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

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

Reviews: “Be seeing you” – the Prisoner returns

The Prisoner,
Peter Milligan, Colin Lorimer, Joana Lafluente, Simon Bowland,
Titan Comics

Patrick McGoohan’s mind-twisting The Prisoner is pretty much the definition of cult television, a show that was as fascinating and perplexing as it could be confusing and exasperating (and yet always compelling to watch). There’s nothing quite like it (we shall ignore the lamentable modern attempt in TV-land). It was a regular repeat on TV when I was a kid in the 70s, and it still crops up today, is still often discussed by both fans and academics, referenced endlessly in articles and debates, it has permeated the culture. To this day I often take my leave of colleagues with a “be seeing you” and the little salute, although I am not sure most of them know what I am alluding to. But they’ve never been chased along a Welsh beach by a giant inflatable ball roaring away…

Trying to do a modern take on a classic, especially a super-weird classic, is pretty difficult – even the presence of Ian McKellen couldn’t rescue the modern television version (yeah, I know, I just said we’d ignore that, sorry!). But the fact Peter Milligan is writing this take for Titan gave me some confidence that it would be done right, with respect for the original but not a pale imitation or parody, because Peter’s too experienced a scribe for that, and I was glad to see Colin Lorimer joining him as artist.

This is a contemporary tale – Peter and Colin are using the myth of The Village, but it is a modern setting, the post-9/11 world of fractured alliances and counter-counter intelligences and where anything and anyone may not be as they seem. We follow Breen, an MI5 agent on the run – actually on the run from page one, leaping through a window to escape pursuers from his own organisation. It looks like a stereotypical superspy/action moment, the protagonist leaping through shattering glass from an upper storey window to land, deal with his pursuers violently and flee. Except he has been caught with his pants down, literally, having to pull them up while berating himself for being caught off guard so easily, and it’s a lovely touch showing Peter and Colin are going to take some of the well-worn tropes of the superspy genre but also play with them, knowing how ridiculous some of them are in reality. It’s a good sign…

Breen is wanted as a traitor, and this isn’t just the security services sweeping covertly for an agent gone bad, his face is plastered on the media as a wanted man. He needs to get out of town fast, adopting disguises, travelling across counties, looking over his shoulder, watching for possible tails and other spies. Along the way we get flashbacks to a mission gone wrong, a colleague he became involved with in the field being captured while he escaped, of orders given once home, orders he can’t stomach, a man who signed up for Queen and Country but is now jaded and sees it is all short-term political gains, not really about security of the realm. And now he is being hunted by his own people…

Or is he? Is he really a traitor, and is the mysterious Village – a myth to most in security services – likely to sweep him up to interrogate or use? Or has his treachery and escape run been carefully manufactued by MI5 to be the perfect bait to tempt the Village to try to capture Breen, the ideal way to infilitrate this organisation with no affiliations to any nation? Or could Breen be playing both sides with his own agenda? You see how convoluted this is, even only one issue in? This is The Prisoner though, so it should be twisted and convoluted and the truth should always be shimmering like a mirage.

I’m not going to get too deep into more of the plot for fear of spoilers. However it cracks along at a damned good pace, right from that opening page dramatic/comedy escape, and Colin takes care to give us some more delgihtfully odd-looking, almsot surreal images, such as a man, resplendent in chequeboard suit, playing chess by himself over the sink in a lavatory of King’s Cross station (hardly the oddest thing that’s happened around that area though, I’d wager). All very in keeping with the visual oddities of the original series. And, without giving too much away, there are a couple of moments that fans of the original TV series will find familiar and be pleased with (I could almost hear the series’ music at one particular reveal, it is so ingrained in my mind).

Playing on the classic series and acknowledging it (one character refers to The Village as not a myth, and a place only one man has ever escaped from, I think we all know which blazer-wearing chap he is talking about), but very modern, this first issue did what a first issue should, got me hooked and intrigued to see where it goes next. I think it will be a very interesting and twisted ride…

Be seeing you…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Edinburgh Comic Con

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(all photos from my Flickr, click to see the larger ones on Flickr)

Over the weekend I was enjoying the 2018 Edinburgh Comic Con, again at the rather good venue in the city’s conference centre, which offers up plenty of space. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has memories of some conventions which were fun but the space was so tight that as you walked down one side of an aisle of dealers and artists you were bumping into folks trying to go the other way. That’s not the case here, and it was something I appreciated at last year’s con and again this year – space to move around between the rows of tables and displays (also it saves the place from feeling to hot or airless with all those folks in there). The space also meant room for some larger exhibits to enjoy, like the Delorean from Back to the Future, a full sized TARDIS and Daleks to pose with for photos, or a recreation of the famous magical platform from Harry Potter.

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As with last year there were two main halls, both very large and spacious, most of the writers and artists and small press folks in one side, the other most dealers, plus plenty of interactive fun to be had from card-based gaming like Magic the Gathering to war gaming, and from classic arcade video games to the latest VR gaming (all of which was, as you can imagine, great for the younger ones). I was there with a friend and his two young boys, who showed little interest in the classic arcade machines (we were more excited than they!), but they did like the VR machines, and the Lego displays certainly caught their attention.

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While the boys were enjoying the VR gaming I had another walk around the artist’s hall and chatted to some of the folks there. I was pleased to see Accent UK’s Colin Mathieson and have a wee catch up with him and we were joined by 2000 AD veteran Colin MacNeil who I hadn’t seen in some time, so we all had a nice natter. I spoke to a bunch of other creators too, including Gary Erskine (before he was off to give a masterclass at the con), Steven Ingram (I’ve bought some of Steve’s mini comiucs before, this time he had a new collected edition of his serial, so I had to treat myself), John and Clare Ferguson with their latest Saltire comics and more. I also got to meet Dan McDaid in person, which was nice – I’ve known Dan online for a while but it is always nice to get to meet folks in person! Most said they had done good business, especially on the Saturday, with the Sunday (when I was there), being a little quieter by comparison, but a couple told me the Sunday, although less busy than Saturday, was busier than the Sunday last year, not sure if that was more visitors in general or more that people attending had realised it was a full weekend and they didn’t all need to press in on the Saturday.

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(Above, Dan McDaid, below: Gary Erskine)
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(above, John and Clare Ferguson with their Saltire comics, below, two comics Colins for the price of one with Colin MacNeil on the left and Accent UK’s Colin )
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(Monty Nero sketching)

Of course there were lots of cosplayers there, from little kids in store-bought costumes to the serious cosplayers who make their own designs, some of them quite unbelievably elaborate and detailed. My friend and regular cosplayer Louise introduced me to several of her friends who had assembled as the Avengers. They told me the day before they had a photo shoot at some of the locations in Edinburgh used in the upcoming Infinity War movie while they were in town, which sounds like a great idea. Like last year I thought the event had a good family-friendly vibe to it, and I was delighted to see some family groups doing a themed cosplay – one family had the dad in classic Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper armour, his girl in New Order Stormtrooper armour and his youngest girl dressed as Rey – now those kids have a good dad! I’m sure that’s the sort of shared outing they will remember for years, and they were kind enough to let me snap a pic. It was another really fun event, busy, good mix of adults and kids, exhibitors and guests, and it is great to have an event like this in my hometown.

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This report 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

The Modern Prometheus still sparks fire from the Heavens

January 1st marked the 200th anniversary of one of the first and most influential works of science fiction and horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published, anonymously, in January of 1818 by the small press of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a run of only 500 copies. Two hundred years on and Frankenstein remains unbelievably influential, in storytelling, as a cautionary note in scientific research, of the dangers and responsibilities of human knowledge and abilities. Of all the books ever published over the centuries many, even those which were huge bestsellers in their day, fall into obscurity, remembered only on the odd literary course. A few, a very few, achieve a form of literary immortality, remaining in print, still read, translated into other languages for even more readers around the world.


And of those few only a handful penetrate and suffuse the popular culture to such an extent that ideas and terms from the books are borrowed regularly and used even by those who haven’t read the novel, but who are still aware of what the ideas are. We are still, to this day, borrowing from Shelley’s novel – when reporters write a piece on genetic modification, her creature is evoked: GM crops become “Frankenfoods”, the possibility of genetic manipulation of the building blocks of our human DNA raises dire warnings drawn from Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate creature (Frankenstein is tormented by visions of any female mate he makes for his creature joining with him to breed a new race that would outstrip by design mere, naturally evolved humanity). These also go hand in hand with worries about the pace of discovery and advancement, which often seem to move to fast for us to adapt to and outstrip our ability to moralise and legislate upon – the Universal film’s cry of “In the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” remains a pertinent warning to us that we always need to consider what we are doing and why.

In part this is due not just to the longevity of the original novel, but the way it and its themes have drawn other creators to adapt it, or to be influenced by it, for other media. Within just a few years of publication Frankenstein was on the stage. In the dim, early days of flickering light from the first motion picture cameras, the Creature was there, right at the beginning of the medium, in a short silent from the Edison Company in 1910. And the, of course, that first golden age of horror film from Universal in the early 30s, bringing us first Lugosi’s Dracula then Karloff’s wonderfully nuanced creature in Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A couple of decades on and Hammer would revive both Dracula and Frankenstein for a new audience, in colour, with plenty of “Kensington gore”, and another iconic actor in both roles, the great Christopher Lee. Endless film adaptations, even more films and television programmes inspired by the themes in Frankenstein, the new medium of video games, and comics – notably the superbly illustrated work by the late Bernie Wrightson – those classic Aurora famous monsters model kits, even humour (think Herman Munster, or Mel Brooks’s wonderful young Frankenstein), Frankenstein has permeated our culture.

(above, the great Bernie Wrightson’s superbly detailed, iconic comics take on Frankenstein. Below, horror legend Karloff, whose subtle playing through Jack Pierce’s visually iconic make-up, gifted the cinematic monster with humanity, emotion and empathy. Bottom, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in a modern stage version of Frankenstein, in which both actors took it in turns on different nights to play either Victor Frankenstein or the nameless Creature)

It’s not hard to see why – one of the keys of great writing is that it remains relevant to readers long after the time in which it was written. New decades and new centuries roll on relentlessly, new readers pick up the book and see in its themes comments and warnings applicable to their own contemporary world (again think of the conflation of Frankenstein’s creation with the worries over genetic research today). Of course it isn’t just the theme of humans dabbling in areas they shouldn’t, or the classic “mad scientist” who goes too far just because he can, it’s also the personal elements, the human elements – love, hate, responsibility, life and mortality, the powerlessness we have in the face of the death of loved ones, the duty we have to others, all are aspects of human nature that do not change, and so still resonate with us today. Guillermo Del Toro once described the book as one of the best “teenage” stories ever, as the unfortunate, rejected creature bemoans his state; he never asked to be created, didn’t have a choice in this life, is left rejected and alone and wondering why do I exist, why was I brought into this brutal world, what am I meant do to, what meaning is there to any of this?

We’ve all wondered that, especially in those formative teens years. I was to be your Adam, the creature tells its creator, instead I am your fallen angel. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a major influence on Shelley, the creature wants to be good, but his constant rejection and the fear others show him drives him away; can he be good? He’s not naturally created, does that mean he lacks a soul that God would have given any naturally born person? Does that mean no matter what he tries to do he can never be good, that he will always be a damned creature, except instead of being banished by his Creator to the Pit, he is rejected by his human who tried to steal the fire of creation, banished to the wastelands where no human feet walk, bereft, rejected, alone.

Other elements that remain very relevant to us: the gender roles of men and women – here a man who defies nature by creating life by himself, rather than from the womb of a woman. Is it hubris or is it fear of woman’s sexuality that drives him to try and become a creator of life himself, to take that power of generation for his own? And what does it say about relationships between men and women, about birth, death and creation? Gender even shows in the original publication, the first editions nameless, and while the first couple of editions generated mostly good reviews, some, now aware who wrote it, would sniffily dismiss it as an overwrought work of ‘a woman’, and therefore not worthy of contemplation. Two centuries on and how many women writers, especially in the fantastic fiction fields, have written under names that use only androgynous initials, or a name that could be male or female, because of the publisher’s fear that SF&F by women won’t sell as well? We’re getting past that a bit more now, but it still happens, and we still have a number of female writers who have had to do that to build a readership. Some elements, it seems, will remain with us for quite a while. At least we’re talking about it now.

Even the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein fascinate us. The macabre experiments of Luigi Galvani with early electricity, notably the gruesome public experiment that saw him applying electrodes to the corpse of an executed criminal, creating spasmodic movement, grimacing facial expressions, all in a dead body. What was this power? Could it actually restore animation to the dead? Nobody knew, imaginations ran riot, and some of this is captured in Shelley’s dreams of an artificial being (along with, possibly, a visit to Castle Frankenstein, rumoured to once have been home to an alchemist who tried to find the secrets of life). And bear in mind this is a time when mortality, especially among children, was far higher than today, a sad fact Mary had horrible first hand experience of, even dreaming once that her dead little baby came back to life in her arms as she warmed him by the fire. Oh to have that power… And yet, nature clearly didn’t intend for us to have those powers, what would happen if we did? It all feeds into this rich novel, coming out of a fevered competition between Shelley, her poet husband, Doctor Polidori and Lord Byron as they sat bored in their villa during the “year without a summer”, trying to entertain one another.

Something opened in Mary’s mind that evening, those experiments, her reading of Milton, her own awful losses, all being fed into this story, a story that has lasted two full centuries, and which new readers are still discovering for the first time, and which has inspired countless other science fiction and horror writers across the centuries and continues to do so (what are modern fictional fears of AI outstripping its human creators, if not a modern Frankenstein tale?). If you’ve never actually read it, only watched the films or the comics, I’d urge you to go back and read it, it’s a different experience, taking in the novel; you think you know the story, but really, you only know it if you read the original, even the best film or play versions are interpretations and adaptations.

(painting of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from the National Portrait Gallery)

As with other cornerstone works of the fantastic with which Frankenstein is often grouped, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s magnificently psychological Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you have to go back to the actual books to truly know these stories, their nuances, their layers, their themes that haunt us still and likely always will. Mary’s Frankenstein will, most likely, remain one of those select novels which will be read for as long as people pick up books. In a way she has created her own being through her words, drawn down the vital spark of creation, and its lumbering shadow still stalks our dreams and nightmares in the twenty first century, and will continue forever…

This 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.

Much is taken, much abides…

I’m revisiting Babylon 5 at the moment, just into season four. A man Earth president who schemed to get power, who conspired with dark forces to get that power, who establishes a cabal to enforce his rule, suspecting anyone who offers criticism of being disloyal, harping on about alien influence ruining the purity of Earth and of “fake news” spreading anti-government propaganda. Twenty two years old and it seems very sadly relevant to today.

This evening I just reached the point where, preparing for a final battle he may not return from the captain quotes from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It’s a harkening back to previous generations, measuring ourselves against their historic deeds and considering ourselves unworthy of them, not their equals. And yet this looking back to a lost, golden age of great heroes who strode through all problems with their mighty deeds is a peculiar faculty of humans that we have had going right back to at least the time of Homer – the Iliad and Odyssey are replete with those ancients even then looking back to the centuries before them, marvelling at great heroes and deeds with a “we shall not see their like again” feeling for their own era. And yet each of those eras too had their own great turmoils, and usually those generations too overcame them. Which gives us hope for our own troubled times. We must not yield.

Reviews: the Laundry is changing – the Delirium Brief

The Delirium Brief,

Charles Stross,

Orbit Books

The latest volume in the brilliant Laundry Files arrives from the delightfully warped brain of Charlie Stross. I’ve enjoyed Charlie’s books for many years, but I have an especially soft spot for his Laundry novels; in fact they’re a particular favourite of mine, a delicious mixture of fantasy-horror, laced with dark humour and some fine satirical sideswipes at society and organisations, and, in the form of husband and wife team Mo and Bob, characters that grow on you very quickly and who you become very fond of and invested in.

For those not in the know, the Laundry is nickname for a very special section of British Intelligence, with a very unusual remit – like MI5, MI6 and predecessors like the famous SOE they track and attempt to neutralise threats to the security of the realm. Except the Laundry deals with what most would consider supernatural threats – vampires, portals to other realms, mind-crunching extra-dimensional parasites and unspeakable Elder Gods.But this is no Buffy-esque secret Watcher society, the Laundry may be super-secret (even most of the cabinet doesn’t know about this, and they operate beyond even the secretive oversight of the other intelligence services (which is going to be one of the problems in this volume) but they are still a part of the civil service, and that means procedures, HR requirements and lots of paperwork in-between trying to save the world from soul-devouring monstrosities.

After an enormous incident in the preceding novel though, involving many deaths and an invading force from another dimension in a major British city, the usual clean-up protocols are useless – the Laundry has been exposed to the public and government scrutiny, and as we open poor Bob, who has faced everything from unicorns (nasty buggers) to the skin-crawling horror of the The Sleeper, has an even more terrible foe to face – a live interview on Newsnight. With the Laundry exposed the media is diving on this once secret division and of course the government isn’t too happy either, and in best tradition both media and government are looking for someone to blame for the previous disaster. The media scent blood and the embarrassed government wants scapegoats to blame. And there is outrage that the Laundy has been operating beyond the oversight of the parliamentary intelligence committees (and the legalities that constrain just what more regular services like MI5 can and cannot do).

This is just the start of a seismic shift in how this organisation has been run for many decades, and enemies can scent a sudden weakness and opportunity. The fact that the Laundry has held off absolute nightmares from devouring our Green and Pleasant Land (not to mention the rest of the world and humanity with it) seems to count for little in this atmosphere. And some enemies are prepared to use the devious weapons of the political-corporate elites as much as they will use more fantastical means. Why use up your supernatural energies when you can manipulate government ministers and get them to go along with your ideas – privatise and outsource many operations to a private security firm, it’s more cost-effective and market-efficient, don’t you know! And the group pushing the prime minister for this has already successfully taken over entire sections of the Laundry’s opposite numbers in Washington. Bona fide government contractors, what could be better???

Naturally there is much more going on here, the dark forces using ideas dear to certain sections of the political establishment (supposed free-market competition and efficiency that usually actually means even poorer service – usually bailed out by the taxpayers – and contracts given to firms which just happen to have friends in government, and where many politicians go on to serve after retiring from political life), to infiltrate and quietly take over whole sections of the fabric of our society we depend on, without anyone even knowing they have ceded that control. The huge upset in the operations of the Laundry are also mirrored in Bob and Mo’s personal life – in the most recent volumes both have been through enormous changes that have left their marks. They are both still in love but unsure they can be together (not just in the emotional sense after the traumas they’ve endured, there is an actual safety issue, not least because Bob is now also the Eater of Souls).

I don’t want to go to deeply into the unfolding narrative here, it’s nice, tight, packed with tension and turns, as you would probably expect from one of Charlie’s books, but this set-up with the Laundry now in the open and being menaced as much by government rationalisation plans as it is secret societies and dark gods, is one ripe with potential, both for satirical humour and for dramatic tension, and Charlie uses it perfectly, giving a gripping new installment and quite a major development in the Laundry itself. If you are already a Laundry fan you know you need this, and you know you are in for a treat, if you are new to the series then get yourself started with the Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue and I think you will soon be as addicted as the rest of us. Clever, funny, gripping, inventive and with more than a few satirical comments on the state of our modern world, what more can you ask for? Except maybe a TV series? Constantly surprised there hasn’t been a Netflix or HBO type series based around the Laundry novels yet…

You can read an excerpt from the Delirium Brief on the Orbit blog. Charlie will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Jo Walton as part of Ken MacLeod’s guest selector strand on August 16th. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

This little piggy went to market – Okja

Okja,
Directed by Bong Joon Ho,
Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun HeeBong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal

Bong Joon Ho brought us the brilliant monster movie with a twist, The Host and the film adaptation of the Snowpiercer graphic novels, so when I saw his latest film, Okja, was due to make its bow at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I had to grab myself a ticket. A Korean film in both Korean and English – and boasting a nice bonus in the form of the great Tilda Swinton – Okja sees a huge multinational attempting to rebrand itself away from its toxic image, with new CEO (Swinton) waging a PR blitz to try and make the company look warm, eco-friendly and fuzzy after the reign of her father (who even his own family admitted was psychopathic). And the main plank is the superpig, which, over the next ten years, as well as being studied by their own scientists, will be given to traditional farmers in different parts of the world to raise for ten years.

Following the slick (and sickeningly obviously fake) PR launch (riffing nicely not just on how heartless corporations try to hide their agendas with a feel-good PR blanket but also the way so many super-rich CEO seem to desperately want the public to love them), we move to the mountains of Korea and meet Seo-Hyun Ahn’s Mija, who loves with her grandfather and Okja, their now fully adult superpig. Okja is less farm animal and more family member/pet (let’s be honest, to most of us pets are family members), and we get to see Mija walking with him through the woods, playing with him, tapping the sleeping giant animal so he rolls over on his back and she can sleep on his tummy. It’s all quite adorable and I take my hat off to the very young Seo-Hyun Ahn for being able to give such a convincing and emotional acting job to a CG creation she couldn’t see when the film was shooting, it’s a terrific job for such a young actress, and it isn’t long before the audience totally buys into their relationship.

But the day is coming when the corporation wants to pick up Okja and take him back to their American facility, hold their even bigger publicity show and then… Well, gigantic or not, what usually happens to farmed pigs sooner or later? Mija is heartbroken at Okja being taken away from their hillside farm, this is her best friend in the world, and the animal is so clearly bonded with her too. She decides to set off to Seoul after Okja, in what could, in other hands, have become a clumsy Disney-esque “incredible journey” type tale, but fortunately never does. Enter some comedic light relief in the form of some animal liberation activists, apologising to everyone for any harm as they try to free Okja. They have a longer term plan though, and Okja and Mija become a part of it – and of course the corporation too has plans to use both superpig and adorable young girl for their own ends, and the pair are caught between them.

This was such an utter delight – adorable and emotional in places, often wonderfully funny in others, and with some deliciously satirical barbs, especially for giant corporations, the spin doctors who spend vast sums trying to persuade the public how nice they are (really, we are not evil, honest!), and most especially on the way humans treat animals, especially food animals. I don’t think the film is trying to persuade anyone to become a vegetarian (although some scenes made me glad that I am), but certainly to think about the mass-production of animals for food and the appalling way thousands of animals are treated every day so we can buy cheap food from the supermarket and not bother our consciences by thinking of what sort of life the animal that ended up on our plate had before its demise.

The story moves from sweetly emotional to gleefully satirical, with swipes at Almighty Power and healthy doses of our old friend The Absurd, saving perhaps for a later scene where we see what is to happen to the animals, which is just horrifying. The CG for Okja is terrific, the animated animal coming across much more like a giant, good-natured Labrador than pig, and young Seo-Hyun Ahn’s acting with this creature added in post-production totally sells the relationship and is the heart of the film, while Tilda Swinton’s increasingly deranged CEO steals scenes left, right and centre. This is an absolute gem.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog