Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Houston, we have a problem. Our satellites are playing chicken over the poles.

The more I read about satellites, the more it seems we’re missing the startlingly obvious: The satellite constellations we’re so proud of and have become so reliant upon are in real danger and may in future jeopardise anyone leaving or returning to the atmosphere safely. The story so far:
      Engineers realised that many functions which satellites need to perform (mapping, global positioning and communications) could be done better if the satellite holding those sensors was placed in a polar orbit. That would allow them to pass the equator at a different longitude on every orbit and cover the whole planet in a more efficient, regularised pattern. In the 1990s this was implemented with more than one satellite, co-ordinated groupings, to allow them to be used for the triangulation of positions on the ground and to increase the frequency of passes and updates because if you increase the number of satellites on the same path, you reduce the length of blind-spots between passes.

      Various constellations or flocks of satellites have since been launched, such as Iridium which has 66 active satellites and 6 spares on a low Earth polar orbit (485 miles) on 6 orbital planes will 11 active objects on each but still all converging at the poles. Other constellations include Globalstar, GPS, A-Tram and Walker Star.
      Some altitudes are now unavailable because of debris. Both China and the US have deliberately shot down satellites, to demonstrate that they can, which has left thousands of pieces of debris at those altitudes, travelling at over 17,000 mph (7.5 miles a second relative to the ground), at which velocity a sugar cube has the energy of a bullet. To avoid these bands of fragments that are too small to track, satellites have been placed into lower orbits, which means they expire sooner, which has led to more being placed.
      In February, the ISRO intends to release 103 satellites from a single mission. The ISRO also intends to gradually place 648 satellites over three years into low Earth orbit. In June 2016, Boeing announced their intention to place a constellation of either 1,396 or 2,956 (decision pending) new satellites up, at multiple inclinations, avoiding many high bands and including all of the popular polar tracks.
      If we have very high speed passes at similar low orbit altitudes at the poles, the reducing range of available clear pathways, and at the same time we are increasing the number in the flock, without unified coordination on the ground, with each increase in saturation the odds of a collision are shortening. If two satellites collide, the debris will destroy every satellite at that altitude, removing another safe and available altitude for satellites and forcing the over-saturation of yet another altitude as everybody switches to it. The remains and debris are also something that ground launches will have to fly through.

      From an insurance point of view, if an old satellite is left up and a new one hits it, who is to blame? I’ve read (in a fictional book but probably true) that there’s no international law to cover this. Usually, the polluter pays but the dead satellite can be tracked, so the owners of the active one have understood that and chosen to put theirs on the same altitude, convergence and inclination as a known hazard. We aren’t looking at just two satellites lost in a two satellite prang though. We’re risking all constellations using that altitude.
      On the positive side, there’s climate change. Really, it’s true, I’ve found something good to say about that. Increased solar activity and a weaker atmosphere causes debris to drop out of low and near Earth orbit much faster. Solar activity, the sun spot count, has been increasing through the last five years. If we stopped putting stuff up now though, would it take a century for all the debris to clear, even with increased solar pressure?
      I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out far by predicting there’s going to be a very serious satellite collision event in the next few years, which will make space exploration as a whole more difficult. For anyone insuring satellites, they should not think in terms of the price of replacing one unit, they should understand that a single bump between any two objects at that altitude will destroy the whole fleet for every company or state using that altitude, whether they are in a polar or equatorial orbit. I think the first crash will be over one of the poles because it’s a thirty lane crossroads with no traffic lights, they’ve got no brakes, they’re all going at full speed and business says we don’t have enough of them.
      They look so serene, don't they?


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

An interview with Saurabh Dashora, author of Starship Samudram


As a warm up to this interview with Saurabh Dashora, breakthrough author of the science fiction novel Starship Samudram and a Senior Software Engineer from Bangalore, I’d like to share with you a little of the enthusiastic avalanche of progress in real space engineering in India today:
      The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) placed a craft in orbit around the Moon in 2008, which is impressive enough, then became the only country to send a space craft to Mars at the first attempt, in 2014. This was swiftly followed by the successful test of the Indigenous Cryogenic Engine, 2014, which can regulate the power of its rocket thrust to allow greater payloads and fuel efficiency. The ISRO then launched a record 20 satellites from a single rocket (2016) but has now announced the planned launch of 103 satellites from a single rocket next month (Feb 2017), which former ISRO Chairman Madhavan Nair described as “No big deal”. You think so? What would be a big deal?
      India has a government ministry, The Department for Space, placing space development at the heart of its public agenda. Critics may say that space programmes are a luxury but India earned £97 million from the launch of other countries’ satellites last year and has brought more overseas investment to India than the agricultural industry. The ISRO has declared planetary exploration a main intent, coupled with positioning the space industry to progress national development, which suggests it plans to make incredible explorations and use what it does and learns to repay the costs. Right now, India is designing and building a reusable launch vehicle, a heavy lift vehicle and a unified launch vehicle and it’s planning more lunar arrivals, footsteps in moon dust, starting with the Chandrayaan 2 combined lunar orbiter, lander and rover (mission date 2018).
      Okay, some of that’s been done but the next one certainly hasn’t. India is building a solar space craft called Aditya (Sanskrit for sun) which will be put into halo orbit at Lagrangian point 1, a stable point of gravity between bodies of in this case non-equivalent mass, to be our planet’s first uninterrupted and comprehensive solar and space environment observatory. Aditya will be our platform to monitor the solar corona, analyse particles in the solar wind, map magnetic fields in real time and provide ‘storm warnings’ as sun spots form and prepare to discharge towards us.

Faith: Saurabh Dashora, I’m so pleased that you found time from your two busy jobs to answer some questions. You are writing science fiction at a time when your country is assuming the initiative in turning space exploration fiction into space fact and that must be pretty exciting. Are you and has your book been inspired by these great space travel projects growing up around you?

Saurabh: Definitely, one automatically gets a lot of inspiration on seeing the tremendous progress India has made recently in space exploration. What I personally feel is that a writer is always inspired by his/her surroundings and the information from various sources until that one big thought strikes and then, he/she is left with no option but to sit and start writing. For me, Starship Samudram was a culmination of several years of love for science fiction and the real world space exploration activities happening all over the world and in India. Reading Carl Sagan's Cosmos some ten years ago was also a pivotal moment for me in building interest in space travel.

Faith: I can see from your work that you have a great interest in Saturn and have made a detailed study of the atmospheric moon Titan as a potential terraforming opportunity within our solar system. What conclusions have you reached and, if given all the resources you need to make something happen, what would you recommend that we do?

Saurabh: Saturn had always attracted me from childhood. Everything about it is amazing, mesmerizing, and majestic. When I read about Titan, I couldn't help but feeling intrigued. We see all sorts of fascinating but imaginary places in science fiction movies or books. But, here is a place in our very own solar system, which is so enigmatic and so full of mysteries. I also found that Titan does not get as much love as other places like Mars or Venus even though it has been always thought by scientists that after Earth, Titan is the most Earth-like place in the solar system.
      What I would recommend is that we should start thinking about establishing full-time colonies on Titan and other places like Jupiter's moon, Ganymede and our nearest neighbour, Mars. It wouldn't be a one-day task. We would need to build technology capable of assembling starships in Earth orbit, think about sustainable life in space, and preservation of human body during space travel. We should at-least try to definitely establish a permanent colony on our own Moon, something which I've considered as the most logical step for humanity in my novel Starship Samudram.

Faith: In your story, the Starship Samudram completes a lengthy voyage with around a thousand people on board. As all human space flights so far have involved just a handful of crew, what is your vision for sustaining and supplying large numbers of space mariners or colonists on future journeys of this size and distance?

Saurabh: It's important to see such voyages as mostly one-way journeys. First thing we would need to think about how to make starships that can sustain life on their own. For example, in Starship Samudram, most of the ship functions are taken care of by computers. There are farmlands within the ship's biomes, there are waste recyclers, there are power production facilities. Once the colonists left Earth, they didn't hope to return and hence needed that kind of security and assurance to take the plunge.
      Next big thing that needs to be achieved is to stop ageing. For a typical human life-time, space travel can be a huge hurdle. It takes almost three years to reach Titan, even if you are powered by nuclear energy. No one wants to get old travelling in space and doing nothing productive. Add to it the psychological effect of space travel and you're seeing a recipe for disaster even before reaching the destination.
      Another important thing is to have a chain of command. Come to think of it, a starship that can transport a thousand humans is like a mini-city and you can't hope to run it without some authority. But, it's always a thin line. That was one of the important themes I wanted to explore in Starship Samudram. Can human law and order created on Earth prevail a billion miles away? Will people even follow it? And what will be the effect of space travel on the hierarchical structure we are so comfortable following on Earth?

Faith: With the combined effects of climate change and increasing population, our planet will at some point run short of habitable land. Should we be looking off-planet for our solution, either to grow food in orbit or to establish colonies beyond Earth, or will it never be cost effective?

Saurabh: My resounding answer to this is a yes. Earth isn't going to last forever—no matter how much we are able to sustain it. If human race has to survive for a really long time, we've to definitely start looking off-planet. We've to establish colonies on the Moon, the Mars, maybe Titan, or maybe some other places. Even a permanent space station bigger than ISS will go a long way in advancing human race. The way I see it is that we've to somehow make it cost-effective. We can start by commercializing space exploration, probably to fulfil the need of natural resources, or acquire more land for the burgeoning population, or growing food. That will make it easy to get funds. 
      Over the centuries, humans have always thrived by migrating from one continent to another, extending their reach on Earth. The next logical step is our own solar system. It might not happen in our life-times but it should happen in the next generation or the next after that.

Faith: Many machines and concepts we make use of today have been invented first in science fiction. As an imaginative writer and futurologist, which of your ideas would you like to see established in reality?

Saurabh: There are two specific things. Firstly, I would very much love to see a starship like Samudram someday take off from Earth-orbit for a journey to another planet. I would also very much like to see a Thermo-Suit like the one explorers from Samudram use on Titan to be available in the real world. It would be really cool to have something that can extend our reach to harsher places than Earth.

Faith: A quick prediction please. I know the Earth is already in space but would you mind giving us your prediction of the year in which the first human child will be born in outer space?

Saurabh: If I've to just give a quick guess, I'd say three to four decades from now.

Faith: Can you please tell us more about your book Starship Samudram and what this story means to you?

Saurabh: Starship Samudram is my first book that I've thought worthy enough to be published and as a result, it's definitely the most important one for me. 
      From a genre point of view, one can call it a Science Fiction and it certainly is. But, it is also an adventure story, more in the category of space exploration. It also has elements of fear, mostly related to a fear of the unknown and how human mind reacts to situations outside its control. One of the recurring themes in Starship Samudram is also about humanity's place in the cosmos and whether we can evolve to a higher level in the future. 
      The main protagonist of the book is a geologist, Akshaj Parth, who has lost a lot in life and wants to escape Earth. Samudram was his last chance to do so because Earth is fast slipping into anarchy and disorder. There are several other important characters like the authoritative Commander Moody, Officer Xara, First Officer Cassie Lewis, and the Commander's own son, Jonathan Moody. The journey holds many promises for the various characters and each one has their own reason to be on the last voyage from Earth. They hope that Titan will give a new meaning to their lives. 
      Ultimately they find that the starship is not an exact utopia because too much of humanity's weaknesses have also found their way on-board. Neither is Titan similar to what they had initially anticipated. The book tells about their struggles on a totally alien world and how they uncover the mysteries shrouded within its dense atmosphere.

Faith: Indian literature is, of course, world famous but not many science fiction writers from your country have established themselves internationally. Could you recommend a few of your favourite national sci-fi novelists that should be better known internationally?

Saurabh: Unfortunately, science fiction is an often overlooked segment even though I feel the readers in India are highly interested in science fiction. Jayant Narlikar is one of the earliest Indian sci-fi writers that come to mind. Then, there's Satyajit Ray. However, there are also a lot of new writers, who are exploring Science Fiction and we might see a lot of activity in the coming years.

Faith: What would you want to write about next and why?

Saurabh: Of course, science fiction is my favourite and I'm now planning on a sequel to Starship Samudram. Those who've read Starship Samudram will know that even though the story ended on a logical level, there's a lot more going on in the Universe than what the protagonists thought. 
      However, I'd also like to write in different genres to explore different types of stories and themes. I'm currently working on a contemporary romance novel about first love, heartbreak, and chasing your dreams. More on that will come soon in the middle of 2017 if things go according to plan.

For readers who would like to find out more about Starship Samudram, here are links for the novel and to Saurabh's author page on Goodreads: 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Starship-Samudram-Saurabh-Dashora-ebook/dp/B01N2WVCX7

http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16228837.Saurabh_Dashora

Antioch, Pt1 and sneak peek at Pt2 by Gregory Ness - 5 Stars


This week I’ve read Antioch Part 1 by Gregory Ness and have also been lucky enough to read the first ninety or so pages of Part 2, The Sword of Agrippa, as an ARC taster of the next installment in the series. My main discussion will be about the first book because it’s not fair to give a review or a score to just a section of a second novel, where the missing majority might be of a different standard. Part 2 Section 1 was intriguing but, you know what I mean, I’ve got to be consistent.
      Looking back, the key word I associate with this novel is breadth. First of all there’s a very broad selection of subjects that the author has tried to capture and intertwine here, certainly putting himself in danger of over-reaching and setting a goal way too ambitious to adequately realise. Lists are boring but I have to give you some idea: Ancient civilisation(s), modern cities, a medieval city as a haven for scientific research, mysticism, properties of graphene, properties of hallucinogens, the birth of languages, the birth of religions, old gods and symbolism, the nature of practical energy pinned down in the lab, the third eye, fracturing societies in the face of the mob, past-life dream worlds, regrets and tapping into trans-mortal consciousness. Most authors would have split diverse subject matter on this scale into three different books but one of the reason I enjoy reading indies so much is that the writers say “to hell with the rules, this stuff interests me” and sometimes they pull it off.
      The reason why this story grows into a fully realised unity and you don’t question the subject separation too much is the amount of background research that has been applied to it. I’m suddenly fumbling for words and the reason why that’s happening is I’ve soaked up a higher end page-count story with no slack bits and about two thousand details and references which I almost want to paste a link to because these are all pinnacles of discussion ice-bergs, then I’m attempting to convey that feeling in a handful of paragraphs. Each one of the details appears like a sliver of knowledge from a wealth of life experience that’s been popped in like a mapping pin to hold the thought in case he feels like returning there and expanding it. There’s no doubt the expansion could happen and further knowledge would unfold but the author leaves each as a point of gravid potential and then walks away from it. For someone like me (ancient civilisation buff, high tech fan), little lights blink on in my mind and make me want to email the sucker to say stupid things like “ah, but I bet you didn’t know that they also do this…”, sorry I can’t help opening email trails forty bounces long, when in retrospect it seems likely that someone who does their research this thoroughly probably does know much more than they included. This book could have been a mystical revelation about the beliefs of the old world, which would have been fascinating historical fiction on its own. It could have been an exploration of sci-fi discovery, what would be suddenly possible and how people and religions might react to that. It could have been a Roman boy meets Egyptian girl sort of culture and identity metaphor. Reconciling it all together and sprinkling it with illusions, insights and points of reference in real history makes this book a bit special, when you think about it. That shouldn’t have worked, but it has.
       For people who can’t tell what is art and what isn’t, the best test I’ve heard of is to ask yourself “Does seeing that make me feel different?” Let’s see. If you read this book and go through the passages covering the end of the library of Alexandria, the worst loss of intellectual knowledge ever, well, I felt pain. I could feel the gap, the chasm which should have been filled with books and words we will never read, cultural references and memes that we’ll never get to use, the identities of discoverers of things and thoughts that we now credit to the second place scholar that came after them, the intense and horrible realisation that human stupidity chucked our species’ cultural heritage from pre-classical antiquity and the life’s work of the very best of us into a fire. Feel different? I should hope so. Then you’ll rage at the ignorant heathenism vs scientific progress topic, then the writer turns your emotions around again to chase the tail of the merits of Iron Age oneness and its closer connection to the human condition, which the modern reality has lost.
       I like the idea the book is partly set in Prague, the magnificent city of architectural playfulness and deep, deep writers at the crossroads of Central Europe, a beer and sausage culture where the purveyors and customers reaffirm their own layers of cultural experience on top of the complex hundreds of existing ones that have seeped into the stonework of the old city before them. The lifetimes that this city and its intricate network of lived-in places attest to is no different from wandering amongst temples and public spaces in Egypt or Rome and visualising the immense wealth of history and the characters that traversed those same pathways before you. That feeling ties us to the past, which the author then explores by linking dream states across time too. Just imagine what fun you could have if it could all be reopened in virtual experiences. Yes please.
       What I’ve seen of the sequel should not be read in isolation from the entirety, mostly because you’ll get the wrong end of the stick and think it’s just erotica. No, not that stick Gladys. The thing is, there’s a pretty imaginative scene involving a man, two girls and a mystical ceremony which looks like an excuse to hilariously mix an ancient Egyptian potion with gentleman juice which then glows in the dark and, essentially, the pretty girl gets painted up and sprayed like a techno dance addict in Ibiza who got told she could drink as much vodka as she liked because it doesn’t contain any calories and then danced her way into the boys’ dorm. That must be art as well then because I’m now feeling unusual. In reality, Egyptian history was rude in parts and when straight-laced British archaeologists discovered Egyptian tombs with murals depicting rude appendages and ceremonies (look up the lotus drug ceremony), the prissy Victorian prudes got their chisels out and edited them. That is absolutely true: modern people, uncomfortable with sexuality, habitually vandalised tomb murals that showed real scenes that the Egyptians really did, scenes from their religious practices and beliefs, because the western viewers of that time couldn’t bear the thought of their women fainting. Have you seen Pompeii? The only reason those murals survived was because they were underground. These Egyptian ceremonies with religious excuses really happened, as did Saturnalia in Rome, and pretty young things were really convinced that if they wanted to please the gods and pass to a higher spiritual plane, they had to get into the fertile spirit of the things and spread. I’ve heard the same thing about modern ashrams, that the best looking girls are considered ready to learn the tantric secrets long before the plain ones are. Then there’s the idea of making a donation to show your faith, which still works on fools in some cultures. Egyptians fell for this stuff too but it really happened, so saying that’s the way it was is perfectly fair. Scorpions sting. Egyptians partook of the blue lotus and then fooled about. It’s true. The reason that some version of this scene is necessary to the story is the requirement to set an important spinal support to the series, that a mystical ceremony links souls together so they can re-acquire each other through many lifetimes. I can imagine the Egyptian priests would come up with a ceremony for that which would get a bit rabbity, so the magic marker scene is legitimate and stays in.
       There’s also an introduction to Hermes Trismegistus, which makes me interested in reading the rest of the series to see where the author takes that. Briefly, HT could have been a dominant western religion but it got pushed out in the power struggle which Christianity won. The Medicis were keen, as was an obsessed Pope (even to this day there’s a painting of Hermes Trismegistus in the Vatican) and HT/Christianity/Islam still have a lot of shared teachings from this time in the Bronze Age. When the author couples this shared history of knowledge with another ancient and very real belief, that of the existence of the books of Thoth (tablets of wisdom brought down from above and given to humans), then the fictional fantasy of tracking down the original temple of Thoth, that’s bait on the hook for readers. Yes, it’s an interesting series and the author has done a thorough job of revealing several worlds based on his interesting knowledge and then portraying it in a way that we swallow it whole. What an impressive trick. Let’s see where it goes.

A quick update to say that the sequel, Alexandria, is already available for pre-order: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06X92GPZF?ref_=pe_2427780_160035660

Monday, 23 January 2017

Psionik by Leo De Souza - 3 Stars


I've finished reading this and found it a bit of a curate's egg, good in parts but inconsistent. I thought it would be heavy on science fiction but that content is proportionately small and it has more of a near future political, symbolic and military encampment leaning. That’s fine if you’re writing a story about these subjects, so my misunderstanding of book’s balance has to be set aside and have no bearing on an assessment of the quality of the story. The good thing is, the book that I did end up reading does make you think quite hard about the here and now, about where we've come from and where we're heading, whether the light of hope has turned out to be a trick of the dark, so it's always a good tactic of science fiction to use a future setting to make readers re-examine their taken-for-granted philosophy and question what movements they're part of right now. More of that later.
       The keyword used in the title needs explaining, so here’s the dictionary definition of the word as spelled with a k: “Psionik relates to the practical use of psychic powers or paranormal phenomena.” The origin of the word with the k is given as “probably Russia”. Wikipedia notes [never quote Wikipedia. Oops, just did] there’s a subtle difference in meaning when using the word with a c: “Psionics is the study of paranormal phenomena in relation to the application of electronics. The term comes from psi ('psyche') and the -onics from electronics (machine). It is closely related to the field of radionics. There is no scientific evidence that psionic abilities exist.” I gather from that, the title refers to those who have the ability to control electronic equipment with mind control, just the power of will, as recognised from the cultural perspective of Russia. In a single word, this story meets the criteria for science fiction because if you start from the position of what we know is possible now and take it one step beyond, into the currently impossible or unproven, that’s a science fiction scenario.
       The psionik practitioners in this story can move objects [telekinesis?] as well as directing electronic devices. Never mind, that’s just a petty variation. It’s also important to note that from the middle to end of the last century, the major powers of the Cold War really did serious research into the question of whether the mind alone could affect the physical world. Some of these research themes are echoed in the abilities Leo deSouza gives to his psionic characters – remote viewing, willing things to move, dream travel through space and time, commandless interaction with electronic servo mechanisms and access to mystical refuges such as Shambhala or Shangri-La. The writer cleverly contrasts the Shambalah of light and air in the east, that we traditionally imagine, with an underground refuge of darkness and tunnels, more aligned to the German philosophies of the sub-conscious mind (1860-1930), so the image is massively swapped around and yet still performing the same function, as a refuge of the body and soul. An interesting and original variation, I think.
       There are some highly visual scenes in this book that need to be commended. The first one I liked was the image of people on the International Space Station looking down on Earth, from a higher and more enlightened perspective, seeing barbarism erupt and then joining in themselves. A godlike perspective on the world ends in godlike squabbling, not for the first time in mythology. I also liked the scene with the ten metre tall burnished steel robot, worked by little guys inside pulling levers, which sounds great fun and my perfect day out. I’d prefer to see the robot’s controls being worked by the cast of Time Bandits, but it’s Leo’s book, not mine. If the robot is an unintended parody of Nietzsche's superman (it has the power of and indeed contains many men), the moment it falls represents success for all Beta males everywhere. Good, they can get back to the washing up.
       Another bit that worked well but it’s just odd is the tunnel living, the endless, friendless tunnels in which the denizens have relaxed the enforcement of nationality but seemingly hang onto their religious and political distinctions. The tunnels give the book weight and feeling, oppressive and yet safe, as long as the sense of community or commune can be held together. 1984, Brazil and Alien are other examples of this industrial scale defensive, tunnel mentality but I can’t say that Leo deSouza doesn’t build that atmospheric well.
       Commercially, I think the cover design is a mistake. People don’t want to sit on public transport reading a book where the other passengers can see what looks like a swastika and then form judgements on the reader. That symbol is too stigmatised to use anywhere now. The explanation is that it’s the Hindu symbol for luck (which I guessed before I read it), an ancient symbol of brotherhood but, when combined with the black and flashes of Rothschild arrows, it risks people forming the wrong impression and therefore reduces book sales, so wouldn’t another image be more appealing? Never judge a book by the cover is applicable but what if people don’t always follow that?
       Much of the book is set in near-future Russia but the over-arching conspiracy draws in other nations, from Japan, Italy, the US and the UK. In my view, this doesn’t link together very well and the nature of the division that brings nations to war isn’t as credible as it could be. The assumption that nuclear armed nations wouldn’t use them when being conquered goes against majority thinking. The relative utility value of remotely piloted robotics in fighting is something we haven’t experienced in our past but could be very different in the future and it is shown working here but, as a reader, I was never convinced of the reason for their use, why war and why is a non-nuclear power conquering a nuclear power with only conventional resistance?
       There are people who can perform mental tricks and perhaps operate machines. There are only a few though and you could also operate the machines with levers and the cast of Time Bandits, who are probably cheaper to hire, then the machine gets tripped up by an ordinary opponent anyway, so what’s the fuss? I think more emphasis should have been given on the power to control the masses, to lead people’s thoughts, crowd control. This could have had echoes of the societies in which it has been tried. There’s a short passage of this where a psionik imposes will globally, a huge scale-up from the level of ability they’ve used before but explained because they now have an antennae and a special room. Whether you’re comfortable with that escalation depends on how cynical you are. Then again, I liked the underground balloon guy delivering Easter eggs, so what do I know?
       I thought the book was a little dark and mildly depressing, like 1984, as if the cold war images of concrete, rusting iron, uniforms, discredited political systems and cracking-head differences had never gone away. Life is cheap, bodies are bodies, scrap is scrap and we all drink vodka to forget. Why is food being sent to the tunnels? Wouldn’t the country prefer the soldiers down there to be active on the surface somehow, to be given responsibilities beyond their own continuation? I’m not saying they shouldn’t be there, as the haven needs its population, but a stronger reason why would be helpful.
       The best section of the book is 68% of the way through (no page number visible on my Kindle version), where a professor gives a lecture on our current (2017) western political model, from 2050. The text of this speech will really make you think, or if it doesn’t then you’re too pig-headed to bother trying to reason with. The gist is that the ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Liberalism are just as damaging and disenfranchising as each other but we haven’t all realised it, like we’re sleepwalking. All insist on taking self-determination away, resulting in a club of leaders and a large population of slaves, who don’t even realise their situation because they’re encouraged to see things as important that really aren’t. Is it about money? No. Can you buy a culture, peace or freedom? This is the second time I’ve read a sensible critique of oppression by Liberalism in a fiction book this year and neither were from the right or left wing, they were both describing these ‘control’ systems as all coming from the same bag, degrading our lives. Liberalism, Fascism and Communism all involve a very small group of people that no one has ever voted for imposing their will on a population with their core message "You have no choice" and then robbing them. This is what I’ll take away from the book, that and the image of an underground hive of refugees, sheltering from the cold.
       Science fiction is meant to make you think, to see our widely-accepted and apparently stable reality from a future perspective and maybe think a little harder about what actually matters and what could be stopped or started. This book fulfils that function, briefly, for a few pages. It also revisits some ideas, retro sci-fi and religion, in a memorable way. What it doesn’t do is deliver a lasting corporate whole or an unforgettable character, even an unforgettable imaginary culture or psychic ability, so for me it’s like a bowl of jelly that hasn’t quite set, with uneven flavour. This is not a lazy book because the writer has worked very hard over a long stretch to fill every page with geopolitics, menace, camaraderie, reaction and borrowed symbolism, then put it into the furnace to meld and fuse it together but, for me, the finished product is still in its component parts. A unified vision is one thing to desire but I did like the big robot. Quick, Robot! Take a memo to Merchandising.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

An interview with Graeme Rodaughan, author of A Subtle Agency


Hooray, I hear you say, an article with opinions other than her own. Graeme Rodaughan, author of A Subtle Agency has kindly agreed to give his views on science fiction writing and on future science, what will come to pass and how we should manage it. Graeme lives in Australia and this interview was conducted online, which is simple enough, but if you consider that fifty years ago it would have been done by post on a boat and a hundred years ago it would have been impossible unless we were really, really good at shouting, what improvements can we expect in the coming half or full century? I can happily dedicate a lot of my evenings to this kind of talk. Take it away.
Faith: Graeme, what’s the purpose of a sci-fi novel? Is it entertainment or is it to make us think about humanity’s issues from a new perspective, is it a prediction service or is it just a format for a master of language and imagination to show you what they can do?
Graeme: All of the above, as follows. (i) As entertainment: The first purpose of story is to engage the reader in an immersive experience that transports them into the author's world. The story must connect with the reader emotionally and fully engage their imagination. Science fiction has been a lifelong engagement for me that has allowed me to explore so many things that are not available in everyday life. I love science fiction and I'm sure that I will continue that love affair for the rest of my life. 
      (ii) As intellectual provocation: Absolutely. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is a classic example of this attribute. The scientific revolution and the rise of industrial society has granted humanity great creative power - will we use that power wisely or will our creations rise up and destroy us? George Orwell's 1984 looks are the nature of power relationships. Robert Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land looks at sexual politics. The list goes on and on. The great value of science fiction is that it allows every aspect of the human condition to be examined and discussed through a hypothetical "what if" lens.
       (iii) As prediction: Yes. Both optimistically and pessimistically. Although, it seems that far more often society travels a path beyond anyone's predictions. There are some noteworthy examples of predictions that have come true, such as hand held communicators from Star Trek.
       (iv) As author flair: Don't we all? Every author I've read, and every author I know, is doing their best to master language and imagination to display it with narrative power and effective prose.
Faith: Which science fiction books do you wish you had written and why?
Graeme: None of them. I treasure so many books and authors precisely for what they are and the contribution that they have made. My only need is to write my own stories and to connect readers with them.
Faith: Do your choices tell us you are a description, dialogue, nostalgia or ideas person?
Graeme: I look for economy of description to the point of being sparse. Action and dialogue are my primary vehicles for telling a story. Yes, I am very much an ideas person. When someone has a "re-programmable reality" as the fundamental basis of their story world, you know that you are not dealing with an ordinary story.
Faith: Which sci-fi or engineering concepts attract you and can you see them ever happening?
Graeme: Scientific and technical progress is accelerating. I read a report a few years ago where it was noted that China was graduating ten times the number of engineers as the USA. There are a lot of new technologies that are just over the horizon and rapidly approaching. Many of them present very real danger if misused precisely because they are so powerful. The scientific/technical edge enjoyed by western civilization over the last few centuries is being rapidly eroded and will contribute to the evolution of a multi-polar world power structure. Key technologies going forward are as follows: 
      Human genetic engineering. Nuclear fusion. Genuine Artificial Intelligence. Advanced humanoid robotics. Widespread use of nanotechnology in many fields. Rail guns and directed energy weapons. Automation of warfare via drones/robots. Cost effective large scale energy storage. All within the next fifty years.
Faith: What ways have you found to fire your imagination and explore new ground?
Graeme: This happens naturally. Remaining grounded is the real struggle.
Faith: Are we losing control of our planet, what is its future and what technologies can we develop to solve our next set of challenges?
Graeme: We don't have total control of the planet, nor are we powerless and without impact. I would posit that we are more of a threat to our own civilization than we are to the planet. Our current civilization was built on cheap energy, if we destroy it we probably won't get another chance to build another one. This is our one shot and we need to make sure it counts for the future of human civilization. 
      The key threat we have is our reliance on centralised, hierarchical power structures. Centralization, by its very nature creates hierarchy, which by its very nature creates inequality. To solve our problems we need to start living outside these traditional structures so that we engage the true potential of humanity. The opposite of centralization is peripheralization, aka decentralization. When you hear a phrase like "Empower the edge" you are dealing with the sort of structure that I recommend.
      An example of technologies that support peripheralization are peer to peer networks. They enable genuine grass roots movements that generate localised bottom up solutions. The internet is a key technology empowering decentralization. All the technologies that I mentioned above have the potential to support either further centralization or peripheralization. Which pathway is followed is a human choice, not a technical one.
Faith: Thank you Graeme for giving us your thoughts on sci-fi today and our reality of tomorrow. The following is an introduction to Graeme's latest novel:

"In a universe where reality can be re-programmed, any wish can be satisfied or any nightmare realised. Set in a very near future Boston & New York. In a world that looks a lot like ours. Vampires rule from the shadows, but they are not unopposed. Standing against them are two ancient secret societies. The Order of Thoth and the Red Empire, united in their opposition to the vampires and bitterly divided by their different values.
      A young Anton Smith, a Boston university student in his freshman year, and star Hockey player comes to the attention of the 2nd most powerful vampire in the world, General Chloe Armitage. She has a visionary plan for the future in which she needs Anton to play a critical part.
      Anton's world and everything that he thought he knew is shattered, he is thrown onto the streets of Boston and must quickly adapt to survive. But will he learn what he needs to know quickly enough to make a difference or will he become a knight in an ambitious vampire's chess game where the future of humanity is at stake. 

Graeme’s new novel can be found through this link: myBook.to/ASubtleAgency
Graeme has an author page on Goodreads here: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15295296.Graeme_Rodaughan

Friday, 20 January 2017

A better model for the publishing industry?

I asked this on Goodreads and I’m waiting for answers from authors past and present:

“Not everyone writes for money. Many want to be remembered for their contribution to our culture, a number want to pass on knowledge and others are driven by something they want to say. In the UK, a survey by the Authors’ Licencing and Collecting Society of active writers (with separate publications in each of the last three years) reported that the top 5% of professional authors receive over 42% of all author income, the bottom 50% earn less than £10,500 a year, that’s beneath the minimum wage, and the bottom 17% earn nothing or, through publishing services, pay to write. A survey of readers (not book sellers) in the US concluded that 41% of US citizens have read no fiction books at all in the previous year. A smaller sample group of independent writers concluded that on average more time is spent promoting an independent work that was spent writing it. A Sunday Times survey in January 2017 found that 1 in 10 people do not own a book, dropping to 1 in 5 in the 18 to 24 age group, and although the average household in the UK has 158 books, a quarter of them have never been opened.
      An international trend too obvious to bother evidencing has apparently developed that many members of the public expect to receive their information and entertainment for free and many publishing houses prefer to give contracts to new authors who are already famous for something else, not writing. Has it been your experience that the writer/creator has become dangerously unappreciated in modern society or, alternatively, has the feedback you have received as a novelist persuaded you that it is all worthwhile in the end?”

Until those answers come in (I’ll update this), here’s my opinion:

I’ve always wanted to go into a career in publishing but although I can see the rails running with assuredness into the distance, the feeling’s growing within me that we’re slipping evermore off the side of the track. I think I’ll change the metaphor. Think of the publishing industry as one of those paintings of a tree in blossom, where the flowers are at different stages in their life-cycle. Some are buds, some are peaking and some are withering into decay but the living force when taken as a whole is continuous. The industry is represented in my mind by that tree and the debut authors are new buds, there’s established flowers that are pulling their weight and then there’s old and falling blossom that we all know and reference (the classics). But but but. What happens when the tree doesn’t support the new buds and fewer of them are ever nurtured to open? Sure, they can try to do it away from the tree. Good luck with that but you’ll spend all your time calling “Look at me” and not writing. Back to the tree. With nothing new, the mature blooms get tired and then everything shifts to the dead and dying end of the range. No new professional contracts, no reward stream and no publicity for new writers isn’t the way to go, but it is market forces. It's a bleak picture though.
      Journalism as well, the industry in which many writers learn their trade, is withering because people either don’t read papers or don’t want to pay for their news. Where will the new writers come from, the ones we need to keep the tree alive? I don’t find dead wood particularly attractive but we still have the opportunity to press it into fresh pages. Do authors have to get pushy and discover themselves? An author can take advice from the industry about this but as my Mum says “Try not to take any advice from someone who wants to fuck you, dear”. What’s supporting the industry now? Tie-ins? Reprinting old works with a new cover just because they’ve been adapted for television? That’s what second hand bookshops are for. You can download the picture and stick it over the top, if you like, and I don’t want to read a foreword by an actor because the actor didn’t write it. Who cares what an actor thinks anyway? Fresh writing that can be filtered by an independent audience to find new literary talent would be welcome but I think it would be better to set it in a framework.
      Now the publishing industry has passed on the responsibility, is the best mechanism to find new writers going to be self-publishing? Should more effort be made in crowd sourcing books? The problem with that is the services that provide this have often been set up by former publishers who are looking for a different business model and new ways to support themselves, so the author and their friends are the second priority and supposed to pull in the money for the publisher. They are offering a new author the opportunity to be in print if they can raise a few thousand pounds in pre-sales, from which the business takes an agreed profit margin for the service. The author has the responsibility of marketing their book before it can be published though, so the system only rewards good salespersons. If some hermit in a cave in Ireland has written a book that could change the world, with no friends and no online following they have no chance. So, the filter used to be an editor who read a manuscript to see if it was good enough to attract long term sales and if the writer was worth nurturing. Now the mechanism is that the author needs to make themselves popular and get pre-sales in before the publisher thinks the project is worth claiming.
      This isn’t news but publishing can be done for nothing (Createspace or Kindle KDP). One answer might be to crowdsource to pay the bill for editing and marketing because that’s what can’t be done for free (Kickstarter or Indiegogo). Who wants to pay someone else’s bills though, before they know what’s in the product? Will the angels ever read the product? We need a system which sends money and publicity to the writer, not everyone else in the chain with the writer doing the work, paying for services and then giving copies away because that’s the only way to get it reviewed and read by anyone. I’ve got a business plan now which was suggested by my good friend Mr Talking Sock:
      If people could be encouraged to feel proud about themselves and be acknowledged by others as a worthy, educated and benevolent soul for helping to bring new writers to the world, a kind of warlord of books, that could take off. Membership of that prestigious club would be the incentive. I’m talking about readers contributing time, not money, and it’s not quite voluntary work because they’d be reading ebooks for free and getting respect for it (for panelists only and with access to the text expiring on a deadline). It would be a cultural change that would re-align the industry. I know independent reviewers do see ebooks now but we either have to seek them out from authors (compromised by opening relations) or the author comes to us (only proactive ones get seen) or we never find them. What we need is structure and a hub where we can get to them all. Would you join an honourable panel of citizens who can choose to read new and independent authors’ books as they come in? Would you be interested to hear this week’s top ten of debut books after that skim? Would you be more likely to talk about new books spontaneously with your friends or buy a physical copy of one of the titles to support a new author? Everything older than 6 months could drop off the list, so would have the promotion early on and then be sold at a fair price going forward.
      Questions: “In who’s opinion is the top 10 ranked?”, when no individual has read them all. It starts working when there are more reviewers as the collective has read them all. "If a title with a huge sample group is scored just below something with a small sample group, is that still ok?" I don't know. Music is judged by market spend, one pound one vote is universally comparable, but unknown books being displayed for the first time have no such mechanism. I think we need a larger pool of independent readers (not just one or two bloggers) who will donate some of their time to reading and scoring new books by new writers, putting only this category into a ranked long-list, auto-tracking what’s moving up and down so people can jump into a trend and find out if they agree with it. Two or three marks is no good to rate equivalence, so the system only works if lots of people get involved. 
      Indie authors would then do their publicity in terms of the list, so that attracts more attention to the list’s existence until it goes mainstream, which puts independent authors on the front line for a change. The press would have their choice of people to interview and that would stoke the fire. Publishers would then be more inclined to give contracts to independent authors, who would then be able to make a career of it and the publishing industry would have its pick off the conveyor belt of new talent. This can be done, everyone benefits, the publishing industry would stop declining and become fashionable again, the public would have confidence in the fairer and larger quality sift, authors wouldn’t give up and there might even be a desk job in some far corner of it for me when I pop out of uni.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The R.E.M. Effect by J.M. Lanham - 4 Stars

We’re all slaves to our emotions. Now consider what that actually means. Our conscious decisions are like headlines, short and prominent, but much more goes on in the subconscious, like the full article in all its detail, than we could ever hope to keep track of. Breathing, the regulation of body temperature, digestion, when to sleep and all the rest happen because of instructions we don’t even register in the conscious. That’s the mind but how about the body? The DNA we have in every cell instructs the construction of the body on a cellular and sub-cellular level. Sometimes replication errors creep into the blueprint and then the design becomes vulnerable and fails or at least turns less efficient. From myopia and arthritis to cancer, mutation and ‘bad genes’ are the engine room of evolutionary development because sometimes they confer an unexpected advantage but they’re also an Achilles heel that fails our systems. Naturally, we can’t intervene in these hidden processes of the mind and body to tailor the system to suit us, can we? Let’s try that question again. Could we?
      Picture this: Set a story in a world in which a pharmaceutical drug is in development that can inhibit genetic instructions that inform systems which regulate the body, including the brain. This is also a world in which devotees of an ancient form of mystical philosophy can give their subconscious mind body-regulating orders. Got the picture? Merge the systems and amplify. Now lets’ take both abilities to the mass market and monetize the discovery. Yea! We take control of our inner systems and set up the conscious as an aegis to fumble around in the full potential of our minds and bodies like an untrained surgeon, the very thing that natural biology didn’t trust us with! We’re all gods now. Excuse me? Does anyone remember what hubris means? Dr F?
      Now let’s re-visit a deeply carved sci-fi concept. Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If we re-consider the claims of our planet’s traditional and weathered spiritual disciplines like Buddhism, Yoga, all the sutras, asanas, high llamas, blokes who sit up poles etc., then drill down to their less exercise-based extremes, usually hearsay, like yogic flying, transcending death, remote viewing or out of body projection (vomiting?) or balancing the budget, these can all be interpreted as claims of ‘magic’. If manipulation of the brain, either with a chemical compound or through a mind control technique were to allow any of this to actually happen, it would be rigorously tested and then accepted scientifically, i.e. this ancient mystical stuff is arguably a kind of science fiction because it’s one step beyond what we know is possible and the fiction tag would have to drop if the effect that’s claimed could be replicated. (Question: What do you call alternative medicine that has been proven to work? Answer: Medicine). One day, is it inconceivable that Astra Zenica or Glaxosmithkleinbeechamsmithandnephew or whatever they’ve joined up to become by then might make a subconscious mind and body control-style breakthrough? Prepare for the distinguished Hindu gentleman at the AGM sticking up his hand and saying “We told you so”. Until that happens, we can explore the fiction.
      This book is a flowing, well written and efficiently copy-edited (everyone forgets the editor) adventure thriller that explores the values of big pharma on one hand and on the other the kind of showman who has his own TV channel and can sell the public any commodity, including shallow corruptions of things intended to be more spiritually meaningful. It’s also a story of resistance and escape, since each advance grinds new victims beneath it, as the situation gradually plays into what it feels like when your dreams turn rancid and the hounds are out. There’s a paragraph I like which describes driving up to a traditional Tibetan temple, so you think the car is out of place but that neatly misdirects the reader from the real outlier as the building turns out to be in Atlanta. I like the baddies, the goodies, the people up trees and decaying aeroplanes. Arthur C. Clarke also noted that the limits of the possible can be found by venturing a little way past them into the impossible, which is what this book does, using the small-step terrestrial sci-fi approach, where the changes don’t confer ridiculous magical super-powers (laser beams from your eyes igniting snowballs, catching bullets and flying at the speed of sound without your cheeks flapping open) but veer just far enough into the incredible to make the fantasy come alive and prompt the all-important questions about how far we should go – whether our profit incentivised exploration would have the wisdom and maturity to stop and take a loss if a tool a little too powerful was ever discovered. “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known” (Carl Sagan, optimist). I am in a quotey mood, aren’t I?
      Would you decline a new ability or cure for your ailments? Would you pass up the chance to use new found powers or knowledge? Could you or your business afford to choose not to profit from your research and investment? For all those who take the self-righteous approach, how would your answer if you or your loved ones were desperate? Even if you still abstained, would you trust everyone else not to use it? “It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.” (Julius Oppenheimer). Boom.
      The reason why I think you would enjoy reading this book is because it’s a good, engaging story which the author steers with competent control. It’s as simple as that. The scenes aren’t too short, they’re not too long and there’s a second tier character called Donny who stands out from the cast like the lawyer’s character does from Breaking Bad. Donny, Donny, “If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools” (Kipling had the little shit lined up right there).
      This corporate medical industry subject matter tends toward something the author clearly knows about but the easy-going and confident writing style tells me that he could change subjects and pull the reader in just as effectively doing something else. I looked J.M. Latham up because I didn’t think this could really be the first book he’s attempted, but apparently so. This yarn is next-step, terrestrial scientific fiction so the reader isn’t expected to come out convinced it will work and expecting the whole shebang to be announced next Tuesday but I like the story in a mainstream-missed-out kind of way and I think you will too.

Lightspeed Frontier: Kicking the Future, by Adam Corres - 5 Stars

A free copy of this novel was submitted to the Having Faith Book Review Blog for an honest and independent opinion.

It’s just after 5am and I’ve read this book in two days. I am going to read it again and I don’t think I will ever give my copy away. What’s special? Any flaws? Yes, so that first then. Not all the characters have enough depth for us to care about what happens to them and some sections are light and bizarre, with others turned into long information bursts but I can forgive that because the structure only seems to be there to support the flow of ideas and humour. It’s densely packed at just 214 pages, so could easily have been diluted into a calmer, longer read, but wasn’t. It steps out from the crowd though because it is coming from a completely different place, a different kind of glow in the dark thinking delivered in a chatty and anecdotal storytelling style that wouldn’t normally go with the content. These people aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? I’ve also read the website and done a bit of Googling and found the computer game designers wanted someone to write a book to go with their game, for content. The author they ended up with could be a totally random pick or maybe it was about taking a risk to get something different. I’m not really conveying this well because it’s a book you laugh along with, despite the constant intensity. It’s there to enjoy, but it’s also just so carelessly bright that some people are going to give up.
      Foremost, this is comedy, so you can read it for the laughs without prior knowledge and just skip over anything techie, then go play the game and fly your space ship without worrying you’ve missed much. You’ll like the reverse hostage situation scene, where the protagonist doesn’t want her brother back and negotiates with the gangsters who are threatening to release him. You’ll probably like the crazy explorers. What you might get lost in are plot devices like the double slit experiment early on and using algebra’s complexity against it nearer the conclusion. If you do get a handle on the rest of what’s being said, you might find your brain lights up a bit. Having finished this book I have the weird feeling of being brighter than I was yesterday. I’d seek out a conversation about big ideas now that I’d be scared of before. The book isn’t for learning but it shares enthusiasm and you find you’re noticing what was there all the time, widening your awareness.
      The story is written in a conversational style with many foolish asides and most of the scenes are set piece or in chaotic outer space settings. It is a book of fun but behind it are other layers: there’s this constant background of thinking, which pops through every now and again to add hard science knowledge that it would normally take us years to hear about. It’s just so randomly done, one minute there’s an absurd wacky situation or play on words joke and then the author will casually mention how to unencrypt cashpoint to bank transmissions (easy), how to be invisible to satellites, a sense of why Trump beat Clinton, how to retrieve lost TV shows by combining original signals transmitted years ago into space, the minus value coin idea which perfectly describes the economy right now, how to find a submarine from orbit and why the West is prepared to bet your life that the Chinese don’t have a gadget they say they have (can you put valuable knowledge into a joke book just because it’s an indie and you think nobody’s reading it?). Then there was another layer of suggestive gags that will go straight over youngsters’ heads.
      The lead character is called Exia and she’ll be everyone’s favourite because she’s a screwed up youth who’s bright and sexy. I like the secondary characters more though. Plummet is well drawn, so I could almost imagine him in the past or the future, just making an appearance every now and again and talking about his own world that he doesn’t particularly understand. He’s got a tortoise but really he’s more like his tortoise than it is. His female counterpart is an explorer called Harmonia Polyphemus Clitwilliams, a glorious battle-axe who could have stolen the show here but the writer wouldn’t let her. Those two could have their own book and knock you flat with it. The two boys in it are not as good and seem to trail along behind Exia.
      So, this book is nuts (from a rocket launcher). It’s experimental and structured like the writer didn’t think that was important, like the chapters were dropped and put back together in a funny order, and it is hit and miss where the value of the hits outweigh the misses but there are also a list of individual moments that would each be worth publishing the whole book for. I have to also tell you about the ending. I can’t say what it is because that would spoil the feeling when you hit that one throw-away line, a couple of pages before the end of the book, which explains everything in context and makes you slap yourself on the forehead and say “Why didn’t I see that?” Straight after this brain crack is one of the greatest ways to end a novel that I’ve ever seen anywhere, a feat of simple writing that’s in an E.E. Cummings shape but with another casual twist. What a remarkable ending to a book. That unexpected tear or two after the last line did it for me. That made it a crazy 5.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Stupid Humans, by V.R. Craft - 4 Stars

A free copy of this book was supplied to the blog for an honest and independent review.

This new science fiction novel is set in the not too distant future, where they have not unrealistically magical technology, where the physical laws of the Universe are the same, in the scenario that the human race has advanced in fields of engineering and expansion but sadly not in brainpower. More specifically, the time period the story draws from is a few years after a space-time wormhole has been discovered which enables humanity to re-engage with another half of the species which, it turns out, abandoned our planet thousands of years previously and then felt guilty about it. The distinguishing categorization is therefore ‘Humans’ (Homo sapiens from Earth now) and ‘People’ (Homo sapiens from Earth ages ago). Normally this would not be enough time to evolve significant differences in any species except bacteria but the People are more advanced at genetic engineering than us and have opted to upgrade their genetics with additional brains and tails. It isn’t clear whether the sub-species barrier can still be crossed sexually because the human who gets the opportunity to find out is so incompetent that he can’t even get drunken bestiality right (I still have the number for a prop forward from Bootle who said that when they were on tour in Zambia… okay, another time then). The difference between these races’ minds is summed up by their relative attitudes to solving famine: The People advise that there would be enough food for all if the Humans ate plants. The Humans reply “Oh, shut up. We know that” and carry on starving. I’m not a veggie but that neat and indisputable point illustrates the title better than the art work. Before you say it: As I’ve described the dimensions of the fish bowl that the characters swim around in, I won’t reveal and spoil the plot any further for the potential reader.
      You don’t get a 500 and more page novel without a bit of intrigue and development, so I can say it’s a story layered with inter-species tension, wound up rivalries and perceived injustices over medical and technological problems the People are known or believed to have solved but which they’d prefer not to share their recipes for. The human side is willing to share beer, which sums up what they bring to the table really, and the more inventive ones are continually on the lookout for opportunities to steal forbidden knowledge. The bar where they bring the beer and steal the knowledge is a space station on the People side of the wormhole that’s run by an Earth girl expatriate who calls it home because going back isn’t very appealing (she has secrets). This woman has a lot in common with one of those steel marbles bouncing around a pin-ball machine because although she’s the key protagonist that everyone’s watching and charts her course with confident independence, she’s also claimed, redirected, captured, injected, zonked, questioned, insulted and alternately annoyed or wooed by a lot of the station’s other characters. She’s also fascinating because the two species have fallen out for stupid reasons and her placement and behaviour is out of context. People notice things when they’re out of context. They all want to understand her and make her understand her place but she won’t cooperate. Good girl, good Earthling.
      It’s a bit ‘sci-fi’, but within boundaries to avoid the geek factor and there are no nods to other works in the genre. Well done. I thought it was going to be funny (from the title) but then I found it isn’t intended to be. It is definitely not one of those epic and over-arching big idea, galactic empire, multi-species, new languages, good and evil copycat fiascos. What I mean is that there are some space opera sagas where people say things like “Prince Blatula of the Quaargs has sent his Prhypon fighting scorpionistas to conquer the Bfzit continuum” – rubbish in other words. Really over the top. Then in the TV version it’s just a manta ray with flashing doughnuts on it because the description isn’t credible and the film company doesn’t have the budget. In contrast, this book reads like normal civilians (influenced from North America), doing normal things and having sensible conversations but in a world where the technology has got better.
      Differences between races in this book have become realistically and physically wider apart (tails etc) but they are noticed even less than happens on Earth now, where the genetic differences within our species are close to nought percent, as that issue isn’t the bone of contention. It’s more about haves and have nots, then how arrogant and condescending the (apparently) intelligent haves are going to be about their superiority and how idiotic the have nots are going to be in response. It’s an age of discovery, not only of technology but also of species expansion, with a sense that colonies and stretched empires are suddenly conceivable. One of the gadgets that the writer explores that could facilitate the next big step is the game-changing development of a space-time curvature drive that will revolutionise distance travel and make the wormhole just another option. Cool. What isn’t mentioned is whether faster than light travel would also allow the hypothetical passenger to change their position in time, giving them the opportunity to interfere in either sub-species’ cultural development (and not return). Avoiding interference on an intellectual level seems to be another key element of the plot, so not making a total cat’s cradle of it all. The interplay of withholding (snide comments, it’s so unfair) creates a sort of simmering French Revolution-esque atmosphere which stays quite light because the humans are outnumbered on that side of the divide. How upset would we get anyway? Have a beer and get over it.
      I liked reading the book but I did run into what I thought was some unnecessary re-capping, where an event is played out in fully described action and then more characters get together in a room and state what has just happened, as if they’re on stage and educating an audience about unseen events off-stage (but they weren’t off-stage). I have just opened the book randomly to look for any of several examples of this and, it’s probably not the best one but, on pg 277 “It appears to have been a deliberate act of…” discusses something recently shown as a deliberate act of… This is a pretty dismal piece of criticism (nothing major or handicapping), so that churlish observation should be taken in light of an otherwise enjoyable book with good description, attitude, character realization and mysteries to unravel. If that’s the only concern I can dredge up, then a reviewer having nothing much else to whine about is effectively a compliment; the bitch that didn’t bark. I just think that if I do mention a slightly harder edit could improve the flow, then the author will hopefully solve that in their next book and their writing style will be even more accomplished, so I’ll have to try even harder to find something to pretend to get upset about to justify my existence (like a stupid human).
      This book tells me what I already suspected. We aren’t the noblest, most rational and selfless species on our planet and here’s someone who has noticed some of those deficiencies. When you consider human actions from an external or almost alien point of view, it isn’t always a pretty sight but I acknowledge that a full parody would have attacked the subject too hard and the reader might take that sort of criticism personally. Then there’d be mobs of villagers with burning torches rolling up at the author’s house, chanting slogans to the effect that they’re aware that they’re stupid in a private capacity but feel they’re part of something more worthy as a species and don’t need any judgement beyond dying stupidly at some point from something avoidable. I digress. This isn’t the last we’ve heard of V.R. Craft is it? I hope not. It’s a solid first book and, with will and flair as a story teller, there’s surely more good work to come from this author. I just wonder who pissed her off enough to write this, but that’s another story.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Amstel Girl: Playing With Destiny, by Marco Marek - 3 Stars

“I knew she was a girl who liked to live her life on a wire or better, a razor blade”.

[Necessary spoilers are included in this first paragraph only]. This novel, by an Italian author writing in English about adventure in The Netherlands, sets off immediately with a well-constructed starting point to engage the reader; exploring the hopefully fictional nightmare that through either an error or by deliberate corruption, two doctors in agreement do have the power to diagnose or misdiagnose a patient as having a severe mental disorder, remove their liberty and banish them to an institution where others have control over their life, indefinitely. With the stigma and powerlessness this diagnosis brings, it would then be exceptionally difficult for any inmate to have that ruling overturned, unless they had support and funding from tenacious and loyal friends. It’s a strong scenario because it’s a credible fear, just as being buried alive is a fear that’s unlikely but not impossible. However, the author adds another level of tension: Something’s being done to the psychiatric patients. This raises a further and older fear from Napoleonic times of procedures, medicines and even tortures being tested on convicts, lives devalued. Having primed the coiled spring, the cat is cast amongst the pigeons and the journey begins when a patient unexpectedly wins his reprieve and walks out of the clinic, taking his suspicions into the real world with him.
      As a series of action scenes and with an unfolding mystery that’s tricky to predict, it works. With Wesley, a lead character who gets bounced between a hardened gang, his women (another hardened gang) and their spoils, all set against a backdrop of Amsterdam’s canals, houseboats and a warehouse full of cheese (so Dutch), I liked it. This story isn’t supposed to be another Van Der Valk because these are not professional detectives but amateurs caught up in someone else’s scheming, although it serves the same ideal, a puzzle to solve within a travelogue for all of us who’d like to see what Amsterdam is like when you don’t have the eyes of a tourist. Great, let’s go.
      I can’t help wondering why the events of the story don’t attract more police interest though. An explosion in a capital city, for example, would be international news and a messy murder would leave witnesses spending 12 hours in the police station re-tracing events. They wouldn’t be asked to do this if they had escaped the scene, so that’s probably the answer I’m feeling around for, but going to chat about an alarming event afterwards in a cafe, calmly, without any sirens in the background and with no nasty questions is a little light-touch. Then again, no one bothers James Bond with this sort of low level nuisance either, so the poets of entertainment have a licence, I guess. There’s also a fair amount of description about what girls are wearing and compliments about models of car, again channelling spy movies, then even a vodka martini gets in on the action. I should clarify that the book is its own entity, not a copy of Fleming or anything else, but subconscious Bond stuff is around them, almost as a metaphor for the adventure – normal people thrown into a dangerous world of international danger and flashing jewels. Exciting, yes? Would you call the police and go into hiding (end of story, boring) or skid off in the Aston Martin with the wind in your hair, spin through alleyways and knock over some cardboard boxes? I can’t criticise the recurring car awareness then because that’s likely to be normal in city street fiction and I’m just not seeing it very often in the sci-fi theme I’m usually into. As for the strong feminist temptation to criticise the three girls teasing, posing, trying to attract attention and making the first move on the poor boy, although I’d like to complain that it’s demeaning and no one does that in the real world, I’ve had a good honest think and decided to avoid the subject altogether and not be hypocritical.
      The positive stuff makes for a good plot and a rollercoaster story, so far so good, but now I have to mention the elephant in the room. Think about how hard it is to write a book in your second or third language, the one you were not brought up with as a native speaker. Could you do this? I couldn’t even dream about the challenge of writing prose directly in Italian or Dutch – at least thirty years of study right there. Jules Verne produced great works in English, absolutely, but he wrote them all in French, couldn’t read English and didn’t make a direct translation, instead employing another to make his French phrases read as if they’d been penned by a native speaker of English. In this book, Marco Marek has tried to master a challenge that the likes of Verne declined to attempt: to write directly in a studied second tongue. The trouble is, I don’t think it reads well at all. This issue isn’t about content, excitement or originality. Specifically, when a native speaker of English reads it, the story sounds quite clunky and distracts from what is going on in the scene. To back up my view, I’ll add some sample ‘clunky’ sentences below.
      The problem with the flow of the tale can also become the solution, just by turning it around in your mind. The storytelling style re-creates the impression of sitting in a cafe in Holland and being told an engaging anecdote by your close friend from Holland who isn’t as fluent in English as they like to think they are. That’s suddenly fine then, isn’t it? It’s better to hear a continental story from a continental voice and that’s a realistic illusion for the reader because the atmosphere of immersion in colourful foreign lands comes through even more. The problem is that it just looks accidental rather than a deliberate style enhancement and it’s harder to read the book right through as the clunk is constantly in the background. Celebrated works across the years from Jules Verne to Philippe Djian don’t clunk. They may or may not have been better authors but they did it differently. Afterthought: That's who the character Megan reminds me of: Beatrice Dalle.
      It’s quite a hard thing when a pointless amateur book reviewer who deserves to be ignored recommends a major change to an author, but here goes: The first thing to do is convert this into a screenplay because cool characters from several countries speaking their second language (the only one they all have in common) would be radical and convey a sense of their travels and experiences in addition to the lines they are delivering. Imagine Reservoir Dogs with the membership coming from many countries. It’s interesting to hear this style spoken when it originates from the characters. It’s not effective when written in a book because it will all be blamed on the narrator. The second recommendation, the painful one, is to change the way the book is written. Write it in flowing Italian (to avoid the frequent short sentences) and then translate it into English word for word and then find another writer who is a native speaker of English to re-write the story so it flows fluidly as if it were written by a natural. I don’t expect the author to do this as it’s like letting someone else ride away on your new bicycle but I think it is what it will take for this author to be accepted and recognised for the good story and imaginative content he has written, at least in the ignorant English speaking markets. A thriller, no matter how worthy, that isn’t easy to get into will have a hard time against all the competition I’m seeing nowadays. I could be sarcastic and add there are more authors that readers but the thriller genre it isn’t quite that saturated yet. Noteworthy: it has to be an easy read to break through.
      There you go. I’ve written way too much about the style and hardly touched the content. It’s a thriller with reasonable pace and intrigue that makes you think about city-hopping to see the little bridges, canals and houseboats, to speculate on their shady secrets and quiet occupants who act calm in the face of adversity. It’s a fun ride, as these thrillers should be, which is why it deserves three stars anyway.

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These quotes are included as examples of text that I don’t think sounds natural: “with the intent to steal the formula at all costs, thus the gun explaining that”, “wool sweater that showed off out her form”, “the nickname mad detective fit her like a glove, and…”, “was man of apparent age thirty-five years”, “the police have opened an investigation examining the evidence found”, “you spurt happiness from every pore” [Pygmalion?], “But why get into this circle when she was already in high class one, to what purpose?” and “they just spoke ear to ear”. It’s the language of your friend from the cafĂ© but I would clean it up for publication. Buy it anyway and read the book for the story. Fall in love with Holland and die. It’s more fun than pedantic old London.