I’m reviewing Christine as I’ve been invited to be a guest contributor on the Constant Reader, a podcast that is undertaking an exhaustive analysis of the Stephen King canon, taking in all of his books, as well as pretty much every film and TV adaptation that has been made. If it sounds like a mammoth undertaking, well, it is, and should keep Richard Sheppard, the host, busy for at least a good few years. I was delighted to be part of it, and when we discussed which books I might talk about with him, I alighted pretty quickly on Christine.Continue reading “Book Review: Christine by Stephen King”
Man O’War is still in the running in the 1st BooksOffice poll to select a novel for adaptation for TV or film, and the vote is still open!
I’m up against some pretty heavyweight authors from pretty heavyweight publishing houses, so every vote counts.
To vote, register as a reader at www.booksoffice.com and select Project Alpha – Man O’War is on the list.
Massive thanks to all for voting!
After two and half years I’ve finally completed my second novel, The Hole In The Sky, an SF thriller about Grub Teng, a psychitect left horribly crippled after suffering an accident at his employer, the Nunes-Elessia Psychitecture Corporation (NEP-E). Embittered and reduced to self-medicating to hold back his resulting psychosis, Grub joins the cyber terror group T-127 to get revenge over his former employers. But when their methods become violent, Grub is left weighing his desire for revenge against the innocent lives of others.Continue reading “The Hole In The Sky Done!”
Our Child of the Stars is a refreshing adventure which follows alien child Cory and his adoptive Earth parents Molly and Gene, two American sweethearts who are products of the 1960s political upheaval in the United States.
The book starts off as a very soft SF, almost a fantasy, and then, as the book progresses, it plunges us into some very dark and wild places as the full extent of what Cory is and is capable of becomes apparent.
Stephen Cox’s writing is very crisp and clean, and his characters are mostly rounded and well-fleshed out. The most complete character by far is Cory himself, who emanates (at times literally) the fear and wonder of being a child, despite being one not of this world. He is at turns charming, petulant, observant, excitable and curious, and drives the whole book.
Of the parents, Molly is by far the more interesting character, being a contradiction of very flowery, idealistic politics and a dark wound at the centre of her soul that drives her to do things she would never ordinarily do. But then, when one becomes a parent, things are no longer ordinary.
My only disappointment was the character of Pfeiffer, the Government stooge who wants to capture Cory for “the good of America”, before those pesky commie Ruskies get their paws on him. Pfeiffer is pretty unidimensional, serving as the plot’s Black Hat but with little else to distinguish him as a sympathetic character, despite the appearance of his nefarious behaviour. But perhaps this reflects the very black-and-white view of 60s politics, and also the stark binary politics of our own age, where one either belongs to the right side or the wrong side, and to hell with the nuance in between. If so, it’s a very astute but sobering reflection.
As the two superpowers collide in the wider world, a conflict which spills over into Cory’s own little world, Cox puts on some tense set pieces which peel back the layers of this delightful little alien boy, and gives us a finale of great skill and entertainment.
Immortal is the third novel by British SF author Nick M. Lloyd, following the excellent and successful Emergence, and his follow-up Disconnected. With his first two novels he crafted a niche of tackling big science themes with a British twist, and Immortal is no different. To be sure, it’s a strange beast.
Even a book that fails to deliver in every department can possess an intriguing premise at its heart, and Immortal actually serves up several intriguing premises, yet ends without developing any of them entirely satisfactorily. This SF novel is set in an alternative present-day and is ostensibly a straightforward alien first contact story (which may or may not develop into an equally straightforward alien invasion story), but also takes it upon itself to investigate the moral wherefores the collection, processing and exploitation of citizens’ private data, and the equally ethically grey area of the pursuit of immortality through medical breakthroughs (and other, more nefarious means), the answer to which is hinted at via the book’s clever cover design, drawing the word Immortal into the defiant statement “I’m Mortal”.
The strange paradox of Immortal is that while it doesn’t seem to fulfil the potential for exploration that these themes provide, it also seems slightly overlong and doesn’t hit its stride until too far into the book, which means the majority of dramatic heft is lost before it’s gained. Ironically, the best part of the book is the final third, which is exciting, well-written, weird and really starts to unveil some of the weird possibilities behind some of the aforementioned themes, and exposing the characters to real danger and forcing them to act.
The crux of the story is that Earth receives messages from an alien race calling themselves the Ankor, warning of a catastrophic event that is to befall the Earth, and to submit critical intelligence to them in order for them to save the planet. It’s unclear in the book’s early stages whether the Ankor are a benign force or hostile (a question which is unequivocally answered later), an ambiguity which works well at first. For example, they possess a veneer of threat exhibited through their advanced capability, which is demonstrated through one striking sequence where their constellation of spacecraft are finally unveiled in mathematically significant patterns; but they are also painted as saviours as they drip-feed information to humanity about the nature of the coming apocalypse.
Set against this is Elon Musk-esque businessman Francis MacKenzie, who claims to have found the modern equivalent to the Elixir of Life, a series of medical breakthroughs that promise immortality (free at the point of use!). This is funded by selling the data of private citizens to the Government, a skulduggerous operation that may or may not be hedged through MacKenzie dealing directly with the Ankor themselves.
Two of MacZenzie’s staffers, Samantha and Tim, provide the book’s (slightly grey, which I like) moral compass and allow us to view events from an (almost) everyman’s perspective. Sam, who is disabled and wheelchair-bound after an accident, is set up to have a vested interest in MacKenzie’s Immortality solution. Sam and Tim’s relationship, that of unrequited love, seems always tantalisingly on the cusp of developing into something romantic, but which is scuppered by the presence of Charlie, Sam’s ex and also Tim’s superior at work. Bummer.
The basic ingredients are here for a smart, effective thriller with a genuinely good twist. The problems with it are that the first two thirds of the book are consumed with too much nuts-and-bolts description of the technical goings-on that enable communication with the Ankor, the assemblage of Earth’s response and the surveys through which MacKenzie’s firm gathers data from the general population in order to develop his own product. Now, this is clearly a matter of taste; hard SF nuts will probably very much enjoy Lloyd’s digging into the guts of the technical capabilities required for the comms aspects of the novel, but for me they were too numerous and detracted from any sense of pace and urgency being built up.
The second problem I had was with the characters. Given this is a first contact story, with a healthy dose of civil unrest thrown in given the potential catastrophe on the horizon, the main characters seem to be unfeasibly phlegmatic about proceedings. Sam and Tim are more concerned with what’s going on in their hearts and heads rather than the outside world, and maintain an air of professional calm that doesn’t quite ring true. Which is a shame, as the scenes where Sam and Tim are the main players are actually the best written, the most heartfelt and, oddly, given the above, authentic. This is because I bought into the love triangle completely, which was written with real soul. I can’t help feel that if Lloyd had focussed more on the emotional depth and arc of these main characters, and given them some real high-stakes drama to dig into (on top of their romantic travails) the book would be more accessible, more dramatic, and nippier.
So it’s a book of two halves; or at least three thirds, with the first two thirds sagging in pace a tad, but with an excellent finish. If you’re a hard SF fan, bump it up to a four-star review, because there is much to be excited about here. Even if not, it’s a solid read with some interesting themes being tackled. Whatever you say about Lloyd, he doesn’t take the easy route, and seems happy to take the plunge into complex and difficult ideas, which is to be commended when so much of SF is safe and conventional.
A suite of light and airy dreamscapes from the master.
Usually Murakami’s majesterial and delicate prose is coupled with narrative heft. His novels are usually weighty and imperious so as to provide an anchor of substance to the strands of silk he weaves.
Here the silk is untethered from the earth, leaving each of the stories to hang on the wind, moving and swaying to the breath of meaning as it passes. So what does that mean?
Murakami’s narratives are often dreamlike, David-Lynch-esque strands of DNA that coil around each other to create the whole, but here that’s not the case. Each story, ostensibly about different types of men who, for some reason or another, find themselves “without women” and learn, or discover, what that means, with individual and universal secrets that lie within the human heart abound.
My favourite story of the collection of seven was probably Kitu, whose titular bar – opened after a spectacularly un-acrimonious divorce – becomes a metaphor for his heart, by surreal way of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, a disappearing cat, and lots of snakes. It pushes you in the direction of the articulation of meaning, which all the stories do here.
But all of the stories capture a sense, a feeling, a meditation, a glimpse through a keyhole that provides a crystal-clear image of a partial-reality which hints at something much wider.
If it doesn’t deliver the full, three-course satisfaction of one of his novels, MWW does demonstrate how powerful and light the short story format can be when in the hands of a master.
What you’d expect, really. A fiendishly difficult puzzle which has a deceptively simple reveal at the end, leaving one to think, “Ah, of course, well it was obvious really.” I formulated several hypotheses as to what had happened on Soldier Island, and all were spectacularly wrong.
It’s easy to deride Christie for her characters being little more than clichés (the world-weary adventurer, the brassy copper, the repressed spinster, the posh vulgar braggart and so on) but we don’t read these stories for character arcs. We read them as an exercise, as a cryptic crossword. In that respect the book is tight, efficient and enjoyable.
As with my review of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe (LWW), I’ll be reviewing this tale with the feedback of my five year-old daughter in mind, to whom I read the story over several bedtimes during the past few weeks, as well as my own.
The first thing to mind is that there is some disagreement among readers of Lewis as to the reading order of the books. The Magician’s Nephew (TMN) was the first of the Narnia Chronicles to be published, and indeed on the edition I have (part of a seven book bound edition), it has the number 1 clearly emblazoned on the spine. To the uninitiated this obviously implies that you should read this book first, but that’s not necessarily the case, and in fact IMO it’s not actually a very good idea.
The principal reason for this is that TMN is not the most thrilling of adventures. Certainly not compared to LWW (Book 2 in the chronological order), which is destined to retain its classic status for time immemorial. Indeed, LWW makes for a much more satisfying entrance into the land of Narnia; it is a profound children’s tale offering genuine peril, sacrifice, loss (literal, in the figure of Aslan, and figurative, in the children’s loss of their innocence), with allegorical subtexts that make children really think about what is happening on the page, even without offering them the Christian background upon which the story is based.
The Christian subtexts are still here in TMN, but the focus is strongly on the early sections of Genesis, as TMN concerns the creation of Narnia by Aslan, who here is presented as a more judgmental, Old Testament type deity before assuming the Christlike role of the second book.
TMN offers a quite stilted and jerky plot, moving from late Victorian London, where we are introduced to friends Digory and Polly, to several magical worlds, including the ruined world Charn. We then return to a farcical episode in London, and then to the world of Narnia being birthed. The main problem with TMN is that it functions mostly as a large-scale piece of world-building, a 171-page info dump that provides all of the detail and background that gives the reader a deeper understanding of the mechanics of Narnia and a better idea of the scale of Lewis’s ambition. It’s arguable at best that this information is necessary for any great enjoyment of the other books, though it does lend itself to sense of completeness on the author’s part. My suspicion is that, were this tale written today, the information presented in TMN would have been drip fed through the other tales rater than presented in one hit.
Because of this the plot that holds the book together is rather flimsy, and reduces the children to bystanders to events much of the time. True, their initial curiosity in discovering the magical rings, Polly’s (innocent) courage when being presented with Aslan, and Digory’s resistance of temptation later in the novel are all key moments, but they are siloed rather than connected. There is no real sense of danger in much of the text, and the relentless exposition sucks any urgency from the text. On many occasions it can appear to be more of a fantastical history lecture, with the odd moment of slapstick or farce thrown in, rather than a fully fleshed fantasy adventure.
Where the book does come alive is any episode involving Jadis, the Witch Queen. As in LWW, she assumes the role of avatar for Satan in all his Biblical guises, from the serpent offering the temptation of infernal knowledge, to the seductive and arrogant worshipper of her own intellect, decoupled from any appreciation of the divine, and ultimately the destroyer of worlds. She bestrides the book like a Colossus, and when she appears my daughter’s face lit up with the threat of imminent danger, because she understood that a tale isn’t really a tale without some contrarian element. The Chapter describing the Deplorable Word, where Jadis describes her own fall from grace, is the highlight of the novel, a chilling and tragic tale that adds depth, tragedy and menace to Jadis’s character. She in turn spits, fights, begs, brags, tempts and threatens the various characters in the story, and has a tendency to go into full Pantomime mode at times (“Silence, Fool!” etc) but when most other characters are merely avatars for static personality traits (foppish Uncle Andrew, the stoic Cabby, the innocent children, the happy maid, and so on) her grandeur and presence is most welcome. It’s no wonder that through her charisma she demonstrates a singular hold over the adult characters, with Digory’s Uncle Andrew suffering a particular loss of faculties over this “dem fine woman”.
Whereas Lewis’s allusion to Christ in LWW worked because the child instinctively understands the concept of loss and sacrifice, here the creation allegory is rather too abstract to fully work, and I lost the attention of my daughter at several points. In fact, I believe that several entire episodes could have been expunged from the book to make it more effective.
Having said that, the very final few pages are incredibly effective, and give the reader a sense of pre-emptive wonder and joy that is almost entirely absent for the rest of the text. TMN enjoys classic status by hanging off the coat tails of its more accomplished sibling texts in the series. It’s no surprise that TMN gets overlooked for film or TV adaptations in favour of LWW or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Hence why TMN ought not to be the first book one reads in the Narnia, because if you come away thinking that every episode is like this, it surely must make for a very dry affair indeed. So, start with LWW, and perhaps then move onto some of the other Narnia books, and then visit TMN to see how the whole world came into being. It works much better as a prequel than a first part.
It’s pretty well known that middle books in series are tricky customers, providing neither a beginning nor an end to a story in which one is already invested. It’s admirable indeed, then, that The Empyreus Proof is a remarkable book. It’s a book that adds not only depth and profundity to its characters but also its world. It becomes clear quite early on that we are dealing with a highly complex universe that seems to be tethered to our world by some manner of psychic strings, and the multiple layers of meanings, contradictions and conflicts feels extremely well thought out and essentially real.
The Goddess Project was a rich, enjoyable book, extremely polished in its execution and dealing with interesting topics, but TEP really demonstrates the scale of Wigmore’s ambition, both in terms of scope but also thematically. There is a strong theme of sacrifice running through the book, as well as deception. Multiple characters are deceiving each other, sometimes for nefarious reasons, but possibly sometimes as a kindness. Even the greatest cruelties are not viewed with binary clarity; Orc’s (view spoiler)seem cruel, but as Orc grows his decisions do attain a sort of retrospective benevolence. Likewise, as the curtain is slowly drawn back upon the truth, perhaps those who seem the most malignant are not as terrible as they seem. We shall see.
Despite the complexity the plot (actually multiple sub-plotlines) is fairly simple. After the catastrophe on the Hidden Islands Orc and Cass try to rescue Tashi from his altered state by taking him to a magical college. From there they attempt to solve the twin problems of their own past and stopping the attack planned by the kingdom of Kurassia on Highcloud. This means navigating through (and escaping from) a magical city Bismark. Other characters seek to rescue Geist from captivity. And that’s pretty much it. But the amount of drama and incident and layers derived from this deceptively simple set up is incredible.
We are introduced to the same characters from TGP: the amnesiac freedivers Orc and Cass, who piece together more of their shattered and shared memories; the tragic figure of Tashi, the fallen novitiate warrior who is riven with internal conflict between the emotionally closeted tenets of his Buddhistesque religion and the physical and emotional desires of the lower world; the mysterious Geist, who taught Orc about shamanic practices, and a host of others. Not least of these is the shadowy cabal known as The Kings behind The World (Kaybees for short), who were too far removed in TGP to be made any real sense of. Here at least a couple of their layers are stripped away, and when we are given a shocking revelation at the very end of the book it possibly changes the way in which we view the entire series.
In fact I came away from the book with the sense that here is a world that is full of possibility and intrigue; it offers the reader a tantalising and sometimes frustrating spiderweb of breadcrumbs and challenges us to fathom it. Conspiracies abound, from the possibility that Geist is possibly not as benevolent as he seems, to the fascinating seance scene in the middle of the book, when a very famous and recognisable Thing from our world encroaches on this most magical of places. At the time this feels like it’s revealing too much, but in fact does nothing of the sort, and by the end feels, like a classic piece of misdirection. Talking of which, and along the same conspiratorial lines, in TGP the Kaybees come off as almost a throwaway cliche, a faux-comic council of anonymous bad guys, like SPECTRE or whatever. But here they are given unexpected depth, even tragedy, and the series if lifted by their desperate, inveigling presence.
I can’t remember feeling this excited and puzzled and intrigued by a series since reading the first three books of A Song Of Ice And Fire, Seriously. The main frustration is that more people aren’t talking about it online, and that we may have to wait some time for Book 3.
The book is weighty, at 650 pages, and as a result it does not always rattle along at 100mph. There is arguably more exposition about the world at large in this book, perhaps because we are already immersed in it. This makes the middle section, where several of the main characters are escaping from the city of Bismark and trying to commandeer an aircraft by possibly illicit means perhaps slower than it could be.
No matter. Wigmore’s confident enough in his creation that he demands we invest in it thoroughly, and we should, because it rewards consideration, and I’ll be returning to the book at some point to see what else I can glean from it. It’s a remarkable achievement.
After a glorious summer, things have been returning to normality; there’s a rather wistful irony in that I usually find that I experience a spike in writing activity at the moment that my professional, day-job work becomes extremely busy. It always seems thus: at this time of year everyone gets back into the groove after the long and languid summer break, and while it feels counterintuitive that I should find more time to write when work gets busy, that’s where we are.
It’s been a great week. Last Friday I managed to get to Waterstones in Chichester where there a wonderful joint launch of Bryan Wigmore’s The Empyreus Proof, the stupendous follow up to his 2016 debut The Goddess Project; and Naomi Foyle’s Stained Light, the concluding part of her acclaimed and popular eco-fantasy series The Gaia Chronicles.
Naomi and I weren’t done with each other, though; this Wednesday past she interviewed me about Man O’War on behalf of the British Science Fiction Association. We chatted for an hour about some of things that crop up in the book: sex robots, transhumanism, Marxist revolutionaries, holidays in Sri Lanka, jellyfish recipes, and more. You can watch the whole interview right here.
Over the summer I managed to submit a novella, The Gigantomachy of Antonios Costas, to Tor, and hope to get a response next month. Gigantomachy is an urban mythological fantasy set in an Athens where a huge sinkhole appears. I like to think of it as an urban Indiana Jones-style adventure, with a handful of Umberto Eco-style flourishes.
Next week I’ll be in Bremen for work at the International Astronautical Congress, where all the major movers and shakers from the global space sector will be showing off their gear. My colleagues and I have made a snazzy video explaining what I do at work with respect to space robotics. As it seems so pertinent to science fiction, and my work played such an important part in helping to create Man O’War, I’ll be posting the video here soon.
Meanwhile, I’m about 80% through Hole In The Sky, and hope to have that completed before Christmas!