My life in outer space

Brown – Eric

The Angels of Life and Death – Eric Brown (2010)

The Angels of Life and Death

Ten stories from Eric Brown, of varying quality, set in various parts of the world or universe.
There are recurring themes of Death (or perhaps mortality) and identity. There a couple of stories which are a little weak, although on the whole they are fascinating little gems, featuring well-rounded characters, and not all of them Anglo-American Anglo Saxon folk either, which makes a pleasant change.
A very easy and enjoyable read.

Venus Macabre (Aboriginal Science Fiction, Winter 1998)

A tale of two men obsessed with death. One is a conceptual artist who is equipped with a device which records his mind. He perpetually destroys himself as a performance before spending seven days in the impervious device while his body is being regrown. The other, who attends his final performance, is a TV host who employs empaths to track suicides. Their final days and their actual suicides are filmed and shown on a popular prime time show.
This tale cleverly unravels the history of the two protagonists and what else they have in common.

The Frankenberg Process (Interzone, #171 September 2001)

A fascinating story with a very retro feel to it. The Frankenberg Process splits top level executives of a vast Corporation into two separate but identical individuals, keeping one on Earth and teleporting the other to work on a distant alien world, never to return.
It’s a tale of corporate greed and control, but also examines the human effects of such a process.

Skyball (The Edge, Vol. 2, #5, August-September 1997)

In a near future Far East, a form of quidditch is played, with teams zooming about in powered harnesses. A telepath, who used to be employed to scout out talent by seeing their potential in their minds, is now employed seeking out criminals. He is at an important Skyball final as a tip has been received that someone will attempt to kill one of the players.
While there, he discovers a crippled girl who has the mind of a brilliant Skyball strategist, and conceives the idea of temporarily transferring her mind into that of a fading star player. .

Bengal Blues (The Angels of Life and Death 2010)

A weak but atmospheric story about a telepathic detective on the trail of a man who has married a prostitute. The ending is a little rushed and awkward for me. It seems as if it should be part of a larger work.

The Nilakantha Scream (Interzone, #48 June 1991)

Telepaths again feature in this odd tale of an interstellar contact crew returning from a world where they were deeply traumatised and have been emitting a daily psychic scream on their way back home. This is however, more about the central figure and her relationship to her boss and to one of the crew returning from space.

The Thallian Intervention (The Edge, Vol. 2, #2, February-March 1996)

One of the weaker tales in ‘Angels of Life and Death’ is an attempt at an early Twentieth Century style, where Mr Meredith, a passenger on a liner to Singapore meets an alien visitor from the future.
The Earth is doomed, but the aliens plan to effectively copy the Earth, transport it to their own time period, and hopefully save Humanity from destroying itself.
It ultimately looks at the same themes as ‘The Frankenburg Process’ but not to any great degree.

The Tapestry of Time (Fantasy Adventures 12 – 2006)

An archaeologist is struggling to come to terms with an anomalous corpse from the 11th Century that has turned up. Not long after an old colleague invites him to have a tour of his project, which appears to be a working time-travel process.
Without giving too much away there is not enough of a mystery, and the piece could have been longer with a little more plot.

The Frozen Woman (Interzone, #190 July-August 2003)

A gardener for a large private estate is discovered frozen, as if in stasis, in Sainsburys. A year later he recovers, apparently none the worse for his experience. However, he will only speak with one specific reporter, a woman about whom he seems to know and care a great deal, although she has never met him.
Brown’s aliens and evolved humans (as are described here and in the stories in Angels of Life and Death) seem in the main to be benevolent, which is interesting and a little refreshing.

Crystals (New Moon #2, January 1992)

An alien ship crashed just off an island on Britain’s coast. It has been thoroughly examined by most of the world’s specialists and the alien bodies removed.
When the story begins the ship has become merely a scenic view for the islanders. The narrator moved to the island following an acrimonious divorce. His estranged daughter is due to arrive for a visit and her mother has not told her that the man she calls father is not her father.
As she arrives, the island is beset by a storm and the next day alien crystals are found on the beach, crystals that can one record one’s thoughts and experiences.
It is not a bad story but would benefit with some extra length and more conflict.

Angels of Life and Death ( Spectrum SF, #5 February 2001)

Just after Ben, an artist, discovers he has terminal cancer, aliens arrive, announcing their intention to take Earth’s mortally sick for a trip around the Universe. Ben volunteers and is introduced to Tallibeth, his guide, a humanoid being who appears to be composed of light.
The Tallani, as the aliens are known, take Ben to various worlds across the Universe and ultimately tell him that they can, if he wishes, cure him.
As with some of his other stories there is an exploration of what it means to have quality of life.


New York Blues – Eric Brown (2001)

New York Blues (Virex Trilogy, #2)

‘Hal Halliday is just another of the lost, crowding the streets of New York, mired in a 21st Century that is going nowhere. His business partner is dead and Hal is keeping their missing persons business going without really knowing why.

When a holodrama star approaches Hal to find her missing sister Hal is drawn into the world of dreams set up by VR magnate Sergio Mantoni. It is a world built on the desperate lives of a population of a ruined America; a world facing a new challenge from VIREX, an underground movement dedicated to ending the false promise of Virtual Reality.’

Blurb from the 2002 Gollancz Edition

Hal Halliday, Private Eye, still in mourning from the death of his partner Barney and the loss of his girlfriend, Kim, is commissioned by vampish VR starlet Vanessa Artois (One can’t help thinking her name should have been Stella) to find her missing sister, Canada.
This is a step up from ‘New York Nights’ in many ways. The pace is faster, the mood is darker, and although initially one might feel that the plot of NYN is being rehashed, we are taken into areas where it seems no one can be trusted.
Brown seems to have found his feet here, and having established his world with NYN can afford to dive straight into the action and shadow Hal as he follows clues and leads from location to location. A sub-plot involving members of the anti-VR organisation VIREX ends up being a little redundant and adds nothing to the plot other than to give Hal a clue as to the identity of the kidnapper.
An interesting feature of this novel is that Brown extrapolates the ambivalent nature of contemporary internet sexual identities to its logical conclusion. People entering VR sex-sites can choose the age and sex of their avatar. Mantoni’s hitman, Pablo for instance (a large muscular moustachioed Mexican) has regular meetings with Mantoni in a VR environment and adopts the persona of an attractive blonde female, often resulting in a sexual encounter with Mantoni. Mantoni is fully aware of Pablo’s ‘real’ form, but is nonetheless happy to engage in the sexual activities which Pablo initiates.
Halliday himself, in order to set a trap for the kidnapper, poses as a teenage girl in the Eros VR site and finds himself in the position of experiencing a teenage girl’s sexual arousal at Mantoni’s overtures.
Brown does not explore the issue in any depth, but thankfully neither does he moralise or allow Halliday outbursts of righteous self-disgust at these feelings.
The subject matter of course, relates directly to contemporary worries about older men (or indeed women) ‘grooming’ children on the internet whom the subsequently meet in the real world, which no doubt strikes a chord with many parents of internet users.
It’s a novel of a certain type, in that it is a lightweight, enjoyable read. ‘For those who like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing they will like’. It will appeal, I would imagine to those who don’t read a lot of Science Fiction.
My main problem with it (and it’s a minor niggle) is Halliday who, despite his dead boss and absconded ex-girlfriend, is just too patient and too likeable. Detectives should have psychological problems and speak rudely to anyone within earshot, or else have a deep dark secret. Even Sherlock Holmes had his seven percent solution to take the edge off his too-good-to-be true-ness. They should be tolerated only because they are the only ones capable of solving the case. Being nice is just not an option.

New York Nights – Eric Brown (2000)

New York Nights (Virex Trilogy, #1)

‘2040. New York is crowded with the lost. Refugees from the radioactive eastern seaboard, the splintered remains of a society in freefall, walk the streets and spend their last dollars on an hour snatched in one of the new Virtual Reality paradises.

In a society bent on escape, Missing Persons is a good business to be in. If nothing else it keeps Hal Halliday busy enough to avoid his past.

But the past is not so easy to escape.

NEW YORK NIGHTS is a fast moving yet thought-provoking SF thriller. It examines the human costs of isolation and escapism in a future that offers wild possibilities.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz paperback edition

This, the first novel in the Virex trilogy introduces Hal Halliday – an affable New York ex-cop turned private eye of the mid Twenty-First Century – and his older partner Barney.
The duo run a semi-successful business chasing missing persons and assisting the local PD with cold cases.
Hal is intrigues by the case of Sissy Nigeria, reported missing by her lesbian lover. It’s a seemingly simple case but one which becomes more complex when Hal is attacked by a shape-shifter in the missing woman’s flat.
Sissy’s home computer system has been burnt out and Hal later discovers that her research work for Cybertech involved the creation of machine intelligence.
Despite a lack of complexity and some coincidences which stretch credulity, Brown has created a compelling an highly readable novel which races along like a cyborg greyhound.
The most intriguing aspect is perhaps Brown’s depiction of a Lesbian Separatist community of which his estranged sister is a member. He manages to avoid cliched stereotypes without being preciously politically correct, and sets the stage for the next two books in the series. Indeed the whole novel has the feel of the TV pilot which sets up the relationships between the major characters and sets them in context before moving on to the meat and potatoes of the narrative.
Brown doesn’t go far enough to explore the potentialities of VR, although there are some truly innovative moments, such as the interactive holosoap. One can log in to a virtual city, adopt a character and literally become one of the three million stories in the Naked City, which run perpetually.
‘New York Nights’ is that rare thing in SF of the period, a novel which is too short. One expects the detective to be wrong-footed by red herrings and following various nebulous leads. This is what detectives do. If one compares this to Morgan’s ‘Altered Carbon’ – a novel of similar style but superior quality – one immediately notes the differences. Morgan’s novel is full of character and location detail, layered over a zig-zagging plotline. Brown lacks the detail and therefore this novel, although workmanlike, lacks atmosphere.

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction – George Mann (Ed) – (2007)

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction

In His Sights – Jeffrey Thomas
Bioship – Neal Asher
C-Rock City – Jay Lake & Greg van Eekhout
The Bowdler Strain – James Lovegrove
Personal Jesus – Paul Di Filippo
If at First… – Peter F Hamilton
A Distillation of Grace – Adam Roberts
Last Contact – Stephen Baxter
Cages – Ian Watson
Jellyfish – Mike Resnick & David Gerrold
Zora and The Land Ethic Nomads – Mary A Turzillo
Four Ladies of The Apocalypse – Brian Aldiss
The Accord – Keith Brooke
The Wedding Party – Simon Ings
Third Person – Tony Ballantyne
The Farewell Party – Eric Brown

Solaris is a new SF imprint, making an enterprising splash with an anthology of newly commissioned material from the great and good of the SF world.

In His Sights – Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas starts us off with a story from Punktown featuring a character who also features in a novel shortly to be published by Solaris. Bearing this in mind, I was setting myself up to be disappointed, but was genuinely impressed by this story of a shapeshifter war veteran whose face has frozen as one of his victims from his time in the war (with blue-skinned people from an alternate reality).
Very dark. Quite Gothic. China Mieville likes it.

Bioship – Neal Asher

A rather weak tale from Asher about sexual rivalry on board a sentient ship (a sea-vessel not a spaceship).
It features the genetically modified lip-tentacled humans (I presume) that we met in the novel ‘Brass Man.’

C-Rock City – Jay Lake & Greg van Eekhout

One of the crew of a trading vessel docks at a city composed of three linked asteroids where he has a regular date with a security guard. However, the man is also on a pilgrimage to find his mother; one of the blind slaves who built the station for The Proctor.
Very moving. Well-paced. Atmospheric.

The Bowdler Strain – James Lovegrove

An excellent tale from Lovegrove about an escaped logovirus which alters the speech centres of the brain. This particular virus, the Bowdler strain, makes it impossible for people to swear. It comes out as gibberish. It is up to the scientist in charge and the military to get the situation resolved.
See also ‘The Isolinguals’

Personal Jesus – Paul Di Filippo

Set in a world where on can have one’s own personal Jesus, rather like an i-pod, giving one advice in one’s ear. Is it all just too good to be true?
The voice of God was discovered when the first quantum computers went online and now everyone has their own godPod through which they can talk to Jesus whenever they wish. The world is a peaceful and contented place.
Our hero, however, has his doubts as to how happy he actually is.

If at First… – Peter F Hamilton

Hamilton’s story, in contrast to the previous two, is a fairly simple idea, but told ingeniously. Narrated by the policeman who investigated the original case, it slowly becomes clear to us that his history is a different one to our own.
It turns out that a man has been stalking a multi-millionaire businessman because he suspects that he has a time-machine and has been passing information to his younger self.
Things, however, are not quite as simple as that.

A Distillation of Grace – Adam Roberts

A religious cult (Roberts seems keen on his religious fanatics) settles on a world 2700 light years from Earth and, following the teachings of Shad, are composed of two thousand and forty-eight people, half male, half female, who will pair off and produce one child per couple in every generation until the birth of the final child; The Unique, and thus install Grace into the Universe.
Grace, the cult believes, travels backwards through time and will therefore reach Earth at the time of Christ’s birth.
It’s no more bonkers than any other religious theories, and Roberts writes so damn well that the characters’ convictions come across startlingly powerfully.

Last Contact – Stephen Baxter

What does one do when one knows that the world will end on a specific date, and ironically, just when SETI is beginning to receive messages from the stars?
A mother and her daughter come to terms with the discovery of the Big Rip, which is destroying the universe by degrees and will deal with the earth on October 14. Perversely, SETI – with which the mother is involved – has begun receiving messages from super-civilisations across the cosmos. The mother has her own ideas as to what these messages may be.

Cages – Ian Watson

Watson has made a name for himself by taking absurd premises and carving exquisite short pieces from them, like beautifully wrought ivory figures.
Here, earth has been invaded by Hoops, which hang in the air and disgorge giant bee-like aliens (The Harrow) who attach irremovable cages to various parts of people’s bodies. An intelligence agent is sent to a festival where some musical reactionaries are planning to transmit some of the bees’ remixed sounds back through the hoops in order to provoke them into some kind of dialogue.
As with all Watson’s work, it’s a brilliantly dense piece of writing, full of complex ‘stuff’ and surely deserves a larger format to explore more global and personal ramifications.
The concept of ‘cages’ of course, works on different levels in this story, some obvious, some more subtle.

Jellyfish – Mike Resnick & David Gerrold

In this post-modern parody, Resnick and Gerrold show us the life of a writer based on an amalgam I suspect, of PK Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and William Burroughs. A tale full of SF devices, clichés and in-jokes and featuring an attack on a whole plethora of SF writers, thinly disguised, including the two authors themselves. They even manage to sneak in AE van Vogt’s famous Sevagram.

Zora and The Land Ethic Nomads – Mary A Turzillo

A brilliant bit of character-driven drama in which an African couple and their young son, working on mars, have to temporarily take in some Land Ethic Nomads. They believe that Man should live nowhere but Earth and are trying to persuade Mars settlers to return.
When they leave, it appears that one of them, Valkini, has sabotaged their nuclear plant since their radiation monitors are showing high levels.

Four Ladies of The Apocalypse – Brian Aldiss

A prose-poem-ish piece from Aldiss in which four ladies (and a fifth) visit a dictator. The horsemen are, it appears, too exhausted by their labours to appear at this juncture.

The Accord – Keith Brooke

Tish and her husband run a bar on a strange and beautiful world. They are happy until a mysterious stranger turns up, pursued by three other mysterious strangers, intent on his capture. She becomes infatuated with the stranger and is determined to discover who or what he is.

The Wedding Party – Simon Ings

Simon Ings often reads like Ian Watson a serious acid downer.
In a future Europe, a man goes to extraordinary and somewhat surgical lengths to smuggle his African lovers into the UK.
Beautifully written. Very poetic. Very dark.

Third Person – Tony Ballantyne

The British Army are in Spain, fighting the S.E.A., and have to pillage what they need to get back to Britain. It’s a tale about military ethics and who or what one might sacrifice for the greater good.

The Farewell Party – Eric Brown

A surprise story, which starts in the real world where a group of friends who meet at a village pub are curious about a new arrival, a writer. Then we are hammered by the news that first contact has already been made, and that the aliens, the Kethani, can resurrect humans who have been implanted with one of their chips.
The narrator has already been resurrected but his recollections of the Kethani world are vague. The writer’s latest book is about a group of friends who commit joint suicide in order to be resurrected and travel the Universe together.
So who or what is the writer, and should the group be tempted by the idea?
It’s one of the most intriguing stories in this volume since its theme is Faith and conviction, and although the fact of resurrection has been proven here, the details of the ‘afterlife’ are unclear, perhaps necessarily so, or perhaps there is a more sinister purpose in the Kethani’s plans.