Category Archives: Science fiction

Extract – Far from the Spaceports

Here’s a bit of fun from the Work-in-Progress science fiction novel Far From the Spaceports. Mitnash is one of the main characters, and he is talking to the lady running the guest house on the asteroid Bryher where he is staying:


“Get away with you, Mr Mitnash. I’ll wager that can’t be done. Look now, were you wanting the chicken or the fish tonight?”

I hesitated, not being very sure. She laughed.

“No point spending too long deciding. It’s all guinea-pig anyway. I just prepare them a mite differently and you’d never know they’re the same animal. And it’s what you’ve been having everywhere else on Scilly.”

“Truly?”

“To be sure. Tell me now, where did you eat when you arrived on St Mary’s?”

“Taji’s.”

“And what did you have? His Venusian azure duck wrap?”

I nodded, and she carried on, “So did you really think he pays to ship real duck all the way out from Earth? Just to cook it and put it in a wrap? No, Mr Mitnash, all his menu is actually guinea-pig, but he’s very good at disguising it. For just me here, I only need one male and half a dozen females. Taji has three males and thirty females. Or something like that. So now, would you like the chicken or the fish?”


Look out for more extracts, and further news of Far from the Spaceports over the next few weeks. All being well, it will be published this year…

Meanwhile, here’s a recent NASA picture of the asteroid Ceres.

Recent image of Ceres from the Dawn probe, linked from NASA server
Recent image of Ceres from the Dawn probe, linked from NASA server

Pluto flyby special blog!

NASA - Pluto from less than half a million miles away
NASA – Pluto from less than half a million miles away

In celebration of the NASA New Horizons spacecraft making its closest approach to Pluto today, I thought I would celebrate with a short extract from Far from the Spaceports. The action takes place in the asteroid belt which is still a very long way from Pluto but is at least en route.

Mitnash, the main character, is actually on a group of asteroids in closely linked orbits named after the Scilly Isles. He is actually there to investigate financial fraud but has a cover story of prospecting for minerals. He has just arrived on Bryher.

I looked round the room, and noticed a man’s picture through the open door.
“And is that your husband, Mrs Riley?”
She followed my gaze and nodded.
“Oh yes, Mister Mitnash, that’s Riley. He’s a miner, you know, he’s out near Jupiter somewhere just now. Comes back once a year to see us all here on Bryher.”
“Oh yes? What does he go for? I’m here to do some mining myself. Rare earths. There’s a good patch out here near the Scillies. At least, I think there is.”
She snorted.
“And who have you left back home waiting all the long hours in the night for you to get back? Still, if you doing it keeps her out of want then maybe it’s a good thing. Now Riley there, he goes out for the heavy metals. Anything heavy at all, really. He brings back huge great lumps in tow behind his ship. The Selkie, he called her.”
She laughed. “That’s what he calls me, too, his selkie, when he’s had a few jars. That he does. But it’s the metal that glamours him, not my own self, I’m thinking.”
She looked at the picture for a few moments, then sighed and glanced back at me.
“I’m also thinking you don’t look much like a miner, Mister Mitnash.”

More news regarding Far from the Spaceports will follow through the summer. Meanwhile, congratulations to the entire New Horizons team for the culmination of effort spanning well over a decade. At the time of writing, they are still waiting for the craft to come out of its radio silent mode…

Recent activities on other sites

As readers will know, much of my time recently has been put into getting The Flame Before Us ready for publication. It is now available for Kindle pre order at Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon India, and elsewhere. The softcover version is going through the last stages of production and will be available at round about the same time.

But outside that I have been involved with a range of other things. One that I was particularly pleased to take part in was a contribution to Suzanne Adair’s “Relevant History” blog. Entitled Stamped on these Lifeless Things, it was an exploration of early writing. A lot of fun to write, and judging from the comments, readers enjoyed it too. One lucky reader got a free copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land which at the time of writing has just successfully made its way across the Atlantic.

There are a few reviews which have appeared on other sites recently –

Historical Novel Society

  • The Queen of Washington (Francis Hamit) – spies and intrigue during the American Civil War.
  • Will Poole’s Island (Tim Weed) – again in America, but this time in the early colonial days, exploring different interactions between the settlers and original inhabitants.
  • Turwan (Richard J Carroll) – over to Australia and a fact-based account of one man’s relationship with aboriginal groups.

The last two had a lot of points of similarity, setting personal cross-cultural friendship in contrast to a background of social prejudice.

The Review Group

  • Splintered Energy (Arlene Webb) – a near-future first contact science fiction book taking a different approach to the subject. This book is only the first in a series of four, so is far from complete at the end – plenty of material for enthusiasts to get their teeth into.

All of the above reviews are live at the sites indicated, and will be making their way onto Amazon and elsewhere shortly.

Other books – reviews planned but not yet written –

  • Camp Follower (Suzanne Adair) – again in the US, exploring military actions and intrigue in North and South Carolina in the War of Independence. I am slowly getting my head around the twists and turns of American history. I am part-way through Suzanne’s Hostage to Heritage at the moment, also exploring the same context from a different perspective.
  • Lincoln at Gettysburg (Garry Willis) – not a work of fiction, but rather an analysis of the rhetorical and social background to Lincoln’s speech. As a non-American I found this fascinating, particularly the place in American thought of this and other early documents, in contrast to our own British attitude to things like Magna Carta.
  • The Oblate’s Confession – monastic life in Northumbria after the synod of Whitby, tackling both personal and religious life.

Plenty of excitement there…

Versatile blogging

Right, time to catch up with the Versatile Blog award passed on to me by Helen Hollick (http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/). The guidelines for this are:

  1. Display the Award Certificate (copy and paste from one blog to the next) – here it is…The Versatile Blogger logo
  2. Write a post and link back to the blogger who nominated you – Helen’s blog at http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/
  3. Post seven interesting things about yourself — these are listed below
  4. Nominate up to fifteen other bloggers (and why you’ve nominated them) – also listed below
  5. Inform them of their nomination (probably via comment on their blog unless you have their email!) – about to do this

Now, trying to think of fifteen blogs I regularly follow is not easy. Still less when you cross out the ones who have already joined in this. So, I am going to lean heavily on the “up to” qualifier…

Seven interesting things
Well, I decided this didn’t have to be seven things nobody knew, which would be either extremely difficult or overly exposing! Here we go… some of these may already be familiar to you.

  1. I first got interested in the ancient Near East through the twin routes of Christianity and chronology. But the chronology side soon yielded to the vastly greater allure of language and poetry, for which I retain a great love – really, there was no contest once I could appreciate the poetry on its own terms.
  2. I love learning how languages work, ancient or modern, but am lazy about learning vocabulary, so never get anywhere near fluent. My latest excursion, spurred on by wanting to communicate with workmates in India, is Hindi.
  3. I started to enjoy reading as a child, and for many years the public library in Godalming was a favourite destination, along with a wide range of books at home. My Narnia books have a cover price of 3 shillings and 6 pence in the UK’s pre-1971 old money (17 1/2 pence new money, or about 27 cents US for those who prefer to count that way).
  4. Goldcrest - RSPB imageI have enjoyed watching birds since childhood, and at one time owned some old vinyl records with birdsong on them. I was also a junior member of the RSPB, and had a beautiful card game with pictures of British birds. Our garden in north London is a great place to see birds, and I am perpetually surprised at the range of visitors (both regular and occasional) we get.
  5. But as a child I was too noisy and impatient to wait for the birds to appear, so it took over forty years until I finally saw a goldcrest in the wild. I have even seen a bittern, which given that they were expected to go extinct in my teens was a great treat – but the goldcrest was much prettier!
  6. As well as historical fiction books set in the ancient Near East, I am working on a near-future science fiction book, with provisional title Far from the Spaceports. It’s an entirely different experience to the historical fiction series – which is definitely continuing, and for which I have one novel approaching release (The Flame Before Us), and another one taking shape in my head.
  7. My favourite places in the world are at three of the corners of England – the Cumbrian Lake District, the Isles of Scilly, and the north Northumbrian coastline near Bamburgh. I’m planning to get two out of these three into my writing before too much longer, but the Lakes are determinedly resisting being caught up in a net of words!

OK, now for some blog links. At the time of writing this I have no idea who will want to take up this opportunity, but here are some of the blogs I enjoy on a regular basis.

  1. David Frauenfelder, http://myth.typepad.com/breakfast/Breakfast with Pandora, for a diet rich in mythos and logos – an eclectic mix of classical Greek and Latin, commentary on modern creativity, and fantasy set in several eras.
  2. Anastasia Abboud, http://anastasiaabboud.weebly.com/ – writing, cross-cultural thoughts, and the creativity of gardening all in one place.
  3. Ian Grainger, http://www.bigemrg.co.uk/ig-photography/blog/blog.html – mostly about photographs and photography, with some specialism into macros and the like – the water splashes are well worth a look. Ian also provides creative and technical know-how for my book covers.
  4. Brian Rush, https://brianrushwriter.wordpress.com/ – a provocative and stimulating exploration of spirituality, writing, politics and social issues. Brian would (I think) be disappointed if anyone agreed with everything he said, but the content is varied and always worth the read.
  5. Mike Reeves-McMillan, http://csidemedia.com/gryphonclerks/ – occasional posts about writing, world-building and other fantasy items.
  6. The Review Group, http://thereview2014.blogspot.co.uk/ – a bit of a cheat here as it is a collaboration between lots of people, including me now. However, I do always make a point of reading it, whoever contributes.
  7. Jude Knight, http://judeknightauthor.com/ – Regency era historical fiction and general information. The Napoleonic era avoiding the obvious battlefields, and focusing on relationships back in England.
  8. Andrea Zuvich, http://www.andreazuvich.com/ – a little further back, into the 17th century, and the world of the Stuarts.

    Finally, two more individuals whose blogs I frequently read, but who have already enjoyed nominations for this and so are not really eligible.
  9. Antoine Vanner, http://dawlishchronicles.blogspot.co.uk/ – naval fiction of the late 19th century, and other related matters… always a pleasure to read.
  10. Anna Belfrage, https://annabelfrage.wordpress.com/ – all kinds of historical snippets, with a particular focus on unusual and interesting women, plus some contemporary thoughts and musings. Great stuff.

That’s it for today. I’ll be emailing the next group of bloggers to see who wants to join in… Look out for the next cover portion for The Flame Before Us before too many days have passed!

Review – Exodus, by Andreas Christensen

Exodus is set in a near-future earth in which today’s threat of global terrorism has pushed America into virtual dictatorship. Although still nominally democratic, personal freedom has been almost entirely sacrificed to military and economic interests. But this is simply the stage for the book’s real plot – securing an escape route to another solar system for a small group to avoid the consequences of a late-detected asteroid strike. Like so many stories these days, Exodus is part of a trilogy, and the story is left on the verge of the next stage.

Buy Exodus from Amazon.co.uk
Buy Exodus from Amazon.com

Cover image - ExodusThe plot is quite diverse, dealing with political machinations in the US as well as the selection process for the passengers, a glimpse of the scientific advances needed for the journey, and a little about the shipboard life on the way. A striking feature of Andreas’ writing is that she is not afraid to skip over spans of time where nothing much happens, in order to focus on the next key event. So for example very little is said of the actual journey through space.

The characters are almost exclusively American, but of quite a limited range – Hispanic names are there, but I don’t recall any native American, Indian or far-east Asian names. Perhaps this was supposed to mirror the generally paranoid thinking of the society, but it felt rather unreal to me. As regards the rest of the world, Europe is largely there to provide scientific know-how for the project and then wave the ship goodbye, and no other countries get a look-in at all. One scientific goal of the journey was to secure genetic diversity on the new world, and I suspect that in this regard, one would have to class the mission a failure. But again, perhaps this is really saying that political agenda always trumps scientific ideals.

I felt there were some odd omissions. Interpersonal relationships are almost entirely platonic – in a bunch of about 1600 people who think they are the last representatives of humanity, about the closest we get to romance is one man musing to himself that one of the women “didn’t look too bad”. More seriously, having had a careful explanation before launch of the compelling need for exponential population growth from the start, nothing is then done about this. I feel sure that, especially in a centrally dominated society but for sound survival reasons as well, some fraction of the women would have been pregnant before landing. But so far as the plot of the book is concerned, only politics, seen as the pursuit of authority and dominance, is important.

Technically the Kindle version has been reasonably well produced. There were a number of typos, only a few of which interrupted reading. The prose style is very plain, and coming from a historical fiction background I prefer something richer. The main obstacle was the paragraph length which through most of the book was huge, often spanning multiple Kindle page turns I would strongly recommend that another edit trims this down into digestible chunks which fit better with an ereader page.

I thought a lot about a final rating and felt in the end that the interest value of the plot just about pushed this from three to four stars. I was never at serious risk of giving up and I did want to see the travellers through to their destination. But I would have liked Exodus much more if the issues mentioned had been tackled, and I did feel that parts of the story didn’t quite hang together as they should.

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.

Buy The London Project from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The London Project from Amazon.com
Cover - The London Project
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.

Buy The Songs Of Chaos from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Songs Of Chaos from Amazon.com
Cover - The Songs of Chaos
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.

Buy Spacehounds of IPC from Amazon.co.uk
Buy Spacehounds of IPC from Amazon.com
Cover - Spacehounds of IPC
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.

Buy The Martian from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Martian from Amazon.com
Cover image - The Martian
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.