Normally a book by Adrian Tchaikovsky is something I will reliably enjoy. So I was excited to get a review copy of his latest novella Walking To Aldebaran from Solaris. But this one was a rare miss for me.
The premise is intriguing – a first person narrative from Gary Rendell, one of the team sent to explore a mysterious structure found in space. That structure turns out to be a gateway to the universe. A hub that provides gate access to worlds across the universe. But a hub that is inhabited by strange alien creatures and full of peril. As Gary explores this strange environment he tells the story of the expedition, how he became separated from his team-mates, and the journey he is on. It is full of encounters with aliens, miscommunication and a building sense of mystery about what it exactly has happened to Gary. He has clearly undergone metamorphosis of some sort in this environment.
But I struggled to engage with it. I suspect a lot of that is down to the first person narration. I struggled to connect with the blokish Gary and the strong voice he has telling his story. And for all that there is a twist in the tale, I was left a bit underwhelmed.
If there are two preoccupations in current SFF, they are probably climate change and artificial intelligence stories exploring the nature of what it means to be human. Emily Eternal by M G Wheaton (review copy from Hodderscape) attempts to fuse the two. But I’m not sure it succeeds.
Emily is an artificial consciousness created as a therapist by a New England university to help people overcome trauma. And there is a lot of trauma in the world of the novel – the Sun is dying and that means the Earth will too. Between the loss of solar energy and electromagnetic discharges destroying most of the planet’s technical infrastructure, the world is doomed. Wars, scarcity and suicide feature in the slow decline and fading away of society. It’s a very depressing scenario.
Within this last fading of human civilisation, Emily is growing and learning as a person, and helping others, living in a near live-time virtual copy of the university campus and able to interact with some of her developer team through specialist implants. Despite her impressive abilities, Emily is scrupulous about trying to replicate as far as possible what it is like to live as a human. Her life is a sophisticated version of The Sims, in effect.
But this story of human identity and what-it-means-to-be-human when living with the expected imminent collapse of civilisation takes a massive jink to the left when Emily’s technology is seen as one possible route for preserving humanity. What results is a bit of a hot mess of a thriller, with lots of mercenaries, chase sequences and evil Government conspiracies. The ending, in particular, felt rushed and incredibly implausible.
I love space opera. I particularly love post-colonial space opera of the kind that Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee have been writing. So Arkady Martine‘s novel A Memory Called Empire (review copy from Tor) was always going to pique my interest. Add to that a main character who is a diplomat, and this is right in my wheelhouse. And I loved it.
Mahit Dzmare is sent from the tiny independent mining station of Lsel to be the new ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Lsel is tiny, and Mahit’s main mission is to prevent her home from being swallowed up by the Empire, whilst investigating the mysterious disappearance and murder of her predecessor. Mahit has been selected for her love of Teixcalaanli culture, and her knowledge of its society. That and her psychological compatibility with the last ambassador, as she will carry an embedded device with a download of his knowledge and memories, adding her own to the store.
These themes of identity run through the novel extremely strongly. Mahit is a product of her childhood on Lsel, and her study of Teixcalaanli culture, but she also carries the memories and reactions of her ambassador predecessor within her. These rise up at odd moments, to the point where she sometimes struggles to disentangle her thoughts and feelings from sense memories and the reactions of her predecessor. Much of that plays out through Mahit’s sexuality – she experiences flashes of her predecessor’s desire and his memories of sexual encounters, muddying Mahit’s own burgeoning feelings.
Mahit’s love for the Empire’s culture and her joy at being able to visit it and experience it at first hand wars with her mission to protect Lsel’s independence. This tension runs throughout the novel, as Mahit is confronted with the difference between her experience and the reality of Teixcalaanli culture for those born and raised within it. She regularly fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances around her, never more so that when she is bewildered by the layering of sophistication of the Empire’s poetry.
Mahit finds herself plunged into the heart of a succession crisis for the Empire, as the aging Emperor’s health begins to fail and various rivals start jockeying for position. War seems inevitable, with Lsel one of the possible casualties as the various rivals seek to cement their claims. She has to navigate her way through this, brokering Lsel’s safety through political turmoil. In this she is assisted by ambitious young civil servant Three Seagrass, who has been appointed as her liaison to the Empire. Three Seagrass is herself walking a fine line between her loyalty to Teixcalaan, her own personal ambition, and her duties supporting Mahit.
It’s an incredibly satisfying novel that leaves me extremely excited about the next book in the series.
The question of what it means to be human is a well-worn one in SFF. Greg Chivers gives us his take in his novel The Crying Machine (review copy from Harper Voyager).
Clementine is an artificial being, an AI consciousness in an augmented human body. She arrives in Jerusalem a refugee from a Western Europe devastated by war and corrupted technology. She tries to find her place in this strange, divided city. In an attempt to get some money she falls in with criminals contracted to steal something from the museum. That something turns out to be the Antikythera Mechanism– an artifact from Ancient Greece that is probably the world’s first computer. Shenanigans ensue, and Clementine finds herself caught up in Jerusalem city politics and on the run from the authorities.
I’m afraid I was left rather cold by this techno-thriller. It felt confused at times, and I struggled to engage with, or care about, the principal characters. Although the focus of the story was on Clementine’s time in Jerusalem, too little was sketched in of what was happening in the wider world to have resulted in her arrival there. This was a frustrating level of hand-waving world-building.
I love octopuses. They are beautiful, strange creatures. Probably the closest thing we humans can get to the truly alien. They live in a different milieu and come from a radically different branch of the evolutionary tree. They are also clever, resourceful and undoubtedly sentient. This is why I was super-excited when I heard that Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s sequel to his Clarke-Award winning Children of Time would focus on uplifted cephalopods. And I was not disappointed – this was a novel that I enjoyed much more than its predecessor.
Children of Ruin (review copy from Tor) picks up where Children of Time left off. The uplifted spiders from Kern’s World in the first novel are now space explorers, with their domesticated Human compatriots. They are travelling to a distant star system that was one of the destinations of one of the original Earth colony ships, following up on signals received that suggest there may be a surviving colony. What they find is a system on the brink of collapse, with one water world choked and polluted, another in strict quarantine and a derelict space ship. Space-faring octopuses live in water-filled bubble ships, in loose and chaotic communities. The story is cut with flashbacks that show the Earth colony team that came to terraform the system, slowly revealing the disaster that befell them and the old Earth.
This is the Year of the Octopus. Books like Other Minds and The Soul Of An Octopus are best-sellers, showcasing the strange creatures we share our planet with. In Tchaikovsky’s hands, the octopuses are all but unknowable, struggling to make themselves understood to Humans and spiders, and frustrated as a result. These are creatures on permanent transmit with no filters, through their movement in the water and their colour- and texture-changing skins. Clever and creative, they adapt and innovate, but their non-hierarchical society runs on individual battles for dominance. Tchaikovsky’s octopuses are compellingly Other.
The story is a pleasing one of co-operation and collaboration, rather than conflict and dominance. Only by working together can Humans, spiders and the AI consciousness of Avrana Kern communicate with the octopuses. And only with the help of the octopuses can they engage meaningfully with the sentient slime mould antagonist that risks the system. And that slime mould delivers some chilling moments of pure horror in the body snatchers mode.
This is a novel that champions evolution and co-existence. Messages we should learn to pay attention to.
The final volume in Ian McDonald‘s Luna trilogy, Luna: Moon Rising (review copy from Gollancz), was one of the books I was most excited to read this year because I had loved the first two hard. And it did not disappoint.
This is a book that is as red in tooth and claw as the first two volumes in the series. With all the hallmark kidnapping, assassination and destruction we have come to know and love from this series. Luna: Moon Rising focuses on two key plot threads. A battle between Lucas and Ariel Corta for control of the Moon and custody of the injured Lucasinho. And a debate about the future of the Moon colony itself.
This debate about the future of the Moon is a fascinating one. Each competing vision of what the Moon could be is plausible and compelling: automated provision of resources for a starving Earth, solar-powered data-centre, or jumping off point to colonise the stars? Whatever choice i made, it will have profound consequences for Earth, Moon and the future of the solar system.
But it is in the Corta v Corta battle that the novel has its heart. Where the previous novels have shown us the conflict between the Five Dragons and the consequences of that for Lunar society, here we are treated to the divisions within families. With the Cortas struggling to rebuild and reclaim after the cataclysmic events of earlier books, this is an extremely personal story. And McDonald resolves it beautifully in a thrilling climax.
I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the book. But if you had any doubts, read this glorious trilogy.
I’m always excited when people try to push the boundaries of SFF story-telling. Ambitious approaches are good, and we should encourage them. But they don’t always work. And Green Jay and Crow by D J Daniels (review copy from Rebellion) was a fail for me. It just doesn’t quite work.
There’s an interesting puzzle box story in there. Brom is hired by the local crime boss to collect a box and deliver it to a location. The box is “time-locked”, reflecting the value of its contents. Inevitably, the box goes astray and shenanigans ensue. The box contains mysterious medication that can help Eva. Eva is a 3D printed copy of a person that was designed to only live for a few days. But Eva is a girl on the run, desperate to live a separate life. As the story unfolds, Brom, Eva and his best friend Mac travel between parallel versions of the place they live in, meeting strange characters and trying to find a way to save Eva. That premise is incredibly engaging, but Daniels fails to deliver on it.
I was most frustrated by the characterisation of Brom, the point of view character for most of the book. Despite Mac being his best friend, Daniels writes Brom as having little or no knowledge of his friend’s past, motivations or their shared life in the place they live. Within the novel it is a technique to hide Mac’s motivations to enable a reveal later in the book. But it’s a lazy way of creating suspense that undermines the reader’s confidence in the writer and the work.
There are a lot of extremely intriguing things about the setting of the novel – particularly the alien Tenties that have arrived in the world; the 3D printing technology; the sentient robots; the parallel versions of the same place; the technology around travel between the parallel worlds; and strange cult-like figures. But the whole is put together in a way that feels chaotic and difficult to navigate. And Daniels doesn’t help you to find a coherent path through it.
It’s definitely an interesting work, but I don’t think it ultimately succeeds. I’ll keep an eye on Daniels as I suspect any future work – as she matures as a writer – has the potential to be extremely interesting.
Tangle’s Game by Stewart Hotston (review copy from Rebellion) starts extremely strongly, with the experience of a mixed race woman detained at an airport for questioning. Subjected to racist abuse and sexual harassment, Amanda Back, a successful banker, doesn’t know why she has been detained. It is only when she is finally released and makes her way home that she finds out that her ex-boyfriend Tangle has involved her in a complex plot about blockchain and AI by sending her an encrypted USB key containing datafiles that are being sought by governments across the world.
On the one hand, Tangle’s Game is a very prescient novel that extends current issues in society. Technological development is mixed up with global geo-politics and attempts by one nation state to undermine others. Its conclusions and their impact on Amanda feel startlingly plausible. And Hotston is to be applauded for his characterisation of Tangle as a charismatic but selfish and self-obsessed man. Another, lazier writer would have romanticised Amanda’s toxic ex-boyfriend and tried to redeem him.
But this is a flawed novel. The authorial voice is far too prominent for me, with a didactic tone that is determined to tell you how to interpret the events of the book and the issues it portrays. This kind of “tell, not show” is intrusive, and throws me out of books. The novel also relies on too many early coincidences – the arrival of two hired mercenaries in Amanda’s flat, and the presence of a helpful AI. Neither is fully explained and feels clumsily done in order to move the plot along. And while the story flows competently if predictably from thereon in, it’s hard to care about any of the characters.
Imagine, if you will, if David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick got together to tell a story of human progress in the face of competing drivers. Don’t be fooled by the title, or by the light, witty prose – Celebrity Werewolf by Andrew Wallace (NewCon Press) is a book with a lot to say.
Gig Danvers, the titular Celebrity Werewolf, pops into existence without warning one day. He has no memory of his past or why he is here, but after a series of heroic acts he captures the public imagination. Gig is “a lover, not a biter”, not your typical, violent werewolf. Together with scientist Becky and businesswoman Helen, Gig sets out to make the world a better place with inventions based on his own biology. But his efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the world are repeatedly undermined by arch-rival Gavin Dergs.
This is a conflict between two competing views of the world. Gavin is about profit, control and a narrow view of who should benefit. By contrast, Gig is a humanitarian wanting to share his discoveries with everyone. He advocates an inclusive approach based on love and compassion. Yet he finds himself outflanked by Gavin at nearly every turn.
This is a love song to human progress, and the need for radical change to address the real problems facing humanity at the moment. In order to develop, we must change and be willing to embrace the new and different, and overturn the old and existing orders. We need to reconcile the duality of left and right, profit and public service, love and cynicism if we are to have any chance of succeeding in the longer term.
Wallace amps up the strangeness as the book progresses. His creativity is fresh and exciting, particularly in the way he breaks down traditional sub-genre boundaries to tell this story.
Long ago, hormonal 14 year old me watched repeats of her beloved Blakes 7 on UK Gold and idly dreamed of Avon being in her bedroom. Little did 14 year old me imagine that would one day happen. But 14 year old me could also never have imagined that there would be seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.
Lots will be – and is – being written about Paul Darrow’s acting career and his contribution to the cultural life of the world. But I want to talk about the man I was privileged enough to get to know and spend some time with.
I first met Paul in October 2012, at a small lunch in aid of charity that I’d seen advertised somewhere online. I was at a moment in my life where I wanted to meet some new people and mix up my social life. I took a day off work and went to Hastings for the day, not sure what to expect. I found an engaging, intelligent man full of enthusiasm for life who was brilliant company and the polar opposite of every cold-hearted, calculating bastard he ever played on screen. Lunch extended into a slow wander through the autumn sunshine. Conversation turned to an event he (and Jacqueline Pearce) were due to be at the following day at Kennington Cinema Museum. As we parted he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
So I duly presented myself at the Cinema Museum the following day. And I found myself sucked into Paul’s entourage. We spent a lot of time hanging out on the smoking terrace – with Jacqueline Pearce – and generally running round the Cinema Museum giggling (we were hiding from someone Paul was trying to avoid). I laughed so much my ribs were aching.
Three months later I found myself in a small hotel, deep in the countryside. There were about 10 of us, and after a fantastic dinner we played Trivial Pursuit in teams. Paul’s team won. He was always very competitive, and picked the pink questions at every opportunity. (A category where he always had an unfair advantage, I feel.)
That set a pattern for the last six years. It was like a long lost uncle had suddenly arrived in my life. But an uncle determined to drag me to the pub and tell me stories about all the exciting things he’d been doing while long and lost. Fascinating insights into the acting profession from repertory to working for the BBC and ITV, and film, told with real pride about his craft. Behind the scenes stories from on set. History told with an instinct for drama. And underneath it all, a childlike enthusiasm for life, often expressed through filthy jokes, impressions and a mischievous sense of humour – all with impeccable comic timing.
This long lost uncle introduced me to an entire extended family of cousins I’d never have known otherwise. I met and made some amazing friends through Paul. Fascinating people I would never have met otherwise. And a circle of remarkably un-fannish people at that. Paul drew around him those that were interesting, engaging and good company. And we all cared for him deeply.
If there is one thing I learned from the time I spent with him, it was the joy that can come from time spent in good company with no particular plan in mind. He turned hanging out into an artform of existing in the moment.
They say you should never meet your heroes. Take the chance. You may find your life is impossibly enriched by doing it.