Sunday, 23 April 2017

Fantasy assortment


Three different novels this time, with nothing connecting them except that they all fall (more or less) into the fantasy genre:

Three, by Sarah Lotz: 

Four passenger planes, in the USA, Europe, Japan, and South Africa, crash almost simultaneously. There are no survivors, except for one young child from each of three of the planes – survivals which seem inexplicable given the devastating nature of the crashes. An adult on one of the planes lives just long enough to leave an ambiguous but chilling message on her phone – apparently about the surviving child. And the children are changed; they have become far more knowing than children of that age should be. The debate soon rages – are they changelings of some kind? Aliens? Harbingers of the Apocalypse?

Sarah Lotz's novel follows in detail the lives of various characters connected with the children as they struggle to understand what has happened to them, under the intense scrutiny of the media and with religion and politics becoming increasingly involved.

The story is told by an author, Elspeth Martins, who has written a book about the three survivors – a book which forms the greater part of Three. It consists of a series of interviews with the characters, news reports and other sources, occasionally interspersed with (and concluding with) sections in which Martins follows up the consequences of having written her story. 

This is an unusual tale, rather slow-paced because of the considerable detail concerning the lives of the characters. It remained intriguing enough to hold my attention, but I'm unlikely to want to read it again.

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Silverheart – a novel of the multiverse, by Michael Moorcock and Storm Constantine:

This fantasy has a richly baroque feel, being set in the legendary, ancient, somewhat decrepit and apparently isolated twin city of Karadur/Shriltasi, in which the two parts are separated by being located in different branches of the multiverse. Travel between the cities is possible, but only a few know how. The social structure of Karadur (where nearly all of the initial action is set) is based on clans led by hereditary lords, each specialising in a different metal; with Iron, Copper, Gold and Silver being the four most important. Stirring up trouble in this ossified society is Max Silverskin, a talented young thief who decides to steal a huge diamond which is the symbol of the city – and possibly rather more. Meanwhile, the strange people of Shriltasi seem to have their own agenda, but it is unclear what it is.

All of this sounds intriguing, but for some reason I was never fully engaged. Perhaps it was trying too hard to be different and bizarre, but I found myself increasingly uninterested in picking up the book and continuing with it, so I finally bailed out after getting almost a third of the way through.

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Chronicles of Empire: Gathering, by Brian G Turner:

This newly published book is, from its title, clearly intended to be the first of a series. The second half of the title also suggests that this might be a quest type of story in the Tolkien tradition, with an assorted group of adventurers gathering together before setting off to fulfil some vital task. This is indeed more or less what happens, although the group members arrive in an unplanned fashion at different times. While the medievalesque setting is conventional enough, pairing it with time travel from a very distant future is less common, giving the tale a flavour of SF as well as fantasy. There is no magic here, only some (very) advanced science which, as has been pointed out before, might be argued to be more or less the same thing depending on your viewpoint.

The author has apparently being working on this concept for a long time, planning the story arc over a whole series with Gathering seen as merely the first volume. There is a problem with this, however, in that the story develops slowly; the first really exciting action scenes which gripped this reader did not occur until about a third of the way through. After that, the pacing is fine, but I nearly didn't get that far. There are a couple of other consequences of taking such a long view of the plot: the purpose of the quest is never made clear, nor is the identity or motivation of the principal character that obvious (hints are dropped, but nothing more). To return to Tolkien comparisons, for all of the variety in its characters and events, there is never any doubt from very early in The Lord of the Rings that the principal character is Frodo and that the purpose of the quest is to put the magical ring out of Sauron's reach.  Such clarity is missing from Gathering, which appears somewhat inchoate in consequence.

I would also have liked to understand more about the setting: the geography and politics of the world, subjects which are mentioned frequently but never in a way which allowed this reader to get a firm grasp of the overall picture. The author undoubtedly knows exactly what is going on and how everything fits together, but he doesn't always make that clear; and at the end of the book I was still trying to sort out which characters belonged to which factions, and what each faction stood for. This is always a problem in creating new worlds: you don't want to slow down the action by putting in too many infodumps about the setting, but you have to give the reader enough to understand what is happening. Some writers get around this by including an explanatory prologue or appendix, or just extracts from a fictional encyclopedia (or some such) at the start of each chapter.


Once you get into it, this story is engaging and it might well be the start of a worthwhile epic. But as the first volume of a series, this should do more than just introduce the characters and include some initial action; it also needs to capture the reader, by working as a stand-alone novel while being tantalising about what happens next – which means providing more clues as to what the series is all about, and hitting the ground running, not strolling.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Judgment on Janus, and Victory on Janus, by Andre Norton


These 1960s books form a duology (with links to other stories as well). I first read Judgment on Janus as a youngster and was delighted with the story, which pressed a lot of my buttons. So much so that I bought a copy decades later, and discovered that it had a sequel which I also purchased. This is the first time I have read them for many years. Warning: there are spoilers in this review.

The story starts off in a dystopian fashion with a young man, Niall Renfro, trapped on the dumping ground of the Dipple on the planet Korwar, having been made homeless by an interstellar war. He signs up with the Labor Agency and is despatched to a harsh frontier planet largely covered by forest – Janus. The owners and only settlers on the planet are a fundamentalist religious group, the Sky Lovers, who refuse to use technology and impose a grim, patriarchical rule. They only occupy a small area around the spacecraft landing field, living in small family groups – garths – each of which slowly clears the area of forest around them using hard manual labour. Imported workers, like Niall, are effectively slaves.

One of the warnings given to new arrivals is to avoid the forbidden "treasures" which are sometimes dug up and must be reported and destroyed immediately.  One is found by Niall; a collection of miscellaneous glittering objects which he finds irresistable, so he keeps one when the rest of the cache is destroyed.  Shortly afterwards, he falls ill of the dreaded "green sick" and, as the Sky Lovers' law dictates, is abandoned to die in the hostile forest.

Except that he recovers, only he is no longer entirely human. He has acquired memories of a distant time in which his people – the Iftin – lived in giant trees deep in the forest. They were attacked by the barbarian Larsh, who were aided by a mysterious, hostile power. At this point the tone of the story slips from SF to epic fantasy in the Tolkien mode as Niall (now Ayyar), and the other revived Iftin he encounters, desperately try to recall what they need to know to survive, from the fragments of memory of a glorious past that each possesses.

The ending is clearly no more than a temporary pause in hostilities, until the sequel comes along.

Victory on Janus is that sequel, and follows on directly. A new threat to the Iftin has emerged, powerful enough to destroy the last of the great trees in the forest. The old enemy – the hostile power of the first book – is re-emerging in new forms. Renfro/Ayyar and his fellow transformed Iftin have to combine their human knowledge with that of the Iftin to stand any chance of survival. As the story develops, so the flavour changes again, from high fantasy back to SF.

These books contain one continuous story, so must be read in the right order. They are very much of their time: short, fast-moving page-turners that keep the reader so caught up in events that there is little time for the characterisation or deeper plotting which we have since become used to. I finished each one in a single sitting and enjoyed them due to nostalgia as much as anything else. Do they still have a place on the modern bookshelf? Yes, they would make a great introduction to SFF for younger readers, to enthuse them and give them that sense of wonder and possibility, before they are ready to move on to the modern heavyweights – literally as well as literary!


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Fractured Europe series, by Dave Hutchinson


There are three novels in the Fractured Europe sequence, which is probably all that we are going to get as the third volume rounds off the story nicely and there is no hint of any more.

The first is Europe in Autumn. To paraphrase the back cover, this tale is set in a dystopian near-future in which multiple economic crises and a flu pandemic have fractured Europe into countless tiny nations, duchies, polities and republics. Among these is The Line, a nation consisting of a narrow strip of land enclosing a trans-European railway. I was mildly amused to note that while the failure of the EU and the fracturing of Europe remain possibilities the author has already been overtaken by recent events, in that his England is seen as the strongest supporter of what remains of the EU!

The story focuses on the life of Rudi, who we first see as a chef in a restaurant in Kraków but then becomes recruited by Les Coureurs des Bois, a secretive but powerful organisation which is primarily concerned with transporting packages (live or otherwise) through Europe's complex maze of customs barriers and passport controls – but they have also become involved in espionage.

We see Rudi in glimpses over time, as he tackles missions of ever-increasing complexity and danger. The final one is the most intriguing as it introduces a new concept – a Europe which exists on, and apparently was brought into existence by, fantasy maps drawn by a British cartrographic family in the past, indicating a parallel world – the Community – which could be entered by those who knew how.

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The second volume, Europe at Midnight, starts with a 50-page sequence in the Campus – a strange, enclosed land some two hundred miles across, surrounded by mountains – and also by booby-traps which prevent anyone from leaving. The land is entirely occupied by a huge, dispersed university previously run on hereditary lines, at which a revolution –The Fall – had taken place a few months earlier. The story follows the new Professor of Intelligence as he investigates the crimes of the Old Board and also the various attempts to escape. The rest of the book intersperses the first-person viewpoint of the unnamed Professor with third-person viewpoints of others.

The plot then returns to the Fractured Europe universe with the focus on Jim, an English secret service agent who is roped into investigating incredible reports concerning a parallel world called the Community. His scepticism is soon dented when a real live escapee from the Campus turns up, at which point the two plot threads come together. And – halfway though the book – Les Coureurs des Bois make a reappearance.

The third setting for the story, the Community, features in much of the rest of the book. This is a strange version of Europe, basically like 1950s Britain throughout, and very well-controlled. The tension rises as various plot threads tying together Fractured Europe and the Community head towards a conclusion.

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The third volume, Europe in Winter has, rather oddly, more in common with the first volume than the second, as attention again switches to Rudi and we hear the rest of his story against the background of the competition between the Community and Fractured Europe. One of the giant, high-speed trains of the trans-European express is destroyed by sabotage – but who did it, and why? And what is the Community really up to?

Various other characters appear, some from the previous volumes, some new, although unless you have a more retentive memory than mine it might be hard to work out which ones we have met before. This meant that I was struggling to understand the context of many of the scenes, but I still enjoyed the read as the author spins such an intriguing tale.

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The paraphrase which popped into my mind with these books was "this is SFF Jim, but not as we know it". Full marks for originality, and for high-quality story-telling. I did find it a little confusing at times due to the number of characters and the switches of viewpoint, but it repaid the effort involved. I hope to revisit these three before too long, but without any gaps in between and making notes of the main characters when I first encounter them!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Films: Europa Report (2014), Star Trek Beyond (2016), and Warcraft (2016)


I had heard good things about Europa Report, but found it difficult to get hold of a copy. Eventually I bought a DVD which turned out to be from a German company. Clicking on the "Spracht" link on the opening page gives a choice of German or English, and also whether or not you want subtitles. At first I assumed that the film had been made in German and that English speakers had a choice of viewing subtitles or hearing a version dubbed into English, but after experimentation it turned out that the actors were actually speaking English and the optional subtitles were in German!

I'll quote part of the plot summary on the iTunes preview page as it gives a fair description:

"A unique blend of documentary, alternative history and science fiction thriller, EUROPA REPORT follows a contemporary mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to investigate the possible existence of alien life within our solar system. When unmanned probes suggest that a hidden ocean could exist underneath Europa’s icy surface and may contain single-celled life, Europa Ventures, a privately funded space exploration company, sends six of the best astronauts from around the world to confirm the data and explore the revolutionary discoveries that may lie in the Europan ocean."

The structure of the film is unusual, interspersing interviews with staff back on Earth, face-to-camera recordings by the pilot looking back on what had happened, and both flashback and live scenes aboard the spacecraft.  Some concentration is therefore needed to follow the story, and the structure is cleverly used to mislead viewers as to what happened, until the finale. The scenes on board the spacecraft are deliberately variable in quality, and the interactions of the crew seem far more genuine than the usual carefully polished cinematic dialogue. The pace is slow and deliberate throughout, the appeal of the film being in its realistic feel and in the gradual build-up of tension as the crew struggle with a sequence of problems.

Most of the cast were new to me, the exceptions being Michael Nyqvist and Sharlto Copley. Two key cast members were the pilot (played by Anamaria Marinca) and the team leader back on Earth, played by the American actress Embeth Davidtz - who I was amused to note spoke the kind of flawless, cut-glass, highly-educated, upper-class English which no native Brits speak any more!

This won't be enjoyed by those expecting the feel-good escapism of films like Gravity and The Martian, but Europa Report is a much better SF film than either, and is well worth watching – if you can find it.

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I read recently that the quantity and quality of dialogue in blockbuster films have been declining steadily in recent years, for the simple reason that to maximise the takings the films have to be successful around the world. So they have to be as easily understood in China as in  the USA. Which means simple plots and a strongly visual, action-orientated viewing experience with a minimum of chatter. Which leads me neatly into Star Trek Beyond. Once again, the only vaguely interesting character is the villain (in this case played by Idris Elba) – and he's not all that interesting. Most of the film consists of fighting, chasing, and lots and lots of the 'splosions beloved of the target audience, but is there anything of interest to adults? Well, there's the odd flash of humour – including in the very first scene a good visual joke about relative size and perspective – but that's about it. The rest is completely forgettable and, as I indicated in my review of the first film of this series, the old TV series and films of Star Trek: The New Generation are, by comparison, positively Shakespearean.

One curiosity: the MacGuffin in this film is a supposedly civilisation-destroying secret weapon, yet on the two occasions it is deployed the effect is little more than, and significantly slower than, a typical hand grenade.

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Warcraft is not a film I would ordinarily think of watching – I have no interest in computer games – but I was prompted to do so by two things: it was directed by Duncan Jones (Moon and Source Code) and received a surprisingly favourable review from the BBC's film critic, Mark Kermode.

I hesitate to try to describe the plot, as a quick check on the Warcraft game world showed that it is of bewildering complexity, the plot of this film only being a small extract from it. I will just briefly summarise it as: orcs – huge and belligerent humanoids – have created a magical gate which enables them to pass from their own ruined world to another (Azeroth), occupied by humans (in a medieval stage of development, as usual); the humans fight back; and much of the conflict depends on a contest between the magical powers of a few of the participants. I was amused to note the collection of high fantasy tropes – not just orcs, elves wizards and dwarves, but also in the names, such as Anduin (one of the characters) which I recall from Tolkein, and Azeroth, from a book in the 1970s Morgaine cycle by C J Cherryh (Fires of Azeroth).


Overall, I think that this film is a pretty good example of its type. It suffers somewhat (as do all such fantasy films) in comparison with the Game of Thrones TV series, which is much more grim and adult, but represents a couple of hours of good entertainment. And it includes a very buff Paula Patton whose good looks are hardly spoiled by a small pair of tusks!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M Banks, and Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear


The Hydrogen Sonata is the final SF novel by Iain M Banks, who died in 2013. It is therefore also the final novel set in the Culture, the utopian galactic civilisation which formed the basis of nine novels published over a span of twenty-five years, commencing with Consider Phlebas in 1987. Reviews of three of these have already appeared on this blog, and this is what I said in them about the Culture:

"…a galactic humanoid utopia in which almost inconceivably advanced technology provides everything that is needed, immensely capable Artificial Intelligences sort out the mundane business of running civilisation (the most powerful, known as Minds, usually being established in vast spacecraft or space habitats with quirky names), and citizens are mostly free to do whatever they like – live forever, change gender or even species, travel the galaxy. There are various alien civilisations in close contact with the Culture and a lot of others that are not, plus human planetary settlements that don't enjoy the same benefits. Relationships with such peripheral groups are handled by an organisation called Contact, and they apply less diplomatic means when required by means of Special Circumstances, whose agents are kind of blend of James Bond and Jason Bourne with comprehensive bio-electronic enhancements."

The Hydrogen Sonata follows the story of Vyr Cossont, a young woman who belongs to the ancient Gzilt civilisation - which although not part of the Culture is almost as advanced.  The population consists of what appears to be standard humanoids; although Cossont is different in that she has had two extra arms grafted on, to enable her to play a complex musical instrument made for one almost unplayable piece of music called The Hydrogen Sonata.

The background to the story is that the Gzilt are shortly to Sublime -  to leave the material universe en masse for an eternal existence in a kind of virtual afterlife. However, the Gzilt's plans are in danger of being disrupted by a threatened revelation that their Holy Book – which unlike all other such, contains predictions which have all come true, thereby giving the Gzilt the firm belief that they are superior to everyone else – was actually the result of meddling by a superior civilisation which sublimed long before this story began. This prompts a division in the Gzilt between those who are trying to discover the truth (aided by a bunch of interested spaceborne Culture Minds with the usual outlandish names and personalities) and those who are determined, at any cost, to stop the truth from emerging.

There are various side-plots including the contest between a couple of minor civilisations for the right to inherit everything that the Gzilt would be leaving behind, and the hunt to find the oldest known being who might even remember exactly what had happened concerning the Holy Book.

Like most of Banks's novels this is not easy to get into. It is difficult to understand what is happening at first (and for some time thereafter), but connections between several sub-plots slowly emerge like a drowned village from a draining reservoir. The number of Culture Minds is also confusing as it is initially hard to recall who's who – this is one book where it might be helpful to write down every name as it appears, together with a note about their place in the story. The author does include a list of characters right at the end of the book which might have reduced the need for this if only I had discovered it before I finished. As is usual in a Culture novel, the generally slow pace accelerates as it approaches the end, which features some spectacular combat scenes.


This is not the best of the Culture novels – for instance, it lacks the baroque inventiveness of Surface Detail or the fascinating shell-world of Matter – but it is very typical of the meandering but engaging Banks style, which enables readers to explore all sorts of odd details of his world. It is sad that the author died at such a young age, but in these novels he has left behind a magnificent contribution to modern SF.

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Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear, was published in 1999 but I've only just got around to reading it.  It is about the next stage of human evolution, although that does not become apparent until well into the story (not a great spoiler, you can gather that from the book cover).

At the beginning, two separate near-future plot threads are started: one follows a disgraced scientist (paleontologist Mitch Rafelson) who is shown a recently uncovered ice cave in Austria containing the mummified bodies of a couple of Neanderthals, plus their baby. The second follows another scientist (biologist Kaye Lang) in Georgia (the country, not the US state), who is called to investigate some strange bodies found in a mass grave. The viewpoint mostly alternates between these two throughout the book, but sometimes switches to Christopher Dicken, a US Government scientist concerned with tracking viruses.

The story focuses on a newly-discovered virus (an endogenous retrovirus, to be more precise) called SHEVA, which has the effect of causing pregnant women to miscarry a strange foetus, before an immediate second pregnancy which results in children being born dead. As this "plague" sweeps around the world, causing rising panic and threatening human civilisation, doubts begin to be raised about the nature of the virus and its implications for the future of humanity.

This story is extremely science-heavy. I try to keep up with scientific developments, but frequently reached the MEGO stage with this tale (My Eyes Glazed Over) and I skim-read a lot of the pages of detailed technical explanation concerning viruses and genetics. I also found that I had a problem recalling various secondary characters who, after being introduced to the reader, occasionally popped up again later without any help being provided in the way of reminders about who they were or what their significance was. As with the Banks story above, readers are advised to make notes of each character as they appear, it will be a big help later.

This may all sound negative, but buried in there is a story which was intriguing enough to keep me reading to the end; in fact I finished the last quarter of this rather long book in one session. I note that there is a sequel, Darwin's Children, and I might get around to reading it, sometime…