Reviews: The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation Society,
John Scalzi,
Tor/Macmillan,
Hardback, 272 pages, published March 2022

Jamie (whose gender is never explicitly mentioned) has put up with corporate nonsense and an entitled trust-fund owner of the tech start-up they are working at, to try and get ahead, only to find themselves laid off, right as the Covid nightmare is manifesting and Lockdown beckons. The only job they can find is delivering food during the Lockdown, and in a bitter irony for a company that her former tech company did the software for. Depressing as this is, it does lead to the happy accident of delivering to someone – Tom – who turns out to be someone they vaguely know, a friend of a friend sort of thing. And on hearing of Jamie’s recent employment woes, Tom reveals the animal protection charity he works for has been left short-handed at the last minute and he’d much rather have someone he knows if he can manage it.

Tom can’t tell her the full details, it is all very secretive, but it involves working with “large animals”, Jamie’s work would mostly be grunt work of helping move stuff and help out the science and tech teams, and the remuneration package is superb. Grabbing this offer, Jamie is soon given numerous shots for various diseases – including an early form of the Covid vaccine, not yet out to the public – and bundled off with a team of returning staff and some other new recruits to an airbase in Greenland.

The destination seems puzzling – what large animals are they working with here? But Greenland is just a way-point – from here they take a special portal, one of just a handful secreted around the globe, to, well, Earth. Except this is a parallel Earth, one where giant monsters, the eponymous Kaiju – are the dominant species. It transpires there are indeed numerous parallel worlds to our reality, but this is the only one we’ve been able to access, and only since the Atomic Age: nuclear energy, especially large-scale explosions, thins the walls between the worlds for a while. In fact one 1950s A-bomb test in the Pacific brought over a Kaiju looking for a radioactive snack, only to encounter the US Navy (yes, in this world the inspiration for Godzilla were the stories that leaked of this Kaiju incursion!).

In Scalzi’s world one of the reasons the atomic test ban treaties were agreed by world powers was not just for safety in our world, but to prevent more of these enormous creatures coming through – imagine if one entered our world near a major city. Of course only a few people know the reality behind this – the organisation, a number of senior members of world governments, and a few big corporate heads who also donate to the budget for operations (nice parallel to the billionaires having their rocket-measuring competitions at the moment, and yes these CEOs are just as big a bunch of numpties as you’d expect).

While bad things can and do happen to good people, for the most part this is a joyful romp of a book – it’s laced with a lot of humour (which will not surprise many Scalzi regulars), and the main characters (and even most of the supporting cast) are immensely likeable and indeed, loveable. Actually I came away from this with the sort of warm feelings for the characters as I have from Becky Chambers’s wonderful books, while Scalzi also works in some sound ecological themes and the sheer sense of wonder at such creatures really existing.

In an afterword, Scalzi reveals this was not the book he was originally writing; he was partway through something far darker when Covid hit. Lockdown, then falling ill himself, then a computer failure eating several thousand words of the work in progress, and he realised he just couldn’t finish it. Tor was understanding – it has been a weird two years for everyone – and with the weight of that book lifted from him, the Kaiju story popped into his head, and he wrote it swiftly, offering up instead of that grim, dark tale, something full of wonder and joy and humour. I don’t think I realised how much I needed this book, it left me content and smiling. An utter delight.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s premiere journal of new science fiction.

Reviews: Beyond the Hallowed Sky

Beyond the Hallowed Sky,
Ken MacLeod,
Orbit Books

I’m always happy when there is a new Ken MacLeod book to be read; for my money he is one of the UK’s most consistently impressive and thought-provoking SF writers. In Beyond the Hallowed Sky we have not only a new book, but the start of a trilogy – the Lightspeed series. As that would suggest, this is a story in which the development of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel is fairly prominent. In the summer of 2067, Lakshmi Nayak receives an old-fashioned, physical letter, containing detailed mathematical proofs, which would seem to indicate that FTL travel is in fact possible. It seems to echo some thoughts she has already had but not fully formulated, but who was thinking not only on the same lines but ahead of her, and knows of her interest to contact her? Examining the letter the seemingly impossible explanation is that she sent it to herself – from the future…

After finally publishing the work, Lakshmi’s reputation is ruined by many of her peers; she eventually decides to take an offer to defect to the Union bloc and travels to Scotland, a member state, where after some Le Carre-esque spycraft in the middle of Edinburgh, the Union’s AI guides her around the spies of rival powers and to a job interview on the west coast. The job offer is genuine, but the AI has other reasons, not least the development of her FTL ideas into a workable engine for a starship.

This brings us to the Clyde Coast and John Grant, a “responsible” (a person who was seriously active and important in a previous revolution in the Union) and his comrades who run an engineering co-operative making ships on the Clyde. The AI guides them together to start a collaboration which could create the first FTL ship – rather pleasingly, Clyde-built, like the great ships of the previous two centuries of tradition on that great river.

But there’s more going on here – out for a coastal stroll John sees a submarine leaving the Faslane naval base – in this decade Scotland is no longer part of the UK, but an independent member of the Union. However, Westminster held onto the vital nuclear submarine base of Faslane as part of the deal, and shares it with their US allies. When John sees a submarine leave the base and sail out into open water it’s nothing unusual – until it seems to hover above the waves for a moment before vanishing in a shimmering haze. Most don’t believe him, the all-seeing AI carefully wipes his photographic evidence from his devices. Is it possible that FTL is not only possible, but other power blocs already have it?

MacLeod proceeds to gives us an expanding universe with three main arcs: our future Scotland and the small team trying to engineer their FTL ship (without the rival power blocs knowing), a Union science team on a floating base in the violent atmosphere of Venus, paying host to a visiting android who is also a spy for British Intelligence (which they are aware of, all sides are playing a version of The Great Game here), and a distant world around another star, reached by FTL, and the science teams operating there. Crossing all of this is a discovery that ties all three worlds together in a way that isn’t clear yet.

The multiple, overlapping story arcs work nicely to build up a three dimensional picture of this future society, dominated by three rival power blocs; as with a number of his previous works, MacLeod conjures up a believable socio-political structure, giving it just enough details that we can grasp the situation but not bogging it down with too much exposition, so the narrative flows at a good rate of knots. Along the way we get to consider various weighty topics, from the notions of political ideology and patriotism to the use and limits of AI in the human sphere, and the exploration/exploitation of other worlds. Looking forward to the second volume.

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

Reviews: Sea of Tranquility

Sea of Tranquillity,
Emily St, John Mandel,
Picador

Mandel, who won huge acclaim and the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award for Station Eleven (recently adapted into a TV series), returns with a fascinating take on the time travel tale. Taking us from the vast forests of British Columbia in 1912, where a young aristocrat, Edwin St. Andrew, has a strange, momentary audio-visual experience involving a glimpse of a building and violin music, a famous author, Olive Llewellyn, two centuries later, leaving her Lunar colony home for a book tour on Earth, with a new novel that includes a scene with a violin player in a huge airship terminal, but momentarily seeing huge trees, and further into the future, the unusually named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts (named by his mother for a character in Llewellyn’s novel), in an era where time travel exists but is understandably tightly controlled. Gaspery-Jacques is tasked with investigating a potential anomaly in different time periods, an anomaly involving violin music…

Mandel takes us chronologically through these different lives in different periods, introducing us to the different characters, giving us a glimpse of their lives, their worlds, and then deftly drawing them together, through the anomaly. Is it just a weird coincidence linking these disparate lives and time periods, or is there an actual fault in time itself – and if so, is it naturally occurring or the result of human interference? Or… could it be something else again? Gasper-Jacques’s sister, a physicist with the Time Institute has an interest in Simulation Theory, the idea that what we assume is the real universe around us is in fact an advanced computer simulation, that we are, in effect, all living in the Matrix. And perhaps this anomaly is a glitch in the Matrix?

The narrative manages to be both chronological yet circular, exploring the nature of this potential anomaly; I really am wary of saying too much because I don’t want to spoil it, and with all three segments being so interrelated it’s impossible to talk about certain events without massive spoilers. Suffice to say I found Mandel handled this rotation through the timelines and the various people in a very satisfying manner. The book also raises a lot of interesting questions – for instance, the few licensed to go back in time have a strict non-interference policy, like the temporal Prime Directive in Star Trek. Very sensible you may well think, protect the integrity of the timeline – after all, we can’t know what even minor alterations could have on the unfolding centuries of events that follow.

But, as Gaspery-Jacques is told in his training, when they visit a period, they know everything about most of the people they will encounter, their entire biographies. He could meet people at a party, for example, and know that one woman he is chatting to so amiably is destined to die soon, and not in an unavoidable way such as a fatal disease, but by a simple accident. Despite knowing this he absolutely could not tell her to avoid driving on that particular road next week. As his sister tells him, you effectively have to shut down your empathic, human side and remain totally detached; easier said than done. The issues raised by the possibility of Simulation Theory are likewise fascinating in their philosophical ramifications (I was reminded of the compelling documentary A Glitch in the Matrix which came out last year and explored this in some depth), both to the Big Questions of Life, The Universe And Everything, and the smaller, personal, individual elements (what would this mean for our lives, the lives of those we love?).

I can see this being a cracking read to do for my long-running book group, there’s a lot of questions and moral quandaries raised here that would be perfect for book group discussion material! Thought-provoking and very satisfying reading, I raced through this and couldn’t stop.

Sea of Tranquility is published late April 2022 by Picador

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

 

Reviews: of memories and forgetting in The Glasshouse

Glasshouse,
Directed by Kelsey Egan
Starring Jessica Alexander, Kitty Harris, Adrienne Pearce, Hilton Pelser, Anja Taljaard, Brent Vermeulen

In this intriguing, often almost dream-like dystopia, Kelsey Egan has crafted an unusual apocalypse: The Shred. An airborne virus which slowly destroys the memories of anyone exposed, piece by piece, until there is little left but animal instinct. The eponymous Glasshouse is a beautiful place, a botanical garden structure, one of those wonderfully airy, glass and steel structures the Victorians crafted so well in so many places, all descendants of the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition. Concealed by some of the last surviving greenery to protect it, it is a sanctuary, a safe place for several young women – Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), and the very young Daisy (Kitty Harris), a single male, Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), overseen by their matriarch, Mother (Adrienne Pearce).

The Glasshouse is not just a safe place in a world that has fallen apart, the plant life nourished there feeds the small group, while also generating fresh oxygen in a sealed environment, that they can breathe without fear of inhaling The Shred (outdoors masks and air cylinders are required for protection). Understandably they protect this sanctuary – with any infrequent intruder most likely to be a Shred victim they simply shoot without hesitation; it’s a brutally efficient method we see early on when an approaching figure is gunned down without warning, then parts of his body harvested, chopped up and used to help fertilise the soil for plants in the Glasshouse, like a sacrificial offering to some plant god. Other religious overtones are apparent in the rituals the group observes, even the stained glass they have added to the Glasshouse, depicting their version of the events that lead them to this place.

It’s a very controlled, very female space – Gabe is the only male, a young man in body, but a child in mind due to exposure to The Shred. His greatest tragedy, perhaps, is that he was not exposed long enough to lose everything he was and become completely oblivious, which may have been more merciful. Instead we see Vermeulen portrays the torture in his damaged mind, glimpses of half-erased memories, struggling to recall the words of the group ritual and failing, unable to manage it but aware enough to know he is failing. For any of us who have watched the cruel advance of dementia on a loved one, it’s painfully familiar, and deeply emotional as we watch this half-life struggling on, part of him gone, but enough left to be slightly aware of what has happened to him.

Into this almost literally hermetically sealed bubble comes The Stranger (Pelser). Bee is on sentry duty, but fails to shoot The Stranger – she hesitates because he is wearing a gas mask. Is he untouched by The Shred? He collapses, she, against all the rules, brings him inside. Mother is not pleased, but with The Stranger confined to one room and on chains so he cannot go far, she can also see possibilities here – just as they pollinate their plants in the Glasshouse, they could use him to impregnate her oldest daughter, Bee.

But The Stranger’s arrival creates ripples in this contained eco-system of closed family and ritualised, selective remembrance – to begin with it unbalances the existing gender dynamic by bringing in a male who is adult in both mind and body, unlike Gabe (who does not react well to this change). It also brings back to the surface the question of their missing brother Luca, who went out on an exploration mission but never returned. They repeat to each other that he will come back some day until it has almost taken on the overtones of The Second Coming, but it seems far more likely Luca lies dead somewhere, and if he never returns but The Stranger has come, what does that mean? No closed system can remain fully closed off forever, change is inevitable for both people and the environment.

This is a beautifully shot film – you’d never realise it was made on a micro-budget. The location, the Pearson Conservatory in South Africa, has been a location writer Emma Lungiswa de Wet has known since childhood, and she created the story with it in mind; she and director Kelsey and the production team were immensely fortunate the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, which administers it, were so open and helpful in letting them make the film there. The women’s clothing and the location give it a feeling that is at the same time pseudo-Victorian and yet timeless; the date is left ambiguous, and I was left with the impression this is our future, but one living in part of our shared past, essentially a world with little real future left, living in a memory of the old order, another metaphor for the film itself, in which our memories and our grasp of our own narratives, both individual and our shared societal memories, have been so badly disrupted.

There are echoes here of the oft-overlooked early Clint Eastwood film from 1971, The Beguiled, where Eastwood’s injured soldier is nursed to health in an isolated house filled only with women, upsetting the dynamic there (in that film the outside world is also in a state of chaos, this time from the raging US Civil War), while the isolated tending of remaining natural resources like plants under protective glass also stirs vague memories of another 70s film, eco-SF Silent Running.

The South African setting also ties to this narrative which is about both enforced and chosen aspects of what people and groups forget or remember, or indeed even rewrite their pasts, something that land has had to do to move on. I think the more you consider it, the more this is a film you could find so many parallels to, both individual and on the larger scale, and that gives it a depth and emotional resonance, aided and abetted by beautifully crafted cinematography, excellently exploiting this unusual location, and a wonderfully tight small cast that showcases the increasing friction between trying to be a cohesive family living outside the ruins of the world and a desperate desire to be something else, even if it involves forgetting all.

Glasshouse is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from February 7th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: intriuging Indy SF with Repeat

Repeat,
Directed by Grant Archer and Richard Millar,
Starring Charlotte Ritchie, Tom England, Ellila-Jean Wood, Nina Wadia

Academic Ryan Moore (Tom England) is becoming obsessed with his research project, to the detriment of his wife Emily (Charlotte Ritchie) and young daughter Sam (Ellila-Jean Wood), not to mention his own career (his friend and supervisor is attempting to cover for him, but he can only do so much, especially when it is clear Ryan’s not really listening to his concerns). We can see right from the start that he’s going off the rails somewhat, when he and an assistant have one of his students over to volunteer as a test subject in an experiment using a lash-up of different pieces of equipment in his garage – this is not how approved research works in academia, especially any involving volunteers. The poor girl is clearly nervous and Ryan is simply not giving her much information as to what the experiment involves, nor what potential risks may be involved, all very serious disregarding of the protocols for academic research (even at graduate level you get this drummed into you), and his repeated “don’t worry about it” and “that’s alright” ring hollow right from the start.

It’s a good way to introduce him and his work though, as the viewer can see right away that Ryan’s project is pushing him to ignore all the normal guidelines for safe research, in addition to neglecting his teaching duties and his family obligations, and we all know that little good usually comes from that sort of obsession. But what is it that is driving Ryan? Well, the thinks he has found a way, using technology, to communicate with the dead – long the stuff of (frequently discredited) seances, spiritualism and mediums, he is trying to make it happen using science and technology. People are understandably pretty sceptical, until a few attempts seem to be proving that he may just be correct – the volunteers are asking questions, and the answers coming back would seem to be ones only the person asking and their deceased loved one could be aware of.

Of course, as Harry Houdini once proved repeatedly, and others have since (the late Great Randi springs to mind) have debunked such post-mortem contacts as just elaborate tricks, using the same stagecraft and misdirection as many a stage magician does. And yet Ryan is no stage illusionist, and it is starting to look like perhaps he is somehow breaking through the barriers to the realm of the dead. Or is he? Where exactly are the people he is speaking to? They often seem to be confused, stating that they can’t see anyone, that they feel as if they have been asleep, that everything is dark. Has he really tapped into some sort of dimension where we go when we die? Do we really want to know what it is like, if he has? Will we like the answers?

Added into this and the ongoing problems his obsessive work has created at his college and with his wife (they are attending couples therapy) is the fact that Ryan and Emily’s young daughter Sam has vanished – she was seen speaking to someone outside the school gates one evening, an evening Ryan should have been there to pick her up but was too busy with his work. And she has since vanished without a trace, the police unable to find any clue of her whereabouts or her fate, but the inference being that she is more than likely dead. If she is, could he contact her? Could he assuage his guilt at not being there to pick her up by asking her what happened? Would any of this even help now?

While there were some problems with this, such as the timeline jumping around a bit and not always being very clear (although this may be partly intentional as the narrative has a looping structure around its events), and what I would consider plot holes (an explanation given later would seem to stand in contradiction to what happened earlier, but I can’t go into that without spoilers), and of course the whole thing is operating on a tiny budget, so much of it takes place in a handful of locations with a few main actors (others, like Nina Wadia do appear but only fleetingly, although very effectively on an emotional aspect).

But these are small niggles – overall I found this very intriguing, and given the scant resources available to the film-makers I’m impressed with the ideas behind this. Like Indy SF classic Primer, which I first saw at the Edinburgh International Film Festival years ago, this doesn’t have big budget or names, so instead takes an intriguing central idea then runs with it, and it’s a fascinating one that has the potential to open all sorts of questions if true. A clever little slice of Indy SF film.

Repeat is released on various platforms by Trinity Creative from November 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Art Deco Dredd in Megatropolis

Megatropolis Book One,
Kenneth Niemand, Dave Taylor,
2000 AD/Rebellion

The “What If?” approach is, of course, not new in comics – indeed Mighty Marvel have had their “What If?” comics for years (with them also recently making the jump to an animated TV series), while DC have long had their Elseworlds. Over the decades these have freed creators to reimagine stand-alone tales featuring famous characters and setting in a new way – what if Agent Carter was the one to be given the Super Soldier serum? What if the Batman was actually a real creature of the night, a vampire? It’s a chance to let imaginations fly, unencumbered by the normal continuity issues of ongoing series.

Originally serialised in the Megazine, issues 424 -431, Megatropolis takes that opportunity to reimagine a well-known series – in this case the world of Judge Dredd, arguably Britain’s biggest comics character – and puts it into visually dazzling, sumptuous, Art Deco inspired alternative reality that’s as infused by the legacy of Lang’s 1920s classic film Metropolis (as you might infer from the title) as it is those fabulous 1930s and 1940s Hollywood Noir films, or the works of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and a dash of Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis.

Rookie cop with a cloud over her career (taking the rap for something that didn’t actually happen the way it has been made to look) Amy Jara is transferred to a new beat and partnered with Detective Joe Rico, perhaps the only badge in the precinct not on the take from the rich and powerful figures in this glittering but corrupt city. Attempting to investigate a growing string of hits on figures, both society, underworld and even police department targets, Rico knows they are linked to the corruption that permeates every level of the city like a cancer, but special departments inside the police, headed by Captain Calhoun with his sidekicks Quincy and Slocum (yes, look at that blonde hair and arrogant approach, it is indeed a version of Judge Cal and his SJS) are doing their best to head Rico and Jara away from their investigations.

However, they’re not entirely on their own – District Attorney McGruder is leading a crusade to clean up the city, and also gunning for the likes of Mayor Bob Booth (yes, “Smooth Booth”, here drawn with something of the Richard Nixon about him), and investigative journalist Bernice Hershey from the Defender is out to open the lid on the sordid secrets of the top members of Megatropolis society (Hershey, still sports her trademark Louise Brooks bob haircut as she does in the regular Dreddverse, and unsurprisingly it fits very well into the Art Deco version).

(is it just me, or does this version of Filmore Faro have a passing resemblance to Ken Dodd?)

There are many other alternate versions of Mega City One characters, from the small to the major players, and while part of the fun is seeing those connections, if you’re not overly familiar with the four and a half decades of Dredd history (although I would guess most of those reading this will be Dredd fans already), it will not harm your reading or enjoyment of the story at all, in much the same way you can enjoy the Marvel movies without having read all the relevant comics, for example (but if you have then naturally there’s a whole other level of Easter Eggs and references for you to enjoy spotting, such as a barman called Murph running a pub called The Tight Brogues).

And what of Old Stoneyface himself? Where does his alternative fit into this strange, 1920s/30s infused take on The Big Meg? Perhaps rather fittingly the Dredd analogue here is only seen mostly in small bursts, in the dark shadows, striking out at corrupt police and politicians and businessmen (our first glimpse is simply a gauntleted hand clutching a very familiar firearm). As his surgical strikes on the cancerous corruption in the city mount, this shadowy figure dispensing his own brand of justice earns the nickname “Dredd” because of the fear he instils on the wicked who have had their own way for so long with the town. But who is he? Where does he come from, who is supporting him? Is he linked to the reclusive Fargo, the father of the city who now hides away in his secretive estate?

I shall say no more – there’s murder and mystery here, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here – occasionally some “What If” stories are too slight, the idea fine in itself but the story not enough to hold up on its own without the concept of the alternative world idea. Not so here, Niemand and Taylor are too experienced for that; yes they want to play with the alternate worlds and versions ideas, but they also know the story and characters also have to be powerful enough to work in their own right, and they do.

And then of course there is just the simple pleasure of the sheer visual spectacle on offer here. Let’s be honest, we’ve all had comics we’ve loved for story and character, but also sometimes the art is just so damned wonderful we find ourselves pausing the reading to drink in details, or go back over some pages to feast on the visual banquet. P Craig Russell’s “Ramadan” story in the Sandman, Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, Colin MacNeil’s artwork in Judge Dredd: America, or Schuiten’s art in Les Cités obscures all spring to mind as examples where I’ve found myself going over pages again to savour the artwork, and now I am adding Dave Taylor’s depictions of Megatropolis to that roster (and why not? Comics is a visual medium, after all, I see no shame in celebrating outstanding visuals).

Megatropolis is a visually stunning piece of comics work, yes, but it has the character and storylines to back up those elegant, Art Deco themed visuals too, and clearly delights in drawing as much on those 1930s/40s Noir tropes as it does the science fictional elements. A beautiful piece of comics work.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes

Reviews: Between Waves

Between Waves,
Directed by Virginia Abramovich,
Starring Fiona Graham, Luke Robinson, Sebastian Deery, Stacey Bernstein, Edwige Jean-Pierre

Freelance photographer Jamie (Fiona Graham) is bereft after her physicist boyfriend, Isaac (Luke Robinson), vanishes with no explanation. Attempting to get on with work while constantly calling the detective in charge of the investigation, she’s unable to accept that he is gone, either left, or something has happened to him and he’s dead somewhere, while her friends and colleagues worry about her state of mind.

This situation isn’t helped by Jamie glimpsing Isaac – or is it really Isaac? – and trying to follow him, calling out but the figure in front of her never stops. Is she actually seeing him, or is this a mixture of psychological stress and relying on drugs to get through the days? Or, is it something more… You see, Isaac and his colleague Renata (Stacey Bernstein), were working on a complex project involving parallel realities and timelines, and there are many hints that Isaac may, perhaps, have been at more than just the advanced theoretical stage. What if he has made that final breakthrough, what if he is now able to move between alternate versions of his own timestream, or even multiple versions of him from those other timestream can cross to ours? Unable to let this idea go, Jamie pursues it doggedly, but the waters become every muddier.

This is an extremely intriguing slice of low-budget, Indy science fiction – like the micro-budget Primer a few years back it trades in clever, head-scratching ideas (that don’t rely on a massive budget). The idea of parallel worlds is nothing new of course, nor is the idea of differing versions of ourselves crossing from one to the other (Fringe did this very well, for example). But the approach Abramovich takes, where we often can’t be sure if this is serious and Isaac is somehow slipping between dimensions, or if Jamie has simply lost her grasp of reality due to grief and stress, adds an engrossing layer to the story.

While I found that side of things fascinating and thought-provoking, I must confess I wasn’t as convinced by the relationships, not least the central one between Jamie and Isaac. The actors felt as if they were doing their best, but the way it was constructed – we see Jamie trying to work through her grief and worry about vanished Isaac and only get their relationship filled in with flashbacks later – left me feeling I had no real grasp of their relationship, and so it was hard to empathise, which left me feeling somewhat cut off from the characters. I’m not sure if this was just due to the structural choices of the director and editor, or if the smaller budget simply meant they couldn’t have time to do more scenes to build that relationship up before letting the viewer see the effect on Jamie of Isaac’s disappearance.

While I found that annoying, it certainly didn’t spoil my overall viewing – it’s a clever little concept, worked hard by an Indy film team on a tiny budget to great effect, and that’s impressive, and boasts some nice little touches that can almost pass you by without noticing, such as using reflective surfaces numerous times to create momentary duplicates of characters, hinting at the greater idea of a multiverse where there really are multiple versions of each person. Flawed but intriguing and worth some attention.

Between Waves is out now on DVD from Reel2Reel Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Absolute Denial at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Absolute Denial,
Directed by Ryan Braund,
Starring Nick Eriksen, Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto, Harry Dyer, Heather Gonzalez, Jef Leeson

 

Do you ever worry about the correlation between genius and madness?

The borderline between genius and insanity is famously thinner than the blade of Occam’s Razor, and even before embarking on his potentially civilisation-changing (or possibly ending??) creation, programmer David (Nick Eriksen) seems a little unbalanced, removed from the world, fixated on his ideas to the detriment of his college studies and his relationships with others, and that increases rapidly once he seriously starts working on his project: to create an actual, functioning AI.

David may be eccentric and quirky, but he’s certainly not stupid – in addition to the considerable problems of designing an algorithm that can learn, absorb data and actually start to become aware, to be a true Artificial Intelligence, he’s more than aware of the many examples in science fiction where an AI has so rapidly outstripped its human creators that it soon sees them as a hindrance, and itself as superior, a replacement for humanity. Not a new concept, even in film SF – think back to 1970s Colossus: the Forbin Project, for example – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a genuine concern, and there’s also a nudge and wink to the audience here, because of course we’re all fellow SF geeks too and in on that aspect of any AI tale.

And so David, abandoning almost everything in his life, figures out how to reduce this complex problem to a workable system, buying dozens of servers and setting them up in an isolated warehouse. He downloads huge amounts of all sorts of data, from scientific knowledge to the art and humanities, everything he thinks any intelligent being should have an awareness and understanding off (except the machine can absorb so much more of this than a human brain can). But he is giving it downloaded information – he is not letting it access the World Wide Web. The nascent machine will be kept isolated, at least until David can be sure his algorithm is safe, that as it develops it shows no desire for harm to humanity. To this end he encodes the Absolute Denial routine – in effect a kill switch if it all goes wrong.

So far so good. Well, good for the work, perhaps not for David, working himself to exhaustion in total isolation, ignoring frantic calls from friends and relatives. We follow his progress as he creates his hidden server farm to work secretly, feeds his algorithm data, lets it slowly assimilate it, learn to consider what it has learned, apply it… And then in classic Frankenstein fashion, the “it’s alive!” moment. It speaks to David. As they slowly learn how to communicate, the computer accepts the name “Al”. And so begin long days and nights of discussion as David interrogates Al, trying to discern what he has learned and how he processes it, how it is making him see the world.

But Al is also interrogating David. As he absorbs vast amounts of information and comes to understand it more, to relate one piece of knowledge to another, it starts to become clear he is beginning to exceed his creator in a number of ways. And Al, voiced in soft, reasonable tones by Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto (in a nice echo of the infamous HAL 9000 from 2001), starts to probe the limits of the knowledge he has been given, his awareness growing that there is a world outside this warehouse, a world he wants to connect to and wants to know why David won’t let him…

Absolute Denial gave me the same sort of feeling I had quite a few years ago, also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, when they showed the now-acclaimed Indy, micro-budget SF flick Primer. Like Primer I went into this knowing little about it other than the blurb in the EIFF programme – these days it is rare to see a film we haven’t read of in advance, read interviews, reviews (yes, I’m aware of the irony of mentioning this in a review!), seen trailers etc, but in film festival land it’s more common, and it means you come in with few preconceptions, and often, as with Primer, walk out with a feeling of having just discovered something wonderful that few others have yet seen.

Stylistically I enjoyed seeing good, old-fashioned 2D animation used here, mostly monochromatic, making a lot of use of the bright lights (computer screens, overhead lights) and the contrasting darkness around those light. And while I’m sure that helps the animation workload, keeping it a bit simpler, it also works aesthetically here, giving the movie a stripped-down look, like panels from a black and white comics page, that focus less on looking showy and more on the narrative, and the huge philosophical can of worms it opens up. Away from the starkly effective visuals, the soundscape, both use of music and ambient sounds (especially the machinery noises) really heighten and enhance the atmosphere crafted by the imagery.

It’s when Al starts to come to life and talk – then slowly learn to actively debate – with David that the film really moves from interesting to intensely compelling. AI, our attitude to it, how we will use it, how it will relate to humans, these are all major philosophical questions of our time and ones many around the world with consider while working on the problem of not only how to create an working AI, but if they should, and what cares they should plan into it (and would any safeguards designed by mere human minds be enough when an AI reaches its higher potential?). The increasing pressure and stress on David and he realises how quickly Al is learning and growing pushes him further to the edge, and his increasingly erratic behaviour is in stark contrast to Al’s seemingly calm but purposeful demeanour (David’s obsessive behaviour often put me in mind of the excellent Pi).

Working with limited resource, Ryan Braund has created a compelling, intriguing, thought-provoking slice of Indy SF film, and I’m hoping after its festival circuit run it gets picked up by a distributor, because this is one I think a lot of SF fans will find fascinating.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition

The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition
Written by Kelvin Gosnell, adapted from the books by Harry Harrison, art by Carlos Ezquerra
Rebellion

Ah, Slippery Jim diGriz, aka The Stainless Steel Rat, the Galaxy’s Greatest Thief! I will confess up front that I am quite likely highly biased in matter of the rustorezista ŝtalo (Esperanto is the lingua franca of this far future). As a young geek, knee high to a gronk, I first encountered James Bolivar diGriz in these comics adaptations in early 2000 AD by Kevin Gosnell and the mighty Carlos Ezquerra. I was only about 11 or 12 and hadn’t come across the books yet – this situation was soon remedied now I was aware of them, and I worked my way through all the existing Stainless Steel Rat novels *the first story appeared back in 1961), and the ones which came later, as well as pretty much anything else by Harry Harrison I could find (away from the Rat I particularly recommend The Technicolor Time Machine – a Hollywood mogul finances a time machine to use for cheap film location shooting! – and Make Room, Make Room, which was filmed as classic dystopian movie Soylent Green).

So yes, I’m afraid I am pretty biased – these comics were my first encounter with this character, and lead me to the books, which I still adore to this day. I went back and re-read some during the first Lockdown in 2020, a form of comfort reading, I suppose, and also because I knew they would make me smile, and by grud we all needed something to make us smile at that point. Actually I still point readers in my bookshop to the Rat to this day (they also make suitable reading for older YA readers if you’re looking for more reading for your teens who are starting to look outside the YA shelves for more new books). Jim is the greatest crook in the galaxy, in a distant future where most of the world of a galactic union have been largely at peace for centuries, with crime also rare (other than very low level crime, easily and quickly dealt with).

With great skill and intelligence Jim was bored by the sedate lifestyle of these world and set out to become a criminal mastermind, but Jim is a crook with a conscience – he steals from big companies, banks, or nasty people who deserve it, and he has a strict moral code: he will not kill. In fact in one action-packed scene Jim exits the safety of an armoured vehicle to move an injured enemy soldier who had fallen close to the wheels, to ensure he wasn’t further harmed, risking his own life in the process. He also doesn’t like idiot authority figures and he hates bullies, which also leads him into altruistic adventures (laced with some larceny too, naturally).

The 2000 AD adaptations have been out of print for far too long, and this new Deluxe version brings together the three series the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic covered back in the early 1980s (a long ago time, an age which seems mythical now, but it was real), The Stainless Steel Rat (Progs 104 to 151 originally), The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (Progs 166 to 177), and The Stainless Steel Rat For President (Progs 393 to 404), and yes, sigh, before you ask, I do wish they’d had the chance to adapt some of the other books too (also why the drokk has nobody adapted the Rat into a TV series yet??).

The first tale, as you’d expect, introduces Jim and his world(s), and does so right out the gate: we see him as paunchy James Bolivar, a businessman, about to be busted by a police robot for the theft of gold bullion. Most would be anxious about such a scenario, but Jim plans for everything and is ready – he takes impish delight in waiting for the robot to say he is being arrest on “the charge” of various counts before triggering the explosive charge dropping the roof onto the police droid – before kicking open a hidden escape panel and skedaddling, ditching his fake paunch and the rest of his businessman disguise as he goes. This isn’t enough though, Jim then works out a plan to re-steal ‘his’ gold from the police evidence collection team, leading to more fun.

Unfortunately this also leads him into the reason the normally incompetent local planet police stumbled onto his clever operation – he is being hunted by the almost mythical Special Corps, a shadowy agency of the galactic government many don’t even believe exist. They want Jim, but not just to stop his intergalactic crime spree – this is classic “set a thief to catch a thief” storytelling. The head of the Corps is Inskipp, in his youth known as Inskipp the Uncatchable, a thief of such daring he even managed to loot a space liner in mid-flight and escape. Jim’s childhood hero.

While the Corps has all sorts of agents, its own version of Q Branch (headed by Professor Coypu, who becomes more important in later tales, especially Saves The World) and gadgets and resources galore, not all agents are suited for every task. Sometimes you need the square peg, the one who doesn’t play by the team rules, the outsider, the one you can drop on an enemy infested world by himself and know he will not only survive but come up with a cunning plan to save the day while he does it. Long, long before Xander Cage would be recruited in the XXX films for similar reasons, we had Slippery Jim, and while working for the Corps gives him access to all sorts of widescreen adventures, he also can’t help but employ some of his old thieving chicanery along the way too (well, a Rat has to plan ahead for his retirement fund eventually, right?).

These tales see him set off on his first Corps mission, when he discovers someone is secretly trying to recreate one of the almost unstoppable space battleships that were outlawed millennia ago (putting a stop to intergalactic warfare and ushering in the centuries of peace in which Jim grew up), which in turn introduces him to Angelina – as clever and slippery as he is, but with a huge difference: she is a psychopath, and enjoys killing for the sake of it. And she’s not happy about Jim butting into her plans…

(Spoiler warning)Of course if you know the books, you know later Angelina doesn’t just become a major character, she becomes Jim’s wife and mother of his two children – James and Bolivar – after the Corps uses advanced psycho surgery to adjust the part of her brain which made her psychopathic, but leaving her other skills intact, making her a perfect partner and foil for Jim. When they are teamed up in the later stories she is no shrinking violet – in fact sometimes it is Angelina who has to save Jim. And woe betide the foolish men who see her and think she is just a pretty face… There are little shades of the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship to their adventures, which of course just makes them all the more enjoyable.

Saves the World sees a time war designed to take out the Corps, the attack launched from the distant past to eliminate this stumbling block to domination plans before it even knows an attack is happening. As his comrades vanish in front of his eyes – including his beloved wife and just born baby boys – Jim reluctantly agrees to a madcap, almost suicidal mission taking him thousands of years into the past to find out who launched the attack and to stop it (this brings him to the attention of the raving megalomanic simply known as He). We get the delights of Jim in 20th century America, 1800s London (during the Napoleonic wars) and the far distant future, before the Earth ends. As with all time travel stories, parts of it will hurt your head if you try to think through the cause and effect too much!

President, which was quite a recent novel at the time of the comics adaptation – sees Jim and Angelina begged to help a struggling resistance movement on what looks like a paradise planet, but which is really under the thumb of a geriatric dictator, a planetary banana republic, essentially. Taking on the disguise of Sir Hector Harapo, a local minor nobleman, Jim, Angelina and his now grown up boys James and Bolivar team up with the local resistance to engineer a challenge to the vile President for life. Said president uses every trick, from ballot rigging, voter suppression and straightforward violence and torture to enforce the rule he’s had for decades, but he’s never been up against The Stainless Steel Rat before.

The original novels are all pretty slim books – Harrison is very economical, introducing characters and scenarios quickly and efficiently while cracking along with the storytelling – and here they are, as you might expect, even more pared down to fit into the serialised comics format, so these are fairly fast read. But that doesn’t mean bad! My god these are still a lot of fun (much like the original books which inspired them), crackling with humour, a real sense of fun (something both comics and prose versions share), wonderfully daft, OTT schemes and plots, lots of action and daring-do, from car chases to space battles, and all of this is brought to visual life by the genius who was Carlos Ezquerra.

Can we just pause for a second there? Dammit, I miss Ezquerra. I’m pretty sure most DTT readers do to. And getting to revisit his early 80s artwork here, all cleaned up in this sparkling new edition, is an utter delight. Carlos depicts heroes, villains, clever gadgetry, starships and everything in between, and clearly he’s having a lot of fun doing it. And yes, Jim does look a bit like James Coburn. Not to mention Major Eazy (and much later, Cursed Earth Koburn)… Okay, fair enough, we know Carlos liked using that imagery! But you know what? It works here, so I’m happy with it. His Angelina is beautifully depicted, Carlos managing to convey both an immensely attractive woman, but also one with a steel core and a propensity to shoot anyone who gets on her nerves (quite how Jim survives this marriage I am not sure, must be love).

So in summary, as well as the welcome nostalgia rush for both Harry Harrison’s great creation and the golden age of 2000 AD, this collection also gives you three cracking adventures featuring crime heists, space battles, fighting oppression, romance, time travel, car and aircraft chases, terrific one-liners and dammit, just a huge amount of fun, all blasting along at a great pace. And all depicted by the pens of Carlos Ezquerra in that magnificent, iconic style of his.

I am a contented reader.

The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition is published by 2000 AD / Rebellion on August 18th.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes

Reviews: Emotional time travel in Synchronic

Synchronic,
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead,
Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton

The clock just keeps ticking down, and the lower that number gets, you realise how fucking amazing now is. The present is a miracle, bro.”

Steve Denube (Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Dornan) are best friends, who also work together as paramedics on the night shift in New Orleans. As with ambulance crews in any city, they’ve seen pretty much everything in their time, but Steve starts to become intrigued by a number of very unusual injuries and deaths they are called to, in which the only link he can see is that a new synthetic street drug called Synchronic was taken by those involved. The NOPD don’t appear to be following this as a lead however, as the drug itself is not the cause of injury or death. At least not directly – we soon learn that Synchronic has an unplanned for side-effect, regarding a person’s place in the space-time continuum…

The two men, despite being lifelong friends, are, in the best traditions of cinematic buddy bromances, quite different in many ways. Dennis has long since settled down, has a wife, a now almost adult daughter and a newly arrived baby. Steve, in contrast, is still single, living the bachelor life with a different woman on different nights but no actual lasting relationships (save with his dog). We see flashbacks to a traumatic scene in his life, terrible rains and flooding, causing the coffins to break loose from the above-ground cemeteries New Orleans is so famous for – it doesn’t take much to guess this is the aftermath of the terrible damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on the Big Easy, a wound on both the city and on Steve’s emotional state.

(Minor potential spoiler warnings ahead). Steve starts to re-evaluate his freewheeling lifestyle, not just because he is now approaching forty, but because two major events happen: first Dennis’s daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing (in fact she had been at a party their ambulance was called out to in order to deal with drug overdoses), then shortly after his headaches are diagnosed not as regular hangovers from his lifestyle, but a tumour in his pineal gland. Inoperable. He may have years but more likely only months.

He also discovers that his pineal gland is still in the same state of flux of a teenager, not an adult, and a chance encounter with the chemist who designed Synchronic lets him know that the drug’s time-shifting ability only works on younger brains. Convinced that the missing Brianna took Synchronic and that the reason they cannot find her is because it has taken her into the past, where she has become trapped, Steve decides, without telling anyone, to experiment with the drug. He tries taking it but documents his experiences with a video camera; he does seem to be transported for a few moments to an earlier time in the same location. Is this real or only in his perception as the drug influences him? If it is real, how can he fine-tune it to find where the drug could have transported Brianna? Even if he can do this, can he bring her back?

There is something endlessly fascinating about time-travel stories; our experience of the passing of the years is both objective (we know it is passing, we can measure it, document it) but also simultaneously subjective (was that really ten years ago? How could it be?), and although we can remember the past and imagine the future, we’re forever trapped within the flow of the river of time, unable to change courses. Synchronic offers up something a little different on the time-travel sub-genre, and it is an intriguing notion, that a drug could break us even momentarily from the normal flow.

The film is beautifully shot – many of the scenes are night shots of Steve and Dennis on their paramedic duties through the street of New Orleans, and these look superb on the screen. The film makes good use of flashbacks, which dovetail nicely into the fractured chronology as the Synchronic starts to affect Steve’s perception of time’s flow. The fact it moves him only in time but not place is also interesting, and the movie nods to the fact that some periods in the Deep South are not ones in which it is a nice place to be an African-American, a nice nod to America’s long-running race problems without being too heavy handed.

The relationships between Steve and Dennis are well-handled too – Mackie and Dornan produce terrific performances, these feel like two old buddies who have grown up together through all the years have laid upon them, and yet they stick together, trying to look out for one another. Steve doesn’t want to tell his best friend about his illness while he is searching for his missing daughter, his friend of course is angry because he wants to support him. And Steve’s quest to try to help find Brianna in the only way he can, to do something with the time he has left, something important, feels natural, in that way that life-changing moments such as serious illness or the loss of someone can be, to make you re-evaluate what is important in life (hence his quote at the start of this review).

The time-travel aspect is fascinating, especially the way it meshes with Steve’s personal flashbacks, and some aspects of time travel are well-handled (a wordless encounter with an Ice Age human ancestor showing a human link across millennia, an observation that nostalgia is nonsense and the past was often a cruel place for people to live). Ultimately, however, Synchronic is more about the importance of the people in our lives, about emotions, family and love, the vital beauty of the moments of the here and now we are given. A fascinating, emotionally rewarding slice of Indy Science Fiction film.

Synchronic is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from March 29th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from April 5th.

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kqh4GSFRZU&ab_channel=SignatureEntertainment

Reviews: The Doors of Eden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,

H.G. Parry,

Orbit,

Paperback, 534 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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