Tangle’s Game – Stewart Hotston

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.

Goodreads rating: 2*

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Celebrity Werewolf – Andrew Wallace

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.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Paul Darrow

I lost a friend today.

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.

Paul holding court over lunch, the first day I met him.

 

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.”

Paul and I outside a Hastings restaurant

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.)

l-r Michael Keating (Vila), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), me, Paul Darrow (Avon), Steven Pacey (Tarrant)

 

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.

Giggling with l-r Stephen Greif (Travis), Michael Keating (Vila), me and Paul Darrow (Avon)

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.

Behind the Liberator control console with l-r Michael Keating (Vila), me, Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Glynis Barber (Soolin), Stephen Greif (Travis) and Paul Darrow (Avon)

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.

Paul and I late one night. Or was it early one morning?

EasterCon 2019, Or The Fear Of Over-Exposure

Last weekend I was at Ytterbium, the 70th annual British science fiction convention.  It’s run each year by a committee of volunteers, and is a huge endeavour that attracts around 1,000 people.  It’s my fifth year attending, since my first, Dysprosium in 2015.  And it was far and away the best EasterCon I’ve been to in those five years.  So much so that it’s taken me nearly a week to get over my concrash enough to consider writing a con report.

Me with Gareth L Powell after he won with BSFA Best Novel Award for Embers of War

Over the last five years my personal involvement in SFF communities has increased significantly, as has my confidence in these spaces.  Reflecting back to Dysprosium, I spent a lot of my time feeling like an unwelcome outsider.  I was a Muggle at Hogwarts and none of the cool kids would give me the time of day.  Now, I know far more people in the community, and have found/built my little subset of the tribe to hang out with.

Me (l) with friend Ida (r)

Building that community has taken time.  I have one friend who has that fierce brand of confidence that means that she can walk into any room, be the centre of attention, and emerge feted.  That is not me.  I joke that I grow on people more slowly, much like mould, until I become part of the furniture.  A wise friend always remarks on my networking ability.  Professionally, part of my job is to know lots of people and understand the connections between them.  I have slowly learned that not everyone works that way, and I’ve also learned that it’s something I unconsciously bring into my personal life.  But I’m not always good at deepening those connections beyond the superficial, however much I might want to sometimes.  (Fierce, confident friend had to have a few goes at it before I finally twigged what she was doing.  Two bottles of wine and the sharing of many confidences one evening, and the rest is history.  Wise friend invited me for tea and cake with astonishing clarity, and then patiently and explicitly explained to me over said tea and cake that it was because she liked me and was interested in deepening our friendship.  The rest is history.)  And I forget – unless reminded – that the flip side of being the person who knows lots of people is that I’m a person known by lots of people.  I struggle with that, largely because inside my head I think of myself as pretty boring in comparison to all the amazing and interesting people I know.

All of that made this a bit of an interesting EasterCon for me.  This was a weekend where it felt like I was everywhere.  Being on six programme items was, by any measure, a lot.  And it led to the surreal experience of having people keep coming up to me to talk about them.  Plus having lots of the organising team loudly calling me a hero and trying to buy me lots of gin on Sunday night, after I stepped into the breach at short notice earlier that day (see below).  I’m not used to that kind of attention.  Really, I’m not.  I’d already gone into the weekend worried about being over-exposed.  I’m not a famous writer or fan.  I don’t work in publishing.  I’m just me, who sometimes dresses up as characters from Doctor Who and runs a relatively low-traffic book review blog.  So this is a weekend that has messed with my head and my self-perception quite a bit.

Six programme items.  I was on three of them because I’d suggested them.  But the rest were down to accident, the programme scheduling gods, or not moving quickly enough.

SF-ing Clue. L-R me, Helena McCallum, Tony Keen, Tiffani Angus, Tlanti.

SF-ing Clue.  In homage to a popular radio comedy show, this was a team-based panel game, done as a con warm up event on Thursday night.  It had been deliberately set up with an all-woman set of contestants, to help counter the idea that men have the monopoly on doing funny things at conventions.  In line with its inspiration there was a premium on puns and witty wordplay.  We had only 48 hours to prep the rounds, which was harder than you might think.  They included the Umbridge English Dictionary (giving existing words SFnal definitions, such as “Revoke: to turn back into a Klingon”) and YA Film Club (“To Kill A Mockingjay”).  I won’t be giving up the day job.  And the moral of this story is never to agree to do something in the pub when you’ve had a lot of wine after a long day.

Planning For The Apocalypse.  I’d suggested this because it seems that my friends and I have fairly well developed apocalypse plans, and it’s a regular topic of discussion.  I’d had in mind a kind of Choose Your Own Apocalypse type thing, but I had not envisaged the chaotic, surreal hour that followed.  Someone described it as three feminists on a panel with Alan Partridge.  Someone else wondered if it was a scripted radio play.  Regardless, it defies description or summary.  You had to be there.  All I can say is that Tiffani and Helen, my fellow panellists, are goddesses of deadpan humour and witty comebacks.  I was mostly corpseing with laughter.

The Art of Reviewing.  Much less eventful.  And a chance to meet and spend some time with the wonderful Maureen Spellar of Strange Horizons and fantastic book-tuber Claire Rousseau.  We got into the democratisation of what ‘good’ is, and the role of reviewers as influencers.  Claire and I spent a lot of time talking about how lovely Runalong Womble is.

Conflict Without Violence panel. L-R John Scalzi, Aliette de Bodard, Juliet Kemp, Brian Atterbury, me

Conflict Without Violence.  This was the panel I’d been most anxious about all weekend.  It was my first time moderating.  I was doing it in the big room, with John Scalzi `(one of the Guests of Honour) and Aliette de Bodard, two writers I really admire, plus Juliet Kemp and Brian Attterbury, a professor specialising in SFF literature.  And on a serious topic too – the prevalence of stories about physical violence in SFF, when there are so many different ways of telling stories and resolving conflict.  Much of it is a blur, but I think we explored the topic fairly well.

I walked out that room congratulating myself and feeling in desperate need of a cup of tea and the chance to decompress.  I bumped into one of the organisers, who was in a massive panic because the moderator for one of the panel items had pulled out at the last minute.  Stuff happens to us all, but there is something inexcusable about letting down volunteer organisers at short notice and without good reason.  It creates a horrible mess for them to have to sort out.  I’ve been in that organiser’s position, and there’s no way I could leave them with a crisis on their hands.  So …

The 2019 Hugo Award Shortlist.  I ended up moderating this with 10 minutes notice.  10 minutes.  That was long enough to Google the shortlist, try to work out what areas to focus the panel on, introduce myself to the panellists and take it from there.  I think I got away with it.  But a badly prepared moderator is not a good thing, and bad moderation can ruin a panel, however good the panellists are.  I’m incredibly grateful to an understanding audience and the panellists for their tolerance, and for enabling us to have a great discussion.

Me looking exhausted and very hungover (l), Charlie Stross, Kate Towner (r)

Administering Fantasy Worlds.  My final panel on Monday lunchtime was a struggle.  I was exhausted and panelling is Hard Work.  But I poured my remaining spoons into it.  This was a re-run of a panel a few of us had done at Nine Worlds last August, looking at governance and bureaucracy as world-building issues in SFF.  My friend Kate (an accountant) moderated, and did a fantastic job helping us to cover a lot of ground.  The other panelists were Wendy Bradley (retired tax inspector) and author Charlie Stross.  Kate and I have been fans of Charlie’s for years, so were having to suppress our inner fangirls whilst talking about the lack of proper procurement frameworks for laser guns, or the logistical challenges of handling taxes paid in live chickens.

me (l) with Ida (r)

The programme as a whole was excellent, and the organisers should be congratulated for that in particular.  Diversity was built in right from the start, with none of those awful “Women in SFF”-type panels that compartmentalise people who aren’t straight, white, able-bodied men into discussions only about their protected characteristics.  The team did an amazing job in building thoughtful panels of knowledgeable people that brought different perspectives to issues.  Big name authors were mixed up with debuts and subject experts, leading to rich discussions.  Inclusion was built into the event from the ground up, in panelist/moderator guidance, with the use of pronoun badges, and badges to signify access needs, including invisible ones.  It feels like the best parts of events like Nine Worlds were taken account of.  It’s in marked contrast to previous years and ha set an incredibly high standard for next year’s EasterCon.  I hope next year’s organising team have been paying attention and deliver the same standards.

Andrew Wallace performing from Celebrity Werewolf

Other stand out items were a performance by SF author, songwriter and comedian Mitch Benn, who performed his new song Zombie Jesus Chocolate Day.  Rapid-Fire Info Shots was a gloriously chaotic mix of three-minute segments by willing volunteers on subjects as diverse as why Captain Benjamin Sisko is the leader we need right now; how to draw the perfect demon summoning circle; and the problem with Lembas bread.  All while having (vegan) marshmallows thrown at them.  I also saw author friends read from their work, and went to their book launches.  I’m sad I missed so many other great items for scheduling or energy level reasons – including a couple of brilliant-looking Doctor Who items.

me (r) with Magnus (l)

But the best part of the weekend was the bar-con.  I met and hung out with loads of amazing people, some of whom I’ve known in passing for a while, but got to know better over the weekend.  One friend made a special trip to come down for the Sunday night.  There was dancing.  There was gin.  There were many hugs.  Nights were late.  Feet were sore.  Heads were sore the following morning.  The craic was mighty.

Roll on Dublin in August.  Roll on EasterCon next year.

 

Shadow Captain – Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain (review copy from Gollancz) is the sequel to last year’s Revenger by Alastair Reynolds.  Revenger is a cracking adventure story about teenage sisters who turn to a spot of space piracy in order to enact revenge on the infamous and evil Bosa Sennen.

Shadow Captain picks up the story immediately after the events of Revenger.  Arafura (“Fura”) and Adrana Ness are now the co-captains of Bosa Sennen’s ship, the Nightjammer, which they have renamed the Revenger.  Their crew is tiny and they are running low on supplies, but they have a hold full of currency.  They will need to make port soon to buy food and extra supplies, but that’s harder it could be when Bosa Sennen is the most wanted in the solar system and no-one knows she has been defeated.  There is a bounty on their heands, and that of their ship.  The sisters and their crew head for a backwater world run by Mister Glimmery, a cruel mob boss, desperately seeking medical treatment for one of the crew who was injured in mysterious circumstances.

Told from the perspective of Adrana Ness, this is a story about conspiracy, paranoia and distrust.  Adrana herself is battling to throw off the psychological conditioning she received while she was Bosa Senn’s prisoner.  And although she’s grateful to be rescued, the changes wrought in her sister Fura are hard to come to terms with.  This isn’t the sister she remembers.  Fura has her own agenda, determined to unravel Bosa Sennen’s secrets and the mystery of the banking collapse that took place at the end of the previous book.

Shadow Captain is a rollicking good adventure that continues the story from Revenger.  Some mysteries are solved.  New ones are added, setting up for an intriguing next instalment.  Sit back and enjoy the voyage.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Psychology of Time Travel – Kate Mascarenhas

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (review copy from Head of Zeus) is an exciting and fresh take on time travel.  It’s hard to tell a good time travel story.  It’s far too easy to get caught in grandfather paradoxes or the desire to change the course of world events.  But rather than focus on the impact of time travel on the world around us, Kate Mascarenhas shows us the impact of the technology on the time travellers themselves.  How are you affected when you know that events are fixed no matter what you seek to do?  This is the story of the four women who invented the technology enabling time travel, and the rivalries between them.

The wonderful Hidden Figures-style opening to the novel shows us four women in rural Cumbria in 1967 on the verge of inventing time travel.  They are close friends, working in an isolated spot with limited resources.  But the group starts to break apart when one of the four, Barbara, suffers a breakdown on live television as they announce their amazing invention.  She has suffered the temporal equivalent of jetlag, after spending too long time travelling in a way that has upset her circadian rhythms.  Fast-forward 50 years, and Barbara’s grand-daughter Ruby is sent a news clipping from the future about the mysterious death of an unidentified woman in the basement of London’s Toy Museum.  Ruby is intrigued and attempts to solve this curious locked-room mystery.

This novel is a novel of fantastic strengths.  The cast is almost-entirely women, with men pushed to the periphery in supporting parts or existing only as absences.  It features a wonderful queer romance.  There is art inspired by time travel, including anomalous items that only exist in time loops.  Time travellers create their own jargon.  And it is great on a very British style of bureaucracy.  Of course the Government would set up an agency to manage time travel, with its own currency, judicial system, the use of technology to help the future by preventing extinction events, and the exploration of marketing opportunities by selling goods from the future in the present.

But where this novel really shines is in the psychology its title foregrounds.  People behave differently when they know they can travel through time and their actions are largely irrelevant.  They become hardened to death because it is inevitable, and grief has less meaning when you can travel back in time to visit a person while they are still alive.  Risk-taking behaviours increase, because when one knows the date and time of one’s own death there is no peril.  And infidelity is common when a person is disconnected from their own timeline and the significance of those emotional connections decreases.

This is a fantastically intriguing puzzle box of a novel, with a very satisfying payoff.

Goodreads rating: 4* 

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful – Arwen Elys Dayton

Normally I love a mosaic novel.  They can be a great way of telling a single story from multiple view points and they are excellent for stories that have to span multiple time periods.  But they are incredibly tricky things to pull off.  You have to weave together the narratives otherwise the reader is left with what feels like little more than a loosely connected collection of short stories shoved together to make a book.  And you are at risk of getting the reader engaged with a set of characters before moving away from them never to return.  Unfortunately, Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (review copy from Harper Voyager) is in the category of mosaic novels that don’t succeed.

The premise is a great one.  Dayton is exploring the idea that humanity is capable of incredible scientific progress when it comes to genetic manipulation and body modification, but they are equally and simultaneously capable of using these new technologies in ways that mess things up royally.  The novel follows the stories of various generations of people living with the new technologies.  As time passes they become more advanced and more radical changes and transformations are possible, but that just increases the ways in which these technologies can be misused.

Each piece works well as an individual story exploring the different issues raised by this technology: ie all the ways humanity can mess things up through greed, bigotry, selfishness and general inhumanity towards other people.  But they don’t hang together well as a novel.  The equivocal nature of the technologies concerned ironically gets in the way of the work cohering.  And the pieces vary in quality.  Some are superb, but others are much weaker.

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful is an ambitious book, but Dayton doesn’t quite manage to pull it off for me.

Goodreads rating: 2*