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: Judges Omnibus Volume 2

Judges Omnibus Volume 2,
Michael Carroll, Maura McHugh, Joseph Elliott-Coleman
Rebellion/2000 AD

This second volume collects three novellas by 2000 AD regular Mike Carroll, joined by Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot-Coleman. Mike, I am sure, most readers on DTT will be more than familiar with, Maura – among her many other writings from short stories to collections to scripts for stage, screen and even computer gaming – will be known to DTT readers for some of her very fine Irish comics work such as Jennifer Wilde (illustrated by Stephen Downey), while Joseph’s writing came to the attention of Mike (series editor) via his contribution to Not So Stories, which featured writers of colour from round the globe keeping the wonder of Kipling’s tales but re-imagining them without the period imperialist, colonialist, racist elements.

I must confess, I am not normally that keen on prose tales based on comics. I don’t know why, perhaps my prose and my comics reading sections of my brain like them in their own compartments, but whatever the reason, it isn’t my normal choice, so imagine my delight in finding that these weren’t just interesting tales, but extremely compelling stories, offering glimpses into some of the blank spaces in the history of Judge Dredd, and, like many a Dredd tale, also commenting on current social and political problems.

In fact, as I was reading the three novellas in this collection in preparation for chairing and event with the authors at the Edinburgh-based Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature (like many such events the festival was cancelled, but the amazing team then re-created it online; it has been recorded so hopefully the 2000 AD panel will be on YouTube in the near future), I found that in a disturbing coincidence of timing that some of the elements from all three stories, not least Elliot-Coleman’s “Patriots” tale, were terrifyingly close to the dreadful events we have seen unfolding in the US. So much so that several times as I sat reading them, I had to pause. I’ve been reading Dredd since the beginning, I’ve seen some excellent socio-political commentary woven into the series (not to mention its rich seam of dark satire), but this was something else…

For those not familiar with the series, Judges is inspired by the now-classic thirtieth anniversary Dredd: Origins by the Dreddfather, John Wagner and the much-missed Carlos Ezquerra, which saw flashbacks to the early days of the Judge system. With a number of decades to explore and huge blank spaces to fill in (while keeping true to over forty years of established Dredd history), the Judges series is going decade by decade, with a few tales from each, not exhaustively covering the pre-history year by year, more like spotlights on certain moments, and will continue on taking us closer to the time we know from the original years of Dredd.

Opening the collection is Mike Carroll’s “Golgotha”. This is long before Dredd and the Mega Cities, this is still America, albeit an America that is crumbling and failing socially, economically and politically, it’s only a short few years from our own time, making it very familiar to us, and it is fascinating to see Judges not in Mega City One, but patrolling Main Street in small US towns. Under Fargo the Judge system is expanding, slowly replacing the traditional police force and legal system, but with both having to work in parallel for some time. For those who remember the earliest Dredds this will bring back memories – those stories showed police working under the Judges in the Big Meg, something that slowly faded away from the comics.

Here we see Quon, the very last officer to graduate from an American police academy. Quon has always wanted to be a police officer, and is a straight arrow, very by the books, disgusted at laziness and corruption in the Force, but also filled with loathing for the the incoming Judge system – she believes in due process, civilian policing, a court of peers at trial, not in giving any one person the powers of instant justice and sentencing. Ironically her attitude and unbending adherence to the law make her prime material to train as a Judge, but she isn’t interested, while those same qualities mean her fellow officers, also bitter at the new Judges, despise her too, but she’s going to have to find a way to work with them for an investigation.

In Psyche, McHugh expands on her previous Judge Anderson work for the Dredd Megazine, taking us back to the very first use of Psi-Judges – here called “Psykes”, a covert team of Judges who have been studied and trained with civilian scientists who have long believed there were those with psionic abilities and that if there were, some would be dangerous and therefore the new Judge system would need its own equivalent to protect citizens from harmful Psis. Fargo agrees and sanctions more training and the formation of a black-ops unit, off the books, something nobody will know about if it doesn’t work.

It’s a cleverly-structured two-timeline narrative: in what would be present-day Mega City One (i.e. the same era we see in the weekly comics) Psi-Judge Pam Reed, a pre-cog, literally unearths part of history, exploring old buildings below a collapsed City-block, which happens to contain the original offices of the Psyke research team. Reed’s abilities in this location somehow allow her mind to astrally travel to that era and communicate with Judge Wise, one of the first Psis. As well as being a gripping story (with inferences that if Reed in the future cannot help the nascent Psis in her past, her future may never happen), McHugh also deftly explores the outsider nature of the Psis. Even in Dredd’s time most other Judges aren’t keen on Psi-Division, seeing them as odd, peculiar – Judges are trained to stand apart, but Psis can’t help but feel what citizens feel and this makes them more empathic and human. This outsider status goes doubly here in the early days when most don’t even believe such powers are real, and there is an interesting question mark over freedom of choice: as with the Psi Corps in Babylon 5, there’s little freedom for a Psi, if they are detected they are expected to serve and that’s it.

In “Patriots”, Elliot-Coleman has Judges on the mean streets of New York. This is a New York that has more in common with the dirty, crime-ridden NYC of the 1970s than today, and draws on many influences from that era, from films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver et al, while also rather satisfyingly mixing in elements of The Manchurian Candidate and Carpenter’s classic cops-under-siege Assault on Precinct 13. Right-wing patriots, who see themselves as heirs to the original American Revolution are trying to defy the advance of the Judges system, seeing it as a surrender of liberty and democracy. And they may well be right, but the problem is like many fanatics they are willing to kill many innocents – for their own good, of course – for their cause, and while they call out the banner of liberty and freedom they also won’t accept anyone differing from their opinion.

Judges, even early era Judges like these, are just as stubborn and determined in the application of the Law, of course, so we have two unyielding paradigms clashing violently for the soul of the nation. And in “Patriots”, and indeed in “Psyche” and “Golgotha” too, we see both sides of the pro and anti-Judge argument and resistance, and the thing is, both sides have some moral validity, this is a moral quagmire, not a straight black and white morality, and that makes it far more thought-provoking for the reader (and also more dramatically satisfying too). For all their violent methods and their disregard for the safety of their fellow citizens (the ones they proclaim they are protecting), they do have some grounds, the Judges do mark a huge erosion of traditional liberty and freedom. But the Judges have been created because the existing system has failed – they have been trained to be impartial upholders of law to all, unlike courts and politicians, they will not discriminate on grounds of the colour of someone’s skin, their social class, wealth. The crumbling system badly needs them to try and stabilise it. But at what cost?

Each of these stories has been published as a novella on its own, but I read it in the Judges Volume 2 Omnibus, which collects all three, and I’d recommend tackling them that way if you can. While all three shine a light on a different aspect of pre-Dredd history and are their own beasts, they also, like the various comics series over the years, work very well together, feeling separate but also connected, part of a greater whole. For the long-term Dreddheads this is a compelling must-read, a very welcome exploration of how the Judge system first began in America and how it starts, decade by decade to show how it leads up to the post Atomic War world of the Mega Cities we know in 2000 AD, all layered with some complex morality, multiple mirrors to our own very troubled times and a nicely diverse cast of characters. I look forward to more in the series.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

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

Life During Lockdown: Some Reading & Activities For You

I’ve noticed a number of my book and comics chums on Twitter very generously making some of their works available for free online – short prose stories, comics, activities you can download and print off (like pictures to colour in) to keep the kids occupied during the virus Lockdown, videos and more. I’ve been re-tweeting those but felt it may be better to compile a list on here that people could refer to (and frankly I feel the need to do something positive, however small).

It’s wonderful of these creative friends to make material available free just to help people a little, especially when they, like most of the rest of us, are taking a big financial hit during the crisis (so please, when it is all over, consider buying some of their books, preferably from an Indy bookshop if you can, or from their own site).

I will add to the list as I see others posting material, or if you are an author or artist making some material or activities available online, drop me a line here – lestat_ultraviolet (at) msn (dot) com – or get a hold of me on twitter and let me know so I can add it here as a handy resource for everyone while they are cooped up and wondering what they can do. If it is material or reading for children, let me know roughly what age range you are aiming at.

ALL-AGES

C o l i n   B e l l  &  N e i l   S l o r a n c e

I’ve reviewed Colin Bell and Neil Slorance‘s delightful Dungeon Fun and Pirate Fun on here previously. It is terrific for young readers and adults alike (or better still, read them together!), and the guys have made both series free to download here. The guys have also made a Dungeon Fun Colouring Compendifun available to download too.

L e  V a r   B u r t o n

Actor and director LeVar Burton (of Star Trek fame), is lending his wonderful voice to some readings online, doing one for children, one for Young Adults and one for adults each week – check his Twitter feed for details and updats.

FOR YOUNG READERS

S a r a h   M c I n t y r e

Sarah McIntyre is an old chum and a wonderful creator of comics, picture books and more, and often encourages her young readers to join in with their own artwork and ideas. She has activity sheets based on her various books available to download from her website here, and Drawing With Sarah videos on her YouTube channel. Sarah has Don’t Call Me Grumpycorn coming out in May, and her and regular partner-in-crime Philip Reeve’s book Kevin’s Great Escape is available now.

N e i l   G a i m a n

(illustration from The Graveyard Book, art by the fabulous Chris Riddell)

Neil requires little introduction from me, I think! He has videos of himself and others reading from his wonderful younger reader’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book available free on Mouse Circus here.

M e t a p h r o g

I have adored Glasgow-based Metaphrog‘s work for years, from their beautiful Louis graphic novels to their recent run of quite gorgeous graphic adaptations of tales by Hans Christian Andersen, with The Little Mermaid and The Red Shoes (highly recommended, beautiful books for young readers that adults can enjoy too). They have their new graphic novel Bluebeard coming this May, and have acitivities for young readers to enjoy – download pages from The Little Mermaid to colour in here.

M o o s e   K i d   C o m i c s

These are older, but still online, still free and I’d imagine still new to a lot of young readers – an anthology of some terrific UK-based comics creators who made some issues to inspire children with quality comics fun. The two issues and the special include works from Jamie Smart, Sarah McIntyre, Mark Stafford, Steve Tillotson, Gary Northfield and many more – you can read them online or download them here. If your young readers have been enjoying works like Dogman or Bunny Vs Monkey, they will love these.

P a p e r c u t z

Papercutz have very generously made a bunch of their comics collections for younger readers available to download free, including The Smurfs, Chloe the New Girl, and Dinosaur Explorers – check them out here.

D o l l y   P a r t o n

Dolly is much loved in the booktrade, as the world-famous singer is also well-known for being a huge supporter of children’s literacy, and as part of her charitable work in making books available, she is doing a bedtime story on her YouTube channel for younger readers!

D a v i d   W a l l i a m s

Comedian and writer, and bestselling children’s author, David Walliams is doing daily readings from his works to entertain young readers during the Lockdown – details on his site here.

O l i v e r   J e f f e r s

Oliver Jeffers is a firm favourite in our bookshop, and is doing a Stay At Home Storytime every day – you can find it on Oliver’s Instagram here.

ADULT READERS

T a d e   T h o m p s o n

I’ve been recommending Tade Thompson – now an Arthur C Clarke Award winner (see, told you he was good!) since I read the first of his superb Rosewater series, set in a near-future Nigeria. Tade has his collection of seven stories, Household Gods and Other Narrative Offences online to download and read free during Lockdown. The PDF can be found here, the MOBI version here, and the Epub edition here.

N e i l   G a i m a n

Edinburgh International Book Festival - Neil Gaiman 06
(Neil signing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

Neil Gaiman has been one of my favourite authors for many years, and a jolly nice chap to boot. He has short stories, essays and interviews available on his site that you can read here, and you should check his Twitter for more material or links to fellow creators and their work that he often shares. For younger readers you can find video of Neil and others reading from the wonderful Coraline and The Graveyard Book on Mouse Circus here.

S h o r e l i n e   O f   I n f i n i t y

Shoreline of Infinity is an excellent journal of science fiction produced here in Edinburgh (disclaimer, I write book reviews for Shoreline), home to to short fiction, poetry, articles, reviews and more (with an associated regular happening, Event Horizon, that takes place in Edinburgh with readings, music and more). In the spirit of helping out during self-isolation and Lockdown, you can get a taster of the first eleven issues free until April 4th.

A d r i a n   T c h a i k o v s k y 

Cymera 2019 - Gareth Powell, Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky02
(Adrian Tchaokovsky, on the far right, with Gareth Powell and Ken MacLeod after our Cymera Festival event in 2019)

I’ve seriously enjoyed Adrian’s Children of Time and Children of Ruin in the last couple of years – clever, immersive, millennia-spanning science fiction with an evolutionary slant – and was lucky enough to chair a talk with him, Ken MacLeod and Gareth Powell at the first Cymera Festival last year. Adrian has put up Short Changes, a collection of short stories (including one with Keris McDonald, which you can get hold of free here.

A l i e t t e   d e   B o d a r d

I love Aliette’s work – she crafts some amazing worlds that are outwith the regular, Anglophone Western science fiction and fantasy tradition, different, enticing. She has a short story, In the Lands of the Spill, on Avatars Inc (artwork by Priscilla Kim)

COMICS

L e e   R o b s o n

Lee Robson, along with collaborators Alfie Gallagher, Jim Lavery and Lord Brignos, has put up some of their comics work from Zarjaz and FutureQuake. As many of you will know, those are some top UK Indy small press comics works, with a heavy 2000 AD tilt (in fact the guys at 2000 AD like them and some of the official writers and artists have been known to do the odd strip for the fanzines!). They have a collection of works available to download free here.

2 0 0 0   A D

The droids at the Galaxy’s Greatest Comics are making Thrill Power available free during the lockdown – you need to register or use the 2000 AD App, but the material is free, including an entire 400-page Judge Dredd: the Complete Case Files Volume 5 (which includes the legendary Block Mania and Apocalypse War tales), with work by John Wagner, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Mick McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra, Steve Dillon and more.

J o e   L a t h a m

Joe Latham has generously put three of his Indy comics up on Gumroad – A Seed Named Hope, Digby is a Wizard and Losing Sleep – to download for free here.

B r y a n   T a l b o t

Bryan is, for my money, one of the foremost masters of comics in the UK, award-winning writer, artist and damned fine chap to boot. James Robertson, who maintains Bryan’s official site (great place to see a lot of his work, previews of upcoming work and more), has worked with Bryan to make a bundle of Bryan’s comics work available online, covering a huge swathe of Bryan’s long career, with CBR versions here and PDF versions available here.

M a r v e l

Mighty Marvel Comics has made a bunch of comics works available free online via their Marvel Unlimited App, and nice to see they are encouraging readers to buy issues from local Indy comics shops once it is safe again too.

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.

Reviews: Dead Astronauts

Dead Astronauts,
Jeff VanderMeer,
Fourth Estate

(cover illustration by Maalavidaa, design by Jo Walker)

I’ve been an admirer of Jeff VanderMeer’s work ever since the wonderfully unusual novella and short story collection City of Saints and Madmen was sent to me quite a number of years ago, and since then I have eagerly awaited any new writing from Jeff. I’ve also been delighted to see his remarkable and unique working gaining a wider audience, both with the later, widely acclaimed books and the film adaptation of Annihilation, which I am sure will have helped put his work in front of new readers.

Dead Astronauts seems to me to work if you are a new VanderMeer reader; while it shares many themes with some of his previous works, most notably on the environment, the place of people in nature, the blurring of artificial lines we make between nature and human-made, between person and machine and nature, between dream and reality, the story here will work for the complete VanderMeer newbie. For those who have read his other work, however, they are likely to find those earlier experiences mean they will savour a deeper flavour from the dark currents running through this river of words.

The eponymous Dead Astronauts – Chen, Moss and Grayson – are crossing a desolate environment, on a mission which may or may not be a fruitless endeavour. It seems likely that they have, in fact, attempted this mission before, in different places and times, crossing the land, entering The City, working against The Company. They may have died and lived and died and lived numerous times in many places and eras, and like many trinities throughout myth and folklore, it feels in places like the three of them are also aspects of one being as well as three.

VanderMeer conjures a deeply immersive reading experience – the descriptions are almost of a dream-place, or a half-dream, perhaps, where notions of past and present and future, of the human and the natural world, crossover one another, drip into each other, meld, reform, reshape, changing people, animals, the land, the mental view points. It’s intoxicating and draws the reader into the same deep, changing waters as the characters; we experience aspects of their world with them rather than just ingest a straight, linear narrative, and the book is all the more powerful and effective for this approach.

Elsewhere we have the Blue Fox adding its perspective, the mysterious Charlie X (is the name a classic Trek homage? An allusion to Jeff’s own “Area X”? Both? Neither?), and a homeless woman living under a bridge by a forest. Both Charlie and the woman seem to share an unusual notebook – the same notebook? A different aspect of that book in a different reality? – which fascinates as much as it confuses. Filled with words, some understandable, others seemingly made-up, drawings and symbols, it is reminiscent of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript.

Maybe you study that pages for days, for months, for years. Maybe seconds. The page splits your brain into before and after. Becomes meanginless to gather meaning to it. This page of a liquid language reminds you of pages from a book you were given, about the coast. In the surge of watery lines. The withdrawal at low tide, leaving spirals of tiny creatures behind.”

Trying to summarise an idea of the plot, as I would with most other novels, is, I think, fairly redundant here. Not because Jeff hasn’t crafted an intriguing, absorbing story, because he has (of course he has, he always does), but I’ve always found right from my first literary steps into his early Ambergris tales that Jeff’s writing is to be experienced, not reduced to a summary of plots and characters.

I described the style earlier as immersive, and I stand by that – this is a book as a dream-place, a meeting of the natural and human, waking and dreaming, like a dark mirror-distorted version of crossing multiple Song Lines, where the imaginary, the fantastic and the everyday all blur and shift and flow over and through one another, changing each other as they do, blurring, sometimes eradicating the artificial distinctions our species often insists on when categorising the world around us, instead putting us within and throughout that world, and it through us, a more magical place mixed with horrors and wonders. This is the sort of book that will permeate your dreams, long after you have finished the final page.

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

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.