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Topics - Tony Williams

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Books / The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
« on: August 28, 2011, 10:53:16 am »
Bujold is best known for her excellent Vorkosigan SF series (five of which I have already reviewed on this blog, with several more waiting to be read) but The Curse of Chalion is a classic medieval-with-magic fantasy.

The story is set on an unspecified planet with vague geography (no maps) which seems to be a kind of alternative Earth, judging by the plants and animals described. There are the usual small kingdoms in uneasy juxtaposition, fighting occasional wars in various combinations. Military technology consists of swords and crossbows. The religion has five gods with different roles (although one bunch of heretics only worships four), but while there is occasional evidence that the gods exist, they rarely get involved in human affairs. There isn't even any magic in the usual sense of practitioners casting spells, with one exception: Death Magic. Anyone can learn how to do this, with enough research and determination; it involves calling on one of the gods to send a demon to kill a hated enemy. The only catch is that the person working the magic invariably dies too.

The hero of the story, Cazaril, is a minor lord and former courtier and soldier who has fallen on hard times due to betrayal and subsequent slavery. Penniless, exhausted, and still half-crippled by injury, he makes his way to Valenda, a city in the land of Chalion in whose court he had worked as a young page some twenty years before, in search of some menial job and a place to live. There he meets Iselle, a royesse (princess) of Chalion, and finds himself reluctantly roped in to act as her secretary/tutor. He tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the headstrong young royesse but when the action moves to the royal court in Cardegoss, Cazaril is tested to the limit in his determination to protect Iselle from the political and magical dangers surrounding her.

The setting sounds somewhat unoriginal as similar territory has been marched over countless times by other authors, but Bujold adds her own distinctive style. She is a natural and intelligent story-teller, injecting occasional flashes of wry humour (an element which tends to be sadly lacking in fantasy, in which authors often take their creations much too seriously). Her characterisation is as good as usual and the reader soon comes to care about her characters and what happens to them. There is something of the flavour of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing, but Bujold is less dark and elegiac. After a slowish start the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half of this substantial (500 page) tome in one sitting, late into the night: something which I rarely do.

The Curse of Chalion may appear somewhat formulaic but if you enjoy this kind of story this is about as good as it ever gets.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Books / Blindsight by Peter Watts
« on: March 06, 2011, 02:19:12 am »
The time is the late 21st century, and the aliens have arrived. Sixty-five thousand unknown objects, in perfectly symmetrical formation, simultaneously burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. An unmanned probe, far out at the edge of the Solar System, detects the faint trace of communications from a large asteroid, aimed further out into space. High-velocity remote probes are sent from Earth, but the asteroid explodes.  A manned ship, crewed by a handful of radically adapted specialists, follows the communication trace out towards the Oort Cloud. Their leader is a vampire.

Some time before, it had been discovered that vampires once existed before being killed off by humans at the dawn of civilisation. Their genome had been retrieved from ancient remains and they had been reconstructed. They are top predators (humanity being their favoured prey) who can paralyse people with fear just by looking into their eyes, and were only defeated because they suffer a massive seizure and become helpless at the sight of right-angles – such as a cross. To overcome this they are given a medicine which also tames their predatory instincts; they are valued because they are vastly more intelligent than humans. Their ability to hibernate in a near-death state for months or years has been transferred to the humans who form the rest of the crew, allowing them to make the long, slow journey.

One of the crew is Siri Keeton, a synthesist with half his brain removed in childhood to cure his constant and violent seizures. The vacated space is now filled with technology used to enhance his autistic ability to dispassionately observe and analyse events - and especially the rest of the crew - in order to keep an objective record to send back to Earth.

They manage to track down the destination of the signal, a bizarre alien craft orbiting a brown dwarf star, too dim to have been detected from Earth. The craft appears to be growing but its nature, and that of what the crew assume to be the aliens inhabiting it, makes no sense. The crew struggle to understand what is happening, and suffer increasing stress as the situation deteriorates beyond their control.

Blindsight is an ambitious epic of first contact, in the best tradition of hard SF. It is packed full of original and sometimes startling ideas, and richly deserved the Hugo nomination it received when published a few years ago. However, I have to say that I did not find it an easy read. The very density of ideas slows the pace, while the reader is made to work hard to follow what is going on. I found that I could only read it in small doses so it took me over a week to complete. It was worth the effort, though the conclusion is not one that optimists will enjoy.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Film: From Time to Time (2010)
« on: February 27, 2011, 03:04:48 pm »
This is a combination of time travel and ghost story based on Lucy Boston's Green Knowe series of children's books which were published between 1954 and 1976. The film, featuring several well-known British actors including Dame Maggie Smith, went on limited British cinematic release last year and was recently shown on UK TV.

The setting is an ancient English country house at the end of World War 2. A young teenage boy, whose father has been reported missing in action, has been sent to stay with his grandmother from whom his family had been estranged. The house had been in the family for centuries and the boy explores it, fascinated by its history. He soon begins seeing visions of people from two centuries before, a few of whom (children, not adults) can also see him. He finds with increasing frequency that in going from one room to another he may suddenly be back in the 18th century, watching and listening to the people and events there. These scenes are interleaved with ones in his present day, as his grandmother (who has no problem with believing in ghosts) fills in the details of who the people were and what happened to them.

The boy becomes friends with a girl in the 18th century, a distant relative who was blind in real life but can see him. As a result he learns things which even his grandmother does not know, which are of practical benefit to the family.

This is a charming film, well-scripted and acted, and I enjoyed it throughout - but for the odd logical niggle. Now you may say that logic has no place in a ghost story, but I do like to see internal consistency. For example, the scenes set in the 18th century clearly involve the boy experiencing a kind of spiritual time travelling. He sees the house, people and events as they actually were at that time; they are not ghosts (in fact he is a kind of ghost from their future - except that he is still alive). Yet later in the story, while he is in the 20th century, he is visited by the spirit of the girl who tells him things that she could not have known while she was alive. So she really was a ghost at that point, and not time-travelling forwards to see him.

That I could just about swallow, but there was a more glaring inconsistency in the 18th century scenes, in which the boy was there in spirit only; while hardly anyone could see him (and in fact most walked straight through him) he was nonetheless able to pick up and carry material objects from that time - and leave behind physical objects he had brought with him, to be discovered a couple of centuries later. That really won't do!

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and Outcasts (BBC TV)
« on: February 13, 2011, 01:07:49 pm »
I record any film on TV which I think looks as if it might be interesting, but when I watch them I reject most within a quarter of an hour of the start. I recently saw Stranger Than Fiction after deleting several films in a row, but this one hit the spot so I stayed with it to the end.

This comic fantasy, set in Chicago, has an unusual premise: the hero of the tale, IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who lives a life of obsessive monotony , starts to hear a female voice in his head describing everything he is doing - or is about to do. He fears he is going mad, but is galvanised into action when the voice prophesies his imminent death. A psychiatrist can't help him so he turns to a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who is intrigued that the voice appears to belong to an author who is writing a novel featuring Howard, but he can't identify her. He advises Howard that there is nothing to be done and that he had better enjoy life while he can, so Howard starts to fulfil childhood dreams and also plucks up the courage to approach the feisty baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he has been investigating for failure to pay her taxes.

Meanwhile, the author (Emma Thompson), who lives in the same city, is suffering from writer's block and can't work out how best to kill off Howard to conclude her new novel, Death and Taxes. Howard recognises her voice in a TV interview and manages to track her down, leading to some unexpected twists and turns before the end.

This film held my attention and amused me throughout. It is a life-affirming story, well-acted by a high-quality cast and told with intelligence and wry humour. Highly recommended.
Outcasts is a new BBC TV SF eight-part drama, of which I have so far seen the first two parts. The scenario is far enough into the future for humanity to have developed huge starships, one of which had managed to establish a settlement on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster) some years before. The name is significant, as civilisation on Earth appears to be in its final throes, and the last starship is due to arrive.

All is not well on Carpathia, however, as the team of explorers who spend most of their time away from the settlement are planning a rebellion. The president (Liam Cunningham) aided by the head of security (Hermione Norris, who famously played a formidable MI5 agent in Spooks) try to hold the line while preparing for the arrival of the starship. All is not well with that either, as it has suffered some damage which threatens disaster if it tries to land on the planet, so it launches an escape pod to ensure that some survive. Just to complicate matters further, there is a band of renegade humans in the wild, rejected by the settlement years before.

The focus is on the human drama and the acting is reasonably good (Norris being the stand-out performer) although some of the dialogue still sounds rather stiff and awkward to me - a perennial screen-SF problem. However, the SF elements are weak so far, and even the big CGI effort of the starship is hopelessly unconvincing, simply because the plot requires this vast structure, with living space in two huge counter-rotating artifical gravity wheels, to try to land on the planet. Now you don't have to be an SF geek to realise that such a vessel cannot possibly enter a planet's atmosphere let alone make a landing, a fleet of shuttles being required for that task, but the programme makers don't seem to realise that.

Overall it's moderately promising so far and I'll keep watching; I'll return to it to make some final comments once I've seen the lot.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Other Media / Interzone 232
« on: February 06, 2011, 01:47:06 pm »
A surreal picture by Richard Wagner is on the cover of the Jan-Feb issue of the British SFF magazine; I like this type of photo-realistic painting showing impossible things. The book reviews include Corvus by Paul Kearney, the sequel to The Ten Thousand, which I reviewed here in October 2008. The reviewer makes similar observations to mine about Kearney's writing, when I wrote: "The strength of the book is in its battle scenes, of which there are many. The author belongs to the gritty realism school of writing, and the fear, panic, confusion and brutality of battle are powerfully evoked, as are the campaigning problems of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and body lice. The result is a gripping account which draws in the reader and had this reviewer shivering with the tension of the build-up to the final climactic battle." 

There are also reviews of three books from the 1950s, made available again by Westholme Publishing in their "America Reads" series of classic works: The Flying Saucer by Bernard Newman, One by David Karp and Limbo by Bernard Wolfe.  By and large, the reviewers feel these haven't worn too well, with One receiving the highest accolade - a rather tentative and qualified approval. Another of the new works reviewed which caught my eye, Buntline Special by Mike Resnick, is set in an alternative history in which the power of the native American medicine men has held the European invaders at the line of the Mississippi. Resnick's name is one I've been familiar with for a long time, but I can't recall ever reading anything by him. This one sounds entertaining, though.

The film and TV reviews include Tron Legacy (ho hum) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (a stage-setter for the finale), both of which I hope to see before long; I rather liked the original Tron, which for some reason has been withdrawn from circulation by Disney. A DVD set of The Avengers Series Six revived fond memories of the bizarrely fantastic plots, but this series didn't have Diana Rigg in it (except to say farewell in the first episode) so where's the a-Peel?

On a sadder note, the obituaries record the death of John Steakley at the age of only 59. He was the author of Armor (1984) and Vampires (1990), the latter being made into a film. I still have a copy of Armor on my shelf for a re-read some day, an intriguingly different take on militaristic SF.

Now to the short stories, of which there are five:

Noam Chomsky and the Time Box by Douglas Lain, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A portable "time box" has been invented which allows owners to travel back in time and interact with people there, although no substantial changes are possible no matter how hard they try. The box also has a reset button to allow the traveller to cancel his interventions and go back to the start to try again. The main character has the obsessive notion that he could make subtle but important changes by going back to the 1960s and forcing an interaction between the linguist Noam Chomsky and the fantasist Terence McKenna (he of the 2012 catastrophe theory), and his account of his many efforts to achieve this is written in the form of a series of blog entries. Really strange, but earns points for originality.

Intellectual Property by Michael R Fletcher, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A time when people can have - quite literally - plug-in memories in form of a flash-drive like device which is inserted into the head. When the device is removed, they lose all memory of what happened or what they learned while it was in - until it is reinserted. The protagonist is an innocent young woman normally, but unknown to herself becomes a deadly secret agent when her plug is inserted by her employers. An intriguing plot device, but it takes some time to work out what is going on.

By Plucking Her Petals by Sarah L Edwards, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A medieval fantasy in which magic can be used to make permanent changes in people's appearance. One low-level practitioner of such magic becomes embroiled in affairs which are way above his head.

Healthy, Wealthy and Wise by Sue Burke, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A clash of cultures in the near future between a Spanish woman who needs expensive medical treatment, and an American student doing field work who she has to host her in return for receiving the treatment. The action is seen from the viewpoint of the student's "Friend", a highly capable AI in her phone who observes everything that is going on, monitors her physical and mental health, translates when required, and generally advises and takes care of her. An upbeat and engaging tale - who wouldn't want a Friend like that? I can't help thinking that it would rapidly encourage a strong psychological dependency, though.

Flock, Shoal, Herd by James Bloomer. This won the James White Award (open to non-professional writers). A distant future in which government agents can conceal themselves to carry out their work by adopting other human or animal bodies, or even multiple bodies. One such agent goes in search of a former lover who has learned to transcend the limitations of this system and become something else entirely. Like the Fletcher story above, the tale skips across events like a flat stone across water, so the reader has to concentrate to keep up; but it's short enough to read again straight away.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Books / The Hidden Oasis by Paul Sussman
« on: January 23, 2011, 01:22:18 am »
The Hidden Oasis (2009) is the third novel by Paul Sussman, the others being The Lost Army of Cambyses (2002) and The Last Secret of the Temple (2005). All three are written to the same formula; present-day adventure thrillers in which the characters are struggling to solve mysteries linked to events in both the recent and the very distant past. The author's background as a field archaeologist who has spent much time in Egypt is made full use of, with rich descriptions of the country and of archaeology, and his understanding of the different cultures of the region comes through clearly.

There is one common character in all three novels - Inspector Khalifa of the Luxor Police - but he has only a cameo role in the latest story.  The principals are a young American woman who visits Egypt for the first time for the funeral of her elder sister, and the British archaeologist who had worked with her sister in a search for the "hidden oasis", a legendary place sought for centuries which was supposed to contain a weapon of mysterious power. Added to this, an aircraft carrying an important cargo had vanished in the area some twenty years before, and various groups - including some exceedingly unsavoury characters - were taking an active interest. Inevitably, the principal characters become involved in the search and much skullduggery, chases and general excitement follow, before all is revealed.

Sussman's work has been compared with Dan Brown's but his plotting, characterisation and writing in general are vastly superior. In spirit, this story reminded me a little of a childhood favourite: Rider Haggard's King Soloman's Mines. The pacing of the story is steady to start with but gradually ramps up and I read the last third of this 620 page book in one go - I couldn't put it down.

On the face of it Sussman's books do not fit into the SFF category, but in all his stories there is an touch of fantasy at the end and this forms a major element in The Hidden Oasis. This may sound odd coming from an SFF fan, but I rather wish it didn't; this story works perfectly well as an exciting modern adventure mystery set against an authentically detailed background, and the magical happenings right at the end seem somehow out of place. I would have preferred an element of uncertainty as to whether or not there could have been a mundane explanation for events, but no such get-out in this story; the impossibility of the ending is literally earth-shaking. Despite this reservation, the novels are well worth reading if you enjoy burying yourself in a really good, well-researched yarn.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Film: The Truman Show (1998)
« on: January 16, 2011, 11:56:08 am »
Continuing with my efforts to catch up with worthwhile SFF films, I've finally seen The Truman Show. The plot must be well enough known by now, although I must confess I did wish whilst watching it that I hadn't had any advance notice of the basic premise, as it would have been fun discovering that for myself as the film developed. So if you really have no idea what it's about, my advice is: watch the film (it's terrific), but read no further.

The plot is mixture of a soap opera and reality TV show on the surface, but underneath is a paranoid conspiracy theory made real. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives an apparently normal, happily married (to Laura Linney) life in an idyllic little American town set on a small island. The one quirk is that, following a childhood accident in which his father was drowned, Truman is so terrified of water that he can't even drive over it on a bridge; so he has never left the island. Despite this, he has a fantasy of travelling to Fiji to follow the girl he really fell in love with (Natascha McElhone) who had vanished abruptly from the island years before.

The problems begin when odd events cause Truman to start to question the nature of the world he lives in. Strange incidents keep occurring, starting with a piece of equipment falling out of a clear sky. I enjoyed the way in which the headline of the next day's local paper always had a logical explanation for the events (in this case, that an aircraft in trouble had shed some equipment over the island). Despite such cover-ups, Truman gradually becomes suspicious, and feels that he is being spied on and set up.

The truth is far worse than that; for the entire island is a movie set, and everyone on it except himself is an actor. Broadcast around the world from thousands of cameras concealed around the island, the real-time continuously-running story of Truman's life since birth has been the entire purpose of The Truman Show, and is followed by millions of devoted fans. The film gradually interleaves scenes of Truman's increasing paranoia and desperation to escape the island with those of fans watching the show, plus views of the control-room staff under the direction of Cristof  (a chillingly controlling Ed Harris) who constantly choreographs the actors to keep the show on the rails. I was reminded of the old joke: just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean that they're not out to get you!

The climax of the film (and the Show) is dramatic and uplifting, a fitting end to an excellent, original and amusing production. Full marks!

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Books / Beholder's Eye by Julie E. Czerneda
« on: January 09, 2011, 12:52:49 am »
I haven't read anything by this author before but kept hearing favourable comments about her work, so I decided to try Beholder's Eye, the first of her Web Shifters trilogy, published in 1998.

The premise is unusual in that the heroine, Esen, is not only not human, she is an immortal being of pure energy who has the power to take the form of any race she knows. She and her small group of related Web Shifters spend most of their time in material form, spending years living within one culture after another and using their unique abilities to absorb and remember everything about them so that they will not be forgotten if they disappear. Their primary concern is not to be discovered, so they hide their true nature from everyone.

In this far-future universe, humanity has spread over a large number of worlds but is just one among many races in a mostly peaceable but occasionally turbulent galactic civilisation, divided into several rival blocs. Esen inadvertently becomes involved with a group of humans and is captured along with one of them, Ragem. In order to save his life she is forced to reveal something of her nature and he then becomes her intermittent companion in the adventures that follow.

I enjoyed the beginning of the tale but after a while began to find it somewhat uninvolving. This is partly because it's a bit difficult to empathise with an immortal alien energy being, partly because there is an inevitable lack of tension, despite a series of dramatic escapades, since the reader knows that Esen could escape from any threat if she chose. However, this changes in the last third of the book as a deadly danger, a more primitive Web Shifter predator, begins to hunt down and attack Esen's group. The story then becomes a tense battle for survival for the Web Shifters.

The story is told in the first person by Esen, who makes a likeable heroine although her attitudes are not at all alien; she thinks and behaves exactly as a human woman might if given her unusual ability. On the other hand she is influenced, sometimes amusingly, by the attitudes of the races she copies, because she becomes them in style of thought as well as appearance. Her developing and sometimes rocky relationship with Ragem, as he gradually discovers more about her circumstances, is another plus point. In the end I found it a good if not great read and worth the time spent on it, despite my reservations.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Film: Gattaca (1997)
« on: January 02, 2011, 03:29:37 pm »
Yet another film which I finally got around to seeing after meaning to for many years.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it is set in a not-too-far distant future in which children's genetic make-up can be adjusted at conception, a process routinely done by those who can afford it. This is not just to avoid any genetic disabilities but also to produce flawless people of superior all-round physical and mental ability. Such people, known as "valids", have huge advantages in life and are routinely appointed to the best jobs. But not everyone is born with such advantages - many are "in-valids". So what do you do if you have a burning desire to go on a mission to the outer planets, but lack the genetic superiority which is a basic requirement of being an astronaut? Particularly when instant genetic tests are carried out frequently at workplaces, as a matter of routine?

This is the problem facing the protagonist Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke). He finds a way of tricking the tests with the aid of a crippled valid whose identity he takes, and is duly selected for a forthcoming space mission. But he lives in constant fear of discovery; a situation exacerbated when he becomes involved with a colleague (Uma Thurman, so glossily perfect that she seems alien). Then a murder occurs at his workplace and an intense investigation follows in which he becomes the prime suspect.  Will he be able to survive this and take his place on the mission?

Gattaca succeeds on three levels: it's a gripping thriller, relying on psychological tension rather than car chases or explosions; it foreshadows issues around human genetic manipulation which are likely to be with us in reality all too soon; and it is a human story of a fight for identity and achievement over and above that which is written in the genes. The direction is restrained and the film has a pared-down minimalist feel without an unnecessary scene or word; the score by Michael Nyman complements it perfectly. I am not a fan of dystopias, which is basically what this film portrays, but it is still one of the best SF movies I've ever seen.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Films: Dogma (1999), Highlander (1986)
« on: December 19, 2010, 03:26:02 am »
I was pointed towards Dogma in an SFF discussion forum, so I gave it a spin recently. The plot of this comic fantasy is novel: two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), living as humans in present-day USA after having been banished by God long ago, conceive a plan to get back to Paradise. The problems are that if they succeeded this would prove that God is fallible, and thus cause the end of all creation; and that God, who could stop them easily enough, has gone missing while in disguise, somewhere on Earth. To help prevent disaster, God's spokesman (Alan Rickman) recruits a woman (Linda Fiorentino) who, unknown to herself, is the last scion of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. She is tasked with stopping the angels, with the aid of an assortment of dubious characters.

This is the excuse for a lot of rather heavy-handed and sometimes crude humour, mostly at the expense of religion in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular - I gather that it prompted protests from Catholics in the usual Pavlovian manner. Subtle it ain't, but it fires enough comic shots for a number of them to score hits. All in all, worth watching if you are in the mood for some broad humour, unless you are religious and of a sensitive disposition.

I've been meaning to watch Highlander for years, but have only just got around to it. The story of the accidental immortal Connor MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert) who spends centuries battling the Kurgan, another immortal warrior, must be well-known by now. Two plot threads run in parallel with the scenes flipping between them; one in the sixteenth century, when Connor first discovers he is immortal and is trained by fellow-immortal Ramirez (played by Sean Connery) and one in 1985 when the climactic battle takes place.

I have to say that I was rather dissatisfied. There are yawning plot holes, with no attempt at any explanation for what is going on and why. Lambert makes a broodingly impressive hero but the Kurgan is a cardboard cut-out villain and the rest of the cast (except Connery) are unmemorable. I found the background pop music jarringly inappropriate, and the whole film rather pretentious and overblown. It compares badly with some of the more recent superhero movies. I gather it has cult status and is highly regarded compared with the sequels, so I won't be wasting time on them…

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Other Media / Interzone 231
« on: November 28, 2010, 12:24:35 pm »
The November/December issue of the British SFF magazine is a Jason Sandford special, focusing on the work of this US writer. He has already had several highly-regarded short stories published in Interzone which I have reviewed in previous posts, and this issue features three new ones. There is also a long interview (with Andy Hedgecock) in which he explains his view that a new form of genre writing is developing, which he dubs SciFi Strange. He says this "sets high literary standards, experiments with style, is infused with a sense of wonder, takes the idea of diverse sexuality for granted, focuses on human values and needs, and explores the boundaries of reality and experience through philosophical speculation." Which all sounds very impressive, but for me bottom line is simply "is it a good read?"

Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Peep (illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe) is the first of his stories. The population of the USA is gradually fragmenting into a patchwork of lynch mobs trilling "Peace!" as they slaughter not just criminals but anyone using violence - including police officers and soldiers. A policewoman escapes with the aid of a serial killer and discovers the chilling truth behind the frenzy.

Memoria (illustrated by Richard Wagner) is next up. Spacecraft travel between parallel worlds, but there is a price to be paid by some of the crew; possession by ghosts of the dead. Criminals escape jail by volunteering to be the "shields" to experience this, gradually losing their memories and minds from the impact of the series of imposed personalities. But it all goes wrong when a new sort of possession afflicts one crew, and they learn why civilisations on parallel Earths have destroyed themselves.

Millisent Ka Plays in Realtime (illustrated by David Senecal) completes the trio of Jason Sandford stories. A future in which the economy runs on time - people's life time. Whenever a citizen wants something - to be educated or to be healed, or just to shop - the price is paid in the form of a specified period of time, ranging from seconds to years, for which they are committed to serve the Lord who provides such services. Their accumulated debt is burned into their genes so it can never be lost. But what might happen if someone discovers that the system isn't infallible? A young musician finds out.

So, do Sandford's stories live up to the billing? The plots are complex and the reader only gradually discovers what is going on; they need careful reading - some passages more than once - which might absorb some readers and irritate others. His writing is to a high standard, the ideas are original, there is a strong "sense of strange" infusing each one (particularly Memoria), and, yes, they are good reads.

There are two other stories in this issue:

The Shoe Factory by Matthew Cook, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A man keeps being distracted from his solitary mission on a doomed spacecaft by spells of reliving a past life with a former girlfriend. Can he escape by recreating his former existence? A strange story with a complex structure; I wasn't sure what was going on until the end (and I wasn't entirely certain even then).

The Shipmaker by Aliette de Bodard, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A story set in this author's "Xuya continuity", an alternative Earth in which the Chinese discovered America before Columbus. A Grand Master of Design Harmony, responsible for integrating all of the aspects of a spaceship project ready for the new Mind which will be uniquely capable of transforming the ship into a viable entity, is thrown into a crisis when the Mind is born too soon. There is an appealingly lyrical flavour to this author's writing.

In addition, the usual book, film and DVD reviews are present and correct, and I notice that a favourite TV series from my young adulthood, The Avengers Series Five (the first series in colour) is now available on DVD, featuring the wonderful Diana Rigg as the action woman Emma Peel. That should brighten up a lot of lives.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Books / Lost SF Classics in the New Scientist
« on: November 21, 2010, 11:27:52 am »
The New Scientist magazine is a serious journal aimed at keeping the scientific community (plus interested bystanders like me) up to date with current developments across the whole field of science. However, the editor obviously has a soft spot for science fiction, as occasional pieces about it appear. The most recent example was in the 23 October issue, in which ten prominent scientists and writers were asked to nominate a lost SF classic. Their choices, with their comments, were as follows:

Dark Universe by Daniel F Galouye, nominated by the biologist (and atheist flag-bearer for Darwin's theory of evolution) Richard Dawkins. "…hauntingly imaginative, and uses the medium of science fiction to let the reader reconstruct how myths can start."

Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley, nominated by James Lovelock (who invented the Gaia concept). "...a mid 20th century version of Voltaire's Candide. I like it because I am often asked to predict the future state of the world and authors like Voltaire, Wells, Orwell and others of their kind appeal more than purely technical prophets."

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem, nominated by cosmologist Sean Carroll. "...a wide-ranging exploration of robotics, technology, computation and social structures."

Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack, nominated by cyberpunk novelist William Gibson. "It's a book you really have to read to see why."

New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis, nominated by Robert May (former UK Chief Scientific Adviser). "…a scholarly review which takes science fiction seriously."

We by Eugene Zamiatin, nominated by novelist Margaret Atwood (winner of the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for the novel The Handmaid's Tale). "…contains the rootstock of two later themes - the creepy, too-smiley utopia, as in Brave New World, and the Big Brother dystopia, as in 1984."

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, nominated by SF author Stephen Baxter. "…a kind of god's-eye-view survey of the human far future, as bracing and original today as it was when first published…"

Floating Worlds by Celia Holland, nominated by SF author Kim Stanley Robinson. "…Holland's immense power as a novelist, and her new take on old science fiction themes, turn everything to gold."

The Listeners by James Gunn, nominated by SETI astronomer Seth Shostak. "I read this book two decades ago when I was first becoming involved with the search for cosmic company…"

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, nominated by physicist Freeman Dyson. "It's a sensitive human drama, with California providing the enduring natural environment as background."

An interestingly varied selection. Of the ten, I have only one on my shelves (New Maps of Hell) although I recall reading (and being impressed by) Floating Worlds, and assume (simply because they are so well known - not exactly "lost" classics) that I probably read Last and First Men plus Earth Abides a long time ago when I absorbed large quantities of SF every week, although I don't remember them.  I have certainly read books by Galouye, Sheckley, Lem and Gunn, although I don't recall the specific titles mentioned. I fear that when it comes to SFF, I have forgotten rather more than I remember!

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / The First Men in the Moon (BBC TV)
« on: November 14, 2010, 12:18:40 pm »
This is a new adaptation of the famous 1901 novel by H.G.Wells, made for British television in 2010. It is remarkably faithful to the original (judging by the book's Wiki plot summary - I read it too long ago to recall anything about it), with few changes. One of them is evident from the start, which is set in 1968 at a fête to celebrate the imminent Moon landing. A boy wanders into a tent in which a very old man is showing an early film, purporting to be of the Wellsian story; for the old man is Bedford, who really was the first man in the Moon.

The scene then switches to Edwardian England and follows the plot of the novel very closely. We see Bedford, then a young, failed businessman, meet the brilliant and eccentric Professor Cavour and learn of his invention of cavorite - a liquid which, when it cools and dries, shields the force of gravity. They construct a space capsule which can be steered by rolling and unrolling blinds coated with cavorite, and arrive at the Moon. There they find that a local atmosphere, frozen in the long nights, forms in the heat of the lunar day, and they leave the capsule only to be captured by Selenites, large intelligent insects. One change from the book, necessary for even minimal acceptability, is that the fast-growing surface plants described by Wells are missing: the Selenites live entirely underground in a huge system of deep caverns with a permanent breathable atmosphere. In their attempt to escape, Bedford and Cavor split up. Bedford manages to reach the capsule and return to Earth but Cavour remains behind, working with the Selenites who learn his language and are very curious about the Earth - and cavorite. The ending differs from the original, in that the film neatly explains why the Moon is lifeless and airless today (although the very last scene rather spoils that).

There are some technically shaky aspects - BBC4 doesn't exactly have a Hollywood budget to work with, after all. While the initial action on the Moon's surface features the obligatory low-gravity slow-motion antics we are familiar with (plus an amusing Edwardian version of Armstrong's first words), this gets forgotten underground, with some vague hand-waving about gravity being stronger there.  Despite this, it's an entertaining production, rich in period flavour, and well worth seeing.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Promote Your Projects / "Scales" - free e-book
« on: October 31, 2010, 10:52:48 am »
A rare sighting recently - a new review of my novel Scales. It has appeared in this blog: . An extract from the introduction to the review:

Most likely you haven’t read this book because you didn’t know it existed. The novel was published through Authors Online LTD a British company formed in 1997 which publishes novels online and can also now print novels on demand.

Before I say anymore, I have to be honest here, I know the author of this novel through cyberspace. Tony and I have both been active posters at Yahoo’s Classic Science Fiction Message Board for many years. So, I will admit that I might have some bias. But those who know me and/or those who have read some of my reviews, know that I’m not one that minces words or lets authors off easy.

So you know I am being completely honest when I say that “Scales” is such a great Science Fiction novel it deserved a Hugo Award nomination.

I’m sure those who haven’t read the book are sort of checking out mentally or thinking to themselves, “this guy is a really good friend.” But those who have read the novel understand why it is worthy of such high praise.

A reminder: you can read my thoughts on writing the novel, plus all published reviews, on my website HERE: , where you can also download the entire novel as an e-book free of charge - and you're not likely to get a better offer than that all week!

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Books / A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer
« on: October 24, 2010, 12:16:29 am »
This novel, first published in 1965, was one of my favourites from the period and I still have my well-worn 1967 paperback. It's several decades since I last read it so I thought I'd see how it stood up today.

I've already posted one review of a novel by this author (A Trace of Memory, reviewed 15 December 2007) which I started as follows:

"Keith Laumer (1925-1993) was a prolific American SF author who specialised in fast-paced adventure stories (of which the Bolo series, concerning intelligent tanks, is best known) and comic satire, notably in the Retief books about an interstellar diplomat. A Trace of Memory, published in 1963, is a stand-alone novel in the former category."

A Plague of Demons falls into the same category, being a short (170 page) and exciting adventure thriller. It is set on a near-future Earth and features a government agent, John Bravais, who is tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of large numbers of soldiers involved in the formalised battles then being used to settle disputes. He observes a dog-like alien - one of the demons of the title - decoying soldiers away from a battle and attacking them. He is able to kill one of these extremely tough creatures and take back evidence of its alien origin. His task then becomes the investigation of what is going on, and to assist him he is given a new programme of internal biomechanical enhancements which greatly increase his strength, endurance and survivability. The demons are quickly on his trail, assisted by their ability to manipulate people's minds so they can appear to be ordinary humans, and what follows is a running battle which ends up off the Earth as Bravais desperately tries to fulfil his mission against heavy odds. I can't say more without spoiling the surprises for any new readers, but I will say that this is the book whose popularity inspired the Bolo series.

The story is told in the first person with the laconic hard-boiled style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, including one-liner gems such as: "I was as weak as a diplomatic protest". There is also something of the flavour of Eric Frank Russell's novel Wasp, reviewed here on 26 August 2007. The introduction in particular reminded me of the start of a James Bond movie - I could visualise the film scenes as I read. In fact, the whole book would make a good film, with little need to change anything. Inevitably, the complex plotting and character development which feature in most modern novels are notable for their absence, but in this kind of story they would only slow the pace.

I was intrigued by a couple of scenes for a personal reason. In one of them Bravais, having just received his enhancements, breaks the machine used to test his strength. In another, he is able to use his mind (in this case aided by radio) to analyse and overcome electronic locks. As I read these I realised that I had included similar elements in my novel Scales, without being aware that I might be borrowing them from somewhere else. This isn't the first time this has happened to me and does make me think about the process of imaginative writing. Clearly, our imaginations are developed from and informed by our own experiences and previous reading, and it can be difficult to determine which are our own original ideas and which are those we might subconciously have recalled from a consciously long-forgotten story.

Anyway, to return to Laumer: I can well understand why I liked this book so much and can warmly recommend it to readers who enjoy the style and pace of these 1960s SF thrillers. It's such great fun, with an added dash of nostalgia!

(An extract from my SFF blog)

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