys… And, perhaps something even larger, something which has a bearing on the very nature of existence itself.

Within the first hundred and fifty pages or so Tchaikovsky gives us a story of intrepid cryptid explorers then adds in scientific breakthroughs and elements of a spy thriller. This is more than most novels do in their entire page count! And then there is the fascinating and compelling element of multiple realities. The multiverse is no stranger to SF readers, of course, from Moorcock to the Adventures of Luther Arkwright and many more, and indeed it is a concept taken seriously by many in the scientific community nowadays. Here, in addition to the idea of multiple Earths in parallel realities, Tchaikovsky also deftly indulges in a lot of evolutionary what-ifs.

This isn’t just the old, here is the Earth where the Allies lost WWII, or Rome never fell approach (not that I have anything against those, tales, when done well), here, as with the Children books, he takes the very long-term view, exploring multiple evolutionary approaches on Earth. There are some where dinosaurs never became extinct and evolved into intelligent lifeforms (yes, I know, technically not all dinosaurs died out, some evolved into the bird family, and indeed that idea is also nicely explored), others where the huge sea scorpion type creatures became the dominant life millions of years before even reptiles or dinosaurs, let alone mammals or humans. But in each, while all the various possible lines of evolution play out, each Earth still suffers the same massive traumas, the same mass extinction events caused by ice or fire or meteor. Some vanish into these cataclysms, others adapt only to be lost later in the vastness of geological epochs passing (we are talking millions and billions of years, after all). We even get to ponder that remarkable evolutionary accident that had more than one type of intelligent human life existing at the same time on the same world (our own) and how that played out in other Earths closer to our timeline.

The main arcs of the story have some fascinating excerpts from a book on these parallel evolutions on other Earths, which explores so many possibilities (and yes, it does also allow Adrian to indulge in having some multi-legged creatures in the book, of course!), and I found these as intriguing as the main story. We have an engrossing story, some terrific characters (and also, I should add, a nice bit of diversity there, including gay and trans characters, and that’s just among the humans, which was very welcome), and a gradual layering of all the various strands which take the story off into a different direction than you may at first suspect, upping the stakes for the characters, indeed for all of the various worlds, each time we learn something new, and at points even incorporating the multiverse story into the actual structure of the writing to give multiple perspectives and possibilities.

This is simply superb science fiction, a gripping, high-stakes quest, and some staggering concepts that will leave you thinking about all those many possibilities, all those what-ifs that made our world – and the many other Earths – what they became.

This review was originally penned for the Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

Reviews: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,

H.G. Parry,

Orbit,

Paperback, 534 pages

Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.

I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.

The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.

As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.

Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.

Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.

This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.

A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.

On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction.

Cymera Talks

The first weekend in June should have seen the second Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature taking place in the Pleasance in Edinburgh. We had the first one last year and as well as attending many events all weekend (and taking lots of photos, as usual), I also participated, chairing a multi-author discussion on stage.

Of course, like pretty much all festivals we had to cancel due to the pandemic. A little while into the Lockdown I was asked by organiser Ann if I would still be up for chairing if some online events could be organised, and of course I said yes. And so did pretty much all the authors, so the virtual version of Cymera that took place over the weekend just gone wasn’t just a few online chats, it was an entire programme running the three days of the original festival plan with author events (live and some pre-recorded), writing workshops and more, quite an amazing feat to pull off, effectively an entire festival online and at such short notice.

Cymera has been busy adding some of the live and pre-recorded events onto its YouTube channel now, which you can enjoy for free (although if you enjoy them and you can afford it, even a small donation would be helpful, the festival, despite not having the physical ticket sales, is still paying authors a fee for their time, so help is appreciated – you can donate here).

The two events I had the pleasure of chairing are online now: my talk with Arthur C Clarke Award winners Anne Charnock about Bridge 108 and Adrian Tchaikovsky about Firewalkers, both books doing what the best SF always does, using the future as a filter to examine the concerns of our own troubled times, such as environmental issues, global inequality and more. You can see it here:

And on the Sunday I was delighted to talk on a 2000 AD panel with Maura McHugh, Michael Carroll and Joseph Elliott-Coleman, discussing their novellas in the Judges series for 2000 AD (reviewed here), dealing with the pre-history of the iconic Judge Dredd series in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Set decades before Dredd, much closer to our own time, it effectively brings the world of the Judges – special lawkeepers with the power of instant justice on the streets, trained to be incorruptible, impartial – almost into our own world.

This isn’t the great Mega City of the far future but still America, an America crumbling socially, politically and economically, hence the Judges experiment. The three stories have a fascinating mix of murky morality, with those on each side all having both merits and flaws, and the tales, especially Elliott-Coleman’s “Patriots” had some terrifying resonances to recent events in the US, which we also discussed in relation to the books:

Reviews: The Man With X-Ray Eyes

The Man With X-Ray Eyes,
Directed by Roger Corman,
Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles

Here’s an under-rated gem from the stable of the legendary Roger Corman, 1963’s The Man With X-Ray Eyes (aka X: the Man With X-Ray Eyes). I remember reading about this in some movie monster books when I was a kid, and seeing it late night on TV in my teens, but it rarely aired as often as the old Hammer or Universal movies did, and I haven’t seen it in decades. So I am delighted that Second Sight have brought it back, and indeed given it the deluxe treatment: a limited edition Blu-Ray set with a newly restored print, plenty of extras (including interviews with Roger Corman and Joe Dante), poster, a book by Jon Towlson and Allan Bryce, and boasting excellent new cover artwork by the always-brilliant Graham Humphreys.

For those who haven’t seen this very unusual slice of 60s Sci-fi/horror, made between shooting some of those iconic Edgar Allan Poe films Corman is still, rightly, highly regarded for, it follows Doctor James Xavier (Ray Milland), a physician who is working on an experimental mixture which he administers as eye droplets, with the goal of allowing human sight to be expanded. As he explains to his ophthalmologist friend Doctor Sam Bran (Harold J. Stone), in the last few decades humans have discovered a wide electro-magnetic spectrum – ultraviolet, X-rays and more – that their natural senses cannot see. What if they could, with their own eyes, not with imprecise instruments? Imagine how this would help a medical doctor – no fuzzy X-Ray plates, they can literally see through flesh and bone to diagnose an illness, formulate the correct treatment.

While his friends caution him for pushing too far, too quickly, Xavier is eager to test his work, despite the death of a test animal. His reasoning is that the animal couldn’t comprehend what its new visual senses showed it, but he, as a rational, intelligent being, can learn to do so. He is, well, partially correct – at least at first. He finds his new vision increasing, going from being able to read a letter through another sheet of paper covering it, to being able to see into a patient being readied for surgery, a young woman, and he can see what is wrong – a different diagnosis from the attending surgeon, leading to a showdown between the pair as Xavier uses his new powers to save her life.

It’s at this point that things start to spiral out of control – the medical authorities will not accept his abilities, and therefore not believe them as his excuse for his behaviour in the operating theatre (despite saving the patient). His career hanging in the balance, his research funding cut, struggling to control his new abilities, a terrible accident leads to him having to flee to avoid arrest. Desperate for somewhere to hide and continue his research (and a way to reverse the new visual abilities too), Xavier takes refuge, of all places, in a carnival sideshow, posing as a stage magician who can read minds and tell secrets (it’s here he comes into contact with the nasty, selfish carnival barker Crane, played by Don Rickles, in a rare straight, dramatic role), before also trying to use his new abilities to win in Vegas, to get sufficient funds to get his research going once more.

It remains one of the more unusual horror classics of that era – amazingly shot in something like three weeks for a budget of only $300, 000 (tiny, but huge by the normal American International Pictures’ budget standards!). Naturally, given the era it was made in, the special effects are not exactly dazzling – to be fair, this isn’t just because of budget restrictions, the technology to show what they really wanted was simply not there at the time. Despite this the effects team and art director still, in my opinion, managed to give the viewer the feeling of Xavier’s increasing dislocation, as his powers grow, as he can see more and further.

The visual processing in the human brain is enormously complex (as AI programmers have found in trying to replicate it with technology), and also relies on years of us learning to interpret the visuals coming into our brain into something coherent. While Xavier can cope with the titular X-Ray vision, as he begins to see more, things he didn’t even know existed, seeing into matter and the universe itself, he’s slowly losing his mind, and those visual effects, for all their early crudeness, do a good job of conveying this, in conjunction with the excellent Milland’s acting. (it isn’t all drama and doom though, there is some fun to be had, such as Xavier realising he can see through everyone’s clothes at a party, a nod to the old X-Ray specs gimmicks sold in the back pages of comics).

Adding much to this story is the fact that this isn’t the formulaic Mad Scientist story. Yes, Xavier may have a little arrogance of the highly skilled doctor who believes he knows better than others, but he’s not a bad man, and risking his career to save the young woman using his powers shows that he is a decent man. He genuinely wants to use these new abilities to advance medicine, to save more lives, to expand scientific knowledge, and that’s a large part of what really makes this such a compelling film, because he’s not a madman trying to take over the world, he’s a pioneer, with his heart in the right place, who succumbs eventually to the new, uncharted discoveries he has made, like the Curies and other scientists before him.

“What did he see?” asks his love interest, Doctor Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) of the unfortunate test monkey who proves the formula works, but dies afterwards. Those words haunt the film, as the abilities Xavier has gained become cumulative, taking him far beyond even the broadest speculations in science, into new realities he simply cannot cope with. He can’t even escape by closing his eyes now, because he can see right through the lids. This well-intentioned work leading to disaster lends the story a deeper, emotional, tragic aspect that compels as strongly as the idea of the new discovery does. An absolute classic of Sci-fi and Horror.

The many extras in this special edition are also great, not least the iconic Corman talking about the making of the film, how he came up with the rough idea, originally thinking he knew some of his musician friends on the jazz scene dallied in drugs, and perhaps he should make the central character a musician who overdoses, before realising he hated that idea, and going back to the notion of having a scientist, someone who was pushing into new frontiers without realising what the consequences would be. Corman also talks about his desire to remake the film, with modern effects able to realise the remarkable new visual abilities of Xavier in any way they want. Personally while the story is strong enough to stand a remake, and the modern visuals would indeed be better, as I said, it isn’t the visuals which really make this film so powerful, it’s the central idea and especially Milland’s performance that do so.

The Man With X-Ray Eyes will be available from Second Sight on limited edition Blu-Ray from May 4th.

Reviews: The Book of Koli

The Book of Koli,
M.R. Carey,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 400 pages,
Published April 2020

(cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio with photography by Blake Morrow)

A new book by Mike Carey is always something to look forward to: here we’re even more fortunate as The Book of Koli is the first in a new trilogy sequence by Carey, with The Trials of Koli following in September and The Fall of Koli in March 2021. Koli is a teenage boy, in the small, walled village of Mythen Rood (a nod to Mythago Wood, perhaps? And “rood”, a splinter of the True Cross, a play on the importance of trees and wood in this book?). In many ways this feels like a medieval-era village, but actually it is an unspecified point in the future, and the world is very different from today, in the land of “Ingland” or “Yewkay”.

The deep, dark woods beyond our settlements have disturbed human dreams and nightmares since the dawn of time; they litter our collective folk tales of old, they re-emerge in many modern horror films and books, danger always lurks in there for those who stray from the path. In Koli’s world, while there are dangerous beasts in the wilds (and dangerous rogue people who may be bandits or cannibals or both), it is the forests themselves which present the greatest danger.

Long before his time, the old stories tell of a civilisation that had such knowledge and power as to seem magical to Koli’s simpler, damaged era. But in their arrogance they over-used their knowledge and science, damaging the world around them. So they turned to those same devices and learning to repair the damage, genetically altering the flora and fauna, with catastrophic results. Now the trees are deadly – only certain kinds of true wood can be used (Koli comes from the Woodsmith family of wood-turners), any seeds that land in the village and aren’t clear can cause death and destruction, swallowed chocker seeds result in a horrendous death from within, wood cutters and hunters only venture out on dull, overcast days when the trees are less active, in a reversal of what would have been normal practise of utilising periods of fine weather.

The village is dominated by the Ramparts, the group who can use the remaining, scavenged tech from the fallen world. By a remarkable coincidence – or is it? – one family has become the only ones who ever seem to make the dormant tech “wake” (a coming of age ceremony sees each youngster try to wake a chosen device, those that do become Ramparts, but these days nobody save members of one family seem to be able to manage this). Koli is a teenage ball of longing – for a friend who now seems more interested in a young Rampart, for the ability to work the ancient tech and become a Rampart himself. He will come into knowledge via Ursula, a travelling physician. And knowledge can be dangerous without the wisdom to use it, even more dangerous when it contradicts the established system and privileged groups who do well from it, and it will put a reluctant Koli onto a very different path from that he expected.

The youngster coming of age, discovering new knowledge and awareness before they have the experience to know how to use it safely, finding companions on the way, is something of a staple in storytelling, as is any resulting voyage of discovery and trials on the journey. This is Mike Carey, however, he is well-versed in those classic tropes, and quite deliberately using them, then reshaping them to new ends in some quite delicious ways.

Koli’s world is richly described, from the village to the terrifying woods, with Carey only allowing us small fragments of the history that lead to this dystopian world where humanity has turned nature against itself, so the reader is much like Koli, finding out pieces along the way, and this immerses us into Koli’s world, piquing curiosity not just about what will befall Koli but how this world came to be as it is. As you may expect from Carey, this doesn’t shy away from some quite terrifying and horrific moments, and it populates its world with realistic characters (nobody here is entirely evil or heroic, they are just people with a mix of traits). There’s a strong ecological theme running through the book, and also eco-horror, which reminded me (in the best way) of some of Jeff VanderMeer’s work and the “revenge of nature” cycle of fantasy and horror common in the 1970s. A world turned upside down, once exploited by teeming masses of humans, now the humans are a small group living in fear of the world,.

It’s rich, intriguing, heady and often terrifying work that will draw you deeply into Koli’s world. I can’t wait for the next volume…

This review was originally penned for Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Shoreline of Infinity

William Gibson returns with Agency

Agency,
William Gibson,
Viking Penguin,
Hardback, 416 pages, £18.99
Published January 2020

Bill Gibson, arguably one of the most influential SF writers of the last few decades, returned to full-on science fiction with The Peripheral several years back (reviewed here). Agency follows on from that book, but there has been a pretty substantial, five year gap between the two, much of this caused by the pesky Real World interfering in the plot. Agency is not so much a direct sequel to Peripheral as a story set in the same world established in the preceding novel, with some characters carrying over and new ones taking the lead. It retains the idea from the Peripheral of a century or so hence future where our world has been radically changed after the “Jackpot”, a series of events (environmental, war, disease, political, economic) which decimated the global population and left the descendants of the super-rich oligarchies (the “klepts”) in charge, democracy a distant memory, the world barely stabilised by the use of cutting edge tech.

And again it involves the “stubs” – these rich oligarchs have discovered a mysterious server which allows them to connect digitally to what seems like their past. They can’t go there physically – there is no actual time travel as such here in the traditional sense (although sometimes they can go visit via telepresence in a remote controlled artificial body) – but can exchange information, allowing them to interfere in those eras, some for entertainment (often for malign kicks), as if they were playing a Civilisation style video game, except these are real people’s lives that they are playing with, (not hard to see the real-world commentary here!). This has no effect on their own timeline’s history as the moment they make contact with any such past it branches off into a parallel timeline, the so-called “stub”.

The formidable police inspector Lowbeer is tasked with ensuring that none of these klepts acts in too outrageous a way, that could threaten the precarious stability of their society (a society run by corrupt oligarchs not exactly being too stable to begin with). A new stub has come to her attention, one where Trump lost the Presidential election and Brexit never happened – and this is where the long delay between the two books comes in. Poor Bill was taken by surprise by the results of both of those votes, as many were, and realised some of what his characters would be doing made no sense in a world in which Trump and Brexit existed, causing a long delay and much re-writing and new thinking.

However, if you didn’t know this I doubt you would pick up on it from the writing – Gibson is far too professional for that. He’s always had a knack for smooth descriptions and highly-crafted prose style, and I think that is a skill which has just become better over the years. Here it has resulted in him taking the world-building from The Peripheral but delivering a related but very different story. Despite avoiding some of our timeline’s mistakes the new stub is still facing similar dangers the main timeline did (the looming Jackpot disasters), not to mention a looming threat of war around Syria and Turkey that could spiral into nuclear Armageddon very easily.

In this stub, unlike the main timeline, what may be a true AI agent – Eunice – has emerged from a murky mixture of covert military tech and Silicon Valley development, and some are panicking about what they may have unleashed when testing her. Verity, an influencer and “app whisperer” has been given Eunice to test by a tech start-up, unaware of the vast conspiracy that comes with this until she is dropped into it, while Eunice is going to have to develop very quickly if she has any chance to survive and grow, let alone maybe, just maybe, be able to help the human characters steer her timeline from its destructive course. Lowbeer feels some responsibility to help this timeline, and Eunice, and recruits Wilf (last seen in the Peripheral) to aid in whatever way they can to protect this stub from disaster (both from her own interfering timeline and from the potential disasters of its own timeline).

The best science fiction has always, at its core, addressed the problems of the modern world and society, no matter how disguised by futuristic settings and tech, and of course Gibson is no stranger this; it is something he has done in most of his books from Neuromancer onwards. Agency continues this, very satisfyingly hitting a number of hot-topic buttons, from the One Percent and their unprecedented level of control and influence in larger society, environmental collapse, the role of tech in our society (for good and ill), potential global flashpoints like Syria Turkey and Russia that could easily spiral into something worldwide, the dangers of undermining democratic institutions, of taking moral responsibility for our actions.

Couple this with a tense narrative, delivered in short, punchy, often fast-pace chapters, and characters you can’t help but care about (I think I fell in love a little bit with Eunice and Verity in particular, and the odd relationship developing between the pair) and you are in for a terrific, involving read from a great author at the top of his game. Well worth the wait.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction, featuring short stories, poetry, articles, reviews and more.

Cymera 2020

Back in June I was delighted to both attend and also take part in the very first Cymera Festival of literary science fiction, fantasy, YA and Horror here in Edinburgh, at the Pleasance (here’s my report and, of course, photos). It went amazingly well, especially for a first time outing (huge kudos to Anne and the other organisers and volunteers),I caught many panels with a wide variety of authors, some new to me, some old friends I’ve known years, and had the pleasure of chairing a talk with Ken MacLeod, Gareth Powell and Adrian Tchaikovsky about their books.

I’ve known that a second Cymera was being planned for June 2020, and now the festival has started its Crowdfunder appeal. I’ve already backed it as I did last year (which also gets me the weekend pass so I can come and go to any and all events through the whole festival, a bargain and dibs on booking which events I want to catch). If you enjoy good science fiction, fantasy, YA and horror literature then this is an event I highly recommend, and unlike many SF cons I have been to, it is in a nice venue in the city centre, not some out-of-town hotel. The Crowdfunder page is here, and there is a short promotional video (warning, the video does include a little bit of me!):

Reviews: Rosewater – Redemption

Rosewater: Redemption,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 374 pages

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

The third and final part of Arthur C Clarke Award-winning Tade Thompson’s rather excellent Rosewater series arrives from Orbit, and it proves as engrossing as its predecessors. The first novel introduced us to the world of Rosewater, this unusual near-future Nigerian shanty-town that had grown into a city state, based around a vast alien dome, the power politics going on between locals, such as the city’s major, the Nigerian government, the secret police, the aliens and other groups, and the “sensitive” Kaaro and his psychic abilities, which are linked to the alien-created xenosphere. Book two, Insurrection (reviewed here), took us away from Kaaro’s point of view and expanded our experience of this world through the eyes of several other characters, less a direct sequel as viewing events from another angle, giving a much rounder picture of both characters and the history that has lead to this point.

Insurrection also expanded on the alien presence, far from the benign if mysterious visitors who do annual “healing” ceremonies (one of the things which has put the once shanty-town of Rosewater on the political map and made it important) and brought us the xenosphere, this is, in effect, a very slow-motion invasion of our world. It is one which has been going on behind the scenes for decades, centuries even, the base, Wormwood, with roots deep below the Earth. And now more of the aliens are coming from their distant world – or at least the digitally archived mental imprints of that now otherwise extinct species, downloaded into dead human bodies and re-animated in a process similar to the “healing” gifts given to human pilgrims and their injuries.

Jack Jacques, the mayor, has a tenuous alliance with the aliens, or at least a section of them (it appears there are cracks in the aliens and their plans and approaches, just as there are divisions between the different human groups), allowing them to take dead bodies for this resurrection project. Understandably many bereaved families are aghast as this use of the body of their deceased loved ones being used as a vehicle for an alien mind. The arrangement does buy Jacques some bargaining power with the belligerent Nigeria though, still smarting from losing Rosewater as an independent city-state – with the power of the alien behind him, they can’t move too openly against Jacques (not that is stops all sorts of backroom plans and schemes).

Cymera 2019 - Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard 04
(Tade Thompson on stage at the first Cymera Festival of literary Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in Edinrugh this summer, photo from my Flickr)

But this is a delicately balanced situation and not one that can be maintained for long. Nigeria and other powers are interested in what is going on and want to move more openly, laying plans to disrupt the city’s routine and destabilise it, Jacques knows also that he cannot rely on the protection of the alien, and even if he could, he understands that each new one that is brought here and downloaded into a former human body is another nail in the eventual coffin not just of Rosewater but for the human race on Earth. He’s buying time, but that’s all, and he may have less than he thinks – bad enough people are forced to surrender the freshly dead bodies of their loved ones, but what if the belief that the resurrected bodies are entirely blank slate until the alien mind is downloaded are false? What if there is even a partial imprint of the original human soul still trapped in that revived body, now shunted to the back of the mind as the alien takes control?

A lot of hard decisions are going to have to be made by different powers, all squabbling for their own angle and unwilling to face the fact that perhaps their angle is, in the long-run, meaningless if they don’t unite to try and prevent the eventual extinction of their own species and the take-over of our planet by another. Assuming, of course, it is even possible to stop something like this, which has been happening for so many years already, a slow-motion invasion that had established a beach-head long before humans even realise they were at war…

Thompson takes the multi-character angles from the second book and deploys them again here to great effect, giving us insights into the competing human and alien interests, from the ones who are tying to co-operate at some level to the ones who will stop at nothing to impose their own will, consequences be damned (not hard to see echoes of this in, for example, the current climate crisis in the real world and the groups that fight around that despite the dire consequences awaiting all groups regardless of their prestige or power or angle). The notion that the newly resurrected formerly human cadavers, now home to alien intelligences, could also still retain vestigial elements of the original person’s mind, their essence, trapped in there, is horrifying, and brings the idea of global invasion to a very personal, individual level, upping the horror element (it is also not hard to compare this to the often brutal colonial/imperial era of history in Africa).

With so much at stake none of the original characters are safe, and there is a feeling throughout of how precarious the lives of even characters we have come to love are, how easily they could die by the hand of the slow alien infestation or by the quicker hand of their own fellow humans still trying to score points for their own agendas. There will be a blood-toll here, and there is a sense of increasing desperation as some of the players start to fully realise the stakes they are playing for, even as they try to form new plans that they have no idea they can pull off.

It really is all to play for here, and Thompson immerses us in the situation and in the character’s fates – it is a real gut-punch to see something bad happen to some – and keeps us guessing right to the end, how this will play out for both our individual characters and for the fate of humanity and the world. This all comes wrapped in a style and setting which sets it apart from a lot of other recent SF – Tade is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting new voices in the genre, and I can’t commend this series enough to your reading pile.

This review was originally penned for the Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction writing.

EIFF 2019 – Aniara

Aniara,
Directed by Pella Kågerman,
Starring Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini

Another day, another Edinburgh International Film Festival outing for me, today’s viewing on this first weekend of the festival kicking off with something even a major SF&F fan like me doesn’t come across too often – a Swedish science fiction film. Aniara is inspired by Nobel Prize-winner Harry Martinson’s 1956 poem, which was inspired by the Cold War era and the rapid proliferation of ever more power nuclear weapons and humanity’s seemingly mindless ability to use its intelligence to create new inventions that threatened our very existence.

The Aniara itself is a vast ship – really more a space city with engines – designed to take thousands of people in each trip, with comfortable cabins, swimming pools, bowling alleys, dance floors, shopping malls, restaurants and more. Think of a combination of hotel, cruise liner, major airport and shopping complex and you get the idea. She transports these thousands to a new home on Mars, swiftly, despite her city-sized bulk, with a voyage lasting only 23 days or so. We never see the full backstory, but the film is littered with references and inferences of the mess humanity has made of our own world, the only one in the whole solar system that we know could create and sustain life. Martinson’s original poem drew on the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the nuclear stand-off of the Cold War, but here it is more suggestive of humanity ruining their own biosphere, a topic which obviously resonates with a contemporary audience (although the film was made before the latest Extinction Rebellion wave of environmental campaigning captured media attention).

‘MR’ (Jonsson) is a Mimarobe on the ship, and we see her first on the Space Elevator carrying huge numbers up to board the orbiting ship (for those of you not familiar with the concept, a Space Elevator is pretty much what is sounds like, a tether to the Earth at one end, to a platform in orbit at the other, elevator cars run up and down the cable, eliminating the expense and limited lifting power of rockets. Long an SF concept, they are seriously considered by NASA and others). There’s a beautifully handled combination of the awe of seeing the Earth from space, looking down upon a huge storm gathering below in the atmosphere, and the ingenuity of the Space Elevator itself, mixed with that feeling of the workaday familiarity of those who have done this too many times as work. Imagine how astonishing the sight of a speeding train once was to people, but how nowadays many of us slump against the window pane, half asleep as we commute – that’s MR as she rides the Elevator to her work on the ship.

MR’s role as a Mimarobe is akin to a form of therapy – she operates a semi-sentient computer system which can interact with human minds and memories. Within its space she uses it to calm passengers, with the system gifting each individual their own beautiful image of Earth (before it was ruined), tailored to them, letting them leave their bodies for a few moments, the experience leaving them calmer, content. Normally a way of keeping civilians quiet during the trip to the Mars colony, this becomes vital when a tiny piece of space debris strikes the vessel, damaging the engine core which has to be ejected, leaving the crew unable to steer the Aniara, which is now off course. As the fear of being trapped in space, perhaps for several years, until they can correct their course by sling-shotting another celestial body grows, MR’s function becomes a form of respite care and the demands for her services soar, overloading both her and the sensitive computer.

As it starts to become clear the crew may be unable to create the manoeuvre they promised and their voyage may be far longer than thought, understandably, despite MR’s efforts, morale starts to break, people under extreme stress start to act in odd ways. The ship becomes a floating microcosm of every kind of humanity, from the eternal optimist who keeps trying for the best to the fatalistic (MR’s room-mate, The Astronomer, told her even before they were lost that life and humanity had no real purpose in the infinity of space), to those who crack and start to develop bizarre cults as a coping method. The Aniara, once the gateway to a New World, like the liners of old who took emigrants to the Americas in the last century, has now become its own closed system, adrift, the view from all windows an eternal night of space, the decks within now a pressure cooker for competing behaviours and neuroses as the weeks turn to months turn to years.

There are some obvious plotholes in Aniara which may irk SF fans – quite why a vessel this large and advanced doesn’t have emergency engines in case of the main reactor being damaged or failing is peculiar. As is the fact the highly trained crew cannot conceive of any other method of altering her course – the ship is able to alter gravitational fields but can’t affect its own trajectory? It doesn’t have basic reaction-control thrusters like any other space vehicle? Heck, you could even use some of the atmosphere (the ship produces its own) as a reaction gas for a jury-rigged thruster to push you back on course (think on the repairs the Apollo 13 crew made in space with an old sock and duct tape and then wonder why a huge ship with a whole engineering staff can’t figure out something this basic?).

But that kind of criticism, while perhaps valid in terms of plot flaws, is more nitpicking – this isn’t a film about the hard science of navigating in space, after all. This is a film about people, both at the individual level and at the societal level, and how they react to shock and stress, and the enclosed environs of this drifting ship are a perfect stage for this kinds of emotional and psychological drama, and on that level alone Aniara scores highly in my view. We see everything from depression and suicide to religious fanaticism, authoritarianism, denial and more among the people now trapped on board Aniara, from the blood-soaked cabin of someone who couldn’t take it any longer to the mad partying and drinking and sex of others trying to forget their concerns, from rank despair at a meaningless existence to the hope of shared love and warmth, Aniara offers all of this richly human drama, viewed mostly through the eyes of MR. An unusual and highly compelling addition to world science fiction film.

Aniara will get a UK cinema release from 30th August and will also be on digital platforms via Arrowhead Films

EIFF 2019 – Memory: the Origins of Alien

Memory: the Origins of Alien,
Directed by Alexandre O. Phillippe,
Exhibit A Pictures

Hard to believe, but here we are in the last third of June and that means Edinburgh International Film Festival time. My first screening out of the bunch I have booked was Memory: the Origins of Alien. You may know director Alexandre O. Phillippe for some of his very interesting previous documentaries, The People Vs George Lucas and Doc of the Dead (both highly recommended), and here he and his team have created another fascinating set of insights – this is not a standard making-of approach, rather this is an exploration of the myriad of people involved in the gestation of this now-iconic film, their thoughts, their inspirations, their dreams, their nightmares, the ingredients which would coalesce into the film Alien.

As anyone who has ever had to study Alien for an essay will know, it is one of those films that is replete with elements that can be endlessly debated and discussed, and some of those you are likely familiar with already, not least the surreal, dream-nightmare imagery of H.R. Giger, with its biomechanical, highly sexual motifs, which dovetails with other sexual aspects of the narrative (the “baby” alien chestbuster looking like a penis with teeth, as actor Veronica Cartwright put it, the “male rape” and insemination and the abomination of a birth), or the real-world parasitic insects which lay their eggs within other insects to feed from within then burst forth at birth inspiring what is now one of the most fabled scenes in cinema.


(above, the Furies, below, paintings by Francis Bacon, which fed into the idea for the chestbuster version of the Alien)

But Memory, while exploring these qualities, dives deeper, into the stories and myths that influenced Alien’s various creators, taking us from the Furies of Classical Greek culture (a beautifully shot scene takes us from Delphi, the “navel of the world” into a cave which becomes like an Alien set, right down to the laser beam from the egg cavern, except here the Furies wait below that glittering beam) to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Various talking heads comment, from academics to some of those personally involved, such as editor Terry Rawlings and art director Roger Christian, or co-writer Ron Shusett, with some clever use of archive interview material to allow some who have passed on, such a Giger or co-writer Dan O’Bannon, to be a part of the process, while others who worked with them also give us more insights into how those creators shaped their work, from early drafts, O’Bannon;s work with Carpenter on Dark Star and even his time with Giger on the Jodorowsky attempt to film Dune, all filtering into the eventual ideas in conjunction with the other film-makers.

As you may expect O’Bannon gets a lot of the running time here, as the original story creator, and we hear from his widow and from Shusett about “Star Beast” and how he knew he had something but he just couldn’t get past page 29 on the script, so Shusett pitched in, and the now-famous chestbuster scene was born. This scene, understandably, also takes a fair amount of the running time here – everyone involved, from the early drafts of the script (studio execs not being overly impressed until hitting that scene and experiencing their WTF moment) through to setting up of the actual scene, the puppet, the effects and filming it, they all knew this was where the film would live or die. It may now be one of the most well-known and important scenes in film history, but they had no way of knowing that when crafting that moment, and it is truly fascinating just how much went into its creation, from so many people.


(above, the now iconic chestbuster scene from Alien, below some early concept sketches for the scene, bottom: writer Dan O’Bannon on the Nostromo set)

And as for that iconic scene, so too for the whole film – Memory rather deftly tugs on the many different strands that went into the making of what we saw on the big screen, from childhood reading habits to art influences, to friendships or arguments that opened some doors or pointed people towards others. Of course all films are a gestalt entity – too often the director and the stars are the only ones focused on by the media, but those of us who love cinema are very aware of the huge amount of talents that go into the making of any film, and Memory beautifully, warmly. and with great respect for the creative process, shows how all those individuals, with all of their own histories and ideas and influences, work together to craft a feature film, in this case one that is now forty years old and assured of its place in cinematic history.

The EIFF screening also boasted a short post-show Q&A with producer Annick Mahnert who has worked with Phillippe before (he often uses a lot of the same team), and it was interesting to hear one of the team talk about how they brought together so many different strands of influences and people’s recollections to put together Memory, and she also let us know that their next film, which is mostly shot already but is now going into editing, will be about William Friedkin and the Exorcist, so I shall look forward to that.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the “Memory” title comes from a very early version of the story by O’Bannon.

Cymera

From 7th to 9th of June I was at the very first Cymera festival of literary science fiction, fantasy and horror at the Pleasance in Edinburgh. I was chairing a triple-header with Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gareth Powell, which turned into a very enjoyable event with the guys discussing their own work and space opera in general, as well as how they approach creating their works, from plot to characters to world building.

Richard Morgan at Cymera 01

On the first evening I saw Richard Morgan, who I haven’t seen in person for years. Some chums and I were early supporters of his work when his first book, Altered Carbon (now adapted by Netflix, with a second series on the way) came out back in the day (I still have my signed first edition).

Richard Morgan at Cymera 04

Richard Morgan at Cymera 06

I caught a great discussion by Samantha Shannon – I liked her Bone Season, and several of us in the bookshop have been eager to have a look at her new standalone book (it may eventually be joined by other books, she said at the event) The Priory of the Orange Tree, the only problem being it is a huge tome and if I start on that (and I do want to!) it means several others books waiting on my pile.

Cymera 2019 - Samantha Shannon 02

Cymera 2019 - Samantha Shannon 04

Cymera 2019 - Samantha Shannon 06

Obviously I couldn’t take any of the event I was chairing, but here are Gareth Powell, Ken MacLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky about to sign for readers after our panel:

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This is Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, and SJ Morden being interviewed by Andrew Lindsay at Cymera:

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Cymera 2019 - Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, SJ Morden 03

Cymera 2019 - Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, SJ Morden 04

Charlie Stross and Jonathan Whitelaw being interviewed by Andrew J Wilson:

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Cymera 2019 - Charles Stross, Andrew J Wilson, Jonathan Whitelaw 06

Cymera 2019 - Charles Stross, Andrew J Wilson, Jonathan Whitelaw 03

I hadn’t read Helen Grant, Clare McFall or Rachel Burge’s books (yet), but their panel on supernatural fiction sounded pretty interesting and I had a gap in my schedule, so I decided to check it out (trying new creators is part of going to festivals, surely?), and it proved to be very intersting (and a little spooky!)

Cymera 2019 - Helen Grant, Rachel Burge & Claire McFall 02

Cymera 2019 - Helen Grant, Rachel Burge & Claire McFall 05

Cymera 2019 - Helen Grant, Rachel Burge & Claire McFall 07

James Oswald (and his trademark pink jacket) is best known for his bestselling crime fiction (with a supernatural element), but his first love was fantasy and he began writing with his Sir Benfro series, which he discussed here with writer, tutor and former 2000 AD editor David Bishop:

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Cymera 2019 - James Oswald and David Bishop 04

Cymera 2019 - James Oswald and David Bishop 07

I really liked this element of Cymera – Brave New Words. Before the events in the main theatre new writers were given a few moments to do a reading from their work, a nice way to support new talent. Here’s Justin Lee Anderson –

Cymera 2019 - Justin Lee Anderson

Den Patrick, Leo Carew and Rebecca Kuang discussing their fantasy worlds:

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Cymera 2019 - Leo Carew RF Kuang Den Patrick 05

Cymera 2019 - Leo Carew RF Kuang Den Patrick 08

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I really enjoyed Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard’s talk, which took a different angle from more common Western cultural tropes. Tade’s debut novel Rosewater made my Best of the Year list for 2018 and the sequel Insurrection, out just a couple of months ago, is even better (reviewed here). I have Aliette’s books on order…

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Organiser Ann got a suprise ceremony and gift at the very end of the weekend as thank you for the whole festival. It was pretty damned amazing, especially for a first outing – I talked to a lot of writers and readers, and they all enjoyed themselves. Hats off to everyone who took part and organised it, fingers crossed it becomes an annual event.

Cymera 2019 - Ann Landmann