My life in outer space


Commonwealth: The K’Soth War, Book One (Progenitors Universe) – Dan Worth (2017)

Commonwealth: The K'Soth War, Book One (Progenitors Universe)

It is half a century before the events of The Progenitor Trilogy

The newly formed Commonwealth has united the disparate colonies of humanity into one interstellar union. After making first contact with the ancient and sophisticated Arkari, mankind has discovered that the galaxy is teeming with life. A new pioneering age of prosperity, discovery and progress now beckons.

Yet already the Commonwealth is imperilled. The rush to the stars has created undreamed of wealth for some, yet there are many less fortunate have been left behind, alienated by the rapid pace of change, exploited or trampled underfoot by ruthless corporations and left to fend for themselves in frontier systems where death or destitution can come quickly to the unwary. As resentment grows beneath the surface, there are those who would exploit the forgotten and the dispossessed for their own ends.

However, there is a much greater threat from without: the K’Soth Empire. Ruling over a vast domain, the reptilian K’Soth have conquered, exterminated and enslaved all in their path in the name of their all powerful Emperor and their fanatical religion. Their legions and fleets are almost without number, their methods brutal in the extreme, and their authority maintained by oppression, terror and force of arms.

In a desire to avoid a conflict, the Commonwealth concocts a secret diplomatic mission to initiate contact with the K’Soth using their one ace in the hole, Doctor Marcus Cuvier, the very man who was the key to humanity’s successful encounter with the Arkari.

Blurb from the 2017 edition

Dan Worth returns in fine form with this, the beginning of a trilogy sequel to his marvellous Progenitor series.
The refreshing thing about Dan’s work is that he markets it himself and I have never experienced any overhyping of the content. This is good old fashioned space opera of a contemporary nature, and never pretends to be anything else. It’s not cutting edge or groundbreaking, but not everything has to be.
Worth lives, therefore, in a rather retro future universe.
The milieu of his Commonwealth exists in the style of grand old soap opera, where an evil reptilian six limbed Emperor can command an Empire of thousands of planets, where ships can battle in the neutral gravity area between a pair of twinned black holes. It has a Classic SF romance that many of his contemporary space opera writers lack.
It has, to me anyway, an additional topical component where political groups and societies tend to mirror those in our contemporary (as in 2015 to 2020) lives.
As we know from the previous novels a machine race known as the Shapers is lying dormant on various worlds, mostly near the centre of the galaxy. A right wing xenophobic group The Shining Dawn has arisen, and it is discovered that their illegal mining colony has been excavating ‘dead’ Shaper components for sale.
Meanwhile, the famous Doctor Cuvier, an anthropologist who effected successful first contact missions with several alien races, is called upon to go on a mission to initiate a treaty with the K’Soth Empire, the terrifying warloving lizards who are expanding their territory toward Commonwealth Space.
Cuvier, along with an undercover intelligence officer posing as his aide, is witness to the decadent and bloodthirsty practises of K’Soth culture.
In outlying mining colonies and space stations, trouble is brewing.
The Shining Dawn have been trading their Shaper artefacts for advanced weapons and initiate a series of attacks against the Commonwealth Navy.
It’s a great read with some fabulous cliffhangers both within the narrative and at the end, where lives hang in the balance.
One feels one can not help, given that this novel was presumably written partly between the Brexit referendum and its sorry finale, making comparisons between The Shining Dawn and contemporary Right Wing groups such as UKIP, EDL and the Brexit Party all of which have, to a greater or lesser degree, a xenophobic agenda, a wish to be rid of ‘aliens’ and a mandate not to be politically allied with what are considered alien countries.
There is little comparison between The Shining Dawn leader, Fleischmann and Nigel Farage, although there is an odd plot parallel with Peter F Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star where Bradley Johannson is a man who (like Fleischmann) believes that he once had his mind controlled by an alien intelligence and has built a terrorist organisation to fight the alien threat and those humans who encourage and enable its influence.
One could also draw parallels between the Empire of the K’Soth and certain authoritarian muslim regimes, given the emphasis on their theocracy, the minarets and domes of their ships and architecture, the male-dominated culture with its multiple wives, and their written language whose script resembles claws, much like arabic.
One is not suggesting that the Saudis are practising 24 hour human sacrifice or have enslaved their neighbours but the details above do tend to invite comparisons, at least in my personal view.
It’s a damn good read, however, well written, well paced and channelling the zeitgeist of Nineteen Forties Space Opera. I have the next one queued up to read already.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Station Eleven

Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

Blurb from the 2014 Picador edition

I know I am reading a good book when I miss my stop on the tube. It happened more than once last week with this.
It is a remarkable novel, especially considering that there isn’t what you would usually consider to be a plot.
As a famous actor dies on stage during a performance of King Lear, a highly lethal mutated flu virus is reaching pandemic status.
Quite against the odds several people, connected to the actor in some way, survive. We follow their lives in a future depopulated Canada, as well as returning to their past leading up to the point of apocalypse and the actor’s death, slowly revealing the strange and somehow plausible connections between them.
In the main the novel focuses on Kirsten, a child actor who was part of the King Lear cast and witnessed the death of Arthur Leander, the actor playing Lear, and very soon after the deaths of nearly everyone she knew. A reporter turned paramedic, who ran on stage to try and help Arthur, also survives.
Sixteen years later we find Kirsten in a travelling repertoire called The Symphony, who travel between survivor settlements putting on musical concerts and Shakespeare plays.
She carries with her two editions of a high quality SF comic called Station Eleven, a magazine which connects her with other survivors from Arthur Leander’s life.
One can justifiably argue that this is what Aldiss called ‘a cosy catastrophe’ in that apart from 99.999% of the world’s population dying all at once, not a lot of terrible things happen.
There is a mad messianic leader of a death cult, whose actions cause a certain amount of tension, and some deaths, but his real importance lies in his and Arthur’s past.
My small niggle is that one would have expected them to have witnessed cholera, plagues of rats, possibly cannibalism, and some sort of reaction from ecosystems and weather systems readjusting to the lack of civilisation. George R Stewart’s ‘Earth Abides’ deals masterfully with this, envisioning plagues of various species as nature reestablishes its balance. There’s talk of plentiful deer, but that’s about all. One would imagine that natural predators of deer would also increase and be a known danger.
We’ll let that pass. This is a very clever novel, which weaves you a web of past and present, only gradually allowing you to see the connections pulling in the past to create the consequences of the future. They all surround Arthur Leander whose public death heralded the death of his public.
Does the author have an overconfidence in human nature? is my only question. I suspect that post apocalyptic society would be far less civilised than this, but then it’s Canada, and I am from Wales and genetically biased toward pessimism.
However, the writing is seductive, draws you right in and makes it real.
The author has a definite talent for evoking atmosphere and this book haunts you. It’s still haunting me.
Very impressive.

A Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers 02) – Peter F Hamilton (2016)

A Night Without Stars (Commonwealth Universe, #7)

The planet Bienvenido is in crisis. It has finally escaped the Void, emerging into regular space. But it’s millions of light-years from Commonwealth assistance, and humans are battling the Fallers for control of their world. This rapacious adversary, evolved to destroy all sentient life, has infiltrated every level of human society – hijacking unwilling bodies so its citizens fear their leaders, friends and family.

A mysterious figure known as the Warrior Angel leads a desperate resistance. She’s helped by forbidden Commonwealth technology, which gives her a crucial edge. But the government obstructs the Angel’s efforts at every turn, blinded by prejudice and technophobia. As Fallers also prepare to attack from the skies, she might need to incite rebellion to fight this invasion. But the odds seem impossible.

Then astronaut Ry Evine uncovers one last hope. On a mission against the enemy, his spacecraft damages an unidentified vessel. This crash-lands on the planet carrying unexpected cargo: a baby. This extraordinary Commonwealth child possesses knowledge that could save them all. But if the Fallers catch her, the people of Bienvenido will not survive.

Blurb from the 2016 Del Rey Edition

One has to confess that beginning this book was a worry since it had been years since I read The Abyss Beyond Dreams, and as I’m not too good with even remembering the names of my loved ones, it’s rather too much to expect me to remember a large number of the standard Hamilton enormous cast.
However, this is set some 250 years in the future following the Great Transition (as it is now called) when the Void ejected the planet Bienvenido to an orbit about a sun, lost in the space between galaxies.
Society has advanced to a point (with the covert help of Nigel Sheldon’s ANAdroids) where rockets can be sent into orbit to destroy the alien trees which are bombarding the planet with Faller eggs. These are alien predators which ‘eggsume’ human bodies and reassemble them, but with alien Faller minds.
The world is tightly controlled by an authoritarian regime which not only withholds information about the extent of Faller infiltration, but restricts technology which could help, fearing that the Eliters with their inherited Commonwealth macrocellular clusters and advanced genetics will stage a coup.
There is therefore a mostly new cast, although some of the more long-lived characters, such as The Warrior Angel, and Nigel Sheldon’s Anadroids, are still extant.
Eliters who wish to have any sort of meaningful career have to keep their status secret, and there is an interesting contrast between Captain Chaing of the feared PSR secret police and Ry, an astronaut, both of whom are hiding their Eliter status in order to retain their position.
The good guys are in a race against time to assemble a defence against the Fallers before either a) the Fallers take control of the planet or b) the government nukes the rest of the world in an attempt to destroy their forces.
It is a far more satisfactory novel than Abyss which I found marred by the repeated format used in the Void trilogy. The Fallers themselves, as I have previously mentioned, are merely another incarnation of the Possessed from his Night’s Dawn trilogy, which also featured star systems being transported far away from their home galaxy into intergalactic space.
There is something missing, though. Hamilton is at his best when he can move from one extraordinary human (or alien) community to another. We love the AIs, and the wormhole technology, the fascinating environments that Man has created on a thousand planets, the ships, the Dyson spheres and the myriad alien environments. Hamilton cones into his own here in the thrilling climax, when we do indeed find wonder and surprises on other planets of the system.
This final section sings, in the way that Nights Dawn and the Starflyer sequence sang, but the rest is slightly lacking on wonder albeit very high scoring in pace and excitement.
Despite my criticisms there is no doubt that Hamilton is still streets ahead of other writers of the New Space Opera. His writing pervades you with its atmosphere and ideas and colours your day. I am a huge fan, but he can do better than this.
It is not clear if Brexit played any subconscious role in the plotting, but I am sure the conspiracy theorists among fans have already blogged their views on Hamilton having a man called Nigel trying to save society from the unwanted rules of a controlling and undemocratic power. The world is divided between two factions with entrenched views, none of which will accept the viewpoints of the other, and the government are shameless in lying about the dangers the population face. When the people leave, however, they realise that their life is now a bit shit, and they are left at the mercy of a vicious right wing government who continue to lie about everything and stay in power for two hundred and fifty years. There’s got to be something in that.

Interzone 252 – Andy Cox (Ed) (2014)

Interzone 252

Death is a recurrent theme in this issue of Interzone, most obviously in Katharine E.K. Duckett’s ‘The Mortuaries’ but appears either overtly or obliquely in every tale. The quality is generally high with my top stories being by Humphrey and Stufflebeam (who together sound like a firm of Hogwarts solicitors)

The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson
The Mortuaries by Katharine E.K. Duckett
Diving Into The Wreck by Val Nolan
Two Truths And A Lie by Oliver Buckram
A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey
Sleepers by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson

Two men survive in a post apocalyptic city where a parallel world is exchanging sphere-shaped samples of itself with ours via mysterious ‘bubbles that appear at random. Great characterisation. Works well.

The Mortuaries by Katharine E.K. Duckett

An intriguing piece about future mortuaries inspired by the work of van Haagens, where one’s plastinated loved ones can be viewed.

Diving Into The Wreck by Val Nolan

An excellent story involving obsessive researchers hunting for the lost landing stage of Apollo 11. Explores the concept of ethics and mystery.

Two Truths And A Lie by Oliver Buckram

This piece is one of those experimental pieces that border on prose poetry. It doesn’t quite work although may have done if it was substantially shorter and not so obscure.

A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey

Quite lovely. Not SF by any means but a gorgeously crafted piece in which the dead are returning to their old homes with the talent to turn into birds. Do they bring messages? Not unless, it seems, one wishes to perceive them as such.

Sleepers by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Quite simillar to Claire Humphreys’ ‘A Bright Light.; in that odd white creatures are appearing and may or may not have some resemblance and connection to sick or dying relatives. Original. Very atmospheric, Quite moving too.

Feed – Mira Grant (2010)

Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy, #1)

‘The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop.

The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED. Now, twenty years after the Rising, bloggers Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives—the dark conspiracy behind the infected.

The truth will get out, even if it kills them. ‘

Blurb from the 2010 Orbit paperback edition

“My mother once told me that no woman is naked when she comes equipped with a bad mood and a steady glare.”

As much as I enjoyed reading this it’s one of those books that should never have ended up almost winning a Hugo award. It’s a sign of the times I guess. I am aware that there have been issues in recent years with block voting in the Hugo Awards, assuring a vocal minority that their beloved book will be at least listed as a nominee. The way to check this is to look at the Nebula Award nominees, which is voted on by The Science Fiction Writers of America, whereas the Hugos are decided by anyone who has a ticket to the Worldcon. Grant is nowhere to be seen in the Nebula nominees. It’s the price we pay for democracy and eerily reflective – given the background situation of ‘Feed’- of the surprising and alarming voting results in both America and the UK in 2016.
This does not of course mean that ‘Feed’ is a bad novel. I don’t believe it is, but it does have major flaws.
Other reviewers have pointed out the two-dimensional nature of some of the characters. There is also an issue with what is clearly a very simplistic plot.
Bloggers Buffy, Shaun and Georgia, who already have a reputation for reporting from the front line in a zombie-infested America, are invited to cover the Presidential campaign of one Senator Ryman.
Following a zombie incursion at one of the events, the bloggers discover some of the security motion sensors to have been disabled.
Ryman then chooses the sinister Governor Tate, an old school ‘Make America Great Again’ Republican, as his running mate. It’s surprising that Grant chose to have a male duo as the prospective POTUS and VP. One would have imagined that society might have moved on a bit by 2040 and that one or both of these candidates might have been a woman. It would for one thing have created a more interesting dynamic in the relationships.
Indeed, apart from technological developments not a lot seems to have changed in thirty years. Had Grant given some thought to how society would have adapted to what was a very major change in day to day living there might have been some very interesting stuff here.
Further attacks are carried out, and Georgia and Shaun begin to piece together evidence showing who is behind this bid to destroy Ryman’s bid for President.
It’s not difficult to work out who that is. It’s Governor Tate. That’s not even a spoiler. Grant makes it easier for us by not providing any other suspects. Tate (rather like the Rev Belinas in Zoltan Istvan’s ‘The Transhumanist Wager‘) has no redeeming features whatsoever. I am aware that right wing Republicans at this level seldom do have redeeming features, but surely he could at least have pretended to have some. It’s what they do, after all.
It would have worked a lot better if suspicion were thrown on the obvious suspect, only for the bloggers to discover at the final moment that they had been misdirected and it was actually someone else. As it is, there is no surprise, and the denouement comes as something of an anticlimax.
One also has to ask why no one else seemed interested in investigating the various attacks. The police and the security services don’t seem at all bothered.
Having said all that though, it wasn’t a bad read. It’s not Hugo Award material but it passed the time away in a fairly pleasant manner.
The one thing that did vex me somewhat is an excerpt from Georgia’s blog in the coda where Georgia asks herself if she believes in God.

‘I don’t know. I’d like to be able to say ‘Yes, of course’ almost as much as I’d like to be able to say ‘Absolutely not,’ but there’s evidence on both sides of the fence.’

This is a feisty, highly intelligent, rational reporter who has spent the entire novel talking about the importance of facts and truth. She has shown no sign of any religious belief. Indeed, she pointed out that she and her brother were atheists when they were subjected to Senator Ryman saying grace before a meal.
That’s not it though. An atheist reporter would know there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the existence or non-existence of God on either side of the fence.
It’s a lazy and unnecessary cop-out which undermines the integrity of the main character and to a certain extent completely ruins her raison d’etre.
If you’ve written an atheist heroine then be consistent rather than wimping out at the end with this ‘Oh… I might be wrong’ disclaimer at the end.
A little disappointing.

The Promise of The Child – Tom Toner (2015)

The Promise of the Child (The Amaranthine Spectrum #1)
So, I had this e-mail from Tom Toner in January 2017 asking me if I wouldn’t mind reviewing this, ‘The Promise of The Child’. I was in two minds about this as, being a generally kind sort of person, I was worried that, if I hated the novel, I would have to post a negative review. This has happened before, and I’m sure that I feel far worse about it than the authors involved who no doubt take bad reviews as part of the job and aren’t likely to track me down and give me a good kicking. They haven’t as yet, but I guess there’s still time.
My fears, it transpires, were groundless, as this is probably one of the best debut novels I have encountered since Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space‘, which it resembles in some senses. Others have compared it to Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’ , Jack Vance, Moorcock, M John Harrison and various others who have pursued a somewhat baroque exploration of SF. The style has a fascinating history which extends back beyond Moorcock to Vance, Charles L Harness, Leigh Brackett, and beyond there to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clark Ashton Smith. One is impressed to see it so freshly reinvented.
Some twelve and a half thousand years from now, Humanity has spread out into the galaxy, finding no other life (barring the one glaring discovery of two incredibly ancient corpses of what appear to be sentient dinosaurs preserved in the icy cold of the outer Solar System.).
All life outside of Earth is descended from that of Earth, and Humanity itself has splintered into various species which exist in a complex hierarchical system, at the pinnacle of which are the immortal Amaranthine.
The narrative follows several key figures. Lycaste is a Melius, a larger human form that can change the colour of its skin. Lycaste lives in what we presume to be a far future Cyprus, and is famous for being – at least in Melius terms – beautiful. Lycaste is a sensitive individual, deeply in love with Pentas, although the love is unreturned. His life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a Plenipotentiary, Callisthemon, a noble of a higher caste who is, he claims, carrying out a census. Pentas’ attraction to Callisthemon leads inexorably to an event which causes Lycaste to flee on a journey across the Old World.
Sotiris, originally himself from Greece, is one of the most ancient Amaranthine and suffering from a condition to which the older immortals are prone; a succumbing to delusions. There is strife among the Amaranthine. Traditionally their leader is the oldest of them, and a Pretender, Aaron, has arisen who claims to be older than any living immortal.
War is spreading across the Old World, a war in which Sotiris is a principle manipulator, and in which Lycaste gets unwilling involved.
Meanwhile, a machine which could potentially threaten the balance of power across the galaxy has been stolen and, along with its kidnapped creator, is being shipped between the stars through hostile territory.
This is, it has to be said, a work which demands concentration. Much like Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’, there are some elements only partly explained, at least at first, which the general reader will either recognise or hopefully pick up on later, such as the vaulted worlds. These are essentially planet-sized Dyson spheres, hollowed out worlds with an artificial sun at the centre. One also has to contend with the various branched off species of Humanity, the baroque and complex societies and their equally complex political and social dynamics. It does however reward careful reading.
There are some devices which are hard to justify under rational science, such as the Amaranthine’s ability to bilocate using a planet’s magnetic field, apparently because of the build up of iron in an ancient body. The Shell, or The Soul Machine, has an even flimsier rationale for its operation, although these are minor quibbles.
One would have expected the presence of some form of Artificial Intelligence but, as with Dune (another baroque series infested with aristocratic class levels) there is a prohibition against creating such things although this becomes an important issue much later and explains some aspects of the earlier narrative.
Toner manages to convey a sense of languid and wistful decadence which pervades the novel, reminiscent of that of Vance’s ‘Dying Earth‘ and Harrison’s ‘Viriconium‘ sequence. The Old World is divided into rigid divisions of class and race, where everyone it seems has learned to know their place. One can also see a sense of Moorcockian entropy in this ancient society with its arcane rules and casual cruelty.
There is a very interesting scene where Callisthemon, the higher level Plenipotentiary visiting Lycaste’s region. discovers that one of Lycaste’s friends and neighbours is gay, although the term is never employed. Pentas enquires of him whether men can love each other in Callisthemon’s region. Callisthemon appears both amused and horrified by the idea, implying that it would never happen, and insists on changing the subject when he is pressed for an answer. It’s a very subtle moment, but it neatlly clarifies for the reader what form of society Callisthemon represents, as is indeed shown in later events.
Lycaste and Sotiris, despite some excursions to follow events and characters elsewhere, are the central two characters, and one could possibly argue that this is to the detriment of the other players. Some, without giving too much away, are unexpectedly despatched.just as one thought they were going to play a major role in the story.
It’s a tad vexing that other reviews I have seen posted have noted that they read (whatever) percent of the book and gave up. If this is the case, why post a review? It helps nobody, and one can’t be expected to provide a valid judgment having only read a tenth or a fifth of someone’s work. I would suggest that the author cannot be held responsible for other people’s laziness, although that may well be an oversimplification of the situation. There will always be occasions when one starts a book and realises that one is never going to finish it. One really has to ask the question, is it the book’s fault?
In this case, I don’t think it is. As a society we have learned to be spoonfed and we tend to shy away from entertainment (particularly books) that might be slightly challenging. This is challenging, but that’s not the book’s fault. If you can’t get into it, don’t blame the book. Move on. Find something you like.

Interzone #251 – Andy Cox (Ed) (2014)

Interzone #251 Mar: Apr 2014

This is another cracking issue of Interzone featuring themes of relationship and identity. Loss seems to run through them also. It’s also interesting to see the structure of the modern short story evolving, although not as radically as one might have imagined back in the 20th Century. Stories seem more impressionistic, leaving much unexplained and to be determined by the reader. Highlights are ‘Old Bones’ and ‘A Doll is Not a Dumpling’.

Ghost Story by John Grant
Ashes by Karl Bunker
Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa
Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer
A Doll is Not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser
This is How You Die by Gareth L. Powell

Ghost Story by John Grant

A young married man gets a call from a childhood sweetheart who tells him she is pregnant and that he is the father, something that is clearly impossible since he has never slept with her and they have not been in touch for some time. It’s a story that develops well into a tale of fractured reality.

Ashes by Karl Bunker

Very reminiscent of Michael Swanwick, not least because an AI manages to host itself within a cat, this is a compelling read. AIs and transhumans can not go beyond a certain level of intelligence without ‘winking out’ and vanishing. The protagonist’s dead girlfriend had become obsessed with the projects that these transcendent entities had left unfinished, hoping to find some workable technology. The Cat/AI has identified another project site where he thinks it may be fitting to scatter her ashes.
A very stylish piece which leaves one wanting more.

Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa

Kurzawa, a regular feature of Interzone, is beginning to fascinate me. I can’t honestly explain what this story is about, but maybe that’s the point. It certainly leaves one with more questions than answers. A man is living alone in the city, hiding from the robed ‘Mummers’ who roam the deserted streets.
One day a man knocks on his door, claiming to be a Doctor who can help him escape the city, but first he must perform a surgical procedure. It’s a poetic and surreal piece which stays in the mind despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of resolution or explanation.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer

Dark and not a little topical, this tells of Fari who was taken forcefully from her mother as a child as payment for a trespass fine and forced into work on an asteroid mine. A tale of love, repression, sacrifice and vengeance. Quite excellent.

A Doll is Not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser

An original tale featuring exquisitely drafted characters. I so wish more people could breathe such life into the small population of a short story. It’s a brief, beautiful, bittersweet and colourful tragedy featuring a young girl, an augmented dog and a sentient mobile dumpling machine. My favourite story of late.

This is How You Die by Gareth L. Powell

A fairly standard post-apocalypse tale of a young man’s life in London following the effects of a fatal pandemic virus. It’s well done, but brings little new to the table.

The Transhumanist Wager – Zoltan Istvan (2013)

The Transhumanist Wager

I’m in two minds about this novel, stylistically and thematically.
Structurally, it suffers in the main from a wobbly beginning since we have in the first few chapters a severely unnecessary amount of infodumping, consisting of pages of personal biographies and descriptions of the major characters. I’ve never seen the need to know the colour of characters’ eyes for instance, and here we have complete descriptions of their bodies, clothing choices (down to their brand of underwear in one case) and personal histories. This is the sort of thing one should discover in the course of the narrative, if at all, since much of it is unnecessary. I suspect, to the average reader, much of it is soon forgotten.
However, having got that out of the way, the narrative picks up and rattles along at a fair pace.
So, Jethro Knights is a committed and dedicated Transhumanist who, almost singlehandedly, transforms the Transhumanist Party into a more radical beast.
This draws the attention of the deliciously evil Rev. Belinas, leader of The Redeem Church, a body dedicated it seems to the destruction of any science capable of improving on God’s handiwork. Belinas is grooming young Gregory Michaelson – an ex-classmate of Jethro’s – to be his puppet senator and sets him up as head of a new enforcement agency, the NSFA, specifically created to oppose and destroy any Transhuman initiatives in the US.
Jethro, while travelling the world working as an overseas journalist, met and fell in love with a feisty and intelligent young doctor, Zoe Bach. Jethro, who appears to exhibit Vulcan-like powers of sexual suppression is worried that the force of his feelings will interfere with his cause, which is to push Transhumanism to the point where Death is conquered, and beyond.
He leaves Zoe to pursue his dream of a Transhuman world.
Much, much later Zoe, finding that her new job is about to be targetted by one of the Rev Belinas’ terrorist cells, contacts Jethro. With the aid of spycams and WiFi the raid is transmitted live to newsrooms across the country and Jethro, hiding out alone, gives a running commentary on the action while the bombers, not realising they are live on TV, implicate Belinas in the attempt.
Belinas escapes any investigation but Jethro becomes a hero and Transhumanism develops into a presence in the public consciousness. The battle between what is essentially rational thought and entrenched religious and social dogma escalates. The NFSA (The National Future Security Agency), at the behest of an increasingly desperate and murderous Belinas, is given additional powers to make Transhumanism illegal and to arrest anyone connected with the movement and seize their assets.
The battle escalates and, with the aid of a Russian billionaire and a revolutionary architect, Knights builds a floating city, Transhumania, where the final battle between reason and superstitious belief will be fought.
Istvan is one of my Goodreads friends, and I hope he forgives me for being somewhat critical of his work. He himself once worked as a National Geographic journalist and it is clear that he is drawing obvious parallels between himself and Jethro Knights. I have watched some of his speeches which are entertaining, very inspiring but somewhat at odds, however, with the views of Knights in this novel.
Knights is a fascinating character, if a tad sociopathic, totally focused on his goal to kickstart the Transhuman revolution and gain himself immortality.
The question I need to ask is how much of Istvan’s psyche is contained in Jethro Knights? It’s an important question simply because I do believe that this is an important work, despite its flaws. Unlike most genre novels this is based on current reality, or at least on a real political movement. Istvan is the leader of the US Transhumanist Party, and a Presidential candidate in the last election.
I am a supporter, in principle, of Transhumanism, as well as being a somewhat militant atheist. One would imagine then that I would be on the side of Jethro Knights in this novel, and yet I am struggling to get there. I recently read ‘Nexus’ which is also a pro-transhumanism novel, and in both works there is a tendency to paint the mundane humans as evil Luddites, desperate to hold back the progress of technology at any cost. There have to be some shades of grey here. Not all atheists or Transhumanists are good people. Not all religious people are evil or stupid. A little balance goes a long way.
My mind, while reading this. kept drifting off to AE van Vogt, another author who pushed a philosophy – albeit somewhat obliquely – via his work, which was at that time Dianetics. The interesting thing about about this is that van Vogt’s heroes generally solved their problems with logic and non-violence. Dianetics subsequently became subsumed within L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology ‘religion’ and we all know how well that turned out.
Transhumanism – or at least Jethro – is unconcerned with solving problems in a non-violent way and Knights feels perfectly justified in bombing churches across America. If Istvan is attempting to sway the average reader to his cause then this is counter productive since one would assume that those wishing to evolve or transcend would surely wish to abandon irrational violent instincts. It also places them on the same level as those who mount attacks on abortion clinics and gay bars. It’s a childish act.
The Transhumanists take the world by force, having destroyed the NATO navy ships sent against them and taken control of all world banking and military systems, insisting that the population of the world adapt to the New World Order or face extermination. To make the point clear, they destroy a number of major religious and political sites around the world including the White House, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace (to be fair, the latter, a relatively modern and decidedly ugly building, would not be a great loss) which draws obvious parallels with the recent ISIS destruction of historical sites.
There are some good aspects to the new rules. Education is free but compulsory, with citizens being required to learn something new throughout their lives. Religion is outlawed and the population strictly controlled.
However, this is nothing less than an enforced dictatorship and, I would suggest, unmanageable. The Soviet Union sought to eradicate religion but following its fall saw religion flower again like weeds in an untended garden.
It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy that fails to address many issues and is, as many of these political systems are, predicated on a policy of freeing people while denying them a good many of the freedoms they had enjoyed under the previous regime.
However, if we look at this as merely a work of fiction, it’s an enjoyable journey somewhat flawed by a good deal of unnecessary text.
If Istvan chose to revise this novel and make the movement seem more of an enlightened organisation rather than a terrorist group it would go a long way toward getting readers to identify with his aims.
It is, having said all that, an important piece of work given the author’s place in US society and in a sense refreshingly honest. Writing this review within a week of Donald Trump’s election as US President somewhat takes the edge off my criticism. One wonders whether a Transhumanist President might, after all, not be a bad thing.

Interzone #250 – Andy Cox (Ed) (2014)

Interzone #250 Jan: Feb 2014

Another fascinating bunch of tales from authors in the main unknown to me.
Interzone certainly pushes the boundaries with style and is possibly redefining the structure and style of the short story. Some of the authors here do not make it easy for the reader, which is perhaps as it should be, although there’s always the risk of leaving too much unexplained.
Relationships feature heavily throughout either overtly or obliquely, and the quality of work is on the whole, very high, as one should expect in this 250th issue.

The Damaged – Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

A wonderfully compelling tale about artificial humans and how we might treat them should such a thing become a reality. Told from an odd viewpoint.

Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place – David Tallerman

This is an odd but well-done rural post-Dickian tale. How would one react should one discover that one was living in a back-up of the real world, if indeed the world is real in the first place? An excellent piece set in an entropic US midwest.

The Labyrinth of Thorns – C. Allegra Hawksmoor

There are echoes of Jeff Noon in this, but ultimately there is something lacking. An agent for ‘The Company’ (which has been a cliche for so long it becomes almost parody when employed seriously) has had memories downloaded into his head which alternate with his mission in ‘The City’. All very poetic but a tad indecipherable. Not really up to the level of quality one would expect from Interzone.

Beneath the Willow Branches, Beyond the Reach of Time – Caroline M. Yoachim

This is lovely. A scientist enters his wife’s stored memories – where she is trapped in a timeloop – in an apparently hopeless attempt to break the cycle and save her, echoed by her childhood tale of the Green Willow.

Predvestniki – Greg Kurzawa

A man accompanies his wife to Moscow on a business trip and, unable to interest her in the sights or the food, becomes obsessed with what he sees atop a domed tower. A great story which walks that difficult line between revealing too much and too little and is at the same time a deftly sketched portrait of an ill-matched relationship.

Lilacs and Daffodils – Rebecca Campbell

This is a lovely little puzzle of a story told by an AI with a convincing realism (if such a word can be meaningfully employed here).

Wake Up, Phil – Georgina Bruce

‘The Company’ in this tale is Serberus, although it could also be Callitrix, for whom Laura works. Unhappy with Laura’s weight problem Throom, the company doctor, prescribes her a course of Serberitum, an amphetamine and hallucinogen. Her life takes on another reality in which her neighbour, ‘Phil the Sci Fi man’, has two separate bodies, one of which will not wake up.
It’s interesting that Philip K Dick, some thirty-odd years after his death is still manifesting as a presence. I can think of two other works at least in which he has appeared as a character. There’s also an echo of Orwell here. A haunting story, one that clings in the head.

Interzone #248 – Andy Cox (Ed.) (2013)

Interzone 248

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone
The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt
Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa
Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef
Technarion – Sean McMullen

A very interesting collection of tales in this issue which push the boundaries of what the average reader would consider to be SF. I have always avoided trying to establish a definition, and although established names within the genre have put forward definitions in the past, there always seem to be works which fall outside the parameters.
I’m happy to consider it as a broad church with a fluid remit. It’s a lot easier to say what isn’t SF, and I have labelled some works as such in the past.
Luckily I have no such problems here. Interzone continues to publish excellent work from new – and not so new – writers which are engrossing and thought provoking.
A few of these stories have ambiguous and unresolved endings, something I find refreshing. There’s also a strong poetic element to some of them, such as the pieces by Van Pelt and Altabef which take us into the realm of the surreal and inexplicable.
The magazine also features an interview with Christopher Priest as part of Interzone’s review of ‘The Adjacent’.

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone

In a future where space flights are sponsored by media companies and reality stars, a married couple are sent on a mission beyond Pluto. This is a first person narrative told by the wife whose mental integrity is slowly crumbling.

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt

An American School built in the mid Twentieth Century acquires so many various extensions, annexes, basements and sub basements that it grows into a Gormenghast-esque world of its own in which reality becomes somewhat fluid. Beautifully written. Quite fascinating.

Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa

A man buys a house after the previous owner, an unsuccessful magician, disappeared. The house contains all his equipment and some notebooks and videotapes. In the basement he discovers something that looks like a submarine hatch which leads to a dark waterworld filled with houses and their eerie mannequin occupants.
A very compelling story, haunting and disturbing.

Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef

A very short piece set in a dystopian future which begins with an old man – sitting in a condemned opera house – recreating a lost opera and the opera house by means of some ingenious opera glasses. Poetic, atmospheric and evocative.

Technarion – Sean McMullen

An interesting steampunk piece from McMullen about the development of a computer in 1875, the consequences of which are far reaching.