Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Curiosity of the Solar System, by Ian Anthony - 5 Stars

It is hoped herein, dear readers, that by entreating ladies and gentlemen of discernment and no little inquisitiveness and discretion, one might inflame the discussion, discursive as it must be, about the rather peculiar yet amusingly instructive cabinet of marvels that constitutes A Curiosity of the Solar System, by Master Ian Anthony, of that ilk.

The dusty desarts of philology aside, this is a semi-steampunk tale following an alternative reality where the British Empire made an early foray into outer space, plopping its size 12 boots into fertile new soils (after a bout of terraforming) and didn’t scar the natives even unto the tenth generation because there weren’t any. How dastardly! They’ve avoided conscription by not existing. Earth’s young men and women are spiritually renewed in their vigour for an exploratory life, apart from the women who have to stay safely locked in their drawing room in Surrey, presumably because Victorians always needed one member of the family to spend at least sixty years drawing things while their men were out duelling.

Plucky young chaps with moustaches biff off, see Mars, biff about, biff off, see Neptune, biff about, biff off, see Pluto (still a planet), biff about, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, until their biffing days are done and they’re remembered as top hole and a regular brick. The enemy, usually rebel colonies, are polite rather than barbarous in their forlorn attempt to stand up to the manliness, adventurous spirit and complete lack of risk assessment that are commonly termed the Army and Royal Navy. There isn’t an air force, not yet, or indeed horse-drawn carriages and long distance linguistic communications. One thing at a time chaps and chapesses. Don’t trouble the boffins by demanding too much progress at once when we’re still coming to terms with changing at break-neck speed from the wheel to the atomic space engine. Break-neck, yes, that’s what one reprehensible old cove does, until he gets himself a brass and cog steampunk collar that allows him to rotate his head like an owl and shake a sword at people behind him. Hurrah! By Jimminy and the crows.

As this story is set a few decades after the Napoleonic wars, grandees in exile appear scattered about the solar system too (take him down a peg or two) and literary figures pop in (build him up a peg or two), although the discoveries that make it all possible are brought forward by a woman who masquerades as a man, in the style of a 19th Century novelist. As other nations from old Earth get in on the act (Prussians, Russians, French and Americans), a rare old scrap for land breaks out in timeless colonial fashion. Concessions are promised and you get the impression they won’t be honoured later, as ‘Earthman speak with forked tongue’ seldom changes.

This is an affectionate caricature of a long since departed, thrusting generation’s energies, foolishness and how they stood closer to and then tasted apples of wonder that we can only read about. Get involved, interact with your world, feel the over-engineered mechanics of heavy, moving things, the pulling of levers, the hiss, trundling off in tooting contraptions made of brass knobs and proper rivets for wild times where life is cheap and the daily choices come down to excitement or brandy. Or excitement and brandy. Make roaring noises. Why not? Have a good splutter. Think big and let your capabilities lead on. No litigation, no rules, safety fences or hand rails between you and the fun. I think we’ve lost that. I think we’ve taken a step back from immersing in life and experiencing everything, which is what this book shows us.

What will you do with your life? Be safe? Stay in the drawing room of the 21st Century?

Apart from the jolliness and general whacking about, which you may celebrate as a lost art or object to depending on your cultural origin, the surreal images in this book are quite beautiful. The idea of a man with a large clock descending 7,000 rungs down a ladder from a floating city to the surface of a planet would fit seamlessly into the oeuvre of Salvador Dali (what would that ladder weigh?) and the boys clambering across the nets that cover a hundred thousand vast balloons that hold the ships and city in the sky is a Mervyn Peake roofscape or a Jonathan Swift scene if ever I read one. Beauty is a picture in the mind, an exquisite moment that is then lost to the drawing room of the soul. To those of us witnessing the spectacle of three dimensional living, inflation is no longer an economic concept. Stand aside, stand aside. I applaud. Who can say whether the balloons from which starships hang as they rise through the atmosphere would inflate too far and pop before their ships’ motors could engage but such questions are immaterial when you have Brunel in charge of the engineering. Need a tunnel on Venus? Can I build you a railway to run through it? Hang the cost when you’re operating on the epic scale. Marvellous! A century and a half later, the relieving officer from South West Trains will be along to run it down and balls it up.

The other interesting angle this book presents is that of language. It isn’t over the top, like my silly review, but contrasts well with the modern dog-English in popular usage today, yet the language is also shown to be adapting, as it would when dispersed across new worlds where people survive and, somehow, remarkably, cling on without daily recourse to Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer. Good Lord, how they must have suffered. I’d like to see these settlements depicted a hundred or two hundred years further on, just to test the author’s imagination when English off the collar has reached beyond a national form and has become a multi-faceted wonder of a dispersed age. Language is a living thing, not an unadaptive system, so if you’re going to re-write history and throw a stone this big into the pond it therefore follows that some words would never have happened and new ones would have moved into acceptance as they fitted the quite different needs of the day.

Setting aside the pedantic observation that perhaps the indentations were too deep and the author could have saved themselves a couple of pages, this is a very well edited book and I can’t remember seeing any mistakes. The pace is strong and even but does linger a little for the sojourn on Pluto.

I rated this book as better than a 4 but not necessarily a 5 because it isn’t full of elaborately charming and memorable sentences to quote or jaw-dropping revelations, but then that would be unusual to expect. What splits the difference and earns the upgrade is originality and imagination, writing in pictures and thinking great thoughts that trigger new questions for the reader. That’s worth something beyond Boy’s Own fare or a competent adventure. That’s indie writing doing what it’s supposed to do, painting a world that we’re compelled fall into, to be fond of and respect; unless we’re Victorians, in which case we can shoot it and stick it up on the wall, mislabelled ‘Nairobi, 1815, Montgomery & Foyt. It gored Foyt.’

That’s it really. A book that gives an airing to your senses. Get up into space, young lads and lasses. It’s spiffing, by Jove and all things Jovian. Balloons up! Hoorah for King George and may the Devil take the laggards!

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Shield of Drani, by Melonie Purcell - 4 Stars

Forgive some mild exaggeration that I think is necessary to convey the feeling but the most prominent feature of this book is its heroine Taymar, not prominent so much as front and centre and bristling like a furnace of primal rage. Imagine a sister in her 20s who’s so full of adrenaline it’s dripping out of her ears, then add a touch of black backed gorilla defending the flange and cross that with an unstable nuclear reactor from Glasgow who’s just been quietly informed that their football team’s crap. At one end of the fictional scale there’s Barbie and at the faraway other end out steps Taymar of the species Arlele and you’ll never know what hit you because one minute it’s broken glass and the next it’s mind daggers. She just keeps going and isn’t just physical as she also has telekinetic powers, so can easily heave an operating table at you. They say there’s safety in numbers but it’s best to remember a safe number around this madam would be as many miles away as possible. That’s a distilled information burst but you’ll feel the same when you’ve slid through a few hundred pages.

The big question for me is, who could possibly play this role, this alien presence with an adrenal gland the size of a jacket potato? Certainly they’d have to be high on assorted powders because no human hits this state of euphoric combat keenness naturally. While Bruce Lee’s unwinding at home with a cup of tea after a hard day’s Jeet Kune-do-ing, this exquisite pain in the neck would still be kicking down walls in her bedroom and head-butting the cactus. She doesn’t have time to eat, she has an impressive sense of instant retaliation whether she’s wrong or right and, when you see past all that, her behaviour gets her nowhere. Still though, wow. A species with an overwhelming personal survival instinct that ironically reduces their species’ overall chance of survival. Game theory rolls inside out. Then again, generally predator species are self-serving individuals and prey animals work for the survival of the average member of the herd, so the Dran (social herbivore type) being dominant over the Arleles (independent predator type) is also an inversion of what we’d normally expect. Is capability wasted without organisation? For Taymar (and also in a global sense) that’s an interesting thought.

Taymar has a master, a Dran (ruling species) who can get inside her head and twist her around. She’s becoming stronger though and as soon as she sees a chink of light from her series of little containment cells, she’s through it and running down corridors with her hair on fire, metaphorically. Is training her and teaching control the right thing to do or have they got a tiger by the tail here, with a socialization strategy similar to pouring water a drip at a time into a volcano? That could work. Let’s try it (no that’s daft). Some of her character comes from being cornered and controlled and treated like an animal experiment for years but the rest is her species’ natural-born method, so she can’t change it, at least not yet. You will probably also get the feeling that with the captor/captive dynamic hate and love are two sides of the same coin (every stickleback has a sticklefront) and, from a nightmarish beginning, keeper and pet are drawing ever closer.

If you deliberately avoid the image on the cover, Taymar is only really female in the sense that an Apache helicopter or fighting ship is a ‘she’. I wonder how long do Arleles’ relationships last? Probably a matter of minutes. Do the Arleles have a home grown sport to vent their energies, or a brand of dance music to pogo to? How do they look after their young? Do they queue? How do they behave in shops or select between products?

The questions are endless but here’s the clincher: Does she never agonize about shoes?

Apart from Taymar, who you WILL remember as she bounces off the walls of holding cells, the other characters are fun too and I especially like the dependable Irish ship’s captain who laughs it all off in a friendly way and jollies his passengers along, including the exuberant death-vixen. That’s perhaps the best way to treat her, that and taking the first available opportunity to punch her out of an airlock to freeze in space. In brief then, everyone who deserves it gets a hush puppy in the nuts and an alien species invades at a perfectly opportune moment for the Dran species to say “Yes, that’s fine. You can take over responsibility for the Arleles and the planet Drani and we’ll just nip off and live safely in a moon crater somewhere, partying and laughing our heads off until the end of our days. Good luck and here’s the keys, suckers.”

Seriously though, if the Dran and Arleles did share a planet and the Dran discovered space flight, there wouldn’t be an empty seat.

I liked the book and it is a well framed science fiction adventure but I got tired of all the fighting and struggling about sixty pages before it petered out. It is a good read and there’s a useful betrayal thriller angle too, but it could have been even better if Taymar’s character had been more flexible in approach, had a few more vulnerabilities or at the very least had a deeper philosophical inner dialogue to surprise us with. Her understanding of the world she walks through must be unique and she likes it and purrs a bit when a tormentor strokes her neck pattern but the baseline is that she can’t help fighting everybody like GI Jane and if you shut her in a cupboard with a mirror, sooner or later she’d beat herself up. As the invading alien species has been introduced but not filled out in fine detail apart from their body form, it looks like they could be more prominent in the next book and we’ll then get an unravelling of their feelings, motivations and advanced technological culture, just before she flattens them. Then she’ll flatten anyone who gets in the way of her flattening anyone.

The buzzy sensation of vital energy and impulsive reaction transmits so well to the reader that even now, when I’m thinking back over this, it makes me want to go for a jog or race up a climbing wall and howl or something.

Go on, read it. It’s an experience. When you have, try to avoid caffeine and cheese before bedtime or you’ll wake up kicking pillows into the lights.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Date Night on Union Station, by E.M. Foner - 4 Stars

I can see that this book was written as a standalone dating comedy set in a space station of the future and although it has since become a series, you can read this part without knowledge of the rest of the ‘on Union Station’ canon, which I haven’t leafed through yet.

Imagine yourself as Earth’s Acting Consul on a cosmopolitan alien space station. It sounds good but there are several problems, from linking the higher you rise to the lower your salary (a loyalty test) to the lack of anyone in the same species as you being around to date, down to the aliens believing that your job title, Acting Consul, means that you are just pretending to be a consul. All in all, you might not want it. Most humans would think it’s great if the species had established a presence beyond our solar system but when the only export our colleague beings want turns out to be our decorative kitchen utensils, it looks like it’s going to be a slow build to reach equivalency and mutual respect.

The race who’ve made this all possible, the Stryx, are a benign but secretive bunch who’ve been hanging around the Universe for such a long time that they’ve grown accustomed to tinkering until its set up the way they like it. With a proprietorial interest in less-developed species (us) and an interest in law and order (subtle interventions), you could have worse landlords. However, the Stryx’s methodology frequently includes setting up the heroine of this story with outrageous people that pose problems the Stryx would like her to solve. In Star Trek terms, the primary directive in dating is not being met because poor old aunty (Kelly Frank, 35, tubes full of cobwebs) has joined an alien dating service that doesn’t believe its purpose is to match her with a compatible date. Would you walk out after date 1 or would you me more inclined to keep going for the entertainment?

Kelly and Joe are quite good characters for a plot like this, ordinary people who get directed down the wrong corridors by fate and generally toyed with but seem relaxed enough not to be bothered by it. I’d like to think I’d do the same thing in their situation. As am Ambassador, is she too casual? Yes but so what? I was outside the Jamaican Embassy the other day and they’ve got the most stiff and formal car ever parked outside, number plate JAM 1, so if consular status can turn even the Jamaicans into robots, who wants it? What you get from life often depends on your approach and these two characters are open to anything. They then explore a full gambit of reactions from hope to shock to get your antennae out of my dress until the book concludes, which happens happily, but almost instantly, with a hint of Elvis. It’s one of those “you had to be there” moments. Although, Kelly’s decision at the end is a little like snogging an octopus to see what happens.

I should also put in a word for the characters of the entrepreneurial flower girls. They’re brilliant and it’s only a matter of time before the Stryx offer them jobs because they’ve got so much more nous than the grownups. I would have preferred the alien counterfeiters to have copied something hilarious from Earth’s hall of shame with no idea what it’s used for, but hey, it’s not my book.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable and fun read, so I think you’d like it too. There aren’t any jokes that I’d find cripplingly funny (e.g. ‘Acting Ambassador’ is an amusing idea and my mind likes the connection but my ribcage isn’t actually hurting as I write this). That’s cynical though because this book is daydreamy fun and I would quite like to be dating on Union Station. Wouldn’t you?

Monday, 13 March 2017

A Moment in Sci-Fi, a short scene by A.K. Stone

Hi everyone. For your reading pleasure, indie author A.K. Stone has graciously provided a short extract of his book "Adam" to be the very first in this blog's new "A Moment in Sci-Fi" series. I hope you like it.

At the end of the ward where the droid and doctor had come from, a man stood, watching. He wore a dark overcoat and suit with an old-fashioned hat, such that even in the bright light of the nurses’ desk area, he still looked shaded. He glanced down at something he was holding in his hand; a palm-sized device with a readout display. He raised one eyebrow. The doctor and nurse-droid quietly left the ward. When the man saw them returning in his direction, he coolly retreated and sat in the waiting area.
The doctor walked up to him.
‘You got here fast,’ she said disapprovingly, ‘He isn’t ready to see you today, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.’ The man remained silent. ‘You can wait here if you want,’ Dr. Nustom continued, ‘but if you step into that ward, I’ll have you arrested.’
The man smiled. He liked this doctor. She probably knew how hard it would be to get him arrested. Her protectiveness of Adam was…comforting. He put up both hands in a placating gesture of surrender, then back down again, still smiling. The doctor left the waiting area, instructing the men in the security room to keep an eye out for Adam, and especially, on the man.
The dark man stayed there, looking at his little sensor machine, making notes on the touch pad. After half an hour, a red light began to flash at the top of the machine. The man raised both his eyebrows, and glanced towards Adam. He took some further readings, smiled, and nodded to himself.
‘Fascinating,’ said the man, so quietly that no one else could hear him, ‘How extraordinarily fascinating.’

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Friday, 3 March 2017

Indiana Belle, by John A. Heldt - 4.5 Stars

This isn’t directly relevant but as no one’s reading it anyway I’ll push a few more keys and fill up the page to amuse myself. On my way back from the hairdresser in Winchester, which I now realise is in the pay of my enemies, I was on a bus with this hanging stirrup thing repeatedly knocking the side of my head (we aim to improve your customer experience, tap, tap, tap, ow), disembarked and was on the way home with a metaphorical paper bag over my head and wondering where I might borrow one of those sheep-shearing buzzy devices when, perfect timing, Simon popped out. The news of the moment turned out to be that Simon, who wears a blue jacket at all times and stoops when there’s nothing to pick up, has invented a revolutionary musical instrument called The Simonica, or possibly Simoniker. As the poor, misguided, bless lamb thinks I have a way with words, I was asked to inspect the object and say something to encapsulate it. I blame this on my frame of mind but the line I replied to him with was: “It makes a terrible whining noise but you get used to it”. This morning I’ve received an email to say he’s ordered and paid for leaflets with that printed on. It’s a funny world.

You probably don’t see any relevance in all this but, from what I’ve read, the ethos of the mid-1920s had something of the Simonica about it. It was an age of invention with ideas both crazy (check out the planes) and pioneering (food in cans, modular factory production and quality assurance), where a society of strict formality suddenly relaxed and federal agents didn’t, trying to enforce unmanageable laws like prohibition on a population of party-goers who drank bath-tub spirits out of kettles in speakeasies. The Mob was in town, problems with integration and bigotry reared and spat, hats were worn, Josephine Whatsit paraded her bananas, Lindbergh set records on wings and flappers never got tired of doing the Charleston. One of my all time favourite films hails from this era and if I can’t drop in a quote from that, I’ll scream: “Leonard Zelig backed his car over my grandmother’s ankle. She is old and uses her ankle A LOT.”

This is a time travel story, in a loose sense because time travel is just a means to explore this very interesting era in human history. In order to power and extend the range of an existing home-made time machine, a single man with hours very much on his hands is sent off to the past to loot a bag full of the good old raw materials. Glowing crystals, flashing lights and puckered reality zero in, it’s hero out and then a modern man is striding out into the 1920s and blinking into the light of a younger sun. I didn’t quite follow how they could be so specific about the temporal arrival point but, just like life, not everything gets explained to you while you’re twiddling the knobs. It just happens and then you get on with it. He gets on with it.

This is also a love story because the time traveler hasn’t just gone back for the magic disco-crystals, no-Sir-E. She’s a reporter, a sassy modernist and she’s a torch bearer for civil rights and emancipation. By our standards, she’s normal, so of course they’ve got it in for her, the antagonistic wierdo. How would you feel though if you spied on a Ku Klux Klan gathering and recognised the voices of people living around you, running local businesses or who’ve been inviting you around socially? Do you get out of the decade with hot feet or do you stay and try to do something about it? Bravery comes into this story too. Then there’s nostalgia, with the cars, the sporting events and the first edition of The Great Gatsby. Fortunes were there to be made, then lost, in the last few years before the stock market crash and a generational-scale war. The time traveler knows what’s coming in this respect but still has no doubt about his choice of which period to settle down in, no concern at all that he might be heading for death on a beach in France.

The temporary jump into our near future was interesting too, with strange behaviour and a controlling government, everyone at peace and provided for but at the same time it was un-natural and inhuman with a current of subliminal fear. Yes, I got that message: we need to stand up to any system that gets too powerful in its management of the public; and hair dressers.

I really liked this book. It was well written, well edited, a flowing read and didn’t have any of the bad stuff from a few historical jaunts I’ve read which I found to be over-researched to the point of pedantry or where someone’s picking lottery numbers or sidling alongside a king or tyrant to take them out (security?). The author walks his character through the era and gives you its spirit and atmosphere realistically, i.e. without delving into it like a list or encyclopedia. When the protagonist summarises the time period to someone living in that time, we are shown they’re surprised and then eventually agree because they can see it’s true but have never thought of it like that because they are inside and not objective. Fitzgerald got it, wrote it and then people recognised themselves within it, after the time had already passed. In England it was Waugh, with Brideshead. The heat goes up in the saucepan of history and the frog boils one degree at a time because it doesn’t notice the changing environment. Food for thought? Look around you. Where is our Fitzgerald? Will someone tell us what is happening?

This book is entertaining and revealing, to anyone, not just intended for readers of science fiction, historical fiction or romance, when it covers all three with a light touch and easy-going charm. If you read this book, I am certain you will like it because there’s a stocking full of good stuff and nothing in particular to get your goat. It will make kids dream about what it would be like to time travel and have a good meddle. It will bring out the best and worst characteristics and desires in adults, who may dream of making themselves rich, “inventing” something before its time or taking the young Steve McQueen or Marilyn Monroe out to the pictures. The time traveler here could have changed the world on a massive scale but was more restrained than that, responsibly aware of the domino effect of causality perhaps but maybe just less imaginative and more provincial, just wanting to settle down. It’s called maturity. This is a mature journey to the past, which suggests a whole series of books where time periods can be walked through and described to us without prolapsing the time-line. That’s education, grown up talk, so even though the Jazz Age was a random Simonica in the order of history, the book feels more responsible than that. Pah. If I get the chance, I’m going to meddle.

Immortown, by Lily Markova - 5 Stars

Lily Markova is the best unsigned writer of literature in the world today.

Justice, if you do exist somewhere in your ivory tower of airy promises, read that line again.

I swear I will return and revise that statement if I find another rookie novelist with no publishing deal who can elevate prose to the same standard as Lily Markova, The Loneliest Whale being the current benchmark. The crazy thing is, this isn’t her best book but it represents a prototype of literary craft that forewarns of a pen-scratching ability rising up with every title.

Immortown is Lily Markova’s second book, the one from the shades, the bleak moments of dying candles and lowered voices, whispers at a wake, personal loss and an edge of self-protection, all drawn into a singularity of otherworldly unfairness that has become a location, a genius loci that endures and entraps in a town that no longer exists. Is remembrance useful or does it stop us living? Mortality then, as a theme? Cruelty and entropy enter the story too, again shaped by the spirit of place and the wastefulness of waiting. Not as soulful as her latest work, more tragic and isolating certainly, yet still mesmerising and exquisite in its realisation. Lily writes of realities behind the world we see, senses, memories and feelings all pictured as spaces.

Should I describe the plot? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone writing about the shadows and the ruins is likely to have been at a high point in their life but discussing this would demean the colours and vitality in this writing, the stream of insights that show this writer can take a negative subject and bring even that back to life. There’s the summation really. This book is a pomegranate in the underworld and I think you should discover it as a path to her latest work, the one where all the lights come on and you’re aware of the cottontail sky.

Ok, I’m done but when you award the contract to design a new Universe, you could do worse than hand it to Lily Markova because she’ll give you access to more beautiful layers than the single reality we’ve been locked into in this one.