Planetfall – Emma Newman

Emma Newman‘s Planetfall (newly republished by Gollancz, who provided a review copy) is a brilliant SF psychological thriller.  Renata Ghali is an engineer on a high-tech extra-terrestrial colony founded by the visionary Lee Suh-Mi who brought together a group of colonists to flee Earth and travel to a new planet.  The colony is small, but stable, living around the base of an alien structure part plant, part animal and part city.  Suh-Mi is inside, communing with an alien civilisation, and the colonists have been awaiting her return for more than 20 years.  But the colony’s peace is over-turned when Suh-Mi’s grandson walks out of the grassland and into their lives, claiming to be the only survivor of a group of colonists believed to have crashed on landing.

Renata is a troubled protagonist, and the novel slowly reveals both her mental illness and the likely cause of it.  She suffers from anxiety, struggles to connect with other people and hoards goods.  She fell for Suh-Mi, her former flatmate, and followed her across the stars to escape a troubled relationship with her parents, and an increasingly dystopian Europe of scarcity, diminishing opportunity and encroachment on freedom.  The colony project is a grand vision of escape she can throw herself behind, running away from the challenges of Earth.  Newman’s depiction of Renata famously draws on some of her own personal history of anxiety, and is one of the best and most sympathetic portrayals of a complex and flawed character I’ve come across recently.

The reader quickly realises that all is not as it seems within the colony.  The Machiavellian and manipulative figure of Mack looms large within the novel.  Known as the Ringmaster, his job was to bring the colonists together and help broker their departure from Earth, using his charisma and influencing skills to create a shared vision and manage the people dynamics.  After landing, he has turned those skills to keeping the colony going while it awaits Suh-Mi’s return.  Superficially jovial, charming and caring, the reader soon realises there is a much more sinister undercurrent.

Newman is an accomplished novelist, though Planetfall is her first foray into SF.  The plot unravels with a beautiful balance of twists, reveals and insights that never once feels like Newman is artificially witholding information from the reader for plot purposes.  We travel with Renata as she revisits traumatic events of the past that she has tried to bury and forget.  And Newman gives us a brilliantly diverse cast of all races, genders and sexualities.

I am delighted that Gollancz has picked up this series of books, enabling Newman to finish writing and publishing the sequels.  This is exciting and fresh fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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Paris Adrift – E J Swift

Time travel novels are relatively rare.  It’s too easy to get caught up in a knot of grandfather paradoxes and endless self-referential loops.  Plus Doctor Who has pretty much sewn up the market.  Time travel stories work best when the stories told are small, and personal.  That’s what E J Swift gives us with Paris, Adrift (review copy from Rebellion).

Hallie is a teenager escaping from a difficult family home by putting off university, travelling to Paris and working in a bar.  Nudged towards a bar called Millie’s by a mysterious stranger, she finds a new family in the transient community of Paris bar staff.  She also finds an anomaly in the keg room beneath the bar that enables her to travel through time.  Unbeknownst to Hallie, she’s been selected as the person most likely to be able to avert a dystopian, apocalyptic future by making small changes to the course of events.

Hallie’s story is a coming of age tale.  She grows in confidence and maturity as she comes to terms with her challenging family upbringing.  It’s a love song to that time in our life when we first move away from home and discover self-reliance.  Hallie has the chance to reinvent herself in Paris, connecting with a diverse group of likeable people, both in her contemporary Paris, and the city throughout time.

The world-building has a pleasing sense of mystery, with the anomaly left unexplained, and the plot moves along swiftly.  Paris, Adrift is an enjoyable story told with pace and skill.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

2018 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year for fiction.  The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (review copy from Headline) is a thought-provoking post-apocalyptic tale about social media, climate change and identity.  It masterfully blends themes with a lightness of touch and real emotional punch.

In Clark Windo’s near-future, we are all permanently connected to each other through brain implants and the Feed: a lightning fast social media link that connects us all at the speed of thought.  Privacy is no more as people increasingly live their lives digitally, storing their knowledge, memories and experiences on servers and backing themselves up each day.  But that safe, complex world collapses suddenly when the Feed goes down, shortly after the assassination of the President.  The shock kills many, leaving only a few left, trying to eke out life in the ruins. 

Tom, Kate and their young daughter Bea are among their number, living in a small community on a farm. Relying on the Feed has left them with little or no knowledge of how to survive.  They don’t know how to grow food, cook, build or repair things.  But with the help of a couple of older people who remember life pre-Feed, they are trying to rebuild knowledge and a life.  Until Bea is kidnapped one day, triggering Tom and Kate to search for her.  A search that inevitably takes them on a journey of understanding that reveals the real cause of the collapse.  

Clark Windo plays with some of the tropes of genre fiction, giving them a contemporary update.  This is a novel that nods towards classic horror staples with a Survivors-style post-apocalyptic vibe and a distinctly literary fiction interiority.  The immediate aftermath of the Feed collapsing creates zombies unable to function and unused to having to speak.  And pervasive throughout the novel is a body-snatchers horror of a person’s implant being used to have them taken over by an alien consciousness.  In a post-collapse world without the intimacy of directly-shared thoughts and where the ability to read body language and facial expressions is a skill that has ossified, people are forced to ask themselves how they know who a person close to them really is.

Tom is particularly well-drawn.  As a son of the family responsible for the creation of the Feed technology, he has chosen to reject his place.  He is characterised by the desire to forget the past, to find ways to live on and to be self-sufficient.  The oblivion of forgetting and being forgotten is his first response to any trauma.  Yet he cherishes his memories of his relationship with Kate, clinging on to them through adversity.  
There is a climate change undertone to all this too.  The Feed consumes huge amounts of energy.  Our social media habits are putting increasing pressures on power supplies.  (All so we can share cat videos and photos of our lunch.)  Clark Windo asks if this is really worth the eventual price.  

Goodreads rating: 5*

Dogs of War – Adrian Tchaikovsky 

Fresh from Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us yet another fresh take on a classic.  Dogs of War (review copy from Head of Zeus) is a glorious updating of H G Wells classic The Island of Dr Moreau.  Told entirely from the viewpoint of bioengineered animal soldiers, this is a story of choices, ethics and overcoming our collecive limitations.

Rex is a dog soldier, and the leader of an experimental squad of similar bioengineered beings.  His squad-mates are Bees, an artificial intelligence distributed across a swarm of insects, Honey, a bear who is a heavy weapons specialist, and Dragon, a sniper lizard with chameleon-like powers to blend into the background.  The squad are under the direct control of their creator, Murray, with the control mechanisms plaing on Rex’s canine instincts to serve his human master, reinforced with a feedback chip that rewards and punishes.  

Rex’s squad are being trialled in a guerilla conflict in South America.  The use of bioengineered soldiers opens up new combat options, and the distance between commanding officer and battlefield changes judgements about risk and tactics.  It quickly becomes apparent that Murray has become involved in war crimes, including the illegal use of chemical weapons.  Rex’s squad are being used to cover up the evidence.  The issue is finally exposed when Rex’s unit become cut off from Murray’s command, and come to the aid of a village Murray is targeting to cover up a previous chemical attack.  Rex’s actions open up the question of Bioform autonomy, leading to a change in their legal status.
Dogs of War is a story of growth, change and evolution, as Rex and the other Bioforms transcend their limited beginnings.  Tchaikovsky’s strength as a writer shines through in the way he brings forward so much depth in a story told for the most part by a first person narrator with a very limited perspective.  Rex grows and changes over the novel, in large part as a result of his friendship with Honey, who forces him to stretch his thinking and understanding, first through making his own choices about right and wrong, and then as a leader of his Bioform people.  

For the most part this is an optimistic story about growth, change and the evolution of sentient beings.  But it is tempered with caution about the impact technological change canhave if not subject to proper regulation and control.  There is an element of body horror to Dogs of War, as Tchaikovsky shows us the potential of mis-using this technology in the novel’s climactic finale.

Most of all, it’s impossible not to warm to Rex and his squad-mates.  Good dog, Rex.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Austral – Paul McAuley

There’s a trend at the moment for ‘cli-fi’ – fiction dealing with climate change, its impact on the world and its consequences.  Paul McAuley is the latest to join the trend with Austral, (review copy from Gollancz).  

The titular Austral is a husky – genetically altered to thrive in the harsh environment of a settled and terraformed Antarctic that has been made habitable by climate change.  Huskies were created by the ecopoets – a radical sect of environmentalists committed to creating a new, biologically diverse Antactica.  But their vision for ecodiversity and sustainable slow change is not one that meshes with the need for immediate profit form the corporate entities exploiting Antarctica.  The genetic modifications that huskies have undergone are viewed with suspicion by unmodified humans, and they are treated as second class citizens, subject to travel restrictions and with limited rights.  Orphaned at a young age, Austral has grown up with bigotry and exploitation, struggling to find a place for herself in a world that will not let her fill the niche her parents envisaged.

The novel opens with Austral working as a prison guard, and the lover of a human organised criminal.  He continues to run his crime gang from within prison, relying on corrupt prison guards.  Through his abusive and exploitative relationship with Austral, he persuades her to take a key role in his plan to kidnap the daughter of a prominent politician, who is a distant cousin of Austral’s.  When the plan inevitably goes wrong, Austral finds herself on the run with her cousin across the frozen wastes of Antarctica.  As they are chased, Austral’s story is shown to us through a series of flashbacks.

I confess to being underwhelmed by Austral.  The main story is little more than an extended chase sequence.  While the novel has some interesting things to say about human modification, bigotry and the choices that face us about how we use and safeguard our natural environment, these issues were underexplored, with a fairly superficial treatment.  While entertaining and competently written, Austral is not a book that delivers much to excite or engage the reader.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Sweet Dreams – Tricia Sullivan

I’ve had lucid dreams.  Dreams where you know you are dreaming, and can alter the events, rewinding and replaying for a different outcome.  Charlie does that for a living in Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan (review copy from Gollancz).  She is a dreamhacker: paid to go into other people’s dreams to help them overcome phobias and anxiety.  It’s not a job with a big client list, and it doesn’t pay well, but it fits well round the narcolepsy Charlie was left with as a side-effect of a drug trial she participated in while penniless at university.

One of Charlie’s few clients is a famous musician who is suffering from extreme nightmares that are beginning to affect her career.  She is visited each night by The Creeper – a mysterious masked figure determined to cause harm.  When the musician dies one night, Charlie finds herself under investigation for the death, but also the the Creeper’s next target.  Desperate to deal with the Creeper and clear her name, Charlie finds herself uncovering a conspiracy.

Sweet Dreams is a great near-future thriller, looking at themes about the integration of technology in our lives, its increasing sophistication, and how we choose to approach it.

Goodreads rating: 3*

 

Gnomon – Nick Harkaway

Every novel by Nick Harkaway is different, and Gnomon (review copy from William Heinemann) is probably his most ambitious book yet.  This is a complex, multi-layered book that braids together a series of narratives to tell a story about society and our trust in its underlying structures.  Mielikki Neith is the key to piecing all this together.

Neith is the foremost Investigator for The System, the all-seeing and all-knowing system that governs society.  Part panopticon, part the ultimate in participatory direct democracy, it promises government by the people and in their best interests.  It’s the natural evolution of our current world, where we set out the details of our private lives in social media, and monitor our health and bodies with devices like Fitbits.  People today are choosing to self-monitor and share that data with large corporations, without ever questioning whether the offered benefits are worth the potential erosion of privacy.  Harkaway’s System is a society founded on the idea that if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to fear.  And this is a system that works, for the most part.

Neith is tasked with investigating Diana Hunter.  Hunter is one of the few who has lived a life seeking to opt out of the all-pervasive surveillance of the System.  She has lived quietly on the margins of society, until one day her behaviour is flagged as worthy of concern.  She is brought in for questioning, which in the case of the Sytem means a full brain scan under laboratory conditions.  But Diana Hunter dies under interrogation.  Her brain print is given to Neith as part of the investigation, to find out what she was up to and why she died.

The scan reveals a series of hyper-real narratives that Hunter has used to block the interrogation by masking her own thoughts and memories.  Constantine Kyriakos, the wunderkind banker who escapes a shark attack.  Berihun Bekele, a once-feted pop artist who survived Haile Selassie’s fall in Ethiopia and is retained by his grand-daughter to design a computer game which bears a startling resemblance to elements of the System.  Athenaïs Karthagonensis, a medieval scholar and wise woman mourning her dead son.  Although each story is distinct, they are linked both thematically and in points of detail.  These are arechetypal stories of gods and monsters, drawing on the oldest myths and stories from human civilisation.

Catabasis and apocatastasis are the two recurring themes in Gnomon, featuring in all of the narratives Harkaway sets before us.  They are the primal roots of so many of our stories.  Catabasis: the journey into darkness on a quest for an object, a loved one, or meaning.  Apocatastasis: the ending of a cycle that acts as a reconstitution of the world, often enabling its rebirth in a new direction.

This is not a perfect book.  It’s choppy in parts, and slow to get going.  Like one of Bekele’s painting series you need to stand back and view the whole by layering its component parts.  Harkaway is clearly conscious of the complex task he is putting before the reader, and at times is, if anything, a little too eager to lead the reader by the hand, laying out the trail of breadcrumbs to help understand what he is trying to say.  And there could have been a much easier story to tell.  Harkaway could have used his setting for a lazy polemic about the surveillance society.  But Gnomon reaches for much deeper truths about ourselves, about society, and about the impact of technology upon us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*