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 Very Slow Time Machine arrives on Earth in 1985. Its sole inhabitant is old and mad. Soon it becomes apparent that for him, time is going slowly backward. With every day, he is getting younger and saner. The world, and its whole concept of time, science and philosophy, must wait for him to speak. But while the world waits, it changes…’
Blurb from the 1981 Granada paperback edition
There aren’t many authors who master the art of short story writing, but Watson is definitely in there with the greats. I remember reading a couple of these stories in their original publications and it is to Watson’s credit that the memory of the essence of the tales still remains. Watson is also one of the most inventive and creative writers around and a more diverse collection of ideas and subject matter from one author will be a tough order.
He is also particularly prolific, and has several collections of short stories available. They are all highly recommended.
Ian Watson exhibits a prolificacy and breadth and depth in theme, subject and setting in his short stories, something unusual in SF writers since their short forms on the whole tend to fall within certain parameters.
Furthermore, each story is exquisitely constructed, its brevity belying the wealth of concepts employed.
The title piece for instance examines not only issues of causality and paradox, but also looks at religion’s relationship with the media.
The stories here are a selection from the Nineteen Seventies, covering a period of about five years.
The Very Slow Time Machine (Anticipations – Christopher Priest (Ed) 1978)
Thy Blood Like Milk (New Worlds Quarterly 1973)
Sitting on a Starwood Stool (Science Fiction Monthly 1974)
Agoraphobia AD 2000 (Andromeda 2 – Peter Weston (Ed) 1977)
Programmed Love Story (Transatlantic Review 1974)
The Girl Who Was Art (Ambit 1976)
Our Loves So Truly Meridional (Science Fiction Monthly 1974)
Immune Dreams (Pulsar 1 – George Hay (Ed) 1978)
My Soul Swims in a Goldfish Bowl (Magazine of F&SF 1978)
The Roentgen Refugees (New Writings in SF #30 – Bulmer (Ed) 1978)
A Time Span to Conjure With (Andromeda 3 – Peter Weston (Ed) 1978)
On Cooking The First Hero in Spring (Science Fiction Monthly 1975)
Event Horizon (Faster Than Light; an original anthology about interstellar travel – Jack Dann and George Zebrowski (Eds) 1976)
The Very Slow Time Machine
A beautifully crafted piece where the themes are paradox and causality. A capsule appears from nowhere in 1985 containing a mad and incoherent old man whose life appears to be running backwards. The capsule appears to have been sent back in time from the near future and is impregnable, but the highly efficient recycling system inside the allows its occupant to sustain himself. As he grows younger and saner he begins to deliver a message.
Over the years the time-traveller begins to assume a Messianic status with the general public.
Ironically it would appear that the media storm around the capsule and its passenger has ensured that we build such a ship and send it back in time and has also ensured that that the occupant – who has grown up somewhere outside the capsule knowing of his destiny – will be compelled to come to the launch site, believing that he is destined to be God.
Thy Blood Like Milk
An ecological tale in which gangs roam the highways searching for sunspots; moments when the sun breaks through a permanent cloud layer caused by pollution and global warming. One of the leaders of the gang, who has revived the Aztec cult of the sun god, is being punished for a death he caused on the road . Having his blood milked for hospital use is paying his penance. The story however focuses on his relationship with his nurse who happens to be the girlfriend of the man he killed.
Sitting on a Starwood Stool
Watson is adept in packing several extraordinary concepts into a deceptively short story. Every 1.23 years aliens appear at a certain point in space to trade a few small cuts of the rare Starwood for valuable products from Earth; a Botticelli or even a group of humans.
Starwood is the product of trees grown on an asteroid with an eccentric orbit about its sun, and absorbs the energies of trees. When turned into something such as a stool, it will leak its stored star energy into whomever it comes into contact with, rejuvenating or curing the subject.
A cancer victim hatches a plot to steal the stool form a Yakuza boss, but things do not go according to plan.
Agoraphobia AD 2000
Watson again demonstrates his fascination with Japanese culture in this surreal tale in which an astronaut is required to enter a virtual environment in order to commit hari kiri.
Programmed Love Story
A highly stylised Japanese tale of a businessman who is requested to abandon his bride as she is rather too complaint to be a corporate wife. When she becomes a hostess at the Queen Bee they meet again, but in her work she has been endowed with the persona of an aggressive and ruthless Imperial Consort, and it is this with which he falls in love,
Beautifully written and beautifully structured.
The Girl Who Was Art
A story which examines Art and Japanese culture in which a young girl undergoes muscle training in order to reproduce three-dimensionally the work of a twentieth century photographer in tableaux forms. But Art, it appears, is fickle and transient.
Our Loves So Truly Meridional
The world becomes divided into segments along the meridians by immense glass-like forcefield walls. Two people in separate segments attempt to reach the poles to find out what happens at the nexus of the barriers. It’s in the detail where Watson excels, envisioning societies where a globe of the world has been reduced to a single bowlike segment with a steel string connecting the poles.
A man who may or may not be suffering from cancer believes that dreams are the body’s way of correcting errant DNA, He elects to become part of an experiment in which the part of the brain which suppresses volitional control during sleep is turned off.
My Soul Swims in a Goldfish Bowl
A rather weak tale in which a man is convinced by his wife that the amoebic creature he has coughed up is his soul, and keeps it alive in a goldfish bowl
The Roentgen Refugees
Following the unexpected supernova of Sirius, the world is blasted by the resultant flux of Gamma radiation and only a fraction of the world’s population are saved, mainly in the Western World. Set in South Africa (and written during the time of apartheid) it’s a philosophical piece about third world issues, faith and racism on various levels. Like most of Watson’s short fiction it is brief, yet complex.
A Time Span to Conjure With
A scheduled inspection of a young colony world finds the colonists childless and oddly philosophical. It appears that an indigenous species (spoken of as ‘fairies’ due to their apparent transparency and elusiveness) exist in Time in a different sense to ourselves.
The aliens appear to be very alien, made more so by the fact that Watson keeps them at arm’s length. We see them briefly on the page, but realise through the narrative that they are always around.
On Cooking The First Hero in Spring
Three human anthropologists examine an alien tribe who show little signs of intelligence and seemingly have only one word in their vocabulary, although a Buddhist member of the team looks at them from a different perspective.
Initially it is thought that the creatures had built an aisle of statuary, depicting themselves or their ancestors, but it transpires that every ‘dawn’ one of their number is chosen to be baked alive in a shell of clay, and then put in position among the statues forming a strange highway to nowhere.
Maybe the least accessible of the stories, this features a black hole which may or may not have a mind trapped with it, and some investigators, who achieve telepathic union by the use of drugs and tantric sex. It’s very much a tale of its time and seems – unlike the other pieces – oddly dated.
In the 22nd Century, humanity has reached and settled other planets via wormhole gateways. Newcastle has become a rich and thriving city due to its wormhole connection to St Libra, a world of plant life upon which the bioil companies have sited their algaepaddies, the source of the sustainable fuel that is pumped to dozens of worlds through the wormhole gateways.
Sid Hurst, a Geordie cop and father of two is called to the scene of a murder; a high profile case which no one is looking forward to investigating.
The victim is a North. Norths (in a nutshell) are cloned copies of the original North, a successful businessman, who placed the three cloned copies of himself (Augustus, Bertram and Constantine) in charge of his empire. Further clones of the three followed, and at the time of the murder, hundreds of Norths are extant, and with identical DNA, identification of the body is an issue.
The murder weapon is also an issue, since it would appear that the victim had his heart ripped out by an instrument much like a human hand with blades for fingers.
Hurst’s investigation attracts the attention of the HDA (The Human Defence Alliance) whose major directive is to conduct defence against the Zanth, the only possible sentient species Humanity has yet encountered.
It appears that, twenty years ago, Bertram North and many of his staff and family were slaughtered on St Libra in the same way. The only survivor – the woman convicted and imprisoned for the murders – was Angela Tramelo – who has always insisted that they were killed by ‘a monster’.
Vance Elston, HDA Colonel and one of the Gospel Warriors (a Christian sect who believe the Zanth to be the devil) was one of the original team that questioned Tramelo and appears to have always believed her story. She is taken from Holloway and given the chance to join an expedition to St Libra to search for evidence of sentient life, while Sid and his team begin to painfully recreate the journey the body took before it was dumped in the river, and hopefully track down the killer.
Again it’s Hamilton painting his very detailed dreams onto enormous canvases with a bewildering number of characters, all of whom he somehow organises and controls with exceptional aplomb.
For me, it’s not the best novel he’s written but it’s still streets ahead of most of his competition.
Longevity and rejuvenation are an obsessive theme for Hamilton as are, or were, the glamorous uberbabes who previously haunted his pages like Katie Price in space.
The themes are combined, albeit somewhat more intelligently and tastefully in Angela Tramelo who received an early DNA genetic treatment which retards aging after puberty to one year in ten. Thus, when she emerges from Holloway she had effectively only aged two years.
Augustine and Constantine North are both pursuing research into rejuvenation; Augustine from Earth and Constantine from his within his vast habitat orbiting Jupiter.
As the murder investigation begins and the expedition sets out, we follow various characters, now and again jumping back in time to explore backstories.
One could argue that this is the same basic premise as ‘Pandora’s Star’ in that we suspect there may be some dangerous aliens in Solar System Y. We must send an expedition there to find out. Person A has been stating that the dangerous aliens have been among us for some time but no one believes Person A.
For a Hamilton novel it seems a little unpolished. Certainly there is a certain cleverness in the slow reveals of past events which shed light on the current situation, with a couple of actual surprises in terms of connections between major characters, but Hamilton has done all this before.
However, there are some interesting aspects to this. Of the major characters all are searching for continuance of some sort. Vance Elston believes he will find immortality through his dedication to Christ.; the Norths – initially through cloning but now through rejuvenation and genetic engineering. Angela’s life will already be extended through the centuries via her longevity treatment, and then there is the St Libra Gaia entity which has evolved into a gestalt organism, naturally immortal.
Perhaps on some level the Zanth, a species whose intelligence cannot be gauged, if it can be described as intelligence at all, but seems to be able to manipulate quantum states, represents entropy or Death. Their predations are purposeless, invading systems and converting planets and moons into Zanth architecture, absorbing and transforming matter effortlessly. Is this Hamilton’s perennial theme, the struggle of life against Death?
The morality of terrorism is on a stickier wicket here than it was in ‘Pandora’s Star’. There, Adam had a thoroughly worked out background, character and ethos.
Here, Saul, a resident of St Libra (who has a backstory) is pressed into providing equipment to help blow up a plane. Although he does partly redeem himself by reporting his actions to the authorities there seems to be a lack of remorse or any further consequences. This is not to say that his actions were not in character but rather that his character was not fully developed enough to carry the actions.
On the whole it is an excellent piece of work, but having been a Peter F Hamilton fan for a goodly number of years I can’t help feeling there’s a certain ‘thinness’ to this novel.
Barnes is not one of those authors who finds a particular niche within the genre and fills it with novels of a similar style and content. His work includes the Galactic Human Society of ‘A Million Open Doors’ and ‘Earth Made of Glass’, the parallel universes of ‘Finity’ and here, a near-future disaster novel in which a small nuclear explosion in the Arctic releases a huge amount of methane trapped in the polar ice.
The consequence of this is that Hurricanes, of a size and ferocity never before seen, begin to form and head off to terrorise the world.
The background to Barnes’ novel is just as fascinating as he has created a near-future world in which the US is no longer a superpower, the dominant force being the UN. Europe appears to have devolved into some kind of Nazi Federation which has exiled ‘Afropeans’ – European black people – to the rest of the world, but mainly America. The popular form of entertainment which has supplanted ‘flat’ TV is XV, a form of direct sensory experience recorded on wedges.
The action follows various groups of people who are all connected in some way. Di Callare is a meteorological specialist who becomes a government advisor when the crisis erupts. His young brother Jesse gets caught up in the turmoil in Mexico where he meets a vacationing XV porn star, Synthi Venture. Berlina Jamieson, an exiled Afropean, suddenly finds a market for her retro ‘flat’ style of news reporting.
Out in space, Louie Tynan, an American astronaut, is commandeered to report on the hurricanes from his unique vantage point and finds himself infected with a nanovirus which begins to ‘improve’ him, following which he starts to evolve in unexpected and intriguing ways.
The unfortunately named Randy Householder is the distraught father of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered in order to make a snuff XV recording. Randy is determined to find the man who commissioned the recording and discovers that his investigations are taking him rather high up the political ladder.
This is then, no mere disaster novel. In fact, the sequences where the monster hurricanes destroy cities and countries are not that frequent, but are brilliantly, thrillingly written and conceived. Barnes employs the disaster to bring the various story threads together quite convincingly and one never thinks, as is the case with lesser authors, that the coincidences and connections between the characters are too improbable.
Like the hurricane itself, ‘Mother of Storms’ begins slowly and gathers pace to finally rattle along breathlessly to its conclusion.
Arguably Barnes’ best novel.
‘It begins in 2016. Another wet Summer, another year of storm surges and high tides. But this time the Thames Barrier is breached and central London is swamped. The waters recede, life goes one, the economy begins to recover, people watch the news reports of other floods around the world. And then the waters rise again. And again.
Lily, Helen, Garry and Piers, hostages released from five years of captivity in Spain, return to England and the first rumours of a flood of positively Biblical proportions begin…
Sea levels begin to rise at catastrophic speed. Within two years London and new York will be under water. The Pope will give his last address from the Vatican before Rome is swallowed by the rising water. Mecca too will vanish beneath the waves.
The world is drowning. A desperate race to find out what is happening begins. And all the time the waters continue to rise and mankind begins the great retreat to higher ground.
Millions could die, billions will become migrants. Wars will be fought over mountains.’
Blurb from the Gollancz 2009 Paperback edition
Baxter’s apocalyptic novel offers fresh perspective on at least the causes of rises in sea-levels. Some research tends to suggest that subterranean oceans exist, presumably under great pressure, since the release of these compressed bodies of water produces a flood of literally biblical proportions which eventually drowns the entire Earth’s landmass.
Understandably the novel covers the decades that the waters take to reach this point.
Structurally, Baxter takes four central characters, Lily, Piers, Helen and Gary, who have been held ransom for years by Spanish terrorists in the second decade of the 21st Century. It’s an interesting device to use since the experience has bonded the four tighter than family members. Gary is a meteorologist, handily enough and Piers is a military man who was traumatised by his confinement but now finds a strength in an odd relationship with Lily. The four are in a sense adopted by a millionaire businessman, Nathan Lomockson, who is seeking to use technology to save Humanity and make a profit in the process.
The narrative revolves around Lily who is reunited with her sister and young niece and nephew, while the other characters weave their stories around her.
Lily is indeed the central Canute figure who fights against the tide and the extinction of her friends and family, at one point almost forcing her sister to abandon her abusive boyfriend in a caravan commune on the moors.
As the lands shrink, populations and wildlife begin to compete for space, while Lomockson has set in motion various programmes to help Humanity survive afloat, such as an engineered algae/seaweed which grows into a thick floating mat and can be used as a raft-home, and his Ark 3, a liner based on the original blueprints of the Queen Mary.
This is a novel which is more character driven than most disaster novels, one is left slightly disappointed by the lack of descriptions of the effects of tsunamis pouring across continents as the weight of the new water shifts the positions of tectonic plates. Much of this happens off the page and is later reported via Lily or Gary.
One would also imagine that the ocean biosphere would undergo rapid change, and this is hardly touched upon. One is reminded of George R Stewart’s ‘Earth Abides’ and his description of ‘blooms’ of various species each year as nature sought to find a balance once Man had been temporarily removed from the scene.
Maybe it is this that is missing. Something certainly is, since although it is a decent enough it has a certain sterility to it, a lack of heart, and perhaps also a surfeit of minor characters who seemed somewhere in limbo between being ‘extras’ and having a main role.
Michael, the gay character, for instance, is introduced and reappears briefly, then is being pushed in a trolley by Gary, unconscious and dying after fighting for his boots.
Some authors can do this with aplomb, filling their pages with fully rounded temporary characters, but here it doesn’t work. The lesser characters never have a chance to be anything more that two-dimensional, and in a book of this length there should have been room for that to be sorted out.
‘Dr Edward Kitchener, a brilliant researcher into quantum cosmology for the Event Horizon conglomerate… but no good to anyone now, lying dead with his lungs spread out on either side of his open chest.
The security system at Launde Abbey was premier-grade, yet a mercenary could still have got through, and plenty of people anxious to stop Kitchener’s work would pay the killer’s fee. But why would a professional waste time in ritually slaughtering the target?
Something doesn’t gel here. Was Kitchener a victim of industrial espionage, of personal vengeance, or of some crime of passion perpetrated by one of his students?
Event Horizon needs to know fast, so Greg Mandel, psi-boosted ex-private eye, is enticed out of retirement to launch himself on a convoluted trail involving confrontation with a past which – according to Kitcher’s theories – might never have happened.’
Blurb from the 1996 Pan paperback edition
Greg Mandel is once more persuaded to leave his farm and use his special interrogatory talents and techniques. Dr Edward Kitchener has been found in his home, ritually slaughtered with the MO of a serial killer. The house was thoroughly secure, however, and the killer in question locked up in a secure facility at the time of the murder. The only possible suspects were Kitchener’s six students. Greg, via his empathic gland, has already determined they are all innocent.
One has to applaud Hamilton for not only creating a page-turning sequel to Mindstar Rising, but also for placing it in such a realistic setting with a detailed back story.
Hamilton’s Britain is about thirty years ahead of when he wrote this. The ice-caps have melted, the sea level has risen, Britain has shrunk to a shadow of its former self and is recovering from several years of dictatorial rule by the People’s Socialist Party and their thuggish black-shirted People’s Constables.
The novel begins in fact with Greg having to rescue a neighbour in his village from a lynch mob who believe him to be ex-PSP, which sets the tone very well for the background of the story.
Hamilton still seems to be finding his feet plotwise, since it’s not that difficult to guess how Kitchener was murdered, although the why of it thankfully remains a mystery to the end. As a kind of light relief counter-tale to the main plot Julia Evans plots to bring down a media commentator who seems to revel in criticising Julia’s choice of outfits for public appearances.
What is exceptional about this book, and in a sense heralds Hamilton’s later work and his multi-character epics, is the characterisation. He does seem here to have a gift for bringing personality and individuality to even the smallest characters.
Once again, perhaps the only failing in the novel is that Greg Mandel is just too damned happy. He has his own farm, a gorgeous wife, the friendship and patronage of the richest woman in Europe and everyone likes him, apart from those who are a tad nervous of his spooky Jedi mindtricks.
A little traditional gumshoe loneliness and angst might have made Mandel’s character more convincing and enhanced the sexual tension between Julia and himself, but it’s a small quibble. The book is a solid and enjoyable piece of work.