Boldly Go…

Star Trek: Boldly Go #1,

Mike Johnson, Tony Shasteen,

IDW

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I’ve been a Trek fan since I was knee-high to a Tribble, but I must confess I rarely dabble in the novels and comics spun off from the various incarnations of Trek, but every now and then one comes along that tractor beams in my attention. And right off the bat I will admit that this cracking cover artwork by George Caltsoudas was a part of that, I couldn’t resist picking it up for a wee peek, and once I did Johnson and Shasteen did a fine job of keeping my attention for the whole read.

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Set soon after the events of the recent Into Darkness movie, with the Enterprise destroyed our crew have been displaced – Scotty is lecturing at Starfleet Academy (and having to use put-downs on some snotty cadets in his class), Spock is on sabbatical on New Vulcan with his father (Uhura has decided to accompany him and learn about Vulcan culture as well as spend time with him), Sulu is now promoted to Commander is First Officer on the USS Concord (under the command of a young captain called Terrell – yes, as in Star Trek Wrath of Khan’s Paul Winfield) in a remote part of the galaxy. Meanwhile James T Kirk is the interim captain on the USS Endeavour, another Constitution-class starship.

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There’s a nice scene of the over-excited bridge officers of the Endeavour discussing their new temporary captain before he arrives. It’s a nice scene, reminding us that highly trained Starfleet officers or not, people are people and they love a wee gossip, especially about each other. And let’s face it, Kirk must have a hell of a reputation in the fleet by this point, some good, some bad, some true, some pure fantasy and it’s pretty understandable his new crew would be nattering about it, until his Federation-born Romulan First Officer, Commander Valas snaps their attention back to duty with a crisp “Captain on the bridge!”, followed by a wry “at ease, I promise I didn’t hear anything” from an amused Kirk.

All of these groups are about to have their new paths altered however – the Concord encounters a strange vessel approaching them at high speed, emitting an odd signal they can’t quite decipher. And then things cut off – on the Endeavour a garbled distress call is intercepted, and with both ships being so far out Kirk opts not to wait for orders from HQ (naturally, this is Kirk, after all), as they are the closest to the Concord, and they make haste to rescue their comrades, while Kirk has the strange message forwarded to Uhura to see if she can tease some meaning from it.

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As I said, I only occasionally read Trek novels or comics, despite years of following all the shows and films. Not sure why, I think perhaps while I liked some over the year there were some where the characters didn’t match the way I thought they were and it put me off. No such problem here, Shasteen does a fine job of creating some fine, sharp comic art and carries the likenesses of the modern Trek film characters very well (and adds in some nice visual references to Trek history – Uhura’s Vulcan garb being strongly reminiscent of Spock’s wife-to-be in the classic Amok Time episode, Spock’s attire also similar references some Nimoy-era movie costumes, little touches but they work and they also let you know the creators here are clearly familiar with Trek history and lore, which I’m sure fans appreciate).

The duo also really nail the characters – Kirk’s wry amusement at his own legend preceding him onto his new bridge is very in character, for instance, a young Sulu knowing he is experienced through his Enterprise days, despite his lack of years, but still pondering if he is really up to being a First Officer yet, Scotty’s smart smack-down of a cheeky cadet in his lectures, Uhura more than holding her own on Vulcan, it all rings very true and authentic, and that appealed greatly to me, as much as the actual story did (and let’s be honest, we love these characters, they are family to us and we love Trek as much for them as we do the stories).

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And there are numerous references to Trek history (great to see this timeline’s version of Terrell, also good to see a Romulan officer, given The Next Generation once pondered the fairness of anyone of Romulan descent being barred from serving). Add in this mystery vessel, as yet unseen but there are hints you will recognise (and no, I won’t spoil them by mentioning them here), and you’ve got a terrific first issue, establishing the post-movie scene for our various crew members nicely and setting their new adventures into place and leaving us with an intriguing situation and hook – pretty good going for a single issue.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: how the future used to look – Tom Gauld’s delightful Mooncop

Mooncop,

Tom Gauld,

Drawn & Quarterly

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We’ve been huge fans of Tom Gauld’s work for ages here on the blog, so it’s always a pleasure to have a new book from him, and in my own case I also had the added pleasure of getting to meet and chat to Tom about Mooncop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few weeks ago (report here). In his weekly Guardian cartoons Tom has often referenced science fiction and also a sort of retro-futurism which somehow manages to combine humour and amusement along with nostalgia and a gentle melancholy. Think, for an example closely related to his new book, of his cartoon of three panels, one showing the Moon from billions of years ago to 1969, an unchanging vacuum desert, then a panel showing the brief visits of Apollo, then the last showing the Moon from 1973 onwards, back once more to the empty, unchanging desert, empty of people, the bright moment of optimistic future exploration has been and gone.

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(revisiting some of Tom’s earlier work before our Edinburgh Book Festival chat I saw this strip in a different light now, perhaps an early ancestor of what would become some elements of Mooncop. Collected in the You’re All Jealous of My Jetpack by Tom Gauld, published Drawn & Quarterly)

Mooncop takes that feeling and that older, optimistic belief in the future, one many of us of a certain age grew up, that by the 21st century we would be living on the Moon, holidays in space, jet packs for all (an old children’s guide to the future proudly proclaiming all of this as if it were fact was one of Tom’s inspirations for the book), and delivers a story that celebrates the wonders of the stark Lunar landscape while also questioning why we thought we would want to live there in the first place. “Living on the Moon, whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now” comments one older lady, one of the original colony designers, to the Mooncop, who replies “Not to me. I think what you did was wonderful”.

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Our cop zooms around that astonishing landscape in his hover-car, but with little to do – zero crimes, means actually his efficiency rating is high, but that low crime is mostly because there are fewer and fewer people still living on the colony. Helping an old lady find her missing dog (off for a Lunar walk in his pressurised “hamster ball”, which makes for some smile-inducing visuals), or retrieving the faulty robotic automaton of Neil Armstrong (a clever way to give him a sort-of cameo and pay homage to that first human on the Moon) is about the worst he has to deal with in his police duties. And as he returns to his apartments each evening (a relative term on the Moon) he experiences an ennui, that this place he always wanted to come to and finds beautiful is slowly dying as people give up and move back to Earth.

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Perhaps he should too? What’s the point in being the only cop on the Moon if there are almost no people for him to serve and protect? Every day there are fewer and fewer. He feels like he arrived at a great party after it had started to break up, and starts to consider the other may be right and he should request a move back to Earth too. And yet… And yet, it’s the Moon, it’s that stark, otherworldly beauty and the image of the Earth rising above the horizon, a homage to that remarkable photo, Earthrise, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as they came out of the shadow of the dark side of the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the first time any human being had ever had a view of the whole globe hanging in space.

He loves it, and as the book continues, as the 60s-style optimistic, shiny Big Future fades in the face of everyday necessity and reality Mooncop becomes less about the science fiction or the humour (although both remain present, I should add) and more about that personal journey, not the physical one to the Moon but the inner one we all have to take at some point, about getting to a place, both physically and emotionally, where we don’t judge our place by what others say but how we feel about it. Our slightly-lost Lunar policeman needs to figure out where he is happiest, what makes him feel right. It’s a lovely, gentle tale of how the future used to look on one level, while on another level it’s about how it isn’t the discoveries and new locations and technologies which make a good future, it’s us ourselves and our understanding of where we want to fit into it all.

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The art is gorgeous throughout, Tom’s minimalist approach paying dividends on the largely barren Lunar landscape, while the colony itself is quite different from many other Moonbases I’ve seen in science fiction. Rather than a huge, domed city sprawling across the plains or a large underground base as in 2001, here it’s individual buildings – apartments, small houses, trees, coffee shops (even a Mooncop needs coffee and donuts, which of course come packed in their own little pressurised containers), with their own little domes, spread out across the landscape, reminiscent of a small town in one of the great deserts of the USA, and there are some nice little references in the art to visual inspirations from the real-world (once futuristic, now run-down cube apartments in Japan) and from science fiction (from Duncan Jones’ Moon to 2001 and Silent Running). It’s a lovely, smile-inducing work, presented in a lovely, well-designed small flexible hardback with metallic finish (a nice addition to your shelves)

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(Tom Gauld at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, photo from my Flickr)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Boldly going… Fifty years of Star Trek

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man … where no-one … has gone before.”

Two of the most enduring television series of all time were born out of that remarkable era of social, artistic and scientific revolution and evolution, the 1960s, series which didn’t just capture the attention and love of the science fiction fans but of a wider audience, appealing to men and women, to different ethnic groups, children, adults, which would become so successful they would become embedded into the popular culture to the level where event those who aren’t fans are still aware of the icons of those series. They are also two of my personal life-long favourites, and I use “life-long” literally – as I’ve grown up with these series and their later evolutions. They have always been in my life; they excited me, thrilled me as a child and engaged my imagination with adventure and wonder, but also set my young mind to thinking, inspiring me to seek out books on related subjects the stories would touch on. How many of us have shared that experience, that inspiration?

One of those shows has already celebrated its fiftieth anniversary year, our beloved Doctor Who. The other one which has gone through my whole life with me marks fifty years today: Star Trek.

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As with Doctor Who, although there may have been a few who thought there was something special about the work in the beginning, no-one could really have foreseen the cultural impact the show would make across half a century (and let us hope, with new films and a new series to come, much longer). Like many of the best tales this is a story of triumph against the odds – famously the pilot episode, the trial show shot just for the suits at the network, was rejected. Trek creator Rodenberry, as I recall even as a kid listening to him on my Inside Star Trek LP (yes, I still have it) back in the 70s, promised the channel a “Wagon Train to the stars”, following the hugely popular Westerns of the period but set in space but brought them something more cerebral. But then in an unprecedented move the network let Rodenberry fashion a second pilot episode, and from that the series sprang forth.

And while Star Trek delivered more than its fair share of action, fist-fights (with ripped shirts, naturally) and more, as the network wanted, it also offered up something more cerebral, many of the stories adding a more thought-provoking layer. It addressed racism (this in a 1960s America in which city streets were sometimes burning during the fight for Civil Rights), equality among all regardless of race, colour, gender, of overcoming our own flaws to become the better versions of ourselves, and by doing so create a finer world, the nature of power and the responsibility to use it wisely. The wonderful Nichelle Nichols, our First Lady of Geekdom, was told by Doctor Martin Luther King himself that her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise was important – a woman, and a woman of colour, on a prime-time TV show, occupying a position of authority as a senior officer, it sent a signal to others who weren’t seeing many other people of colour on their screens back then. Nichelle would later work with NASA to use her Trek fame to encourage more women and more minorities in the space programme and sciences, just another in the many ways the show inspired others.

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Poverty was eliminated on Earth, a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it – hopelessness, despair, cruelty…,” Counsellor Deanna Troi, USS Enterprise, talking to a time-travelling Mark Twain.

As you may have guessed I am not going to reiterate the history of Star Trek here – plenty of others will be doing that for the anniversary (pleasingly among the mainstream press too, not just among our geek community – Trek has reached out everywhere) and besides, most of you are more than familiar with it anyway. No, this is more of a personal piece, a few thoughts on what Star Trek has meant to me over the years, and I’m pretty sure it has had a similar effect on many of you. I’ve read and watched a huge amount of science fiction since I was a wee boy, and I still do, and I have loved so much of it. But what marks Trek out as extra special to me is quite simple: the quality of hope. Hope for the future, hope that we can overcome our own failings, that we can rise above pettiness, greed, selfishness, be better people, and by extension make the world a better place.

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Just recently I was talking to Mary and Bryan Talbot at the Edinburgh Book Festival about their Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, a historical and biographical graphic work about a nineteenth century revolutionary, activist and dreamer, but one which also touched on the Utopian elements of some of the science fiction of the day, imagining overcoming poverty, disease, the grotesque inequalities in society so that everyone had their fair chance. The book was dedicated to their friend, the late Iain M Banks, as an author of future utopias himself with the Culture. And at one point we noted how the Utopian theme has dropped more and more, in recent years, that the dystopian future seems more common in science fiction, not just because it offers drama and spectacle but, it seems, because so many of us look around this world and wonder where that optimism of the mid 60s went to? That we would overcome, that we would evolve morally and use our knowledge and technology for the betterment of all?

And it isn’t hard to see why, in a world where zealots slaughter innocents and equally vile bigots then blame entire sections of society for their actions, increasing division, difference, hatred, while the 1% claws ever more wealth, resources and influence and the rest despair and give up thinking what can you do, what difference can any of us make… To my mind though that makes the hopeful message of the Star Trek future more important than ever. A future where we can build something as vast and powerful as the Enterprise (the ship, I would argue, is almost a character in her own right), but we do so not for some imperial colonisation or warfare or conquest, but for exploration, for advancing knowledge, learning from other cultures, just because we can and because it makes us better, stronger as a species.

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Utopias rarely come to actual reality, and if they did they often would by a dystopia to some because we all have different ideas of what they should be, these things are rarely a one size fits all match. But we’ve dreamed of them forever, and the dream that we can make it better because, because we simply have to, it has to get better than this or what is the point? That dream is an important spur – we may never have a Federation-like ideal society (I suspect Babylon 5’s visions of a more divided future is more realistic, given human nature and history), but if it inspires more to fight for equality, to have rights enshrined into law to protect everyone, to expand educational opportunities and awareness of other problems, practical and moral, that we need to address, then that dream is serving a good purpose.

The greatest danger facing us is irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily not understood,” Captain James T Kirk.

Of course there are many other qualities to Trek – the deep bonds of friendship between the characters are emotionally satisfying, to the extent that many of us feel as if these fictional characters are almost people we know (and we feel the same about the real actors behind those characters, and it causes us genuine grief when we lose one of them). I think that and the dream of a better possible future are some of the reasons why Trek, early on, spawned an entire fan community and early conventions; it brought a lot of people from all over the planet together. It still does; in many ways those early Trek conventions and gatherings and cosplaying (before that term was used widely) set a bit of a template for the SF and comics and gaming conventions that are so common now.

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And there are so many of the stories across the various series and films – I’m sure each of us could fill a whole post with our favourite episodes and why we love them so much. City on the Edge of Forever, with Harlan Ellison’s compelling time-travelling romance and the horrendous personal cost in protecting the integrity of history. Patrick Stewart’s measured but beautifully emotional role in The Inner Light, living a lifetime in a few hours with a people long, long gone. Avery Brooks’ Sisko wrestling with his conscience over methods he would never normally use but is forced into for the greater good, but at enormous personal guilt: “I can live with it. I can live with it…”

Or the fantasy of Deep Space Nine as a 1950s pulp sci-fi series in a magazine which couldn’t admit the writer was black, and the blurring of which was real and which was truly the fiction. Majel Barrett-Rodenberry and M*A*S*H* star David Ogden Stiers facing love late in life and death in a culture with very strict rules on age. Data creating a daughter, who lives only a short time but is so grateful for the gift of that life. Patrick Stewart and Paul Winfield playing members of two very different species, desperate to bridge the communication gap, using storytelling and myth, in Darmok.

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And then there are the ones which just flat out made us laugh with our cast of friends – the Trouble with the Tribbles (and the wonderful DS9 tribute decades later), the Little Green Men where the Ferengi find themselves back in time at Roswell (and dealing with rather rougher humans than the evolved Federation types they are used to). And… Well, again I think you all could be coming up with similar lists and also thinking the more you come up with the more others pop into your head – oh, what about? And then that episode where…?

But for all that again I come back to that simple but incredibly precious quality that Star Trek has delivered again and again across half a century: hope, that optimism that whispers to us that we can make the real future a better place. Live long and prosper.

(this piece was originally written for the Forbidden Planet Blog)

Reviews: Ancestral Fire

Ancestral Machines,

Michael Cobley,

Orbit Books

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(Ancestral Machines cover artwork by Steve Stone)

A few years ago Mike Cobley moved from his popular fantasy series to science fiction, with his hugely enjoyable Humanity’s Fire trilogy, centred around a lost colony world (settled mostly by Scots and Norwegian colonists) being rediscovered, only to be brought into the middle of galactic politics and power-plays they didn’t even know existed until contact with the Earthsphere was re-established. Over the course of the trilogy Mike gleefully indulged himself in some fine world-building, both on his lost colony planet and then a wider galactic canvas. Ancestral Machines is set in the same universe as Humanity’s Fire, but it is a standalone novel, and while those of us who enjoyed the heck out of the original trilogy will welcome this return to that setting, I think it establishes itself and its setting so well that you can still enjoy this even if you haven’t read the trilogy (and you will probably find afterwards you will want to seek those out!).

Brannan Pyke is a pleasingly irascible scoundrel from Cobley’s Scots-Norwegian colony world, now master of the Scarbarus, with a motley collection of crewmembers from various worlds, taking on legal and, well, slightly less above board jobs to make ends meet, now that their world is connected into that larger universe again. There’s more than a hint of Joss Whedon’s much-loved (and cut far too damned short) Firefly here, I was thinking as I read it, then found Mike actually referencing Firefly in his afterword. There are other influences visible here, notably from fellow Scots-based SF writers like Ken MacLeod and the late Iain M Banks, and readers who have enjoyed those authors will find much to enjoy here. Which is not to say this is slavishly following those other creators, Mike’s too good for that, he takes his influences but the characters, setting and compelling narrative are very much his style.

After a shady deal goes wrong Pyke and his crew wake up in their de-powered ship, their partners having left them to die and make it look like an accident with power and life support. Understandably angry they try to pursue the double-crossing former partners, little knowing that a smuggling deal gone wrong is about to lead them straight into a situation they could never have imagined, and a desperate struggle, as they are dragged into the Warcage, an unbelievably vast series of worlds, all connected by ancient technology, around an artificial star, travelling into our galaxy, built by creators so ancient and distant that even the AIs of the Construct, who monitor the galaxy from various tiers of hyperspace, had thought this travelling group of worlds to be a myth. Originally conceived as a utopia, creating harmony, it was long ago usurped by those who saw it as a tool for power; instead of harmony between various worlds now the various races all train in martial arts, competing in regular deadly tournaments to keep their skills sharp (and to ensure they are always going to have grudges against the other species, therefore unlikely to combine to take control).

All of this is overseen by a group of five cold, violent, loathsome beings, the Gun-Lords, so called because they are a hybrid of an organic host with a quasi-organic-machine parasite, which also includes a sentient weapon arm on the host body. These vicious beings took control of those harmonious worlds and turned them into the dreadful Warcage, and now it’s moving towards out part of the galaxy. The Construct and Earthsphere Intelligence are concerned and plan a covert mission to investigate, little knowing the human Pyke and his crew have already been drawn into this struggle and that their paths will cross.

This is an absolute cracker of a space opera, fast-paced despite being over 400 pages, with both the personal level – Pyke and his crewmates desperately trying to save themselves and also being inexorably drawn into a greater struggle – and the large scale (entire planets destroyed, the misuse of power and how tyrants craft their vile states and hold onto power through a mix of lies and violence, an origin going back millennia), the larger scale exciting the imagination, the personal scale keeping it nicely relatable, which characters we genuinely care about.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Tim Powers returns with Medusa’s Web

Medusa’s Web,

Tim Powers,

Corvus Books

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Tim Powers has been one of my favourite authors for many years – I tend to have a tottering tower of books and graphic novels waiting to be read at any one time, but Tim is one of the authors I will shove everything else in the queue out of the way for. Ever since the remarkable Anubis Gates back in the early 1980s I’ve been addicted to his work, which frequently takes real historic events and characters then slips them in and around the fictional characters, not contradicting the established histories of real people he uses, rather taking areas where there are gaps in their lives or parts we simply have no knowledge of, and then using those as an area where he can spin story elements, be it the Romantic poets in Anubis Gates or the spies and counter-spies like Burgess in the Cold War era Declare or the spirits of Edison and Houdini in Expiration Date. It makes for an intoxicating, immersive read, and the historic details leave you wanting to go and seek out some books on those people and periods to learn more (always a sign of a good book, I think, one that inspires you to want to read several more books).

Madeline and Scott Madden are sister and brother, living in Los Angeles, orphans, their mother and father having vanished in mysterious circumstances when they were young, leaving them always wondering what happened and why their parents just left without a word, never tried to contact their children again. Growing up somewhat damaged, they were raised by their Aunt Amity, alongside their cousins,  Ariel (who seems to harbour some grudge against Scott for reasons he doesn’t understand) and reclusive, wheelchair-bound Claimayne in her sprawling old mansion, Caveat (and with a name like that you already know this isn’t going to be a happy family home…). His aunt had been a writer for decades, although in later years her books had gone out of fashion, and the estate and house is rather run down, permeated with that faded glamour of long-gone better days. Once it was almost rural, a large house and estate with small guest cottages that were often rented out to Hollywood starlets back in the earliest days of the movies, but these days LA’s great sprawl means it is surrounded by dense neighbourhoods and the nearby log-jam of the eternally blocked LA Freeway.

After their aunt’s death (by a bizarre supposed suicide method that I will leave you to discover for yourself) they are summoned to Caveat, their first return in many years to the odd home where they grew up, a home with connections to the Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s, even having a corridor lined with doors salvaged from old Hollywood homes of famous people (they’re just doors, of course, fixed to the wall but opening onto nothing, just decorative architectural salvage. Or are they? Somehow you suspect there may be more to them than that…). Apparently their aunt had changed her will just before her death, leaving Caveat to them rather than her son Claimayne or Ariel, who both still live there and are, understandably, not happy about this state of affairs, although none of them, including Scott and Madeline, expect the will to be upheld when challenged as the nature of her suicide would indicate their aunt was clearly mentally unbalanced when she changed the will.

Or was she? Did she have an ulterior motive for changing the will? Is it a slight against her son? Sudden late affection for her troubled wards? Or did she have some plan which involves Scott and Madeline, something they have no knowledge of, a plan designed to work even in the event of her death? And where do the “spiders” fit into this? Strange patterns of lines which went glimpsed send the viewer into a strange state, as if different dimensions are crossing one another, and also connecting different parts of time together during a trance-like state. What did their aunt use them for? Why has she left some for them to discover, why do Claimayne and Ariel use them almost like a drug and who are the people in a shadowy, secret underworld of spider-users and what is their interest in all of this? Scott and Madeline seem increasingly to have been maneuvered into multiple labyrinths, some of which they aren’t even aware of, can’t even see, closing around them, while others are planning and stalking around them with purposes they can’t even guess at yet.

It’s a wonderfully mysterious story, each new, hard-won revelation illuminating fragments of this multiple-level conspiracy, but also offering more questions. Who is out for what and who means ill to Scott and Madeline is frequently hard to tell, Powers refuses to spoon-feed the reader with simple answers, but instead teases us into walking the labyrinth with the character. The spider viewing open up connection to other people and times – Caveat doesn’t just have many historical links to early Hollywood, in some ways it is still connected to it, and those connections are not just one way…

Early Hollywood history leaks into the present (as history so often does), and real historic characters like Rudolph Valentino (arguably the first great star of Hollywood) are tangled with the modern day characters, while closer to the present the family history of Scott and Madeline, their missing parents and aunt are all woven into the narrative, making it a century-long mystery and linked conspiracy, full of rich historical details and how that past shapes the present still as well as a satisfyingly emotional family history tale, arrived at through a wonderfully confusing and intoxicating puzzle across history, time and dimensions. The modern day story arc is compelling, while the historic elements pushing their way into the present are rich and evocative.

This post was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

An ancient classic re-imagined: ODY-C

Ody-C Volume 1,

Matt Fraction, Christian Ward,

Image Comics

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There are certain stories that are, essentially, immortal, which will be told and retold for as long as humans tell each other stories. The Norse Sagas, the Ramayana Cycle, the Epic of Gilgamesh and, of course, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey; these stories and characters have been passed down through the millennia, they remain in our shared, collective imagination and dreams because they speak of very human elements that we 21st century types still share with our Bronze Age ancestors, of human pride, arrogance, love, hate, of the whims of fate and the struggles of life. And, simply, because they are bloody good stories. And as such they are also endlessly open to re-interpretation in every medium, because their basic elements can be refitted and interpreted to each new generation. And here, as you may infer from the title, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward are taking the Odyssey, the epic Classical tale of Odysseus (also sometimes known as Ulysses), the crafty warrior of Trojan War fame, and the voyage of his vessel home after that decade of war, a voyage wrecked by capricious gods and fates, turned into a long trial of endurance.

Leaving behind the last century, leaving behind all their dead and their loss: Paris the coward and killer and thief. Here where Keles last stood. Here brave Hekta was bodily disgraced in death. Here where so many great women died. Three ships leave Troiia’s remains. Three adventures now start. Three great heroes begin their last odyssey…”

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Except here Fraction and Ward transform Homer’s epic into a great space-faring, science fiction tale, but an SF version of The Odyssey which is also gender-swapped: this is an epic of great women heroes and goddesses. And so instead of the crafty Odysseus we have “cunning Odyssia” and her fellow Achaeans at the sack of the siegeworld of Troiia, the only male visible being He, now on a collar like a dog, “thousands of swiftships once launched in his name”, now but a spoil of war for the victorious captains. The final ships make their sacrifices to the gods – again all female, save for the “mother-father” who partakes a bit of both genders in this female-centric universe – for a safe voyage home after their long, long war. But those familiar with the Odyssey will already know that this is not a voyage that will go smoothly…

Well, Olympians? What say you now? The war is over. Where shall we find our entertainment?

Yes, Fraction and Wards’ gods of the stars are as capricious, malicious – and downright mean and childish – as those ancient Greek gods of Homer’s day, less interested in helping mere mortals, more in using them as playthings. The war over, how shall they find their diversions now? Well, there’s this long voyage home, a lot could happen, and these gods are quick to take offence and equally swift to deliver revenge for slights, imagined or real (never hurts to be able to justify your violent actions, even if you’re fooling nobody, a sexed-up dossier is still useful for justifying your actions, eh?). One reprimands the Mother-Father, telling her it is vulgar to find pleasure in creating new tortures for great women like Odyssia, while another declares “why should we let these bloodthirsty wanderers roam our spaceways so freely?” and more talk of punishment for their hubris (and as is often the case in Greek myth, when the gods argue about human arrogance, pride and hubris they epically fail to see that they themselves are displaying exactly the same qualities. Never trust a god). It is quite clear that any excuse will be taken by some of these petty gods to inflict suffering and misery.

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I don’t want to spoil the story too much here – yes, it does generally follow the line of the Odyssey’s arc, so if you know your Homer you will already have a fairly good idea where this is going. But that’s part of the joy of it for those of us forever in love with the great Classics, in seeing how Fraction and Ward will tell their version of this ancient tale, of the clever re-imagining and re-workings of those events and characters, such as the gruesome encounter with the vile Cyclops, or the dream-like lure of the lotus eaters. Those not so familiar with the original though, are still in for a treat – there is a reason this story has stayed with us for over two and a half thousand years, after all – and after reading it you really should seek out the original Odyssey, one of the cornerstones of world literature.

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The gender and science fiction components of Fraction’s version of the epic are intriguing, a fresh take on an old tale, well-told, and it’s interesting to see crafty Odysseus of legend still being the same clever, devious and brave figure as a woman, a reminder that the both the heroic aspects and our not so fine behavioural traits are not confined to one gender or the other. And Ward’s artwork? Oh, but Ward’s artwork is utterly sublime here, from the curving swiftships (mentally linked to their captains and crews) to the various bickering gods, from scenes of carnal sensuality to cannibalistic horror and vistas of distant stars. And on top of this some quite remarkable use of colour, giving some scenes an amazing, vibrant intensity, sometimes almost a visual cacophony, an overload, like being on a trip, as if someone had taken Brendan McCarthy’s innovative palette and thrown a Psychedelic Bomb into the paint, a riot of colours, forms and unusual page layouts adding to the otherworldly feel of the story and inviting the eye to linger and drink it in – a wonderful reading experience.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The Word for World is Forest…

The Word For World is Forest,

Ursula K Le Guin,

Gollancz SF Masterworks

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Originally published in 1972 as a novella in Again, Dangerous Visions (edited by the great Harlan Ellison, who suggested the title – Le Guin originally called it Little Green Men) then expanded to a novel (albeit a very short one at a mere 128 pages) in ’76, a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, the diminutive size of The Word For World is Forest belies its power. To those of you familiar with the works of Le Guin – surely one of our truly great Queens of Words and Stories – that will come as little surprise; others of her works, such as the magnificent Left Hand of Darkness are not long novels either, and yet because of her skill they simply don’t need to be, she makes all her lines count, and the thoughts behind them, to produce work that lingers in the mind, provoking contemplation long after you put the book down.

Several centuries in the future and humans have expanded into space, entering an age of stellar colonisation. There are some changes for the better, not just advancing technologically but it seems by this era Earth people have set aside their differences on race, at least among one another. But the term “human” encompasses more than just homo sapiens – in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of novels we have a much older humanoid race, the Hain, who seeded many worlds eons past, leading to a number of different-looking but related human species and biospheres. And while slow progress towards these worlds and different members of a galactic human family working together is moving along, there is an awful lot of negative aspects to human behaviour we’re all to familiar with from our history and, sadly, our present. Earth is denuded of many natural resources, even her once teeming, verdant forests, gobbled up in an insatiable quest for more resources to exploit, and these new worlds offer rich pickings, especially for those with less than honourable morals. And just as with the colonial overlords of the ages of empire, there are men – and they are all men, soldiers, loggers, scientists – who go out to these distant places, with general instructions, but knowing they are far from contact with home and that they can effectively run it like their own private fiefdom.

Such a man is Captain Davidson, in charge of one of the remote logging camps, first glimpsed congratulating himself on being such a manly specimen of the officer class and yelling at his local servant – he and some of the more arrogant Earthers refer to them as “creechies” – in a pidgin tongue which all too clearly recalls the self-important colonial era overlords and their supreme self-assurance that they were entitled to be over other species because, clearly, they were superior. The local intelligent species, the Athsheans, despite being much smaller than Terrans and furry, are part of that galactic human diaspora the Hainish seeded the galaxy with. As such the rules state they must be treated with respect, there can be no coercion and indeed Davidson and the other officers explain there is no such evil as slavery in their colony (New Tahiti at they dub it), just “voluntary” local workers. Voluntary including being marched into the Earth camps and town, being held in pens and treated like lowly animals…

Despite being part of the Hainish human stock, it’s clear many of the Terrans, especially Davidson, simply don’t see them as actual humans, or if they do, they seem them as an inferior breed – smaller, weaker, lazy (why haven’t they stripped all their huge forests for resources and to clear arable land like the “civilised” Earth men?). This distaste at the perceived inferiority of the natives does not, however, stop them having sex with the females – usually by force (again far too many sad echoes of history in those vile acts). Of the Earth team only the scientist, the anthropologist Raj Lyubov, seeks to actually understand the native culture and befriends some of them, notably Selver, who he saves from the brutal Davidson. The Athsheans have a very peaceful culture, aspects of their society and culture shared between the men and women of their groups, the older ones, especially the head woman, holding a place of respect and, most remarkably, they all partake in a regular form of lucid dreaming. In fact they do so to such an extent that they have little distinction between the waking world and the dreamtime, and both play a role in their decision making, with some noted as especially great dreamers. While they hunt and kill forest animals there is no real violence between the Athsheans themselves, and as such they are socially and psychologically ill-prepared for violent, greedy Terrans – a people who don’t really dream properly, who even use hallucinogens (drugs are freely available) to give them what, to the Athsheans appear to be poisoned, deformed dreams. Clearly although they are men, they are not well…

The peaceful Athsheans eventually come to resist the colonial forces oppressing them. With no history or even concept of killing another human, let alone warfare, the change comes when Davidson rapes and kills Selver’s wife, leading to a confrontation. Saved by Lyubov and returned to his people, the beaten Selver dreams for days, deep, dark dreams. The great dreamers of the village listen to his dreams and the message is clear, something has to be done and the dreamtime has shown Selver how, and he must bring this concept from the dreaming into the waking world, becoming a “sha’ab”, a term that means both translator and god. And soon thousands of Athsheans, a people who normally live in small, peaceful, social groups, start to come together to follow his dream, which will lead to bloodshed.

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This short novel is redolent with echoes of the many outrages and disgraces any number of colonial, imperialist powers have shown to the locals they come to dominate, and it’s not just historical, those aspects of the book, along with the rapacious desire to plunder the natural world without thought of consequence or responsibility is not unfamiliar to our own present day either. There are more direct allusions though – Le Guin wrote this still cloaked in much anger at the scenes from the Vietnam War, which she had protested through the 60s and early 70s, and while this does give some elements that “of its time” feeling, for the most part it remains far too relevant to the here and now (I wish it didn’t, that we were better than that by now, but it often seems we’re not), with some scenes very reminiscent of the war in Asia (the firebombed clearings in the forest where the Earthmen set up their fortified camps, the Athsheans all but invisible in their great forest, suddenly appearing) and even some direct comparisons – the commanding officer Colonel Dongh orders Davidson to behave, and tells him that people from his part of Earth know that even a technologically advanced force can’t hold down a resistant people dispersed through a concealing landscape.

But this isn’t just a straight story of colonial masters and oppressed natives striking back, or a parable about greed and ecological damage. This is also a psychological and spiritual story, an examination of how their seeming power corrupts those who are in charge (or think they are), but also, crucially, about how having to resist such evil also infect and corrupts the oppressed. Because in having to learn to fight back – to take another human life – the Athsheans will have to change, and even Selver, the god who brought this knowledge from the dreaming, is terrified of what this will do both to him and to his people. Evil acts, like a viral infection, and a fall from grace for these gentle inhabitants of a natural Eden. Learn to fight the Terrans and maybe they have a chance to save their culture and their world, but the cost on their souls may be heavy. It’s not hard to see that also as perhaps an observation of what violence and warfare can do to even the best of people, even those who fight on the side of right and good still often feel revulsion and horror at the acts they have to perpetrate, haunted in their dreams forever after, and for the Athsheans whose dreaming is an essential part of their life, how much worse that must be.

It’s a compact tale, a masterclass by a powerful writer who fashions a lean narrative where others might have produced a much larger, bloated tome, and yet for all the brevity Le Guin delivers not just a narrative but a believable alien world and society in short yet compelling scenes. Some forty years on as this new SF Masterworks edition comes out (as a bonus featuring a thoughtful introduction by the excellent Ken MacLeod, as well as Le Guin’s own intro), this still retains huge power to provoke thoughts and to make the reader reconsider troubling events in our own day and age in a different light.

The Mechanical: morality, philosophy, free will and a fascinating Clockpunk alt-history

The Mechanical,
Ian Tregillis,
Orbit Books

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Clockmakers lie.”

Ian Tregillis first came to my attention when Orbit published his Milkweed series, starting with Bitter Seed, a fascinating and very well constructed trilogy – or perhaps triptych is a better term, as the books aren’t just sequential but curve back on one another – of an alternate history of World War Two, of an even more bitter struggle for national survival by the UK, mad Nazi scientists, scientifically-created supermen with dangerous abilities and an intriguing magic/science underlying it. It was dark, often bleak, relentless and utterly compelling and addictive. So when The Mechanical arrived on my desk – with its very cool minimalist graphic cover and page edges matching the red of the cover colour, very swish – I was eager to see what he was going to do with the start of a new series. Well, you know how I said his previous trilogy was “compelling and addictive” a moment ago? The Mechanical is that too and even more so. This is the kind of novel you’re reading on the bus or train and you actually resent reaching your destination because it means you have to pause your reading.

There are some common elements this new novel – the first in the Alchemy Wars series – has in common with Tregillis’ previous Milkweed trilogy. Both series feature Tregillis’ own take on one of my favourite forms of science fiction, the alt-history tale, a subgenre which, if handled cleverly – as it is here – can fascinate the reader with “what if?” moments where the fictional history diverge from our own around some turning point which came out a little differently. The second thing it has in common with his previous book is in world-building. And if there is something we geeks really love in our science fiction, it’s some seriously good world-building, the sort which has lovely details we can absorb and well-worked out variances from the actual history, with good supporting reasons as to why this world has developed as it has and how those changes from our history affect everything else rippling forward. And here it is handled brilliantly – Tregillis crafts an alternate history for the world that is as intricate as the clockwork mechanicals – the Clakkers – who feature in the story, fine details adding to the feeling of authenticity of this fictional world. For instance steam power is hardly known – who needs steam locomotives or steamships when you can have them powered by rows of mechanicals? And little, knowing details like Delft being famous not for the lovely Delft ware, but for their antique decorated masks for earlier, vintage models of Clakkers, or, being the Netherlands, there are rumours of an “underground canal” rather than an “underground railroad”.

Of course no matter how wonderfully though-out the world-building and the clever reasons for the alternate versions of history, these are just the stage-dressing; it’s the narrative and the characters that make a novel really work, and I’m glad to report that Tregillis handles this as skilfully as he does his background detail. This is one of those eminently satisfying novels where, by the time you get halfway through it, you will be very emotionally invested in the characters, both human and mechanical. We open with a gathering in the Hague – humans and Clakkers coming together to witness something now fairly rare, a public execution. On the scaffold today, some “papist” French spies trying to undermine the fine, upstanding Protestant Dutch. This isn’t the 17th or 18th century though but the 20th. The religious wars are still ongoing, but in this world the Dutch married the maritime and trading expertise to the creation of their mechanical men – general servitors, specialised units like soldier mechanicals, the dreaded multi-legged Stemwinders (which do the bidding of the Horologist’s guild, which after several centuries is not just a powerful guild but also operates elements akin to a secret police/intelligence unit) or maritime or airship mechanicals. The result is that rather than the British creating their vast empire, it was the Dutch who rose to global domination, aided by their almost unstoppable Clakkers, designed to obey instantly, to work tirelessly. They are still at war with France, but this is New France – what would be Canada in our world – because the Continent belongs to the implacable Dutch and the Brasswork Throne. What’s left of the French kingdom and crown is buried in Marseilles-in-the-West, surrounded by Dutch forces from New Holland, based out of New Amsterdam (obviously with no British empire New York remained Dutch and with no British colonists it was the Dutch and French contesting for North America), where Berenice – known as the Talleyrand (a sobriquet for whoever holds the position of the French spymaster) – is being humiliated in the king’s council because the French about to swing from the gallows in the Hague are the main part of her network in the Netherlands, now blown (it’s almost like something from Tudor times, with Walsingham’s spymaster rounding up Catholic spies).

And there is something else, which has brought out the crowds but also large number of the mechanicals in the Hague – a rogue Clakker is to be executed. A machine which has done the seemingly unthinkable and developed free will, able to simply say no to a human command, to ignore the compelling geas upon geas layered on their systems to make them obey, punishing them with a deep, searing pain inside their mechanical souls if they do not obey right away. Many of the city’s Clakkers are lingering, despite the pain of the command geas pushing them to go about their duties, to witness this, as the Horologists plan to burn away the machine’s hard-won sense of individuality in their glowing forge. These machines are born from both clockwork mechanics and science as well as a rich infusion of alchemy (legend has it the great Huygens purloined some of Newton’s secret alchemical notebooks which, along with his own genius, kickstarted this era). Actually it’s not fair to say this doomed rogue – an extremely rare creature the Horologists take huge pains to prevent happening again – has developed individuality.

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As the book progresses and we follow the Clakker servitor Jax and see his interactions with other mechanicals (they click and twang their pulleys and gears to talk secretly to each other, their humans totally unaware), it becomes clear these mechanical creatures are indeed self-aware, but the geasa the Horologists layer on their awareness at creation, like subroutines in a computer programme, bind them, almost the way a magician is said to bind spirits or demons of familiars, to compel them to do what is commanded, aware but unable to refuse. It’s a particular vile form of one of humanity’s scourges, slavery, except this bondage doesn’t just hold the body in thrall but the very being is held in perpetual service. “Clockmakers lie” is the regular secret greeting between the Clakkers, and they dream of emulating the rogue – how did he escape his bonds? Could they do the same? If they did, what would they do, where could they go? Escape to New France and beyond into the north where their own secret legends tell of a place where they can be free? Or is that just comforting folklore for the mechanicals? Circumstances will soon push Jax to find out the answers to these questions rather urgently…

This is an increasingly fascinating book, becoming every more so the deeper you dive into it. The main narrative arcs of Berenice and Jax are well-paced and absorbing, while the superb detailing and world-building I mentioned before flesh this world out into one you can believe in and feel you could explore. Those elements alone would promise you a superb read, but there’s more in here, for those who want to think further, from the more obvious themes revolving around the morality of holding someone – machine or human – in bondage, Tregillis capturing with quiet, emotional intensity the pain of those so enthralled, imprisoned both physically and spiritually, aware but never in control of their own bodies, and the associated philosophical questions of free will – is there really such a thing, or is it only an illusion? There are elements of Frankenstein in here – the creation of new forms of life then not treating them with the respect they should have had, humans dabbling into areas where perhaps only the gods should – and questions of the nature of freedom and the nature of being which will have you thinking long after you finish reading. As with his Milkweed series you cannot take the safety of even lead characters for granted, Tregillis is not afraid to make his characters suffer, some of them quite terribly. All of which makes this one of the sharpest, most intelligent, hugely compelling works I’ve read this year, and I cannot wake to see where Tregillis takes this series next.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The Death House – fascinating SF for adult and YA readers

The Death House,

Sarah Pinborough,

Gollancz

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I’ve admired Sarah Pinborough’s writing for several years – she’s consistently proven herself to be one of the more fascinating new talents in the UK fantastic genres, and I’ve been especially delighted with the ways in which she crafts stories which you often can’t simply label into one genre or another, as, like a number of other fast-rising (and fascinating) writers such as Lauren Beukes for example, she deftly manages to pull elements from various places, from horror tropes to science fiction or thriller or crime and re-weaves them into something far more compelling. Sarah has also enjoyed success as a Young Adult author, and with her new book, The Death House, she is again dancing around the edges of several genre ballrooms, picking her dancing partners from different rooms at different points; indeed, as well as a delightful weaving of elements from various genres into something new, here she also manages to craft a book which functions perfectly well as an engrossing tale for an adult or for a YA reader.

It’s sometime in the near future, but we don’t know exactly when. Or even where. In fact there’s a quite deliberate lack of solid information in The Death House. We know were are in a future Britain, but we don’t really see it, except in some memories of the children in the house, because our point of view is Toby, a teenage schoolboy, sent to the eponymous house along with other children, because they are “defective”. This future world has some sort of illness – a plague, virus, genetic disorder? We never really know and it doesn’t really matter, because what matters is anyone whose blood test comes up with the wrong result is taken away to one of these isolated homes – there is no appeal, the operation is carried out with clinical, almost Fascist like efficiency and lack of mercy, dark vans swooping on homes, children torn from the arms of their parents. And no-one comes back from a Death House. And no-one outside knows what happens, except it is where the ill kids are taken to await the signs of their symptoms beginning to surface. And even the kids in the house don’t know exactly what this illness is, or even what the symptoms are – different symptoms seem to manifest in different people at different times.

The nursing staff and the token teaching staff in the house (isolated on an island) don’t explain any further, and this just adds to the overbearing atmosphere of fear and despondency. These are youngsters, and they are marked to slowly die, cut off entirely from their previous life, even letters from parents forbidden. It’s just them and the very remote nursing staff who do their best to never treat their young charges as anything other than a job; no emotional bonding or caring here, it’s like an even more hellish version of a boarding school combined with that fear all humans carry of serious illness, the children isolated, physically and emotionally. Toby is the oldest in his dorm and has reluctantly taken on the role of leader for the younger boys in his room, but much of the time he avoids anything that smacks of entanglement, because what’s the point? Today, tomorrow, a month, a year, he is is here till he suddenly develops symptoms (and what symptoms? in the absence of facts, just like every media fulled panic of any new illness there is a Chinese Whispers effect as the kids tell each other about it, although none really know).

His only escape is at night – as the house sleeps Toby pads out quietly to explore, a tiny bit of rebellion and adventure which he has to himself. Until Clara arrives among the latest group, a girl around his age, straight away she attracts attention among the older boys, except for Toby (who had been daydreaming of a girl at school he hoped to get off with at a party just before the black vans came for him). And then he finds Clara too avoids the pills at night and explores the house, during what he considers his time. How dare she! And yes, you just know that his antipathy and his defensive recoiling from any deep attachment just isn’t going to survive against the energy of the life-loving Clara…

And there you go again, Pinborough delighting in mixing genres – we’ve already got a Dystopian science fiction future, a dark, old house right out of a Victorian horror tale, and now we have romance woven into the mix. And more than that, it’s that intense first romance, that type that flares among the confusions of adolescence and burns with an intensity unlike any other you ever experience. And Pinborough charts the development of their friendship then romance wonderfully, the shyness but eagerness, the mixture of fear and desperate hope. And over all this hangs their fate as Defectives, locked away in the house to await their seemingly inevitable fate. One day they will start to manifest symptoms and when they do the impassive nurses will take them away in the middle of the night, while the others sleep, to the upper floor. No-one knows what happens there and nobody returns from that floor. Do they die? Mutate? Are they the subject of experimentation into the Defective? Anyone who’s dealt with serious illness or watched a loved one suffering has felt that numbing horror of feeling totally helpless, and here these kids are living in that state every day.

Again, as I said earlier, Pinborough deliberately holds back on explanations: in some ways it is maddening and frustrating, but I suspect that’s part of the point here – we’re in the same position as Toby and the other kids here. It’s barely mentioned in the outside world and once they are labelled and caught up in the house programme they have no contact at all ever again with the outside world, so they have no access to any information, or any adult who will act as their champion. It’s like being a combination of a child with a terminal illness and being an illegal refugee at the same time, sealed away, forgotten, nobody knows, nobody cares about you or speaks for you or strives for you. Pinborough instead uses this lack of solid information to create Poe-like levels of creeping fear in this old house, and also as a good way of building up the relationships between the kids held inside it, from moments of fear and worry (and attempts by some of them to help and reassure the others) to moments of childlike joy (it suddenly snows, something none of them have ever seen before – it hasn’t snowed in this future UK for a long time, it seems). And as Toby and Clara start to bond on a deep level they start to question their assumed fate in that way only a teen can, that remarkable defiant stance, won’t happen to us, we will survive somehow, escape somehow, live together somehow… Somehow…

The Death House is a masterful piece of writing craft – I think most authors would have felt compelled to add much more exposition and much more explanation in here, more background to this future society, to how it evolved in a way that the state can just take your kids from you and seal them away to die, more details about the illness itself, what it is, what causes it, why does it require such drastically cruel, inhuman treatment to be visited on children? And yes, part of me really wanted to know more about those aspects of this world, but on reflection those are just details, and distracting ones at that. Pinborough, wisely, I think, eschews those partly because it enhances the sense of isolation and dread and fear in the house and among the young patients/prisoners, but also partly because she is more interested in the psychological and emotional effects this has on those kids, and that’s far more satisfying, especially as she is simply so damned good at writing adolescents, from the younger ones to those in that awkward, almost an adult but not there yet late teen period. Hugely compelling and emotional, dark, disturbing, yet also with lighter moments and that slowly emerging first love romance shining through it (as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, life keeps finding a way, even in a home seemingly only for the lost), with very believable young characters that works for adult and YA reader alike, and as with a lot of writing across the centuries to do with the inevitability of death, this isn’t really about death. It’s about living.

The clockwork worlds – Edginton and Culbard’s glorious Brass Sun

Brass Sun Hardcover,

Ian Edginton, Ian Culbard,

Rebellion

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A thousand times a thousand years ago the Blind Watchmaker set the wheel of worlds upon the firmament. And upon those worlds he set the lost tribes of man. Each planet and populous were tasked with their own form and function – each a fine movement. A celestial increment within the greater machine.”

For me, ever since I first saw one in a museum as a very young boy there has been something enchanting about an Orrery, those beautiful, intricate old clockwork and brass moving models of the solar system, little brass and copper planets rotating around a brass sun, tiny metal moons around the planets, each orbiting in their own path and time. Of course cosmology has moved on and today we are confronted by a universe that seems infinitely more complex, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of even our tiny local neighbourhood of it all. And yet that relatively simple clockwork, moving model of the solar system still holds a certain magical fascination, all the heavens displayed at a human scale, in a simple, ordered fashion even a child can understand. Now take that child-like fascination and scale it up – right up – to planetary levels and we have The Orrery, an actual series of real worlds set on their metal rings to orbit their sun like the clockwork model.

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It’s a simple but utterly dazzling and wonderful notion and right from the start it affords us some truly glorious science fiction artwork as Ian Culbard delivers achingly beautiful splash pages, from the intricate cogs of the clockwork mechanism (and even in our day of digital tech and touch screens, isn’t there still something delightful about moving machinery of intricate clockwork?) and then pulling back to show us this astonishing solar system, all the little worlds mounted on their stands and rotating around one another and their sun on a clockwork system of wheels and cogs and gears (you can see a preview on the blog here). I think I fell in love with this story right at that early point.

Now imagine that this clockwork solar system is slowly winding down, the environment in the worlds is changing. Like our own world they face environmental change and possible collapse, and like too many in authority in our own world some are ignoring the facts, or in the religious world young Wren lives in, any attempt to use science to examine the changes and devise a plan is seen as heresy, leading to a death sentence. But in the best traditions of the epic quest tale this young woman is about to be catapulted onto an immense journey, and the fate of all these clockwork worlds will be in her hands, as her grandfather, once the high priest, now secret scientist, entrusts her with the knowledge he has gleaned and, as things fall apart on their world, sends her alone, fleeing, beyond all that she has known.

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Wren finds herself “riding the rails” – the connecting spars that make up this gargantuan Orrery, engineering spaces from its construction, and fortunately for her she meets some of the few who still attempt to study and maintain it, engineers, and a young apprentice befriends her and, again in finest quest tale tradition joins her, the pair travelling further and further, seeking the broken parts of a key her grandfather thinks can fix the slowly declining Orrery, all the time wondering about the nature of the “Blind Watchmaker” who may, or may not, be the creator of this entire, amazing series of interlinked worlds.

I was reminded several times of Ursula Le Guin’s superb Earthsea, not the story so much, but rather the small, different but connected worlds of Brass Sun putting me in mind of the archipelago of islands from Le Guin’s wonderful fantasy classic, while the adventure and quest elements are familiar from any number of fantasy tales, not to mention the original myths which fed those fantasies – an epic-scale journey into the unknown, dangers on all sides, finding new friends along the way who will be true no matter what (and how their emotional bonding also bonds the reader to them, invests us not just in the big-scale wonder of the tale but in the person-level emotions), and how Wren will have to change and grow on her journey, as all the best heroes always have to .

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It’s an achingly gorgeous looking piece of Clockpunk science fiction, and we’ve raved about it as we followed the serialisation in the pages of the much-beloved stalwart of Brit comics, 2000 AD (almost four decades on and still nurturing new work like this). But it’s not just the beauty of the art and the concept, it is a cracking adventure tale, a magnificent quest for our young, untried heroes, who are going to have to grow up fast and face all sorts of challenges, some physical (dangerous environments, nasty people trying to kill them, many now ignorant of how the Orrery was created, or of the other worlds), some mental (the sheer challenge of continuing on into the unknown, the burden placed on such young shoulders), some metaphysical (religion, science, both dealing with the nature of belief and what happens if those beliefs prove to be wrong), and with a subtle message about managing our own environment.

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It is a tale to let yourself fall into, to become hopelessly entangled into it until the Orrery and its characters feel almost real to you (just all the best quest tales have always done, drawn us so very deeply in until we feel we are part of their epic journey). And oh, that glorious artwork. I’ve always held that science fiction and fantasy delivers one quality more than any other literary genre: the sheer sense of wonder. And here Edginton and Culbard will fill your head with wonder and beauty and danger and daring. One of the finest series of the year, now collected into a handsome hardback edition, an absolute must-have. As I said, a story to let yourself fall in love with.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Grandville Noel, Bryan Talbot’s finest yet

Grandville: Noel,

Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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The fourth album of Bryan Talbot’s magnificent Grandville series arrives from Cape (just in time for you to add to your Christmas “I-Want” list). Each of the preceding three volumes has made my Best of the Year list, I’ve absolutely loved them. Talbot, of course, is more than a very gifted artist, he’s a superb storyteller, not just in terms of creating a cracking narrative to draw you in and filling it with wonderfully realised characters, but also because as you read his books you can feel the thought and care that has gone into each panel, even slight touches  added with great deftness to achieve just the effect on the reader that is required (and I know full well there will be techniques and devices employed which are almost inivsible to the reader but picked up subliminally, adding to the effect in the way a tiny pinch of herbs mixes with other, larger, more obvious ingredients in the perfect dish). Grandville: Noel not only carries on this tradition, I think it surpasses it: pitch perfect story, the balance between adventure and humour, bravery and shock, the elements that clearly draw on current worries in our own society (something the best science fiction has always been good at) and some glorious artwork to give us the finest Grandville volume yet.

We start thousands of miles from this Steampunk alternative Paris, in the compound of a religious cult in America, being surrounded by baying citizens, held back by police as the army is deployed; you don’t need a knowledge of Jonestown or Waco to realise that this is not going to end well. But before the place can be stormed the messiah of this particular cult – a remarkably rare unicorn going under the name Apollo – appears before the robed cult members, telling them they are all now about to ascend to a new level of being… Sadly this approach to a supposedly higher form of being is, like the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult incident, is taken by ingesting poison. However, Apollo himself, his old, now broken down mentor and a power hungry Gryphon (another rare creature) and a few truly brutal-looking guards (all of them pigs) have not taken the poison and instead flee to a prepared airship. All of this happens within the first half dozen pages.

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But what of our large badger chum Inspector LeBrock of the Yard and his solid companion detective Ratzi? The pair have something rare for those who work for the emergency services – a festive period off. Ratzi retires to his large home and family, leaving LeBrock on his own. Noticing his landlady is upset he soon encourages her to explain what’s wrong: her sister’s daughter has run off, just a young, teenage girl. Naturally our gallant badger undertakes an investigation of his own, picking up small clues the local police overlooked, which soon lead him to a religious cult via a believer on the streets nearby giving out leaflet (leading to some superb expressions, not least on the religious zealot’s face as LeBrock bears down on him. It isn’t long before the trail of the missing girl, Bunty, leads our intrepid inspector back to Paris and the new headquarters of Apollo and his followers, along the way taking in a joyful reunion with Billie, the Parisian lady of the night who LeBrock is rather keen on, his old friend in the French detective service and tangling in both a new gang war as a vicious but remarkably rarely-seen new kingpin, Tiberius Koenig (yes, there is a clue in that name, which I shall not spoil) who has been taking over all criminal operations in Grandville, and also a search for fabled – possibly mythical, perhaps real – religious documents that could reveal something shocking (and which Apollo also wants), as well as a growing civil unrest by the ‘doughfaces’ (derogatory terms for humans) demanding equal rights (including a cameo from a couple of very familiar faces!), and in the absence of Ratzi a new partner events push him to working with, a doughface cowboy from Pinkertons, “Chance Lucas”, a gunslinger who can pretty much outdraw his own shadow (yes, I think  you can guess which famous comic character he alludes to!).

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And the brief summary of Grandville: Noel doesn’t really give you more than a small taste, but I am reluctant to spoil it for you with too much in the way of narrative detail, because it is an absolute cracker of a plot, buzzing along happily and a terrific pace, developing nicely, the main thrust carrying on swiftly but Talbot still allowing plenty of space to work in some increasingly blossoming romance with Billie and LeBrock, some bonding with Chance, some sidebar elements which at first seem to be merely adding some interesting detail to the history of the Grandville universe but which are woven back into the later narrative with great deftness, and also managing to layer in some elements which comment on topical modern concerns, not least the alarming growth of right-wing extremism and xenophobia across Europe and the way both religious and political leaders can use whipping up hatred of one group and playing on exaggerated fears to manipulate many into supporting actions they would never otherwise countenance (which even in this alternative reality includes some iconography, uniforms and rhetoric that look chillingly familiar, a reminder of where this sort of ‘hunger politics’ leads to). And then the cream and cherries on top of some beautifully done references, executed with a much lighter – and more effective – hand than some of the references dropped into later LOEG books, for example, including, appropriately enough given the nature of this story and the Apollo character, some religious allusions, such as a Last Supper scene.

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And again without going into to much in the way of potentially spoiler-territory details, there’s also a deeply satisfying feeling, especially in the latter third of the book, of the events of this book and the preceding three contributing to some major events which feel like they will be bearing down in the future on LeBrock, a very pleasurable feeling of everything coming nicely together into a larger story and sequence of events. We also get some fascinating glimpses into the history of the universe Grandville exists in, with Talbot, not for the first time, making a nice odd to some Moorcockian ideas of realities. Both of these elements of greater events building and the increased detail of this alternate, Steampunk, animal–dominated world seriously add to the depth and feel of not just this book, but the entire series so far. The art is, as you would expect, superb – I’ve already noted some of the wonderful close-ups Talbot executes of the characters and their expressions, while the cityscape of Grandville, this Steampunk Paris, remains as visually ravishing as ever, while on the smaller scale there is some fantastic layering effects – breath misting in the cold of a winter’s day, snow flakes falling – which contribute to giving an almost three dimensional feel to some panels, a true feeling of depth, be it a small street scene of characters talking in a snowy street or a huge splash page of dashing action as Lebrock leaps from an explosion. Adventure, conspiracy, hidden histories, religious and political plots, the dangers of intolerance, some comedy, some romance, heroics… Really, what more can you ask for? Simply superb, the finest Grandville yet – I read this twice, back to back on a train journey, I feel like another read and also like having a nice re-read through the first three volumes again too. Lose yourself in it.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Peripheral – William Gibson’s superb return to science fiction

The Peripheral,

William Gibson,

Viking

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Inside, the trailer was the colour of Vaseline...”

I’ve been reading Bill Gibson’s work since my teens (which now feel like a lifetime ago, back in a former century); Neuromancer remains a firm personal favourite as well as being generally held not just to be a classic of modern science fiction but one of the most iconic and influential. In the last decade and a half though Gibson has moved away from science fiction to a fair extent, but his writing has remained fascinating, his technique sharper each time but his ability to craft a wonderfully descriptive line (such as the quote above) in one sentence where other writers may take half a paragraph of descriptive text remains, and he remains laser-sharp in tapping into elements of today’s society, morals and tech. Now with his return to full-on science fiction I am delighted to say those skills has sharpened in the likes of his less-SF works like the Blue Ant series remain pin-sharp, an intriguing story, beautifully paced, mixed with his laconic descriptive style and superbly accurate observations of problems we are facing today and tomorrow in the real world, transposed into his future setting. Of course commenting on today’s problems using a futuristic setting is something good science fiction has done forever, but Gibson does it so much better (and with so much style) that most.

Set across two time periods, the near-future, around the early 2020s, and we meet a young woman in a trailer park in the South of America, Flynne. In this not too distant version of the future there’s a lot to be recognised from our own present day, an economy that simply doesn’t work anymore, out-competed by fresh international rivals, wearied by endless wars (Flynne’s brother Burton is a veteran, still suffering sometimes from the tech implants – ‘haptics’ the Marines use in this era), few jobs, even fewer that pay a wage you can live on, what’s left of the economy and the local and national government run far more by corrupt politicians in the pay of corporations and a wealthy elite who have hung on to their wealth and increased their influence as the mass of population grows poorer – democracy is pretty much a fig leaf now. Sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it?

Flynne, like most of the population, has to be on the look our for ways to make a living – sure there is a military pension for her brother but the cost of living keeps going up and keeping food on the table and a roof over the head is increasingly expensive, while employment opportunities grow scarcer, their small town drying up, shops closing, only a few chain conglomerates still in business, apart from a few local enterprises which operate frequently in the grey area between the legitimate economy (if you can call it that in this corrupt future) and the dark economy. Flynne never served herself, having to look after their mother (and earn money for her medications), but she has some formidable combat skills, albeit virtual ones – so good she’s made money as a virtual mercenary for rich gamers, helping them look good. Burton, with his tech enhanced skills from his Marines days also makes some extra money on the side checking out beta versions of new software and games for corporate clients. When he needs to be elsewhere (basically heading to nearby towns to tussle with a religious-political group he can’t stand) he asks Flynne to stand in for him and run his shift on what both think is testing out parts of a new game. And it is while remotely operating a flying drone in this virtual city online that Flynne (logged in as Burton) witnesses what looks very much like a real murder, realistic enough to be disturbing (especially for Flynne, who after some too-realistic war gaming for a rich client is sickened of this kind of thing, even if it is virtual).

But was it just a test of a beta version of a new game in development? Or was it something more…

And this is where the second main element of Peripheral comes in, almost a century further down the timeline from Flynne’s era, in a sparsely populated world following an event, an odd version of London, parts of it new but parts of it recognisable to us, but somehow different. This is the world after an event known as The Jackpot, the human race hugely reduced in number after this event – or really a series of events, a rapidly accelerating downward spiral of various disasters, some natural, many problems we are all to aware of right now, problems of our own making, allowed to run rampant, no one single event or disaster, just one after the other, like a war of attrition oh humanity. This sparsely populated future London was recreated mostly by nano assemblers and the main humans left are descendants of the hugely rich oligarchs, like the Russian billionaires who buy up huge sections of the wealthiest parts of London today then extend their properties underground, Gibson again taking a far future but lacing it with elements of the way things are already recognisably going in our own day and age.

Among this rich elite we meet Wilf, not rich himself, nor especially important, but he has some influence, a mover and shaker of media (we first meet him as his carefully orchestrated media piece on his artist client – who periodically flays her own skin from her body and displays it as art before growing a new one – ends up in a total mess witnessed by all). And this is where it becomes even more interesting, as we find out Wilf’s rich oligarch friend has been playing a new game. Not exactly the game Flynne thought she was testing – in fact his new hobby is like a strategy game, building your own world of resources and planning, a Civilisation style game, perhaps. Except this isn’t a virtual reality, this is history – this is Flynne’s time. A mysterious server – perhaps in China – somehow allows a few of the rich elite in this future to dabble in the past, the ultimate in gaming, actually getting to play with real people. Gibson neatly avoids this causing any causality problems by the fact that whenever a new game is started it cannot actually be the past of the player’s time, rather it causes a splitting off, a splinter, a different timeline, which they can interact with in the future knowing if they cause any changes it will not affect their own present. It’s a nice spin on a hypothesis about possible time travel which has been used before in both science fiction and theoretical science as a way around the the causality problem (how could you go back and change the past, as any change would alter your own future so that your future would now be different from the one where you decided to change the past… Yes, very confusing conundrum, time travel really can induce headaches) by automatically having these ‘stubs’ become their own timeline, linked by the mysterious server but not part of the timeline of the gamer, so it cannot effect their time. In effect a parallel reality, something that has been theorised for many years in science, a multiverse where each different course of action leads to its own distinct timeline where each plays out.

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But while this stub timeline Flynne inhabits may not directly effect events in Wilf’s time, his time has serious effects on her era – not least that some of the other shady operators from Wilf’s time, others playing in this timeline as if the people there were game pieces (which to these bored, rich oligarchs they effectively are) see her – or Burton – as a possible threat to their own plans and decide they need to be removed, necessitating direct contact with Flynne and her timeline. a contact Wilf is chosen to be the frontman for. There is no actual time travel here, but it is possible to exchange data between the different times, and Flynne ‘visits’ their future via a remote android body, the eponymous peripheral, still in her own time but able to use it to physically interact in Wilf’s future period. A tense race soon develops, which draws in an enigmatic London detective, who is clearly much more than a police officer, and while the timelines may be separate, they are parallel and it’s not hard for those in each period to see events of their own timelines being mirrored in the other, but must everything play out one way or can they determine their own possible future?

I’m not going to go into deep details here for fear of spoilers – this is a large novel (especially by Gibson standards) but it flies past at a cracking pace, with the intensity slowly ratchetting up as the events start to spiral ever faster, cutting back and forth between the two futures. Despite the length of the book Gibson keeps it never less than engrossing, and it isn’t long before you get drawn into the lives of the characters, especially those of Flynne’s era and the way her family and neighbours band together in the face of threat, be it from the other shadowy future operatives playing with their time, or from their own corrupt local politicians and businessmen – when the world is going to hell there is something warmly human about this small group of the have-nots circling the waggons and looking after each other, in stark contrast to the predatory super-rich, the politicians and the corporations, the latter with huge amounts of money and all the resources they can buy, the former relying on their own personal bonds and ingenuity, classic Us versus Them. The story riffs on a number of hot topic subjects from our own era’s concerns – virus outbreaks, terrorism, economic collapse, the ever growing chasm between those at the top, entrenching their positions while the mass of the population has to get by with less and less, an environment we’ve pushed beyond breaking but still don’t do much to repair, not to mention the metaphor of these future rich kids in a post Jackpot event world playing with real lives in alternate timelines as if it was a game (which to them it is), and the allusions that casts to the way so much of our own world seems to be run beyond our own control by elite groups who answer to no-one but themselves.

Through this gripping story and the social-historical-political-economic observations Gibson so deftly weaves (into the background, giving these futures a realistic texture and context but without slowing the main narrative) we’re also treated to more of those superb brief but oh so evocative descriptive lines Gibson is the king of, such as one character boarding an armoured Zil limousine, noticing “it had no rear window whatever, which gave him the sense that it had turned up its collar.” And through it there is the nature of morality in both timelines, one older character reminding a younger that those plotting against them may have evil intent, but they’re not monsters, they’re “all too human, dear, and the moment we forget it, we’re lost,” the implication being that every single one of us has the potential to be that selfish, banal evil person, and we need to remember, because that’s what keeps us different, keeps us on the right side. Absolutely compelling return to science fiction by Gibson, I already know this will be one of my Best of the Year picks.