My life in outer space

Arthur C Clarke Award – Nomination

Vurt – Jeff Noon (1993)

Vurt (Vurt #1)

‘ Science Fiction is as much a victim to fashion as any art form, no matter how much it tries to look to the future.’ – Jeff Noon

What can one say about ‘Vurt’? I first read this on its first release and still have my treasured Ringpull paperback edition. It was a modest publication from a small publisher which went viral and ended up winning the Arthur C Clarke award.
In retrospect, this was no surprise. Back then, it was a revelation. Many readers have expressed the sentiment in various ways that ‘it was like nothing I’d ever read before,’ and indeed that was my feeling back in the Nineties and still now, having returned to it twenty years on.
There have been comparisons with Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ in that this book pushed the boundaries of the genre into new and exciting areas. It is certainly a brilliant and original piece of work, reflecting, to a certain extent, the club and drug culture of Manchester in the Nineteen Nineties, although its influences include Lewis Carroll, often overtly, and a host of other influences more subtly. Orpheus and Eurydice play their part also, for instance.
Scribble, our hero, is one of The Stashriders, a gang of young people who spend their days acquiring feathers, feathers laced with substances which not only alter their perceptions, but the nature of reality itself and, it would appear, genetic integrity. There are various variations of humanity roaming the streets of the city, mixtures of dog, shadow, robot and human to various degrees. No doubt some will interpret these as metaphors for the mixed race residents of various Manchester communities, but I’m not sure that was ever Noon’s intention.
When one shares a feather by tickling the back of the throat with its fronds, one is transported into the world of the Vurt; the experience received dependent on the colour of the feather and the strength of its effects.
Scribble, along with the rest of the gang, Beetle, Mandy, Bridget and The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, is attempting to find a way to rescue Scribble’s sister Desdemona, who is lost in the world of Vurt. Occasionally the Vurt will take someone and replace them with something from the Vurt world, in this case, The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, a small tentacled entity whose flesh has hallucinogenic properties. Scribble believes that if he can find the right feather he can swap his sister back for The Thing.
The perennial question for me is whether this is Science Fiction at all. There seems to be no real explanation for the effects of the Vurt feathers, and the final scenes raise some questions about the reality of the entire story. Science Fiction, however, like the people of Noon’s alternate Manchester, is a morphable beast and occasionally throws out new and wonderful mutations. I for one am happy to accept this as one such.
What makes this novel so compelling is Noon’s style; fast, fresh and packed with puns and wordplay. Action kicks in from the first page when the Stashriders, having acquired a new feather, are chased by a Shadowcop and engage in a rollercoaster chase through the streets of Noon’s bizarre and colourful Manchester.
In his quest to find the means to rescue his beloved sister (far more beloved than society’s norms would usually allow) Scribble encounters a whole host of bizarre characters, chimeras and grotesques, such as Justin and his lover, whose mutual dreadlocks are so matted together that they can never be parted, or The Game Cat, a creature once human who has become part of the Vurt and can seemingly come and go at will between Scribble’s world and the world of the Vurt. There are robodogs, dog human hybrids and brightly coloured snakes which have escaped the game platforms of the Vurt and infest housing estates.
It’s a fast paced no-let-up novel which contains surprises and wonder on every page.
There are, in the history of SF, novels which seem to have been written in an SF vacuum and appear to owe no allegiance to any major influence or current fashion or style of SF literature. I count among these ‘1984’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Riddley Walker’, and would have to include ‘Vurt’.
The Kindle Twentieth anniversary issue contains three new stories set in the world of the Vurt, but whose style and tone is, perhaps understandably given the twenty year gap, far different from that of Vurt. These are more mature works and although they lack the fire and verve of Noon’s original novel, have a greater depth and sureness of touch.

Additional stories

Speaker Bug

A young girl becomes convinced that something from the Vurt is living in her flat, and consequently the Vurt may have taken something from her, although it takes a while for her to discover that what the Vurt takes is not always physical.
What is interesting about this is when she leaves the flat she passes a couple coming up the stairs, carrying something alive in a tartan rug, which is how Scribble and Mandy used to carry The-Thing-From-Outer-Space around in ‘Vurt’.

Cloudriver

A young woman is harassed by three dogboys and rescues the entity they were searching for, a young female bird/human hybrid from the Vurt. This again examines the concept of Vurt artefacts being swapped for memories.

Slow-motion renegades

A beautifully written and constructed tale which plays with our sense of reality. A young couple become attached to their lodger, Milo, a man – unable to access the Vurt – whose behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre as he seeks to find a way to ‘dream’.
Again, like the other pieces, there is an oblique relationship to the parent novel.

Advertisements

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch #1) (2013)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)

Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.


The Adjacent – Christopher Priest (2013)

The Adjacent

Priest novels have never been an easy read, although they can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, in my experience once one has finished reading them, more of which later. He has never gone in for infodumping or providing easy explanations for the reader, and his work tends to be a puzzle, or – in the nature of one of his favourite themes – a magical act of misdirection where the reader has to spot the clues in order to interpret the reality of what he or she is experiencing.
Reality is the major theme here, or alternate realities. Priest is exploring a concept which Moorcock employed throughout his career and indeed used to connect his many disparate works with each other.
The central character is Tibor Tarent, a photographer from the Islamic Republic of Great Britain, some time after the 2030s. He has been returned to England from Turkey for a debriefing following the death of his nurse wife Melanie in an apparent terrorist attack. This terrifying new ‘adjacency’ weapon appears as a light above the target. What then follows is that everything in an equilateral pyramid below is apparently destroyed, leaving a perfectly triangular blast area. It would have been interesting for Priest to have explored the workings and history of the IRGB a little more. Here, it is merely a presented fact, employed as a backdrop to Tibor’s dystopia.
Tibor learns that the authorities are interested in him because he once photographed Thijs Rietveld, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who discovered and developed the adjacency technology.
On returning to London he discovers that Notting Hill has been destroyed in the same way (I note that another critic has pointed out that this may be a bit of an overreaction to the effect of the Richard Curtis movie, but hey ho).
Interspersed with Tarent’s journey to Warnes’ Farm, where he is due to be interviewed by unspecified government officials, are other stories, set in the First and Second World Wars, and on the island of Prachous, a setting from from a previous novel ‘The Dream Archipelago’.
In all these sequences we find alternate versions or reflections of Tarent and Melanie. Two are magicians or illusionists echoing the themes of reality and illusion from ‘The Prestige’. A stage magician called Tommy Trent is drafted to the front line of The First World War, along with HG Wells, in an effort to devise a plan to make British planes less visible to the Germans.
In World War II, a pilot called Torrance is connected by chance to a Polish female pilot who is drawn to him because of his resemblance to her lost lost lover Tomasz.
And on Prachous, there are two incarnations of the couple; one of the males being a photographer and the other another magician. The Melanie figures are a pilot, a religious guide, and a nurse. This continues a regular theme of Priest’s of doubles, twins and doppelgangers which appear in his past work to a greater or lesser degree.
All the sequences have a certain sense of illogicality or unreality about them, certainly in the sense that on at least two occasions women who seem initially cold and aloof initiate rampant sex with the Tibor incarnation.
Indeed, Priest keeps us guessing throughout, as the Tibor Tarent sequences may or may not reflect the same reality.
I have always been a fan of those works which do not explain everything. Many authors feel they have to do a Downton Abbey and tie up all the loose ends, marry off all the single people and leave no question unanswered, which for me is rather more unreal than any of Priest’s realities here.
One of the most fascinating sections is the one dealing with the interview with Thijs Rietveld where – like an illusionist – he demonstrates the adjacency field with no explanation while having his photograph taken by Tibor in his garden. A conch shell appears to move without volition between his left and right hand while he stands there unmoving.
Leaving a mystery unsolved is the best way to ensure that a work stays on in one’s head, and Priest leaves many haunting questions here. Many people see that as a bad thing, but I would disagree. The novel persists in one’s head where other works with ‘closure’ (ironically the title of one of the sections toward the end) are soon dismissed by the conscious process.
There is a resolution, or is there? It’s difficult to tell with Priest. Maybe we have all been misdirected and the entire book is one enormous conjuring trick, designed to lead us to an erroneous conclusion while the real truth lies hidden like Schrodinger’s cat, waiting for us to open the box.


The Machine – James Smythe (2013)

The Machine

This is a refreshingly short novel at a time when genre novels are bulking up and threatening in many cases to be only the first volume of a proposed trilogy. It is also quite minimalist, and what I would describe as an ‘old fashioned novel’. It keeps the characters to a bare minimum which helps to focus on them and their role in the drama.
Beth is a teacher in a near future Britain scarred and flooded by the effects of climate change. Her husband, Vic, injured and traumatised by military service in Iran and subsequently subject to episodes of violence, was given the opportunity to try a revolutionary treatment in which a machine removes traumatic memories. The treatment (partly as a result of Beth’s actions) left him a near-vegetable, and he is being looked after in a care home. Now, Beth believes, having purchased one of the original machines, that she can return the memories he recorded back into his head and resurrect him, thus regaining her husband and absolving her guilt.
There are echoes of the Frankenstein mythos referenced within the novel, in some cases quite obviously. Victor is the name of Shelley’s legendary scientist in the original Frankenstein novel and Beth is no doubt a contraction of ‘Elizabeth’, the name of Victor Frankenstein’s doomed wife.
On the machine recordings, Vic tells his life story to, or at least is interviewed by a Doctor ‘Robert’ which is the first name of the ship’s Captain in ‘Frankenstein’ who finds the monster in the Arctic and narrates his sorry tale.
There is a scene where a child is thrown from a cliff into the sea, which brings to mind a scene from the original Boris Karloff film. The murdered child’s name is William, who in ‘Frankenstein’ was killed by the monster because he was Victor’s younger brother.
The roles however are not carried through as it is Beth who takes on the role of ‘the giver of life’ to Victor, who is cast as the monster. Unless I am missing some additional subtext there is no good reason for this extensive connection to the Shelley novel.
Providing conflict is Beth’s new colleague at her school; Laura. In an unguarded moment Beth reveals her plans for Vic to Laura only to discover that Laura is a devout Christian fundamentalist who is vehemently opposed to Machine technology rebuilding someone’s soul as she sees it. Laura’s character seems not as well-developed as it may have been and it might have been an idea to have had some additional initial exposure and time with Beth to a) establish some other aspects of her personality and b) to allow her to get Beth into her confidence.
Some have criticised ‘The Machine’ for its bleak background and unsympathetic characters. I would disagree, since Smythe has created a plausible version of a near-future UK in which climate change has seen the sea invading the land.
Beth’s character seems fairly well-rounded and one can not escape the fact that she lives alone in a flat on a sink estate in a town with no future. It is necessarily bleak. In its own way, this is a modern Gothic horror built around the central figure of the Machine itself, a huge and enigmatic presence which has moods demonstrated by its various hums, engine roars and physical vibrations. One gets the impression that the machine may be almost orchestrating events for its own purposes. It is reminiscent of Stephen Gregory’s ‘The Cormorant’ in this respect.
The novel leads relentlessly and inevitably to its (perhaps a little too predictable) conclusion, but is no less satisfying for that. Smythe exhibits a welcome economy of writing which flies in the face of some of the more corpulent novels weighing down the bookshelves of genre readers. Let’s hope this is the start of a new trend.


The Disestablishment of Paradise – Phillip Mann (2013)

The Disestablishment of Paradise

Phillip Mann seldom disappoints and here provides another blend of sharply crafted characterisation with a beautifully detailed alien landscape.
Paradise is a world of exotic plant life, a world on which humans have been living for more than two centuries. Hera Melhuish is an exobiologist and protégé of a discredited scientist, Shapiro whose insistence on the viability of an unproven Gaia theory saw him ostracised from the scientific community. Paradise, however, seems to be proving him right as it appears that the biosphere, after 200 years of desecration and poisoning by Humanity is beginning to fight back. The Paradise Plum, a combination of aphrodisiac and narcotic, has begun to turn toxic and the agricultural settlers are finding their crops failing.
Hera receives a call from Earth which is a political fait accompli. Earth will no longer support the agricultural community or the scientific base and announce that Paradise will be disestablished and the human colonists evacuated.
Despite her best efforts, Hera fails in an appeal against the decision, but discovers that a mysterious benefactor has arranged for her to stay alone on the planet until the human buildings and equipment have been removed and the orbital station leaves in a few months time. This is where the novel truly begins and is the story of how Hera discovers the true nature of the planet.
The structure is interesting in that Hera’s story is interspersed with selections from interviews with Olivia, the woman who wrote the book of Hera’s experiences on Paradise which are shared with Mack, an engineer from the planetary demolition crew. Mack returned to the planet unofficially when he psychically sensed she was in danger.
I’ve always felt that Mann writes in technicolor, and this is especially true here where he vividly paints the sights, sounds and smells of a truly alien world.
We learn some of the history of the world, in particular how some of the mobile plant life, such as the enormous twin-trunked Dendron, was hunted to extinction, partly because it was a menace to crops and partly because of the prices that would be paid for the bonelike growth within their bodies which is prized as an aphrodisiac.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with Mann’s earlier novel, ‘The Eye of The Queen’, a modern SF masterpiece which explored the concept of influence and indeed damage caused by the meeting of two disparate cultures. In ‘The Eye of The Queen’ there was at least a level of intelligent communication between the human anthropologist and the indigenous aliens, whereas here Mann has postulated a nascent intelligence with which we may never experience any true rapport, as in Lem’s ‘Solaris’, a novel which is mentioned in this context within the text.
In very obvious terms it’s a metaphor for our treatment of Earth and contains some very powerful messages about the balance of nature and the biosphere’s fragility. There is also a deep level of spirituality running through it, something that hasn’t been a feature of Mann’s previous work as I recall.
Cleverly, Mann closes the novel with some appendices which contain either diary entries from former colonists or folk tales based on real events. These, having read the novel and Hera’s tale, become quite chilling in the matter-of-fact way that the settlers deal with the local lifeforms.
Mann is not as widely read as he should be, which is a terrible shame, since he is certainly one of the finest exponents of SF to be writing out of the Antipodes and long may he continue to do so.


God’s War (Bel Dame Apocrypha #01) – Kameron Hurley (2013)

God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha #1)

‘Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference…

On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there’s one thing everybody agrees on–There’s not a chance in hell of ending it.

Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, her ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war–but at what price?

The world is about to find out!’

Blurb from unknown edition.

Nasheen and Chenja, on the planet Umayma, have been at war for centuries, how long is not really clear, even to the protagonists. Both sides practise a seemingly evolved form of Islam based on ‘the Kitab’ (which is merely Arabic for ‘book’) although the Nasheens are a matriarchal society and the Chenjans patriarchal. Mutation and possible gene-splining has produced some humans that can control insects via pheromones (known as magicians) and also shapeshifters. This adds a slight flavour of Science Fantasy to the mix which melds nicely into the complex society that Hurley has created.
At the outset of the novel Nyx is a Bel Dame, one of a highly trained sisterhood of official assassins and bounty hunters. One of her assignments – to put this into perspective – was to track down this world’s version of a suicide bomber; a boy loaded with a time-coded virus who would take up residence in an area before the virus is triggered and released into the local population. Nyx’ mission was to inject him with an antidote before bringing his head back for the bounty.
Not long after, Nyx is expelled from the sisterhood for her involvement with gene pirates and is forced to become a freelance bounty hunter.
Meanwhile, a young Chenjan refugee, Rhys, is training to become a magician, having some talent for controlling insects. He is working with boxers, wrapping their hands prior to the fight and helping to heal them afterwards.
Rhys however is not good enough to qualify as a practising magician and can either stay and teach or leave and take his chances. He chooses to leave but soon finds that Nasheen attitudes to Chenjans are hostile. Inevitably, as one might have guessed, Rhys ends up working for Nyx who not long after is offered a commission by the Queen of Nasheen herself; a dangerous commission which may well get her team killed, but could end the war.
Some reviews I have seen have criticised this novel for not having any likeable characters, but I feel they miss the point. It is not often that one finds a genre novel with such real, well-rounded characters. Not only that, they are characters set firmly within the context of this complex and detailed dystopia. For myself, I liked Nyx. She is a female antihero, and for the moment I can’t bring another to mind.
Interestingly it seems Hurley has reversed the traditional roles of male and female as well as divided the planet between matriarchal and patriarchal control. Nyx is the alpha male of her team in every sense apart from the fact she is a woman. It is perhaps symbolic that the novel begins with her selling her womb to obtain funds to continue with her mission. Later we discover that the enmity between her and her arch rival Raine stems from the time when Nyx cut off his penis. This is one example of an ongoing theme of duality in fact, which is cleverly reflected on various levels here and there. Nyx is happy to sleep with males or females and when she seduces the female boxer Jaks we learn it is only to gain access to her bounty; Jaks’ brother.
Rhys is quieter, is religiously devout, reads poetry, dances and seems to embody what we may see as feminine traits where Nyx embodies the masculine. It may be that, like Nasheen and Chenja, countries who would probably find peace if both embraced sexual equality, Nyx and Rhys could empathise more if they balanced the male and female sides of their own psyches.
It is also a violent piece of work it has to be said, although this is within the context of a world divided by war and focused on the lives of mercenary bounty hunters.
Details of life elsewhere in the galaxy is not really covered although there are other settled worlds as is made clear.
This is an impressive novel which well deserves its place in the Arthur C Clarke award nominations and I look forward to reading more in the sequence.


Nexus – Ramez Naan (2013)

Nexus (Nexus, #1)

Sam is a young female agent of the Homeland Security Emerging Risks Directorate, a somewhat fanatical branch of US enforcement which has been set up to combat the perceived threat of illegal human enhancements. Sam is on the trail of a brilliant student, Kaden Lane, who has modified what used to be Nexus 3 into Nexus 5, a nanotechnological substance which can allow the connection of minds with other users.
Sam, ironically, has been not only physically enhanced by her department but has had a whole other personality complete with memories overlaid over her own. Having successfully made contact with Lane she gets herself invited to a Nexus 5 party. Sam is overwhelmed by the beautiful communion of minds that her cover personality begins to deteriorate. The ERD raid the party and Lane is taken away.
There’s a bit of a cliché here. Hard-arse authoritarians tell the prisoner (Lane) that all his friends can stay in jail and that he himself will get a hefty sentence unless he does a job for the hard-arse authoritarians.
Sam and Lane are sent to a conference in Thailand where Lane attracts the attention of several parties, one of them being a woman the ERD are interested in; a Chinese scientist rumoured to be experimenting with Nexus and other transhumanist technologies.
I would describe this as a Good Book. It zips along fairly swiftly, is a captivating read and builds to an exciting and satisfactory denouement. In many ways it is reinventing the concept of Homo Superior by enhancing Humanity with a nanotechnological software that bonds with its host and becomes permanent part of the body.
Naam goes further by suggesting that Nexus 5 can be passed on in some case to children who grow up able to share the thoughts of other Nexus users.
Being a Good Book though is no guarantee that it’s a good novel. This achieved the shortlist of the 2014 Arthur C Clarke award which surprises me since it does have its flaws. Naam seems to be putting forward an argument in favour of transhumanism by looking at the positive benefits, the negative effects, the political consequences in personal and wider social terms and the very real dangers. All well and good. What slightly undermines this is the Marvel comic characterisation.
The people of the ERD are painted as obsessive, irrational and illogical. Becker, in charge of the mission, is a sociopathic control freak whose motivation seems based on a fear of his teenage daughters being given some form of Nexus. There does need to be some light and shade here since the impression one gets is that the author is deeply distrustful of the American government and his doing his utmost to paint them in a bad light. A little subtlety would have improved this aspect no end.
Kaden Lane, the central character, makes the stupidest decisions in the world, usually without asking anyone’s advice.
Sam’s journey within the novel sees her gradually turning away from her ERD masters toward lane and his Nexus 5 transhumanism. Quite unnecessarily we learn her backstory. She was brought up in a Waco-style commune that devolved into an insular world of sexual abuse and violence. Naam could have made more of the comparisons between Sam’s repressed childhood memories and the overlaid personalities and memories she adopts for missions.
Rather like Becker’s daughter obsession, Naam has taken one element of a character’s life as the one defining factor in their behaviour. It’s a tad too formulaic and tends to detract from the ongoing storyline.
Naam comes into his own when the narrative shifts to Thailand. There appears to be a free market for wetware and enhancements and it is not long before lane finds himself to be a person of interest for at least three separate groups, each of whom wants to use Nexus 5 for their own purposes.
The denouement is, as I have said, exciting and dare I say it, a little transcendent, paving the way for the inevitable sequels.
It is undoubtedly a Good Book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading more. Whether or not it should have been in the Clarke Award shortlist is another matter. I would have expected a little more depth.


Market Forces – Richard Morgan (2004)

Market Forces

‘ ‘All over the world, men and women still find causes worth killing and dying for. And who are we to argue with them? Have we lived in their circumstances? have we felt what they feel? No. It is not our place to say if they are right or wrong.

At Shorn Conflict Investment, we are concerned with only two things. Will they win? And will it pay?’

Chris Faulkner has just landed the job of his life. But Shorn Associates are market leaders in Conflict Investment. They expect results, they expect the best. Chris has one very high-profile kill to his name already but will have to drive hard and go for kill after kill if he’s to keep his bosses happy.
All he has to do in the meantime is stay alive…’

Blurb from the Gollancz 2004 paperback edition

Abandoning Takeshi Kovacs for this novel (although Morgan ironically refers to a TK novel within the text through the thoughts of his main character, describing it as ‘a little far-fetched’) the author takes us to a near-future Britain, controlled by media and big business. It’s a Britain where rich and poor are separated geographically, the disaffected being confined to ‘the zones’.
Chris Faulkner is a hot-shot rising star in the world of Investment, but this is a Britain where boardroom battles are conducted on the road. Road rage has been legalised and is now the preferred method by which executives battle for promotion.
It is a mark of Morgan’s persuasiveness as a writer that this rather ‘far-fetched’ and farcical idea is made entirely convincing.
Chris is head-hunted for a post at Conflict Investments, a company specialising in profiting from the destabilisjng of foreign regimes, usually by selling weapons to their opponents, and immediately comes into conflict with almost everyone. From this point on, Morgan drags us into a relentless Shakespearean tragedy in which Faulkner is gradually pushed down a road where paradoxically, through doing what he thinks is the right thing, he is gradually dehumanising himself and transforming into a man numb to the feelings of those around him.
What lets the novel down is the dialogue which, for some reason, never rings true. Maybe it’s because the major characters, particularly Chris Faulkner and his new best mate, fellow executive Mike Bryant, are interchangeable in terms of dialogue. There is no real difference in their speech patterns and although Morgan has written Bryant as a wise-cracking wit, it never really comes off the page that way.
In some ways it is Morgan’s best book so far. Certainly he has done his homework on Politics and Commerce in a Capitalist world and has served us up a horrifying vision of what our society could grow into.
Oddly, it also owes a debt to Zelazny’s ‘Damnation Alley’ via its spiritual descendant, ‘Mad Max’. The film was an early and powerful influence on Morgan and some of its scenes were no doubt in the back of his mind as he set about creating this.


Declare – Tim Powers (2000)

Declare

Powers provides a fascinating afterword (at least in the Kindle edition) detailing what made him want to write this novel and the research he undertook.
Essentially, powers has researched the life of infamous double-agent Kim Philby which has some rather curious incidents and coincidences, and has used this as the basis for a quite amazing supernatural espionage drama, whose narrative veers between the 1940s and the 1960s.
The central figure is Andrew Hale. The lives of he and his mother were saved by The Special Operations Executive, a shadowy branch of the Intelligence Services who determined that Hale was ‘on the rolls’ from childhood and would one day work for them.
The novel begins with Hale’s panicked escape from an operation on Mount Ararat in Turkey in 1948, and from there veers backwards and forwards in time, seeming initially to be a standard spy thriller until weirdness begins creeping in.
Hale is posted to France during World War II, ostensibly working for the Russians, and meets and falls in love with Elena, a Spanish Communist spy. They are separated, but their lives connect again later along with that of Kim Philby.
The narrative takes us to France, the Middle East, Turkey and Russia, and eventually becomes a rollercoaster of a ride, packed with intrigue, subterfuge, secret identities, spy recognition codes and the slow unveiling of the Intelligence Services’ involvement with supernatural forces; Djinn, to be precise, a large nest of whom is sited at the summit of Mount Ararat.
Operation Declare, which has been running for decades, has a mandate to destroy the djinn, and the key to that is Andrew Hale, for reasons which are made clear toward the end.
Certainly, the novel has a very slow start and it is a hefty journey, but the narrative picks up about halfway through and things get a great deal more interesting from then on.


Gibbon’s Decline and Fall – Sheri S Tepper (1996)

Gibbon's Decline and Fall

More of a gender morality tale than an SF novel, arguably Tepper’s most feminist novel starts realistically enough in 1959 where a group of girls swear an oath to always be friends and to reunite regularly.
Years later, odd waves of behaviour are sweeping the world. Sexist and patriarchal views are in the ascendancy. One of the friends, a beautiful enigmatic mystery, is now dead but seems to be mysteriously appearing to them.
In America, a male-dominated organisation called The Alliance seeks to reduce women to the position of child-bearing slaves. The Alliance in turn has links to the Vatican which is itself in a secret union with Islam in order to deny women rights.
Things get stranger still in a plot development involving an ancient intelligent race which has been hiding itself from humans since they emerged into sapience, as well as their implacable foe, a male intelligence from out of space which is causing Humanity’s problems.
Tepper takes an awful lot of artistic licence with some degree of success. As a wish fulfilment fantasy it works, and at the end of the day it is a novel which I presume is written for women whom no doubt appreciate it on a far different level.
In my view there is much to commend this book. It is written from the soul and much righteous anger bleeds through in sections which – quite divorced from the fantastical elements – ring true in relation to modern USA.
Many would argue that it boils down to a ‘battle of the sexes’, and a grim and bloody one at that. There is some truth in this. It’s not a joyful read, but it’s one that stays in the mind.
The denouement though is a positive one, in which one of the female protagonists is given the power to make a choice regarding the future direction of the human race. The power of this novel is that even now, some weeks since I finished it, I am still wondering what choice I would have made. That’s a great thing for any book to be able to do.