Category Archives: Science fiction

Review – The London Project, by Mark Maxwell

The London Project, by Mark Maxwell, is set in a near future London dominated by a highly successful integration of a massive social media experiment (“The Portal“) into every area of life. By and large this is regarded as highly successful, leading to huge increases in prosperity and safety, at the cost of sacrificing almost all personal privacy. The debate is very familiar, though current technology is a pale shadow of the capabilities described.

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Inevitably there are problems, which the main character, a police woman juggling a demanding job with single motherhood, has to tackle. Parts of the book read more like a crime mystery, with mysterious acronyms and police procedures needing to be spelled out for the uninitiated reader. I do not usually read crime fiction of this kind, and tended to glaze over in these sections. They were redeemed to some extent by exploring how they would be implemented in such a massively interconnected world.

Technically the book was well produced and edited. However, for me it would have profited from softening some of the technobabble about how The Portal worked. I work in IT, so was not intimidated by these descriptions: I just felt they added little to the plot and were too intrusive. The plot itself had a single focus, but a long series of complications and revelations.

As a Londoner, the interest value of visiting future versions of places I know just pushed this into four stars. I might have felt differently if it had been set elsewhere. Readers who enjoy the crossover between crime writing and science fiction would probably be enthusiastic about this. Certainly the issues tackled – including driverless cars, online privacy, and wearable technology allowing instant upload of personal experience – are important contemporary challenges.

Review – The Songs of Chaos by Morgan Alreth

The Songs of Chaos is a science fiction book which straddles two worlds – “The First World” on the one hand – contemporary America – and “The Second World” on the other. This second world is technologically considerably behind our own, but has retained a human capacity for directly accessing forces in the realm of nuclear or sub-nuclear physics. At one stage, very long ago, traffic between the worlds was relatively common through “portals“, but now it is essentially unknown on our side and extremely rare on the other.

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The Second World is peopled by a considerable range of human subspecies, as though the early days here when we shared the planet with Neanderthals and other hominids had persisted through into historical times. These different subspecies live together in an uneasy truce, regularly punctuated by skirmishes and small scale raids. The story largely follows two groups from our world who cross over into the other, intersecting with various individuals on that side. For a British reader, the casual references into American culture are sometimes obscure, and I soon felt that The Second World was a more familiar place than the First.

The basic framework is imaginative, and by and large interactions between inhabitants of the two worlds make sense as the crossover situations gradually become clear to each of them. Enough happens in this book to make it a story in its own right. However, it is the first novel in a series, so appropriately (though frustratingly) there are plenty of loose ends and glimpses into deeper and mostly darker matters. I was not wholly convinced by some of the revelations near the end of this book, but they have certainly set up problems for the next one to address.

A disappointment with the book is the considerable number of proofreading errors still remaining, chiefly substitution of one word for another (flash instead of flesh, for example), or the common misuse of apostrophes. I can easily overlook a few of these, but the frequency was quite obtrusive. A thorough proof read or external edit would have caught almost all of these, and the result could be uploaded to give a clean copy.

A few world-building issues stood out as odd to me. We are told early on in the book that time flows faster on this side than the other. However, the pattern seemed erratic, and I felt that it varied according to the needs of the plot rather than being consistent. Similarly, one of the subspecies in The Second World seems to know a great deal about contemporary First World politics, which seemed odd considering the portals were not actively used any more (as well as the time rate variation). These may well be explained in subsequent books. Morgan also jumps viewpoint radically from time to time, in order to supply background information, and this feels slightly dislocating.

All in all a strong four star book for the imaginative concept at the core of the book. The production problems can be readily fixed, and some readers will not mind these anyway. The book is worth looking into by science fiction enthusiasts for an unusual setting and plot that avoids futuristic gadgetry.

Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for an early version of this book. This review applies to the published version. I received a free copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.

Review: Spacehounds of IPC, and Triplanetary, by EE “Doc” Smith

This is a pair of books I originally read many years ago, and having recently enjoyed Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds I thought I would revisit these as examples of the next science fiction developmental stage on. They are separate books, not part of Smith’s two long Skylark and Lensman series, and although not strictly linked, they do share a common vision of Earth’s future. Note that Triplanetary is the 1934 serialised novel, not the 1948 novel of the same title which opens the Lensman series. Long ago I bought them in paperback for a pound or two: somewhat to my surprise they are now available in Kindle format through Project Gutenberg, along with several other of his books.

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In many ways the tales have dated terribly – the gender divide is rather extreme in these earlier books of Smith’s. Women can be intelligent, and have aspirations to be part of the overall solution, but at their best they only want to be loyal supporters rather than leaders. In his later writing this shifted a little, and capable women do start to make their presence felt more – though still in subordinate rather than true leadership positions. Smith also clearly felt strongly that mental ability and physical perfection went hand in hand, and so his heroes and heroines are staggeringly beautiful as well as supremely smart. Along with this, the dialogue between men and women is stilted, and is heavily laced with rather sickly compliments. In short, male-female relationships feel very artificial.

The ruling Earth population is essentially made up of white Americans. Perhaps it is revealing that he chooses the masculine Tellus for Earth rather than the feminine Terra (again, this changed in later writing). Politics is quite naive – the style of rule, a heavily militarised but benevolent government, is seen as self-evidently right, and is only opposed by criminals or the hopelessly selfish. There is no credible opposition party. Of course, Smith is not alone in this and many modern writers also cannot conceive of well-founded political opposition outside simple hostility.

Where Smith is wildly inclusive is with aliens – unlike say Asimov, whose career overlapped Smith’s, he has no qualms about having radically nonhuman aliens in positions of authority, and he takes great delight in conjecturing many kinds of life forms in addition to humanoid ones. Some are no longer so persuasive in the light of scientific progress, but the variety is refreshing.

Smith is hugely profligate of human and alien life, with whole cities often destroyed along with their occupants as a casual byproduct of battles between adversary spaceships. This is not praised or glorified, but seen as an inevitable consequence of technological war, easily forgotten when the peace treaty is drawn up. I suspect this is a motif built on his observations of the First World War, expanded many times over to accommodate new weaponry. By coincidence I saw the HG Wells film Things to Come (based on his story of similar name) a few days ago and this shares many common features.

Where the books still shine is in the fast pace of their plots. They always remind me of old western films migrated up into space. Idealised heroes and villains utter pithy stereotyped lines in improbable settings – but they do so with great energy and excitement, and it is easy to get caught up in the swing of the tales and emerge at the far end slightly breathless.

Well worth reading by those interested in tracing the development of science fiction through the years, or else anyone who wants a space-based yarn without needing believable dialogue, and who is not troubled by recent scientific findings. Since I have to give a star rating for some sites, 4* for the fun value.

Review – The Martian, by Andy Weir

I was recommended The Martian by a friend a little while ago, and finished it as a holiday book. A lot of readers find it almost impossible to put down: this was not quite my experience, though I have enjoyed reading it a great deal.

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The basic setting is that one member (Mark Watney) of a near-future manned Martian expedition is accidentally left on the planet when the crew have to abruptly abandon the mission. The story then follows Mark’s struggle for survival until the point where a rescue becomes possible. There is a long succession of crises that have to be faced and overcome by a mixture of hard work and inventiveness. Some of the time Mark is able to validate his plans with expert advice from NASA, but at other times he is purely on his own.

The science and engineering aspects have been exceptionally well thought through, so far as I can tell. Mark is able to make creative and credible use of the materials at his disposal, which themselves are plausible for his original mission. To a very large extent the repeated crises drive the plot, and other issues such as character are largely in the background. We do get to learn quite a lot about Mark’s current frame of mind, but much less about his back story, or indeed that of any of the other peripheral characters. It is basically a “geek triumphs over adversity” story, and a splendid example of this.

To a degree the story tails off towards the end. This is largely because the presenting issues are so large that the outcome is either total success or total failure (and hence death). The stakes keep growing, and the possibilities for successfully finding a way out get narrower.

For me, another 4* book. It was very well planned out and executed, and a highly believable near-future scenario. Personally I prefer books with more character interaction, which by definition is not going to happen here. But many people will appreciate The Martian for its technical detail and long series of survival challenges.

Cover developments

The next stage in the cover design for The Flame Before Us is taking shape, in the form of the following clay lamp, using olive oil to produce its rather attractive flame. The final version will be much higher quality.

Oil lamp

On the writing front, I have started now collating the first part into something approaching its final form… though there is a lot more work to do yet.

Also for today here are a few thoughts on A Journey in Other Worlds, by John Jacob Astor. This is a science fiction book published in 1894 and available these days in Kindle format, and describes a space journey taking place in the year 2000. I came across it through a Google+ post by a friend.

It is definitely of the old science fiction school in which the appeal of the book was reckoned to be in the lavish detail supplied of future inventions and society. I realised that EE “Doc” Smith (writing from around 1920 onwards) was following in the same pattern. They share the same tendency for male protagonists, supported by supremely beautiful and talented women who remain faithfully at home while their men go out and face danger. They also both posit a world where white American society (and to a lesser degree English culture) have dominated the world and other races and ethnicities have been absorbed or marginalised.

Astor, an extremely rich man who died on the Titanic, was himself something of an inventor, and clearly took great delight in long descriptions of the engineering feats of the future. One of the spaceship’s crew of three is on a well-earned rest after co-ordinating a global project to straighten the earth’s axis so that it is perpendicular to the orbital plane, in order to remove seasonal extremes. This feat is described in considerable length for those who want to put it into practice today – though in fact it would be as out of reach today as it was in Astor’s day.

Modern readers will probably be impatient with what comes over as great naivety about the role of science (an unmitigated boon and triumph of human ingenuity) and of politics (the right way to run the world is so abundantly obvious that there is no real opposition of any kind). And many modern readers, both religious and otherwise, will find difficulties with his methodology for fusing scientific and biblical statements. However, his ability to imaginatively project the knowledge of his time, and his recognition of the limits of knowledge, are both striking and appealing.

The book is divided into three parts: an initial review of life on planet earth, followed by extended descriptions of the explorers’ visits to Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter is basically an extended big game hunt, together with musings on the ease with which parts of Jupiter could be appropriated for colonisation from earth. Not sharing the 19th century desire to hunt anything large enough to be shot at, I did not find this especially moving. The characters come over as unconsciously arrogant and parochial.

The Saturn trip, however, brings out a very different side to the crew. Anxieties and fears surface in them, along with existential fears that their lives are not, after all, up to the quality that they had imagined for themselves. As a result, this section of the book was much more engaging for me.

I found A Journey in Other Worlds to be an interesting book – significantly more modern in outlook than parts of Jules Verne, and with a clear line of descent through Smith to more recent writers. Not everybody will like the book, either for its writing style or the ideas expressed in it, but I am glad to have read it. It seems slightly churlish to rate a book of this kind, but for consistency with other books I would give four stars.

Review – Timepiece

Timepiece, by Heather Albano, was an experiment for me into a sort of steampunk plus time travel experience. A little to my surprise, it was set overtly in a very recognisable version of our own world, beginning on the day of the Battle of Waterloo. As the story progressed it became clear that other fictional elements had been woven into the plot, most notably from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I suppose that I had expected something set in an invented world, or at least one in which the divergence from our own history had happened sufficiently early that there were many more differences.

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As it was, I did not find the basic premise compelling. It seemed altogether too easy for Heather to inventively write her way out of problems, and I felt that difficulties raised early on were side-stepped later. Certain constraints in the time travel part were set up, but did not seem to be followed through consistently if the plot seemed to require otherwise (for example, being in two places at once at the same time, or whether or not it was possible to revisit a time already accessed). On the one hand, the world was too much like ours, but on the other, there were too many added ingredients to know where things stood.

Like several other books I have read recently, it is just the first part of a story, and it finishes rather abruptly, almost in mid-narrative. To some extent this incompleteness is signaled by clues dropped quite skilfully into the storyline. Certain relationships are suggested but then left unresolved. As reader, you begin to suspect that these clues are building into a pattern, but the characters remain ignorant of this. Perhaps they will become aware of the pattern in the next volume, which I am guessing is going to see the main characters try and resolve the problem that they were left in at the end of Timepiece – it’s something of a ‘three wishes’ plot where at each stage the central couple have to try to sort out the problems that were created last time. At any rate, this device of simply halting the story mid-flow did not endear me to the book, and has not left me eager to pick up the next one: instead I felt frustrated that it was left incomplete.

The book necessarily handles some science / technology plot components as it goes along, and I had mixed feelings about these. Some felt about right for the early to mid 19th century, but others felt out of place. But then, if you’re writing about a parallel universe maybe it’s fair game to just swap things around? I wasn’t sure, and I think on balance I prefer dealing with the actual history of our own world, and the problems faced by people in it. From conversations with others I am aware of how hard it is to create a convincing imaginary world. In the world of Timepiece, I was never sure that I actually knew what the rules and boundaries were, and they seemed rather fluid as things moved along.

One of Heather’s main interests is clearly to explore how people from one era might cope with a culture reasonably close to their own – in this case about 70 years. That is an interesting endeavour – it’s almost within the protagonists’ lifetimes, but with enough changes (quite apart from the time travel stuff) to make for some unexpected dissonance as well as reassuring familiarity. This worked well for a while, but it seemed that having gone into changes of costume, and some aspects of the role of women, Heather dropped back into differences more to do with social rank than cultural development. I would have enjoyed something further along the original lines.

Technically this is yet another book where kindle features have not been properly coded. The the hardware navigation works, and there is an HTML TOC, but this has not been fully integrated and you cannot ‘goto’ table of contents. However, the content of the book has been carefully proof-read and is nicely laid out.

Timepiece is undoubtedly imaginative, but for me it slightly failed to reach a target, resulting in my four star rating. I do prefer books about the real past of this world, but am quite happy to delve into imaginary or parallel places… so long as the ground-rules are clearly set out and maintained. Alternate history books are a fascinating look into unrealised possibilities, but I did not find this one very compelling. Having said that, I am sure that readers who click more with steampunk than I do will have a great time with Heather’s book, and appreciate its particular flavour more than I did. Worth a look, if this is a genre you enjoy.

Timepiece front cover