Clever Indy science fiction with 2036 Origin Unknown

2036 Origin Unknown,
Directed by Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull,
Starring Katee Sackhoff, Ray Fearon, Julie Cox, Steven Cree

Mackenzie “Mack” Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) is one of the last of a dying breed – what used to be a highly qualified, highly trained role that took years of study and experience to achieve, a mission controller for the space programme. Except now that true AI has come along most of those roles are redundant, humans no longer required, the AI, ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) is pretty much running the show, she’s there as a sort of failsafe, or for some unusual occurrence. Now working all but alone with ARTi in an underground command bunker Mack is overseeing a new mission to Mars, and it’s a project that is fraught with personal, emotional baggage for Mack. Quite aside from her understandable dislike of the new AI usurping the role of herself and all her former colleagues, the last mission to Mars crashed, killing the entire crew – including her father. Add into this mix the eponymous signal of unknown origin and you have an intriguing mix.

What starts as a pretty timely commentary – the threat of ever smarter expert systems and nascent AI being in the news again regularly as a threat even to highly specialised jobs- on humanity’s relationship with technology, adds layers as it progresses. Mack may have to put up with ARTi but it doesn’t mean she has to like it. And the more she works with him the more she finds herself questioning the AI, its motives, its very existence. How exactly did such a sophisticated AI come into being? How did it come to be running so much so quickly, to be accepted by most humans as the way to go? ARTi is using his vast cognitive abilities to create more new technology – including a hyperlight communication system that allows instantaneous communication with the automated new Mars ship and rover (a handy idea that gets around the several minutes of time-lag in normal plant to planet communications between Mars and Earth, obviously useful here for the film-makers too as well as the character). ARTi may seem polite and willing to help, but is he? He isn’t human and she isn’t sure of his exact origins, let alone what hidden motivations he may have…

This is clearly a small budget, Indy production, but Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull uses his limited resources quite well – we do get some decent special effects sequences, such as the original Mars mission, the later one Mack is involved with, but the bulk of the film is Mack alone in the mission control bunker with ARTi. There is a brief visit from a former colleague and video call from her sister, but most of this film is Katee Sackhoff interacting with ARTi’s AI in a small, enclosed space. Much of this would work perfectly on stage and is nicely self-contained.

It also comes with overtones of Dave Bowman alone inside the Discovery with HAL 9000, and while it feels from his performance that Cree is obviously aware of that illustrious and influential predecessor, he gives a carefully nuanced voice performance, paying a little homage to HAL but still making ARTi very much his own character, and one who may have very different ideas about the mission that the humans (but is that a good thing or a bad thing?). The tight running time helps with this claustrophobic bunker setting with Mack and ARTi, building the tension increasingly until… Well, you’ll need to watch the film to find out.

The film-makers have been very fortunate in landing Katee Sackhoff for their film, I’d imagine a lot of science fiction fans will be more interested because of her presence (and as already mentioned she carries almost all of the human side of this movie). But a film still has to deliver good story and characters, and this is a clever piece of small budget science fiction that does deliver, using a nice combination of tightly wound emotions (Sackhoff mostly only has the screen of ARTi to act against, but she does it well) with layers of intrigue and mystery to good effect.

2036 Origin Unknown will be released on iTunes, other Video on Demand services and DVD from August 13th

High tension in Adrift

Adrift,
Rob Boffard,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

With a history degree and little chance of going straight from college to a nice museum job, and reluctant to take a post with her oh-so-successful older sister or parents, Hannah has, like many a young undergrad or graduate, decided to travel and take on a low-level job to pay her way, get some work experience and fund that travelling. In her case it isn’t tending a bar in Ibiza though, but becoming a tour guide at Sigma Station, a massive station which serviced trade and mining processing for the outer colonies, but which is now also a luxury hotel and tourist destination, boasting spectacular views of one of the galaxy’s greatest sights, the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s not going well though – she’s not even settled in and gotten used to the place before she is put to work, and like many low-paid jobs she gets tossed right in with hardly any training and, unsurprisingly feels overwhelmed, clumsy and out of her depth. Hardly how any of us want to feel at any time, harder still for a young woman in her first job and her first long distance trip away from home on her own, hardly a confidence booster. One of her first tasks is to be the perky, cheery guide for some of the station’s tourists who are taking a local trip on the Red Panda, a basic small vessel, the space equivalent of the wee converted fishing boat that you get at the seaside, all aboard the Mary Jane, twice around the lighthouse and back in time for fish and chips!

It’s not helped by a surly Russian captain who refers to her only as “Guide” rather than by name, or that the small group of tourists are made up of bored, or grumpy types, and several are the type who seem to like belittling anyone in the poorly paid service post below them (we’ve all seen plenty like that). Oh, and then there’s the sudden, violent destruction of the station and the mass slaughter of the thousands of unarmed civilians within just after the Panda had launched…

(the Horsehead Nebula, some 1500 light years from Earth, infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope)

A ship of unknown origin appears and attacks the station with weapons unlike any they’ve seen before. Who are they? Why have they attacked such a huge civilian outpost without warning? The human worlds have been putting themselves back together after a costly war between the Earth-lead planets and the colonies (as with such wars throughout terrestrial history, the colonial power expands to take in more resources, but when those colonies become successful, strangely enough they start to question why they should be breaking their backs to send most of their hard-earned resources back to the motherland). But the war is over, peace returned, hence the return of tourism to the frontier. And that strange attacking ship didn’t look like anything from the colonies, or Earth, and the tech seems too high… Who are they? Why are they attacking? Are there more of them?

And meantime the small, disparate group of tourists and Hannah have to survive on a tiny ship designed only for short, local sightseeing trips – this is a small pleasure craft, not an interstellar starship, it was never meant to be far from support. Assuming they can avoid meeting the same fate from the mystery ship they’re still in desperate straits, cut off from any support, on a ship with limited supplies and systems, light years from the next base. A mixed group flung together, it isn’t long before the divisions and arguments start, making an awful situation worse. And this is all just in the first few chapters…

This is a tale that stamps on the accelerator right from the start, launching our characters from an everyday situation into a terrifying position in an instant, and then taking that situation Boffard expertly turns the crank on this emotional rack, tightening the ropes, increasing the tension in a desperate fight for survival mixed with conflict and conspiracies. It makes for a read as gripping as a hungry anaconda. It’s a story that has a lot of DNA in common with the likes of Hitchcock’s classic Lifeboat, and like that film it cleverly maximises the almost single-setting to its advantage, building tension laced with claustrophobia and rising panic, anger and division. I hate using a cliche like “page turner”, but oh boy, this is indeed a page turner…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

“You shall go to the ball…” – Cinderella

Cinderella,
Directed by Beeban Kidron,
Starring Marcella Plunkett, Jane Birkin, Kathleen Turner, Gideon Turner, David Warner, Katrin Cartlidge, Lucy Punch, Leslie Phillips
Simply Media

The Cinderella story is pretty much an archetype – variations on the theme of the innocent, warm-hearted young lass who finds herself in awful conditions through no fault of her own, before finally finding good fortune and true love go back many centuries, with that scribbler of old fairy tales Charles Perrault in the late 1690s and the Grimms in the early 1800s crystalising the story into the form we’re familiar with today. This version is a television film from 2000, which aired on Channel 4, and boasts some solid British thesps like David Warner, Leslie Phillips and the late (and much-missed) Katrin Cartlidge, joined by Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, Body Heat).

With such a well-known story there is always a question of why do another version? In this case it’s easily answered – because the film-makers have reworked it to be more relevant to the modern day, and in a manner that the younger viewers can enjoy, but which works well for the teen/YA and the adult audience. It is set in a sort of fantasy kingdom of strangely coloured skies, which has the traditional horse drawn carriages, palaces and country mansions, but also open topped cars and steam trains, royal orchestras but also a guitar playing, singing Prince. The Prince and his friends come across as a playful pastiche of the modern, hipper young Royals, the wicked stepmother (Turner) and her nasty daughters aren’t just nasty and spiteful to poor Cinders, they are also a nice comment on modern, super-shallow celeb culture, creatures who are empty inside but made-up exquisitely for outward appearance, the sort who appear in the pages of Hello and its ilk.

David Warner’s father returns from a business trip with a “surprise” – a new wife and step-daughters, to the shock of his daughter. Her shock is furthered by the way her new stepmother so obviously manipulates her widowed father and allows his new stepdaughters to bully her. This swiftly escalates from subtle manipulation to the far more obvious kind of control – Turner’s wicked stepmother is soon quite clear she is in this for money and the noble connections. Warner’s father has the noble title but not much money, so he is soon banished to sleep in the attic – “You know the rule: cash equals company.” despite this he still refuses to see what is going on (no fool like an old fool), and his daughter becomes increasingly isolated in what was once her own loving home.

A woman lives on her own and the whole world imagines she must be a witch…”

Cinderella retreats to the grave of her beloved mother on the hills, encountering a bird of prey who, in the best animal tradition in fairy tales, acts as a form of guide, leading her to a cave by the lake, a magical cave where the waterfall parts for her. Instead of a fairy godmother, here we have Mab (Jane Birkin), an odd being who is half-amused, half-offended when Cinders asks if she is a witch. She may not be a witch, but she does seem to have some magical abilities, and she helps Cinderella in her own peculiar way.

I somehow missed this when it was first aired, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it now. While some of the effects are very early 2000s (not bad, just not as polished as you would expect today), that in fact adds to the charm here, giving the kingdom an other-worldly look that suits it quite well. And besides, it’s the story and characters which really matter here, and oh boy does Kathleen Turner clearly enjoy playing the wicked stepmother, in fact she seems to relish it, and she is delectably wicked here and, pardon the pun, having a ball with the role (as are Lucy Punch and Katrin Cartlidge as her nasty daughters).

This is an unusual, modern take on an old tale, played well, with some nice riffs on both popular culture and society (Turner inspecting her wicked daughters’ vast shoe collection and advising them “Remember the harder they are to walk in, the more effective”), while also tipping a knowing hat to the old folkloric tropes (“I hate happy endings”). This is a clever version of the Cinderella tale, with all the main beats given a nice, more contemporary twist (and yet still classic tropes), and it knows enough to have fun with it along the way, and take the viewer along too, with a big smile.

Cinderella is available now from Simply Media

Reviews: disturbing Gothic horror in The Atrocities

The Atrocities,

Jeremy C Shipp,

Tor.com


(cover art by Samuel Araya, design by Christina Foltzer)

Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.”

Right from this opening paragraph Jeremy C Shipp’s novella The Atrocities crafts a delightfully, delectably creepy sense of unease. A tutor coming to a mysterious, isolated old home is, of course, hardly new in the fantastic genres – the governess in an old mansion with peculiar owners and even more peculiar children has been a staple of Gothic fiction since the 1800s, and the Old, Dark House has haunted our fictional nightmarescapes for just as long. It’s been quite a while since I came across someone opening up that particular playset again though, and I’m glad to report Shipp not only plays with an old generic type, he twists it and has fun with it; clearly he has a lot of love for some of those older tales, and that shows in the craft and attention to building mystery and atmosphere in The Atrocities.

The garden maze and bizarre, disturbing statuary could have come from the Addams Family mansion, but the constant, growing sense of unease, of things simply not being right, owes much to masters like Poe – there’s a feeling of dread growing throughout this book. On the surface it seems a very straightforward appointment: Danna has been engaged to tutor Isabella, the young daughter of Mr and Mrs Ever in Stockton House. There’s one somewhat unusual factor here though: Isabella is dead. Deceased. She has ceased to be, joined the Choir Invisible.

Mr and Mrs Evers, however, do not see this as any reason she should not have her education continued, like any proper young lady. Isabella is, according to Mrs Ever at least, still here, a phantom, and a playful impish one at that. Danna can see why previous teachers declined to stay, but is talked into giving the post a go, mostly because it may be emotionally helpful to Mrs Ever, who is unable to let her little girl go – has she lost the balance of her mind due to her grief, imagining that Isabella is still with her in her home, in spectral form?

Naturally there is much more going on here, but given how short this is, I’m not going to risk potential spoilers by dropping any major plot points. Besides, as with Poe the real prize here is the brooding, menacing, disturbing, Gothic atmosphere. That’s not to downplay the narrative here, which works beautifully – I’ve always thought shorter fiction is a good way to measure some writers, it is, contrary to what some think, harder to build a solid story, create characters and craft atmosphere in a short space, compared to a full-length novel. When someone does so, as Shipp does very well here, it is, to my mind, a mark of someone who really understands their craft.

Tor has been putting out some quite brilliant novellas and novelettes in the last couple of years, science fiction, fantasy and horror, and we’ve been loving them on here. A brilliant way to experience writers you may not have read before, also ideal for a quick read electronically, and The Atrocities is a very fine, hauntingly creepy addition to that range.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Autonomous

Autonomous,

Annalee Newitz,

Orbit Books


(cover design by Will Staehl)

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Annelee Newitz’s name, being the co-founder of the major SF site IO9 among many other hats she wears. To that hatstand we can now add science fiction novelist with this, her debut from Orbit Books. An oh boy, what a fabulous debut. Robots, love, sex, pirates, copyfighters sticking it to giant mega corporations, shady morality and a future that’s drawn partly from the present and history, making elements of it sadly all too plausible. All of this wrapped up in a very well-paced narrative with flawed characters who work their way into your affections, flaws and all (perhaps more so because of their flaws).

Jack is a highly trained scientist with a lifelong hatred for the big megacorporations, especially big pharmaceuticals. In her younger days she and others pushed for free labs and works being published without copyrights, freely available to anyone to make themselves when needed, or for other scientists to take and twist and alter and enhance. It’s a stance which attracts a lot of other like-minded people and, predictably, the ire of these giant corporations, which use their agents to crush them and make an example of them, seemingly above the law around the world, able to get people imprisoned, or use coercion and violence on those who oppose them, and get away with it while authorities, hungry for the funds that can come with working with those big corporations, look the other way.

It’s a life which instead of cowing Jack has pushed her further into her beliefs – she’s become a pirate, hacking the drugs produced by these megacorps, which make obscene amounts of money and make drugs and therapies which only the well-off can afford. She hacks these, breaks them down and then makes her own versions which are distributed to a black market among various medical staff; it makes her a living (albeit one that gets her hunted) and at the same time people who couldn’t possibly afford those medications are able to get hold of them cheaply.

Except now, as her submarine nears the coast for a new drop, she is hearing news of multiple cases of problems with a drug, one she fears she sold – she checks, her work is good, but the original company’s drug she hacked has a serious flaw (or is it deliberate?), it is highly addictive. Her mission to do good has gone wrong in spectacular, if unintentional, fashion and she is going to need help to fix it. Worse, as this will draw the copyright agents closer to her – not motivated to make sure not only that her pirating is stopped but no news of their dodgy chemistry makes the news – she is going to be running from hiding spot to hiding spot to try and fix it while looking over her shoulder, and knowing she is potentially putting everyone she deals with in danger.

This is an absolute cracker of a debut – it runs along at a fine pace, keeping you glued to it. Where some may give you good heroic characters and their villainous counterparts, Newitz instead gives a much more satisfying mix of flawed characters – many of those on the “sticking it to The Man” side of things are not all entirely clean, and they are, basically criminals (even if some do it for a greater good – at least they think they do), while the agent hunting them, Eliasz, and his robotic companion Paladin, commit morally horrible acts to try and deal with some of those they are hunting, and yet neither is really a villain as such, they think they are doing the right thing, upholding rules and laws, stopping criminals, and there is a strange relationship forming between man and machine which starts as somewhat disturbing but soon becomes actually rather sweet.

It’s a disturbing future drawing on a lot of elements from our current world and our shared history, which makes it all the more terrifyingly plausible. Not only robots are indentured for years (earning their autonomy from those who created them by working off that debt), huge swathes of humanity are similarly indentured, recalling the way more than a few colonists came to the New World back in Colonial-era America, with no resources other than their own labour, selling themselves into an indentured contract, and with the erosion of worker’s rights to suit giant corporations (which have more power than national governments) it’s not hard to imagine a form of that being tried again. The hacking and pirating of chemicals and treatments from giant companies is something we have seen already – think of those Brazilian companies in the 80s and 90s making their own generic versions of big pharma companies’ AIDS drugs, illegal, sure, but on the other hand it made those drugs available to thousands who needed them and couldn’t afford them. That sort of moral ambiguity is laced throughout the book and makes it all the more engrossing. A must-read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Arm of the Sphinx

Arm of the Sphinx,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


(cover art by Ian Leino, design by Lauren Panepinto)

Some scholars believe the Sphinx must be a supreme mesmerist to bring so many to ruin. He spellbinds his victms into self destruction. Other students of the Sphinx, however, contend that, rather than hypnosis, he practices the black art of legal contracts.”

In my review of the first of the Books of Babel series, Senlin Ascends (see here), I described Josiah Bancroft’s debut as “An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher.” )in fact you can see that quote on the back cover of the new book!) So you can imagine that I have been eager to read the second book and see if it lived up to the promise of that compelling debut. Well, the short version of this review is yes, it does, and then some.

Thomas Senlin, our errant fish out of water headmaster is still determined to locate his missing wife, but now it seems as if he is further away from that goal, both physically and emotionally. He is now going by the name Tom Mudd, captain of a piratical airship, with his small, motley crew, and as far as actual piracy goes, they tend to be rather gentlemanly, as poor Tom is reluctant to surrender all of his remaining principles, already eroded enough by his misadventures in the first book. But circumstances are becoming increasingly dire – months have passed, our little crew is glad to be free, each from their previous form of entrapment, and they seem to be forming a genuine bond together. But as desperation presses them they find they are going to have to take bigger chances, returning in their stolen airship to the Tower of Babel, this time to levels we’ve not yet encountered, and it goes without saying that if the lower ringdoms of the Tower have a habit of enmeshing unwary visitor, these new levels are even more dangerous, their inhabitants even more devious and with much more opaque motivations.

So far we’ve heard whispers of secretive (or possibly whatever the Tower equivalent to urban legend is) figures, powers behind the scenes (if they exist, many think they are just legend), Luc Marat, the Hod King (the Hods being those unfortunates enslaved and who do much of the work that maintains the Tower life), and the even more mysterious Sphinx. Tom’s first mate on the airship, Edith, confirms reluctantly that the Sphinx is indeed real – her marvelous mechanical arm which replaced her damaged fleshly appendage, is a construction of the Sphinx, powered by the same red fluid batteries Tom has seen before in the vicious Red Hand in an earlier level. It seems the Sphinx has fingers in many pies throughout the levels of the Tower, and makes contracts with some he selects, such as Edith, with certain services required further down the line. But what game are these two shadowy figures playing? They seem to extol certain ideas but clearly also have other agendas, some of which may be contrary to their more openly espoused aims. Which are the real goals, how will Tom and his crew fit into their plans and will they survive them?

This is an immensely satisfying sequel to Senlin Ascends, and the book is full of multiple possible meanings, right from the title itself – the Arm of the Sphinx could literally refer to the mechanical arm he replaced Edith’s missing limb with (leaving her in his debt), or it could refer to his reach, connecting to all the various ringdoms of the Tower. And it comes as no surprise that a being named after the mythical riddler is something of an enigma – we don’t even know if this is the same Sphinx as the legends. If it is then he is far older than any human being could possibly be, or is there something more to the person, or the legend? And if so what, and why? Marat too, sitting in the ruined level of the former Golden Zoo (an eerie location if ever there was one, it has that creepiness of a funfair after it has closed for the night) seems to be more welcoming and genial, more humanitarian in his mission than the Sphinx, but like many who seem to be selfless and committed to a noble cause rather than their own aims, he may well be the opposite of what he appears to be.

This quality of the book extends to our small crew as well – Bancroft takes great pains to show us the many failings and weaknesses of each of the crew, but he balances this out by showing their better characteristics, not least their increasing bond to one another, a growing, genuine affection. They’re becoming a family, and like every family there is bickering, there are mannerisms and habits that drive others mad or to despair, and yet through all of that their fondness and loyalty to one another wins over, and it’s rather endearing. It all combines to give us far more three dimensional characters, flaws and all, and makes them both more believable and more relatable – I’ve become very attached to Tom, Edith, Erin, Voletta and Adam, and that emotional attachment, of course, draws me further into their story.

I praised Bancroft’s use of language in the first book – I was not surprised to learn that he was a poet before he turned to prose, as many of his lines and paragraphs have a beautifully worked, lyrical flow to them; this is a writer who really knows their wordcraft. And again the descriptions are remarkable, rich and evocative – think an SF&F version of Raymond Chandler on the descriptive phrases front, with lines like “the marble statues with robes no thicker than spilled milk”. It’s a wonderfully rich reading experience, the character developments, the twisting narrative twining its way up the Tower like writhing snakes, the labyrinthine, possible Machiavellian motivations of the hidden power plays of Marat and the Sphinx, some deliciously slow reveals about the history of the Tower (even this monumental structure may not be what it seems, continuing the theme of hidden or double meanings).

The middle books of a series often suffer by comparison to the beginning and end volumes, but here there is no such problem, Bancroft’s writing is too skillful. In fact this serves to draw you ever deeper into the mysteries of the Tower, the lives and trials of our main characters and narrative, leaving the reader eager for the third volume, The Hod King. Senlin Ascends made my annual Best of the Year list, and Arm of the Sphinx will doubtless make this year’s list, which is as strong a recommendation as I can make.

You can read an excerpt from Arm of the Sphinx on the Orbit blog here.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: climbing the tower – Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


Sometimes I’m waiting eagerly for a new book by an author I admire, always a happy moment. And then some other times a book from an author you haven’t encountered before arrives on your desk, and you have an even happier moment of a new literary journey, a walk onto a new area of the fantasy map you’ve not explored before. And for me that was the case here when an advance copy of Senlin Ascends appeared in the Blogcave; the first in the “Books of Babel”. That caught my attention, the name of that great structure – real? Mythical? More likely a fusion of later myth overlaid over some actual historical root like one of the great ziggurats of the ancient world. Babel. The tower to the heavens, a combination of humanity’s ambition, ingenuity and unbridled hubris, it’s a symbol that has cast a long shadow over human storytelling for centuries, there is something irresistible about it, and when a writer has a new angle on this ancient symbol it’s always going to be intriguing. My bookselling Spidey-sense was tingling, and it rarely points me wrong.

Meet Thomas Senlin, headmaster of a small coastal town, until recently a bachelor and a rather upright chap, something of a fuddy duddy, perhaps, and a man who is, as you’d expect for a teacher, well-educated. At least in terms of what he has read, but he is about to learn that the wider world doesn’t always conform to what you may have read, no matter how eminent the source book supposedly is. And Senlin has surprised his local village by finally taking not just a wife, but Marya, not only a very beautiful lady, but one with an impish and playful, adventurous  streak, almost the polar opposite of the fairly austere Senlin. And yet Marya has seen something in Senlin the other villagers never suspected, and she has awoken something in him. And for their honeymoon Marya and Senlin have taken the train to the Tower of Babel, the famous site he has told his students all about in school, but never visited.

The base  of the vast Tower is surrounded by the huge and teeming market, which right away pitches our newly weds into an exotic casserole of merchants from all over the world and goods from every corner, bustling, vibrant, overwhelming to a couple from a small, distant town, especially to Senlin, while Marya, resplendent in her new bright-red Pith helmet (so he can always spot her in a busy crowd, she tells him with a smile) seems to revel in it all.  A wonderful wife, a honeymoon in an astonishing location he’s dreamed of, what could go wrong? Well, of course things do go wrong, I mean there wouldn’t be much drama if they just had a nice holiday and went home with some postcards. There are little warning signs – Senlin, from his history and guide books, expects a land of wonders, cultured, the pinnacle of civilisation, and instead their first impressions are more like a wild and disreputable souk, the sort of place where you tread carefully and watch your belongings. Or your wife…

Because just like that, a few pages in, barely arrived at their destination – in fact not even in the Tower itself yet – Marya vanishes. And this teeming place seems to have no real authority, no police to turn to (there are some security types, but most are thugs posing in uniform to take advantage of the unwary). When he realises he has lost her he searches, but the market surrounds the base of the Tower, so it is massive, and he has no chance. Eventually Senlin concludes all he can do is proceed up the Tower to the Baths, two levels up, where they intended to stay at one of the hotels – Marya is a capable and independent woman, chances are after realising she may never locate him in the busy market she’s decided to go there already and wait for him.

This is, of course, assuming she is merely lost. But soon Senlin starts to hear stories from others that they too have lost loved ones, and in fact the base of the Tower – the Skirts – is festooned with notes from those desperately seeking missing family members, a scene with disturbing similarities to those posters placed around the 9-11 site as people urgently tried to find what happened to their loved ones. Senlin, a man who lives a very conventional, straightforward life is totally unprepared for  the world he is about to enter when he first moves into the Tower, and into the Basement. Each level of the Tower is a world unto itself, each different, but related, each stage is a “ringdom”, and like any good quest, any hero’s journey, Senlin will need to traverse each of them and meet their individual challenges.

(a glimpse into the lower levels of the Tower of Babel, borrowed from the Books of Babel site)

Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what.

And I’m not going any further into this narrative because I don’t want to risk spoilers – this is a journey, literally and metaphorically, and the reader needs to undertake those discoveries and challenges as much as Senlin does. The idea of the “ringdoms” is a great one, allowing for totally different worlds within worlds, and many different scenarios to test Senlin. And it also allows Bancroft much scope for some fabulous world-building and some lovely descriptions. It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor.

And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher…

Senlin Ascends will be published by Orbit Books on January 18th, 2018; check out The Books of Babel site for more glimpses into this fascinating world, and you can read an excerpt from the book here on the Orbit blog.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness,

Chris Brookmyre,

Orbit Books

(cover artwork by Steve Stone)

Welcome to Ciudad de Cielo, or CdC, a city in the sky, orbiting high above planet Earth, a shining beacon to the blue world below. Home to the Quadriga, a consortium of four mega corporations and the brightest minds humanity has to offer, working on the most advanced research on – well, near – the planet, with the ultimate aim of preparing a generational starship. This is technology not just to better life on Earth, but to prepare the human race to expand out into the stars. An orbital city of thousands, a crime-free utopia of brilliant minds high above the Earth, bringing knowledge and technology to the world below, like some modern Prometheus, while the other foot is readying the long walk to deep space. The pinnacle of human civilisation’s evolution.

Or so the brochures and corporate PR would have it. As anyone who has ever studied utopias knows, they are rarely perfect, human nature just doesn’t allow for it. And human nature is at the core of Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre is a long-established member of the “Tartan Noir”, the brace of internationally bestselling Scottish crime writers (along with the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and more), but here he’s going science fiction, although for lovers of his more Earthbound crime novels, there’s still much here they too can enjoy.

CdC started as a floating lab facility, with the “wheels” at either end being added as it grew, that central shaft offering micro gravity facilities for some advanced research and manufacture, the wheel sections simulating gravity. And “ideal society” claim or not, like every other human city in history it is stratified and with a hierarchy from the corporate suits and top scientists at the peak, down to mass of regular workers low down. The people who do the actual work – cleaners, joiners, electricians, medics, cops (well, private corporation cops), and where you have all of this population there will be a dark economy – bootleg booze, underground clubs, prostitution, and most regualr folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. The side of life the CdC like to pretend they left below on Earth; this is more Babylon 5’s Down Below than Star Trek’s shiny Federation.

And it’s into this Alice Blake is sent, a representative of the federated world governments, who keep a close eye on the CdC, the corporations forever wary of too much oversight, or intrusion into how they run things. Alice, adopted child of high flying government types, has been raised and schooled to fit perfectly into her niche and she actually believes the PR blurb about this idealised society and the selfless work leading to the stars and humanity’s destiny. But she is also enough of a political animal to realise her boss is sending her to take over the security gig so she can get a close look at how the corporations are running things. But the myth of the crime-free orbital society is about to be brutally shattered – the low level crimes the CdC can hide, but murder? An especially cruel murder and mutilation? No, that’s going to leak out. Hell of a first day for Alice, paired with the security team’s Nikki Freeman, a former homicide detective and only one on the private security force with the experience to work such a case.

But Nikki is also known as “Nikki Fixx”, a go-to, a fixer, a grifter, working both sides of her badge. Everything Alice despises; Alice, in turn is looked down on by Nikki as a privileged and rule-bound type who has no real idea how things work. In the best mismatched cop-buddy tradition they’re going to be flung together and find themselves spiraling down a far deeper rabbit hole than either could have anticipated, an investigation that will snake around itself, from conspiracy theories and power politics at the highest echelons down to the dive bars and hidden underground elements of society, from criminal smugglers to secretive elite scientists and everything in between, Alice is going to get a first-hand view of the reality of the society on this orbiting citadel of humanity.

I’m not going to go too much into the murder investigation and where it leads, far too easy to blow some spoilers that way, but for anyone who has read Brookmyre’s crime novels, you’ll already know that you are in very fine hands here regarding a good murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. But as with his terrestrial novels, Brookmyre delights as much in the details and the way these details and the events around them can reveal human nature in all of its many facets, and that is compelling, from the highest, elite segments to the lowest, and the elements of life that connect them all, one way or the other.

It’s a story which also questions the nature of humanity, from Alice, brought up in a very different setting from the likes of Nikki, with her by the rules, idealised view of how it should all be, to Nikki, who has seen how much of it really works, the dirty, oily engine under the gleaming bonnet of the car, and then those in positions of power, from crime gangs to the corporate and scientific leadership, and what they want their orbiting society – and eventual starship colony crew – to be. And it questions if you can really make people into moulds or if human nature will always assert itself – and if that is a good or bad thing, while also, like much of science fiction, using that future society as a mirror to observe aspects of our own contemporary world, from the haves and have-nots, the corporations straining to be free of government oversight, the bulk of people waiting for the “trickle down” effect, the role of technology in society (for good and ill) and more. It’s a rich brew, giving a real feeling of a near-future society you can believe in, humanity in a warts and all way, allied to a compelling and twisting narrative of murder and conspiracy.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Provenance: Ann Leckie returns to her Ancillary universe

Provenance,

Ann Leckie,

Orbit Books

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seemed to come out of nowhere and conquered all before it, scooping the Arthur C Clarke, the Hugo and the Nebula awards among others, and for my own part it (and the following two books in her Radch trilogy) made my annual Best of the Year lists (in fact I recall Justice also made a few of our guest Best of the Year selections too, it impressed a lot of people). Her new novel, Provenance, is set in the same universe, but isn’t directly connected – it’s a different world and society (outside the imperialist Radch space), and different characters, and I think that was a wise move by the author, giving fans something fresh but at the same time also expanding the universe she has built previously.

Much of the events in Provenance rotate around or involve Ingray Aughskold, a young woman from a highly privileged, important and influential family on the world of Hwae. These kinds of mover and shaker families don’t operate just like a classic dynastic model though, they also frequently foster and adopt other children, raised to be part of the family and with them competing to be the one who will be named as the heir. In her case she suspects her brother is their mother’s favourite to inherit her name and title, he simply seems more devious and determined and scheming. Not terribly pleasant characteristics, but for the sort of political wheeling and dealing class, quite useful. And so at the opening we find Ingray, somewhat out of her depth, on a station in another system, where she has used all of her remaining resources to have someone secretly rescued from what is euphemistically called “compassionate removal” (essentially a prison planet where undesirables are dumped and have to fend for themselves).

Ingray’s world is obsessed with “vestiges”, historical artifacts and documents which are used to prove worthiness and rights, both on the personal level to the family history to the entire planetary society itself (not unknown in our own history, think of the supposed Wallace Sword in the Stirling monument, or Henry VIII’s Arthurian round table). The person she has had broken out of imprisonment, Pahlad Budrakim, also comes from a powerful family like her own (actually one her mother, the current Netano, has contested against for political office). And he was put away for stealing the family vestiges and replacing them with clever forgeries. Ingray’s plan to get Pahlad free, return to Hwae and find the never-recovered vestiges and present them to her mother as proof of her abilities is a bit desperate, even to herself, a last-ditch, all-or-nothing approach. So she is already filled with self-doubt as she embarks on this mission… And then when she finally gets Pahlad Budrakim delivered, removed from stasis, the person who emerges, despite looking like Pahlad Budrakim, claims not to be that person or even to know them. It seems her plan has fallen apart right at the first hurdle and all that remains to do is go home, broke and resigned to failure and the inevitable gloating of her brother.

Needless to say, this is not exactly how Provenance plays out, or it would be a very shot read. Instead Ingray finds that her travels and her scheme have brought her into wider plots, involving some of those she meets in her journey, her family, her planet and other powers. She will find herself again worrying about being out of her depth, of attempting to form plans in response to strange new turns of events, then finding her plans don’t always work and she’s going to have to have a wee panic but then settle down and think again. There’s actually something very pleasing about this – Ingray isn’t some superbly-gifted character, highly-trained and with capabilities normal people can only envy (the sort of character we see all too often), she’s a regular person, and a young one, inexperienced and learning as she goes. It’s as much a coming of age story as it is a mystery and conspiracy tale, and Ingray feels quite natural and believable, and increasingly likable as the story progresses.

In the Ancillary series the imperial Radch normally use the pronoun “she” for any citizen, they don’t differentiate in language between genders. Here in the Hwaen and other cultures which come into play here, Leckie expands that, with Hwaens using three gender pronouns, he, she and e, and eir instead of their, while different cultures also follow different naming conventions (much as some Earth cultures do – for example, not every culture follows the Western model of forename and surname in that order). My only problem with “e” is as a British person when I see “e opened the airlock” I can’t help but imagine it in a Cockeny or Yorkshire accent, or another which drops the “h”, which I imagine isn’t a problem American readers have. And this and with exposure to these other cultures, including the alien Geck and people from various walks of life, Provenance feels more rounded socially than the Ancillary trilogy – a part of that universe, of course, but showing us whole different parts of that universe, and hinting at more to explore. And that’s something we SF geeks do love, for sure, a good bit of world – or universe – building, and it expands that setting from the original trilogy nicely, widening that set for more future tales (I sincerely hope) set in that universe. An extremely satisfying and enjoyable read.

The Corporation Wars come to a cracking conclusion with Emergence

The Corporation Wars Book 3: Emergence,

Ken MacLeod,

Orbit Books

(cover design by Bekki Guyatt)

I’m always a happy reader when I have a new Ken MacLeod book waiting for my attentions, he has, consistently, been one of the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction writers in these islands for the last couple of decades. As well as intriguing thoughts and gripping stories, Ken is also adept at doing what the best science fiction does – using SF to address the problems of human nature. And in the Corporation Wars trilogy that’s no mean feat, considering, for the most part, the various characters in this series aren’t actually human. We have robots who have achieved sentience, we have computer AIs which oversee much of the Earth policy in this distant proto-colony system, and we have the emulation of human minds running in digital simulations or, to interact with the real universe outside the computer reality, downloaded to mechanoid “frames”.

The first two volumes have seen these deceased humans – fighters and terrorists from two rival factions, the Axel (accelerationists) and the Rax (reactionaries, basically racist, Nazi, power-hungry types), their memories and minds digitally resurrected to man combat machines for Earth, as compensation for what they put the world through during their millennia-gone battles. But twenty light years from home and thousands of years into the future, not even in flesh bodies, these groups can’t help but revert to their previous behaviour… And yet some are starting to learn, starting to look back on what they did before their (usually violent) deaths, on how Earth society has evolved since then, and, importantly, to think about the now sentient robots they have been tasked with dealing with.

After much evolution and interaction – not to mention some spectacular action – in Dissidence and Insurgence, Emergence continues seamlessly (the overall effect, I found, is less that of reading a trilogy but one long tale with small restful pauses), all of the characters now very firmly established, developed. There are no ciphers or stock characters here, even the robots, the newest intelligent beings in the story, are evolving rapidly, showing individuality, wit, even friendship and care for others. And then there is the massive “super habital” world the colonising corporations have been orbiting for so long, finally brought fully on stage, and opening up yet another avenue for exploring how diverse and rich, and astonishing, life, in any form, can be.

There’s plenty to chew over here, from the rights of any sentient being (human, posthuman, robotic or otherwise) and how we deal with them (our behaviour to them saying much about our own moral faculties – or lack of them) to the use of economic and military power. In the Rax I thought I detected more anger than in the preceding volumes; here they are not just the far-right, but quite clearly Nazis, right down to the arm salutes as one group makes a grab for power, and I thought perhaps this was a quite understandable reaction to the hideous growth of such hate groups in the real world. But as well as the thought-provoking elements and the cracking sense of pace and action which pushes events along at a gratifying clip, there is also some humour here – the nasty space-Nazi trying to justify racial superiority when he is nothing but a digital emulation of his old mind in a robotic frame (ah, but an emulation based on a white brain! Yes, that’s how stupid and bigoted these people are). It’s a superb casserole of ingredients, building to the boil at just the right moment.

Emergence is out now from Orbit Books, you can read about the first volume here, and volume two here, while we have a recent report on some of the science fiction events Ken had as a guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here.

Reviews: the Doctor will see you now – Strange Practice

Strange Practice,

Vivian Shaw,

Orbit Books

Oh now this was an absolute delight to read. There has been a large trend in the last couple of decades for  urban fantasies, depicting a world that is recognisably our own, everyday realm, but where, usually in the shadows, unsuspected by most people, fantastical elements secretly exist. Charlaine Harris with her Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (True Blood as it was for the TV version), Jim Butcher’s brilliant Harry Dresden novels (a gumshoe in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard), there has been an explosion in this area of fantastical fiction. So much so that these days I find myself a bit wary of new ones sometimes, but I had my bookseller’s Spidey-sense tingle when this arrived from Orbit, and I trust that little gut instinct. And I think Will Staehle’s cover (and some nice matching interior illustrations with a wicked sense of humour) had much to do with that too, a nice mix of woodcut style, with contemporary elements that also nods to those wonderful old Penny Dreadfuls.

And I’m glad I listened to those instincts, otherwise I would not have met Doctor Greta Helsing (her medical family long since dropped the “van”), a GP in London – in the famous Harley Street locale, no less, although unlike most their Greta is not exactly well-heeled. Except Greta’s practice takes in a very unusual set of patients – she, like her father before her, offers medical care to London’t community of preternatural creatures. Vampires, ghouls, were-creatures, vampires (and indeed vampyres, slightly different blood drinkers), even creating prosthetic bone replacements for elderly Egyptian mummies or treating a ghoul leader with clinical depression problems, it’s all in a day’s work for Greta. It’s long hours, like any GP, but it is very satisfying to her that she is not only helping people, but helping creatures that would never otherwise be able to access medical care.

However, London is a city in fear – a serial killer is stalking the city, the body count is rising, each victim found with cheap, plastic rosary beads. And those are just the ones the public and police know about – there are other victims, victims hidden from society, supernatural beings also being stalked by strange, monk-like figures, seemingly human, but stronger, with oddly-glowing blue eyes and a burning desire to destroy anything “unclean” before their god. And that includes some of Greta’s patients and anyone who helps them…

I’m not going to blow any spoilers by going any deeper into this tale here – it partakes as much of the detective novel as it does fantasy, and as such I don’t want to risk revealing any of the twists or turns here before you get a chance to read it. But I will say this is – especially for a first book in a series – this is a remarkably well-realised world and cast of characters; it really isn’t very long before you find yourself not only enjoying the story but the world demi-monde Greta moves in, a world where you can take the regular London Bus or Underground but which also has ghouls in the sewers, or Lord Ruthven in his Embankment House grand home.

Ruthven is just one of a number of literary characters who populate Greta’s world (in face Ruthven is a close family friend), we also meet the likes of Sir Francis Varney – as in Varney the Vampire (aka The Feast of Blood), one of those great penny-dreadful schockers of the 1800s), although, pleasingly, Shaw doesn’t drop in such famous Gothic characters in the way say Moore would in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they feel far more realised and realistic as actual, believable people (who just happen to be centuries-old sanguivores). That’s not me taking a swipe at LOEG, by the way, I do enjoy those too. And if, like me, you have a long-standing fondness for old Gothic novels and characters, this is a lovely extra layer to Greta’s world and its details. Vivian also gets extra vampy brownie points for me for referencing the likes of the Croglin Grange Vampire,

There is also a nice strand of social commentary running through this book – the religious fundamentlism of the “monks” who think they are doing the will of god (while overlooking breaking important commandments like “thou shalt not kill”) has more than a few echoes in the real world, from terrorists to religious zealots who refuse equal rights for those they disapprove of, those who consider themselves so right that they feel they can use bloody violence to enforce their will. The supernatural community that Shaw sketches out nicely here also hints at social problems in the real world – the segments of society that are Different, Not Like Us, Other, and therefore feared, hated, often turned on as easy targets.

There’s a lovely moment where Varney asks Greta why she does what she does, even for beings like him, a monster, damned to the Pit should he be killed. And Greta tells him he’s not a monster, none of them are, she sees them all as people, and she thinks all people should be able to access medical care. It’s a nice pairing of messages, that being a person is more than simply being physically human, it is qualities of being that define someone, and that medical care should be something anyone who needs it can obtain. In a world where many give into the darkness of bigotry and see even other humans as less than human (and therefore deserving of awful treatment) and many can’t get even basic healthcare, these are very welcome, warm, human messages to weave into the story, and nicely done via the medium of non-human beings. They also made me love Dr Greta all the more. As I said right at the start, this was an absolute delight to read. I look forward to more time spent with Greta…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Monkey Magic! The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo,

F.C. Yee,

Amulet/Abrams Kids

Genie Lo is a very driven, very organised fifteen year old Chinese-American high school student in the Bay Area. Like more than a few similar kids she’s ferociously organised and dedicated to her studies and coping with the pressure of exams, good grades and the even higher pressures of transmuting those grades into a good university (and then more exams, more organisation, more studies, more pressure to achieve the best grades there and then onto a career and…). Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of stress put on young shoulders, as anyone who has ever been a student will recall, and the target audience for this YA fantasy will be more than familiar with, I’m sure. And quite a lot of those kids will also empathise with feelings of being different, awkward. In Genie’s case this is exacerbated by being quite tall (although this has its uses on the sports field sometimes). Adding to the pressure of school, possible colleges and career choices (why do we expect someone to be able to deal with all of that at 15???) home life isn’t ideal either – her mother is uptight and precious about her achievements, her father is more easy going but now estranged from her mother.

And into this mix she’s about to discover something remarkable about herself, and find this surprise comes with even more responsibilities, the type she can’t tell anyone else about (even her bestest friend Yunie) and dangers. And she’s going to meet a boy, which sparks all of this change. No, not in the normal teen way of first finding out about the attractions of other boys or girls. Quentin may be handsome and terrifically fit (although short), but this isn’t some Romeo and Juliet deal. Quentin is… Well, he’s not human. In fact he is Sun Wukong – the fabled Monkey King of legend, as depicted most famously in Wu Cheng’en’s classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. I’m guessing that “Quentin”, the name he adopts as he pretends to be a new student at Genie’s school is a nod to Qítiān Dàshèng, one of the titles Sun Wukong took on in his many travels and adventures (meaning something along the lines of Great Sage). Born of a stone egg on a mountain top, who through many adventures (and misadventures) slowly became more of a hero and less selfish, more enlightened and a protector against evil. A character that those of us of a certain age probably first encountered in the bonkers 1970s TV series Monkey (“the nature of Monkey was…. Irrepressible!!!”)

What is such an ancient – until now mythical being, as far as Genie knew – Chinese celestial being doing in 21st century West Coast America? Well, he wants Genie. He thinks he knows her, knows her well of old, that she may perhaps be a reincarnation of a very important element of his own past, one that he has been watching the Earth for any sign of reincarnation in a new form. And it seems others too have similar ideas, a few good, emissaries from the Jade Emperor in Heaven, but most bad, demons escaped from hell and after power on Earth (gained through very nasty means). Many of these are demons Quentin fought and sent to hell himself centuries before as part of his penance for past misdeeds, and he is more than a little surprised to find so many of them back on Earth, a demonic jailbreak, it seems. And like it or not, Genie is at the centre of this. Just as well she’s clever and a quick study…

Teen girl finds herself chosen to be part of an eternal struggle between mythic or supernatural forces she hadn’t even dreamed were real. Yes, it does evoke memories of Buffy, of course it does, but the youngster suddenly exposed to a wider world and realising they are part of it and they have to take part in it even if they don’t want to has been a part of countless coming of age tales long before Buffy. And to be fair here, Yee does a terrific job of creating in Genie and Quentin something very different from Buffy, and indeed from a lot of the modern trend for urban fantasies where we have our regular, everyday world with some “magic is real” layer (some of which is terrific fun). Genie herself feels like a real girl, especially a real girl from that particular slice of Bay Area society, and Yee depicts her with a lot of sympathy and understanding; of course she has faults, but regardless it’s very hard not to become very fond of Genie quite quickly.

And then there is the choice of mythology deployed here, the fantasy dropped into the otherwise realistic family and school and social life of a teen Chinese-American teen. Although Journey to the West is one of the great treasures of world literature, a classic alongside Beowulf or the Iliad or Gilgamesh, it hasn’t been used as much in Western fantasies, making it ripe for drawing on its rich tapestry of characters and adventures, not to mention the coming of age element of Genie’s story being reflected in Sun Wukong’s own (rather slower!) learning curve towards being more enlightened. I was reminded a bit of Ashok Banker’s fascianting Ramayana series, which drew on the great Indian myths and tales and reworked them into a rich fantasy that Western readers, even those with little or no knowledge of the Ramayana cycle, could easily understand and enjoy.

I read this book with a huge smile over my face for most of it. Quentin is cheeky, full of himself but also heroic, funny and capable of sudden understanding and compassion, the Monkey King. Genie is self doubting, troubled but also determined, very clever and she’s not going to be pushed around, especially as she learns more about this hidden world around her, because when a student like Genie learns, she realises she can control more, and Quentin may have met his match. As an adult reader I enjoyed the heck out of this and adored mining the Sun Wukong tales for inspiration and details (sudden urge to revisit my Penguin Classic edition of Wu Cheng’en), it felt fresh and colourful. The target Young Adult audience will, I think like it even more. Yes, there are some standard elements of the Journey of the Hero in there, but those are there in so many tales over the centuries, it’s what you do with those elements that counts, and here Yee’s crafted an utter delight.

And just because I couldn’t get the “monkey magic” theme tune out of my head, the opening credits to that wonderfully madcap 70s TV version of Monkey (not as cool as Quentin tries to be but so much fun):

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog