My life in outer space

Dystopia

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.

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Why Call Them Back from Heaven – Clifford Simak (1967)

Why Call Them Back From Heaven?

Immortality – The ultimate reward: To come back to life – and never die again – that’s what Forever Center promises the human race. And that’s why, in the year 2148, people spend their whole lives in poverty, giving all their money to Forever Center to ensure their happiness and comfort in the next eternal life.

Daniel Frost is a key man at Forever Center. When he accidentally stumbles onto some classified documents, Dan incurs the wrath of an unseen enemy who has him framed and denounced as a social outcast. With the notorious mark of ostracization on his forehead, he is condemned to the desperate life of a hunted animal. But a few people will risk their lives to help him: Ann Harrison, the beautiful renegade lawyer who is convinced of his innocence, and Mona Campbell, the brilliant mathematician who has discovered some shattering information about Forever Center…and the essence of life itself.

Blurb from the 1985 Methuen edition

Daniel Frost is on the board of the Forever Centre. They provide cryogenic services worldwide. Everyone is fitted with what are essentially homing devices which send a signal when death occurs. A team is sent out and the body immediately frozen for future revival when both medical science has advanced and man has solved the secrets of time travel, immortality and journeys to habitable exoplanets.
Many people choose a form of euthanasia, investing their money in Forever stock so that they will amass a large amount by the time they are awakened.
An underground group, The Holies, oppose the corporation as they feel that Man should have his reward in Heaven.
Frost finds himself the target of a smear campaign by one of his colleagues, and is puzzled as to why. He can only deduce that it is something to do with a sheet of paper he accidentally acquired some time ago. This sheet of paper is the Maguffin and does not reveal its import until the denouement.
He has to go on the run, and somehow outwit his enemies before he is killed.
The chapters are interspersed with vignettes of various ordinary people and how their lives fit in to the world of the Forever company.
It’s quite a dark piece of work for Simak, and the plot is fairly similar to that of ‘Time Is The Simplest Thing‘ in that a high level employee of a company has to go on the run. The companies are both organisations that set out with altruistic motives but have now grown to control society and government to the detriment of those they originally aimed to serve and employ.
It’s not clear what point Simak is making here, if he is trying to make any point at all, other than the dangers of multinational companies controlling the world, and dictating government policy and law. Not one of Simak’s best.


Ultimatum in 2050 AD – Jack Sharkey (1965)

acedoubleultimatumin2050ad_1

“PACKAGED PEOPLE IN A WORLD GONE BERSERK.

It was the year 2050 A.D. and the Hive, with its ten million inhabitants, was going along as smoothly as ever. Except that, on a whim, Kinsman Lloyd Bodger, Jr. had helped a fugitive girl escape hospitalization, and she had told him her secret. “There are no hospitals! There is only death!” Of course it couldn’t be true. Lloyd Bodger’s own father was second in command of the Hive, the first true democracy.

“But Why,” she had said, “doesn’t anyone ever return from hospitalization? Why is the population always a constant ten million?”

Well, young Bodger reasoned grimly, he would soon know the truth. For hiding the fugitive girl, he himself would either be hospitalized, or fed into the incinerator chutes!’

Blurb from the M-117 1965 Ace Double Paperback Edition.

By 2050, due to various factors caused by the US administration in the 1970s, the human population has been reduced to 10 million, all contained within a sealed city, ‘The Hive’, run along totalitarian Orwellian lines. Those who fall ill or fail to match the expectations of society are hospitalised for treatment or re-adjustment, but none of them return.
Lloyd Bodger is the son of the Secondary Speakster (the Vice President essentially), the Prime Speakster being one Fredric Stanton. Stanton has gone out of his way to adjust the rules of ‘The Brain’ which controls the city. This has ensured that his time in office was extended long beyond the usual term.
Citizens are required to vote on political motions regularly and Lloyd, having fallen behind on his voting quota, is keen to make up the difference. Here he meets a girl on the run, one of the resistance, and helps her escape from certain execution. Obviously, his actions are observed and Lloyd’s father is informed by Stanton himself.
This sets in motion a series of events which results in a revolution of sorts and a new start for the human race.
It’s an odd little ‘pocket universe’ tale which leaves little room for any character development and throws in some very dubious scientific concepts. Bodger Senior, we discover, was made practically immortal by a failed experiment back in the Twentieth Century which has left his insides radioactive. The citizens of the Hive are nightly engulfed in an artificial total darkness called Ultrablack. The explanation for this makes no sense either. Robot ‘goons’ wander the street, picking up any citizens found outside after curfew and delivering them to ‘the hospital’.
There is a section toward the end where Bodger discovers how the Hive came to be a totalitarian regime, and it makes sense of a sort. It’s not that important however, and Sharkey would have been better employed using the precious word count to try and inject some additional dimensions to very cardboard characters. One would have thought his might have been one of the author’s strengths since Sharkey was better known as a playwright (under various names) and was responsible it seems for a production entitled ‘Dracula, the Musical?’ in 1982.
It’s not a bad piece of work for an Ace Double but could have benefited from some serious revision.


Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)

Nineteen Eighty-Four

There isn’t a lot I can add to the no doubt inexhaustible amount of analysis and dissection that this novel has engendered since its first publication.
Quite rightly considered one of the best Dystopian novels of the Twentieth Century, Orwell’s chilling vision of Britain under a totalitarian regime has become one of those odd iconic social phenomena which has lodged itself within the public consciousness. There is apparently a sizeable percentage of the population who claim, or even believe, that they have read the book without actually having done so, and there are many more who are familiar with the name Winston Smith and the phrases ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ both of which became the titles of successful TV programmes, although only bearing a very loose connection to the original work.
I have not read this since 1976 when, as I recall, it was recommended reading in my O Level English class. Apart from the 1984 film starring John Hurt as Winston Smith which I saw on its release, I have had no experience of the narrative since. However, the novel seems to seep into us all as if by osmosis via public media and it is therefore perhaps not surprising that so many believe erroneously that they have actually read it.
For a novel of the late Nineteen Forties it has dated very little and is a tribute to Orwell’s writing and his characterisation. Whether the author planned it or not, the fact that the Powers That Be seek to halt social change and development gives contemporary readers an odd view of what life may have been like if a socialist revolution had occurred in the Nineteen Fifties and social development halted. It still reads as fresh and as powerful as when it was first published and is undeniably a brilliantly observed textbook of political control.
Having said that, although ‘Animal Farm’ was a direct analogy of the Soviet Revolution and its consequences, Nineteen Eighty Four is a far vaguer concept and looks to the future of what an authoritarian regime may eventually become. What is slightly chilling about this is how much our so called democratic governments are employing the techniques that Orwell so concisely explains. A ruling body does not have to be a left wing socialist dictatorship to seek to control the population through a reduction in levels of education and control of the media.
That’s been standard practice in the UK for at least the last twenty years, and one can see from looking at the actions of individuals such as Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch how adept the PTB have become in controlling what information is disseminated to the ‘proles’ and in what form.
Others have pointed out that if the society of Nineteen Eighty-Four exists anywhere, it is within the intolerant theocracies and religious dictatorships of the Middle East where victimless crimes such as Atheism or Blasphemy will have you up before the thought police before you know it, excommunicated from your family and very likely executed. Indeed, Winston’s society tends toward the religious model with Big Brother as its eternal Messiah. Like most fundamentalist sects for instance, The Party is against sex, and not content with merely restricting copulation for reproductive purposes, seek ultimately to eradicate the practice altogether and have the process automated by machines.
One wonders if Orwell considered that what he was writing was actually Science Fiction, or indeed if he cared. It’s an extraordinary work made more so by its lack of comparison to other genre works of the time. It’s hard to say however without further research what subsequent level of influence Nineteen Eighty Four had on the genre as a whole. Certainly it is fascinating to see so many ideas that we may refer to today as Dickian, such as the majority of the population of the world being unaware of the true nature of things (as in ‘The Penultimate Truth’) or the delightful and very Dickian concepts of machines that construct novels or pornography, or the versificator, which composes popular songs. ‘Thoughtcrime’ however, is the most Dickian idea here, and indeed, Dick did explore the idea of police who arrest people for crimes they have not yet committed.
Wingrove’s ‘Chung Kuo’ also owes a lot to Orwell, particularly in the ruling oligarchy’s policy to halt the ‘Wheel of Change’ and their rewriting of World History.
What most struck me about this book however, coming to it relatively afresh after forty years, was that it was not what I had expected. There are elements of the surreal and the absurd, such as the Party manufacturing pornography to be illegally sold on the black market. There are complex characters such as Julia, whose inexplicable declaration of love for Winston immediately raises suspicions, but which, given her later conversations with him, seems logical given their twisted emotional development under this repressive regime. Winston himself, is an extraordinarily complex character with very few redeeming features and not at all likeable to any degree, but yet is a far more real human being than any of the numberless fearless heroes that have infested our bookshelves since.
I can’t say I was that impressed back in 1976, but then, I did not know a great deal about the world. Now, I see it as a dark twisted mirror of our political world. It speaks to me all too clearly with a wonderful clarity.
If you haven’t read it, read it. Be enlightened.


Galactic Pot Healer – Philip K Dick (1969)

Galactic Pot-Healer

Joe Fernwright is a pot healer – as was his his father before him – in a future totalitarian dystopia although his services are somewhat redundant since no one makes or breaks ceramics any more.
One day Joe gets a mysterious message offering him a job on Sirius V. The message turns out to be from an all powerful entity known as the Glimmung who is launching a project to raise a sunken cathedral from the ocean bed.
Being a Dick novel, things are not as straightforward as this synopsis would imply.
Fernwright is one of a large number of humans and alien experts in various fields who have been promised a fortune in payment to undertake work on the project. Many, however, are suspicious of the Glimmung’s ultimate objectives, especially as the experts all appear to have all been implicated in various crimes just prior to departure which they suspect were engineered by this being.
There are various Dick hallmarks here, such as the grasping ex-wife, the concept of Fatalism and a surprisingly overt use of humour where he is normally more subtle and understated. We have the world of the dead and the decaying beneath the ocean where at one point Joe meets his dead self.
There is also a religion which features the concepts of the duality of light and dark, something he had already explored, perhaps to better effect, in ‘The Cosmic Puppets’.
We are also in familiar territory with Dick’s lackadaisical attitude to technology and actual science since there is no attempt to explain how the ships that ferry the team to Sirius V operate or indeed the very idiosyncratic robots with whom they have to deal once they arrive. We have no problem as readers with the fact that Sirius V has Earth standard gravity and atmosphere. It didn’t matter to Dick, and for reasons I can’t fathom, doesn’t matter a jot to me either. He somehow always get away with it.
Much of the novel hinges on truth and trust. It becomes clear that the Glimmung is quite capable of lying, and Joe and his colleagues have to employ a a mixture of logic and intuition to determine the best course of action. Added to this is the book of the Kalends, a kind of prophetic bible which changes daily and seems to prophesy the future of the protagonists with uncanny accuracy (in English and various other languages, both human and alien).
Joe, on his dive into the ocean to see the cathedral – against the Glimmung’s express instructions – discovers an ancient vase half covered in coral but one which carries a personal message for him under the glaze. He notices that some of the coral has been removed, which implies that he was meant to see it, but did the Glimmung forbid Joe to go down to the sunken cathedral simply because he knew that Joe then would?
This is one example of a paranoid undercurrent that runs like a thread throughout this novel showing Joe and his companions forced to question the veracity of what they have been told or read. It’s a fascinating and particularly Dickian concept but like almost every other concept in this book is underdeveloped.
There’s something else very flawed about this novel, most essentially in its internal reality which produces an uneasy mixture of tone. There are the serious scenes, such as Joe being given a message by his dead decaying self, and those in which we have comical robots called Willis and clams that tell jokes. Maybe Dick considered that the contrast would make the serious scenes more powerful but it just doesn’t work. ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon‘ held the balance perfectly and despite its ludicrous premise – that Earth had set up a Mental Health facility on one of the moons of Alpha Centauri which was cut off and left to its own devices during the long years of the Alphane war – is a far more complex, structured and amusing work.
This is not a major Dick novel but it has its moments and needs to be studied by Dick enthusiasts if only to identify the PKD trademarks and how they are related to their use in other novels.


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 Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo #03) – David Wingrove (2012)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo Recast, #3)

The third volume in Wingrove’s revised epic future history is the start of the original series published in 1989. An overview of this can be found in my original review of The Middle Kingdom (1989).
I imagine that the 1989 version has been split into two for this new release. The original series comprised of eight hefty volumes while the new ‘re-cast’ version is twenty smaller issues with two new volumes at either end. I can’t determine how much this has been revised if at all. One wouldn’t have thought the series needed any revision until perhaps the last two volumes of the original release, which had major flaws due to publishers’ interference.
Those new to Chung Kuo who have read the first two ‘recast’ volumes would be advised to persevere. I am dubious as to whether volumes one or two added anything valuable to the series. They had that feeling of having been ‘bolted on’ for no good reason.
Here, however, the story really kicks off and I am taken back to my first addiction to this brilliant series. Wingrove handles the multi-character storyline with aplomb and the pace is generally fast. It’s a master class in world-building if nothing else as one does get immersed in this highly detailed dystopia from the outset. Page-turningly good and highly recommended.


Son of The Tree – Jack Vance (1951)

Son of the Tree

‘THE TREE FROM ANOTHER GALAXY

“A vast, breathing, sappy mass, a trunk five miles in diameter, and twelve miles from the great kneed roots to the ultimate bud – the ‘Vital Exprescience’ in the cant of the Druids. The Tree ruled the horizons, shouldered aside the clouds, and wore thunder and lightning like a wreath of tinsels. It was the soul of life, trampling and vanquishing the inert, and Joe understood how it had come to be worshipped by the first marvelling settlers on Kyril.”

For Joe Smith, the sight of the Tree was the beginning of an experience that would forever change his life. He had journeyed into space in search of a man, but what he found was a tree, a huge sky-dominating tree that held the power of life and death over millions of slaves.’

Blurb from the 77525 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Three of the colony worlds so far from Earth that Earth has become a myth are Kyril, Mangtse and Ballenkarch.
On Kyril there is one giant tree which is worshipped by a theocracy of Druids who preside over a population of slaves.
To this world has come Joe Smith of Earth, a man on the hunt for another Earth native, Henry Creach, who has abandoned Margaret, a woman with whom Joe is in love.
Once on the surface of Kyril he gains employment repairing and driving floating cars for the Druids. When he is requested to provide transport for the Priestess Elfane very late at night, he presumes that the priestess has some romantic assignation.
However, there is a dead body in the Priestess’ room, that of a Mang, and she and the Druid Manaolo, wish Joe to drive them out over the ocean and dump it in the sea.
Joe refuses. Once they have left, the Druid Hableyat appears and confesses that he murdered the Mang (for political reasons you don’t really need to know) and takes Joe to his rooms.
Hableyatt offers Joe a new job, ensuring that a cutting from the One Tree is taken across space to the planet Ballenkarch where, if it flourishes, the Druids can begin worshipping another tree, and cement relations with Ballenkarch. This is not to the liking of some of the Mangs who are divided into two political factions who have opposing views on how to deal with the expansionist plans of the Druids.
It’s a clever and colourful piece which contains some of Vance’s regular themes and motifs. It is somewhat baroque, and serves to define Vance’s skill at portraying sometimes decadent class or caste-obsessed future societies. We have the absurd religion which, in this case, has a terrible secret at its heart. Vance is always keen to point out that even intelligent people will believe anything if they are brought up to believe it within a confined community.
Vance seldom paid any attention to any technical or scientific details, but it’s a testament to his writing skill that it doesn’t really matter. Here he makes the concept of a vast space station, set at a point equidistant between the three planets and serving the needs of human and alien travellers, remarkably plausible.
We also have the maverick hero who doesn’t really get on or fit in with everyone else, which is a regular feature of Vance’s novels.
It’s a fascinating and neglected early work which deserves to be more widely read.


The Long Tomorrow – Leigh Brackett (1955)

The Long Tomorrow

Cousins Len and Esau Coulter are two young boys living in a family community in a post-nuclear war US. The States has sunk to the point where a theocracy has taken over, opposed to the scientific excesses of the past and with a strict ruling that communities can not hold more than a thousand people.
Len and Esau however, fueled by their semi-senile grandmother’s tales of prewar cities and glamour, yearn to learn more. They have also been infected with tales of a forbidden town, Bartorstown, where people still live as they did before the bombs fell.
Comparisons can be drawn between this and John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ where, in a post-nuclear Canada, a group of telepaths have to hide their true nature from their Christian fundamentalist community. Both novels feature a Christianity adapted for circumstances, and both feature young people desperate to escape the straitjacket of their lives.
Perhaps wisely, Brackett chose to avoid the SF clichés of mutations and consequent psychic powers and focus on the question that Len has to ask himself which is, put bluntly ‘Is it better to live in ignorance and be happy, or be knowledgeable and depressed?’
Ultimately, what is learned can not be unlearned, as is reiterated to Len in various ways by his father, by the mysterious Mr Hostetter, and by a pastor with whom Len was lodging.
Brackett has, quite elegantly, taken the national paranoia of the time with its fear of communists-among-us and nuclear destruction and converted it to a fear of knowledge itself. The ‘aliens-among-us’ who, in other works of the time such as The Puppet Masters, are a metaphor for un-American outside influences are replaced here by the people of Bartorstown; ordinary humans who have a deal more knowledge than the rest of the country and no doubt practise forbidden science.
In one of the early sections, the boys sneak away from their Amish-esque village to visit a fair. It is a turning point in their lives as they witness a preacher rousing a congregation against the ideals of Bartorstown. A man is pointed out, denounced and duly stoned to death.
Because Brackett avoids proselytising from either viewpoint and concentrates on letting her characters express themselves within this strange world it becomes a work far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s about people, society, happiness and the perennial battle between technology and religion. It’s also one of the finest novels about the best and the worst of America that one is likely to read.


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.