Tag Archives: SF

Imaginative Limits

My brain is in a weird place this morning. I woke up in the middle of a vivid dream and I haven’t quite managed to get my head on straight since; also, it’s a new month. The year’s turning. There’s a lot going on.

All this – and some incidental stuff, like the fact I watched the movie Avatar yesterday for the first time in ages and a book review I read this morning – are conspiring to fill my mind with thoughts of speculation about the future and how little, in real terms, we can know or imagine about it.

Photo Credit: Firestoned via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Firestoned via Compfight cc

I like to read SF books. I won’t say that I’m well read; beyond the basics (Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin, and a few others), and a couple of oddities I’ve picked up second-hand over the years, I have a fairly thin knowledge of the genre overall. I’m more of an interested amateur. However, one of the things that has always struck me when reading SF is, strangely, not the unlimited breadth of imagination that greets the reader, but the strangely limited views about humanity and its future that one tends to encounter. One of the ways in which this manifests, for me, is the fact that I’ve rarely, if ever, come across a classic SF book which doesn’t mention ‘tapes’ – audio and video tapes, history recorded on reels and reels of celluloid, manually operated and paused and edited. This has always fascinated me.

We can imagine worlds where giant gelatinous cubes can make three-dimensional copies of any object placed in front of them – essentially, an organic 3-D printer – but we can’t imagine anything like a digital future (In Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970)). Even Fahrenheit 451, one of my favourite SF novels, imagines a totally analogue world, despite the fact that television screens have become so large that they act as the walls of the room the viewer is sitting in. Books are still hard-copy, and nothing like the internet has even been thought of. The book review I read this morning was for The Monadic Universe, by George Zebrowski (1977), which features a story called ‘The History Machine’, again imagining an archive far in the future which is entirely dependent on tapes. I haven’t read this story but it did chime with the impression I have often received when reading SF books and stories – when it comes to certain aspects of human culture and technology, SF seemed to have been strangely blind.

(Then, of course, you have books like Neuromancer which blow this ‘theory’ out of the ballpark, but you don’t often find books like that – books which resemble our world, but a much less humane and comforting version of it. Usually SF books make me feel like we live in a horror-filled version of their dream of the future; Neuromancer makes me feel like we live in paradise. But I digress).

Sometimes I read SF books and I realise exactly how rooted they are in the world which created them, and how indicative they are of the prejudices and preoccupations of their own age. Inverted World, for instance, which I recently read, was originally published in 1974 and, while being an amazing book about relativity, environmental decay and massive-scale engineering, it also features the most egregiously offensive scenes in terms of its treatment of women and marginalised peoples, and their function in this society. Of course, perhaps this was the point – maybe the author was trying to say something meaningful about how no matter how much changes in terms of technology, old school prejudice and sexism will always be alive and well – but I’m not sure. It just seemed to be a no-questions-asked, this-is-how-the-world-operates acceptance to me, and quite possibly a reflection of the world it came out of rather than the world it was imagining. I know all literature does this – and of course it does, because nobody can see the future – but for some reason I expect more of SF. I expect it to be focused on imagining wider horizons, presenting ways in which the future will be better, more than we can dream of, filled with impossibility. But this genre, more than any other, describes exactly how limited the human imagination can be. We see futuristic societies and thought processes and whole centuries of imagined history (far into our own future, of course), but we still rely on tapes, or women are still abused, or it’s still all about war and terror, and the whole edifice collapses.

Then, perhaps is a cause for optimism that these SF novels seemed so limited in so many ways. As they wrote stories about far-distant futures where celluloid was king, in reality the seeds for a digital future were being sown. As they wrote stories about women as objects for use like any other resource or tool in worlds all over the galaxies, women in reality were fighting – and winning – their battles here on Earth. As we were taking some of the best ideas from the SF novels so beloved by so many and turning them into reality, we were also developing faster than any SF novel had ever dreamed. Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that our development has outstripped the dreams of our most far-sighted writers, and perhaps that’s something to be celebrated.

And perhaps I should have rolled over and gone back to sleep this morning instead of getting up and trying to function. Who knows?

Welcome to a new week, y’all. Let’s try and make it something to be proud of.


Book Review Saturday – ‘Inverted World’

Where do I even begin with this book review? I mean… I don’t know what I mean.

Image: wherearewegoingwaltwhitman.rietveldacademie.nl

Image: wherearewegoingwaltwhitman.rietveldacademie.nl

First published in 1974, Christopher Priest’s Inverted World (called The Inverted World in some editions) is, to my mind, a strange beast. It’s an SF Masterwork, which is why it found its way home to me; I’m a total sucker for that series of books, as you may remember from this post. I was intrigued by it in the main because of the fact that it is about a giant city which is mobile, winched along a huge system of tracks in order to try to catch up with the mysterious ‘optimum’, always slightly ahead of the city and always just out of its reach. I’ve read (and loved) Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, a children’s book which uses a very similar idea – that of giant cities mounted on tracks which must keep moving or die – and so I was intrigued by the idea of this earlier book, and curious to see how different or similar it would be to Reeve’s work. I’m also prepared to admit that Inverted World had a lot to live up to – I really do love Mortal Engines. So, perhaps it was overburdened with expectation from the start.

There is a lot to enjoy in Inverted World, however, not least of which the intriguing use of narrative voice. The book begins in third person, telling the story of a woman named Elizabeth (Liz) Khan who appears to be working as a medic in a dusty frontier-type town. After our brief introduction to Khan, we are then thrown into a first-person narrative in the voice of Helward Mann, who is, in his own words, ‘six hundred and fifty miles old,’ or just at the age of maturity. After this section in first-person, we enter a third-person narration, distancing us from Helward but still following his life. Then, it’s back to first-person Helward, and finally back to third-person Liz Khan. It’s an interesting structure, which I admired. I also admit to being riveted by Helward’s opening line about being ‘six hundred and fifty miles old’; it’s one of the most effective introductions in fiction I’ve ever read.

Helward lives on board a giant city, known to its inhabitants as Earth, which is slowly and painfully being winched across the surface of a distant planet. This planet has a strangely-shaped sun and an odd gravitational field; time works weirdly here, and a complicated system of guilds within the city work hard to keep the populace ignorant of most of the realities of their world, including that the city is moving at all, what the outside world looks like, how their synthetic food is made, and why their world is the way it is. The city of Earth must keep moving, because if it does not it risks destruction; even without this extraordinary pressure, however, it is in danger. Its population is declining because far more boys than girls are being born, and because there are so few women a system of bartering takes place as the city moves, which sees women from ‘outside’ convinced to come to the city, procreate with its men, and then return home. The city’s guilds also use the labour and resources of the people who live in the areas through which it passes; this labour, despite the pains which are apparently taken to look after the workers’ rights, is perilously close to exploitation.

For at least three-quarters of this book, my disbelief needed to be propped up repeatedly. I’m all for immersing myself in a fictive world, but for that to happen it needs to make sense and be clear. I had to admit that I couldn’t get my head around the city of Earth. This wasn’t because of the fact that it was on tracks, which had to be laboriously lifted from behind it and re-laid in front, nor the fact that it needed to move for mysterious reasons, nor even the fact that there were members of the Futures Guild who scouted out the terrain in front of the city and came home strangely changed – all of that, I had no problem with. I found it hard to imagine because of the fact that they were clearly not alone on this planet. The fact that the inhabitants of Earth were constantly negotiating, dealing and interacting with other humans – people who spoke Spanish and who lived in dirt-poor conditions compared with the relative luxury of the city – kept dragging me out of the world Priest was creating. I didn’t like Helward much, either; he seemed unnecessarily dense, and his attitude towards women (particularly his wife, Victoria) got on my nerves, but perhaps that was the point. Also, the book was a little slow, particularly during the early sections which deal with Helward’s apprenticeship and his education on the tracks – which was, I guess, supposed to mirror his experience – but when we get to the point where Helward starts to put things together, the pace picks up and things get much more enjoyable. I found the end fascinating from an SF point of view, but from a narrative point of view it was a bit rushed and disappointing.

So, all in all, this book was a mixed bag.

Image: users.skynet.be

Image: users.skynet.be

From a science perspective, and a hard SF perspective, this book is a deserved and acknowledged classic. From this reader’s point of view, though, the end is a little too ‘deus ex machina’ and the start too detailed and hard to plough through. If you’re going to read it, all I’ll say is: keep going through the opening sections, because the latter parts are worth it. It’s not a reader-friendly book but it is a marvellous piece of imaginative fiction and the truth behind Earth city (albeit, to my mind, clumsily handled) is intriguing. It’s the sort of ending that makes the whole book which has come before it morph into a different reality in your mind, and I like that.

I’m not much into giving ‘ratings’ for books, but this one would be a 6.5 for readability and an 8 for concept. So, draw your own conclusions!

Earth Alpha – and a Bookish Miracle

Huzzah! Let joy be unconfined! My Bookish Mystery has been solved.

Yesterday evening – as a direct result of my blog appeal for help in tracing a book I knew I’d read as a little girl, but whose author and title I’d long forgotten – I got a message which said: ‘Is this it?’

It was, dear readers. It was.

I think this was even the cover of the edition I read as a kid. Image: found0bjects.blogspot.com

I think this was even the cover of the edition I read as a kid.
Image: found0bjects.blogspot.com

The book is called Marianne Dreams, and the author – who sadly died in 2001 – was Catherine Storr. Embarrassingly, the book now has its own Wikipedia page and everything; if I’d just run another Google search, I probably could have found it myself. I hadn’t actually looked for it for a few years, since long before the age of Wikipedia and the excellent Google that we have now. But no matter.

The book that has haunted me for nearly thirty years has been tracked down.

I found a reissued edition from 2006 which is still in print, and I’ve already ordered it from my favourite bookshop, which also happens to be the place in which I used to work as a bookseller. They’re used to me and my oddnesses there. I cannot wait to have this story in my hands again, and I cannot wait to read it and see whether the terrifying power it had over my brain as a kid is still there.

I am so excited.

I remember this illustration, in particular – it was always the top right-hand window of the house in the drawing that made me quiver inside, and it was this image that convinced me the right book had been found.

Image: gaskella.wordpress.com

Image: gaskella.wordpress.com

That’s the window to the room where Mark – a little boy, not a little girl, as I’d remembered – is being held captive by the power of the standing stones all around. I wasn’t mixing it up with Penelope Lively, after all; there was a stone circle in this book, too. Perhaps there’s hope for my aged memory banks yet.

Anyway. Thank you to everyone who retweeted my appeal and offered suggestions, and I’ll let y’all know in a few weeks whether the book is as good as, or better than, I remembered.

Image: ololbhills.catholic.edu

Image: ololbhills.catholic.edu

It also, in all likelihood, hasn’t escaped your notice that today is Friday. That means – yesirree – it’s Flash! Friday again. This week, the required element to include was ‘Space Travel’, and the prompt image was this fine photograph here:

Bicycle tunnel, double exposure. CC photo by r. nial bradshaw. Image: flashfriday.wordpress.com

Bicycle tunnel, double exposure. CC photo by r. nial bradshaw.
Image: flashfriday.wordpress.com

So, this is what I made of it:

Earth Alpha

Dan didn’t bother hailing; his words just boomed right through my skull, out of nowhere. I adjusted the volume on my CochliCall as he spoke.

‘Nico!’ he said. ‘Where are you?’

‘Oh, hey, Dan. Thanks for yelling.’

‘Shut up, and get over here. It’s happening!’

‘But – this early?’

Dan just tssked, and disconnected.

I had to think fast. Dad – working. Mom, offworld. Dan and me had sworn, as kids, that we’d watch the landing together, and I was going to keep my promise.

But that didn’t solve my immediate problem – transport.

Then, I remembered. Great-great-gramp’s bike!

I skidded to the garage. Dad kept it in good nick, for nostalgia’s sake, but I’d never learned how to operate it. I did my best.

As I rode, I watched the sky. Earth Omega was beautiful, and all, but I couldn’t wait to see Earth Alpha. Our origin planet, long abandoned.

I smiled, pedalling faster. Maybe now, we could finally start going home.


So, that’s where I’m at this Friday morning – dreaming of worlds unknown, some of them made from words. I hope a wonderful day awaits you all.

Wednesday Writing

There didn’t seem to be a Wednesday Write-In today, so I decided to improvise. One random word generator later, and the following words were mine:

Guarantee :: oar :: napkin :: silo :: slippers

Keep reading to find out what I made of ’em.

Image: dreamstime.com

Image: dreamstime.com

The Bearers

It all kicked off the mornin’ Daddy found an intruder in the silo. I knew somethin’ was wrong by the way he came walkin’ out of the barn – he looked like someone had glued his teeth shut, and he was in desperate need to yell.

‘Margaret,’ he said, comin’ up to the kitchen door, and leanin’ in. ‘Get my gun.’ His voice was quiet, which is how I knew he was real mad.

‘Now, Gus,’ said Mama, shufflin’ over to him. Her slippers whispered across the linoleum, and her arms went out like a statue of Ol’ Mary, except her robe wasn’t blue. ‘There ain’t no guarantee -‘

‘I asked for my gun, Margaret,’ said Daddy. ‘If you don’t fetch it for me this minute, I’m gon’ be forced to track through the house with my yard boots on, and there won’t be nothin’ you can say about it.’

‘Daddy, what’s goin’ on?’ I asked, wipin’ my mouth with my fingers as Mama left the room. I always got myself in a buttery mess when Mama made pancakes for a breakfast treat.

‘God’s sake, Lily! Use a paper napkin, or a washcloth, or somethin’,’ snapped Daddy, wrinklin’ his nose at me. ‘You’re raised better’n that.’ I hid my face as Mama came back, carryin’ Daddy’s shotgun. It was open, lyin’ broken over her arm like a freshly killed deer.

‘You can get your own cartridges, Gus Lamping,’ she said, handin’ him the gun. ‘I ain’t goin’ to have nothin’ more to do with this.’ Daddy grunted as he took the weapon from her, which would have to do for ‘thank you,’ I guessed.

‘Daddy! I’ll get your cartridges,’ I said, slidin’ down off my chair. ‘Please?’

‘Lily-Ella Lamping,’ he snapped, not lookin’ at me. ‘This ain’t no thing for a girl to be gettin’ mixed up in.’

‘Aw, please?‘ My heart was slitherin’ down inside me like it was losin’ its grip. ‘Daddy, I wanna see! Is it – is it one of them?‘ Sometimes, I wondered if the disease, and The Bearers who spread it, were nothin’ more than a fairytale Mama and Daddy’d made up, just for me.

‘Whatever’s in that barn is not for your eyes, child,’ said Mama, gatherin’ up her collar and holdin’ herself close. ‘You stay in here, with me.’

‘Yes, Mama,’ I said, watchin’ as Daddy slipped out through the screen door, trudgin’ around to the lean-to. I wasn’t supposed to know where his cartridges were kept, but I did. I imagined him findin’ the box, and rustlin’ around in it while keepin’ one eye trained on outside, and loadin’ the gun without even havin’ to look.

I watched, real careful, as he slammed the door to the lean-to shut. He raised the gun to his eye – judgin’ the distance, I guessed, between the house and the barn, just in case one of them things decided to spring out through the barn door – and then he shook himself, just a little, like a person does when they get cold, suddenly.

‘Jesus Almighty,’ gasped Mama. ‘Lily-Ella, you get away from that window. Right now!’ I blinked, and kept my eyes on Daddy.

He turned to face me, smooth-like and strange, just as a boat that’s lost an oar is likely to. He looked in through the window, and his eyes met mine. The whites of them had turned to red. He settled his grip around the rifle, and poised to aim.

Lily!‘ screamed Mama, runnin’ to me. ‘Get down!

The blast of Daddy’s shotgun and the impact of Mama’s arms came so close together that they were all mixed up in my head. She dragged me down off the chair and we hit the floor in a tangle of limbs.

‘Lily,’ I heard Mama gasp. ‘You gotta run, baby. You gotta run!’

‘Mama, what’s happenin’?’ I could feel her blood, hot and everywhere, spreadin’ across the floor beneath us. Her breath smelled strange. Her eyes were wide, and blue as the dawn.

‘I am your Mama, Lily-Ella,’ she gasped, pink bubbles foamin’. ‘Nobody else. You gotta remember that, baby.’ As her eyes slid closed, Daddy’s shotgun spat one more time, and then there was silence.

Feelin’ like a badly-made doll, all sewn up wrong, I inched my way back to the window. Beyond the broken shards of it, my Daddy’s broken body lay, his own shotgun lyin’ inches from his pale fingers.

The barn door creaked, and my eyes skipped up before I could think better of it.

I saw a man, as like my Daddy as his twin would be, and a woman like my Mama on a good day, wearin’ a dress so pretty that it shone. Her hair was neatly styled, and she was clean – so clean. She smiled with a bright ruby mouth, and opened her arms like they were made for runnin’ into.

‘Come on, Lily-Ella,’ she called, and it was my Mama’s voice only better, shinier, more happy. ‘Come on over here. Mama’s waitin’.’

It was an effort to close my eyes, but I did it.

Mama’s in the kitchen, Daddy’s in the yard, I sang to myself as I slid to my knees and out of sight. I knew that they didn’t need eyes to see me, though – I knew, even through the wall, that they could hear my heart. Feel my blood pumpin’. Hear my breaths, fast and cracklin’. They were comin’.

But they can’t hear my thoughts, I realised. If Mama and Daddy taught me right, and I know they did.

I looked, and saw that Mama’d left the gas stove on, keepin’ warm for the pancakes she’d planned to make for Daddy. I knew, too, that she kept her lighter in the pocket of her housecoat, even though she hadn’t been able to get cigarettes for years – not since the Bearer Invasion, when the world had gone to hell.

I wiped my eyes.

‘Mama!’ I called, getting back to my feet and starin’ out at the creature wearin’ her beloved face. ‘Hey, Mama! I’m here! Come get me!’

It smiled, and I smiled right back, my Mama’s blood still warm upon my skin.





Book Review Saturday – ‘Ender’s Game’

*Takes a deep breath*


Some of what I’m going to say here in this review may offend die-hard Orson Scott Card fans, and it may even cause some of you to think I don’t deserve the right to call myself an SF fan. However, I’m not going to sugar-coat my opinion. I know that ‘Ender’s Game’ evokes huge devotion among some of its readers, and that dissenters often face scorn, but heck – this is my blog, and I’ll say what I like.

I did not enjoy ‘Ender’s Game.’ I’m sorry, but there it is.

Image: sarahsaysread.com

Image: sarahsaysread.com

Note that I used the word ‘enjoy’. I didn’t enjoy the book, that’s true – but I do appreciate it for what it is, for what it’s trying to do, and for some of the things it anticipated about the world, particularly in terms of computing and the internet. I didn’t enjoy its brutality, its coldness, the writing style employed by its author and the – to my mind – disturbing lack of connection between the characters, and the lack of humanity in a book which takes the idea of ‘what is humanity?’ as a central concern.

‘Ender’s Game’ was a strange book, for me, insofar as I really thought the idea behind it was brilliant, and so much of what I was reading intrigued me. However, there was so much about it that I just couldn’t get on board with – no matter what the author himself says in his ‘Introduction’ to my edition (people who don’t ‘believe’ the way he’s written the children in this book simply have no idea how gifted children behave and act and think, apparently) – that it failed, for me, as a story.

Ender (Andrew) Wiggin lives with his parents and siblings – an older brother Peter and an older sister Valentine – and, as the story opens, we learn that he is being monitored via a machine in the back of his neck, and that – at six – it has been in place for a long time, longer than either of his siblings had theirs. His brother had his removed at five, and his sister at three. Ender, then, is special. For his brother, this is a cause for violent, jealous anger and for his sister it is a source of concern; Ender is a ‘Third’, a child who was born after his parents sought, and received, special permission to conceive and carry him. Thirds are not supposed to be gifted, or talented, or special. Yet Ender is.

The world in which they live exists in the aftermath of a massive invasion of alien enemies, the first of which happened some seventy years in the past, and the people of Ender’s world – a future version of Earth – are waiting for the next wave of attack from these aliens, called ‘buggers’. They are preparing to repel them, and have been working on ways to fight them for generations. Ender’s monitor – which all children have to wear, until the powers that be are satisfied that they have learned enough about the child and how he or she thinks, feels and acts – is designed to spot future battle commanders, children with the potential to be great fighters. Ender is taken from his family by a colonel from the International Fleet, or I.F., and brought to Battle School in order to learn how to kill the ‘buggers’.

So far, so good.

Ender in his flash suit, from the movie 'Ender's Game'. Image: blog.zap2it.com

Ender in his flash suit, from the movie ‘Ender’s Game’.
Image: blog.zap2it.com

The book then begins to take us through Ender’s training, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I found a lot of it impossible to imagine. I haven’t yet seen the film of ‘Ender’s Game’, but I’d certainly like to, if for nothing else than to see how a film director imagined the battle room, and the simulations of warfare, and the ‘flash suits’ the boys have to wear (for, despite the fact that girls are technically ‘allowed’ to train at Battle School, very few of them make it in due to their naturally peaceful and conciliatory inclinations – imagine me rolling my eyes here, if you like.) I did enjoy reading about how Ender gets to grips with null gravity, and how he works out a better method of attack than was previously used, one which leaves the body of the fighter at less risk of being shot by enemy fire, but really I got tired of the repetitive training sequences after a while. I’ve read many books about interstellar warfare, and I have a good imagination, but Mr. Card’s descriptions were beyond me.

Alongside Ender’s amazing military and tactical ability – bear in mind, of course, that he is six years old, turning seven and eight as he progresses through the ranks – his sister and brother are, back on Earth, turning themselves into political orators in an effort to overthrow governmental control and establish themselves as powerful players in world politics. They take the screen names ‘Demosthenes’ (Valentine) and ‘Locke’ (Peter), and soon become widely known, and their writings avidly read. They are barely teenagers, something which Valentine keeps mentioning (even, weirdly, noting that she has not yet started menstruating, so how can she possibly write a weekly column for a major newsnet, which I found disturbing. Why would any twelve-year-old girl say such a thing?) I really enjoyed how Card anticipated things like blogging and anonymous internet users exercising huge power over thought processes and web culture, years before anything like it existed in reality, but again it all seemed so unreal, unbelievable and ridiculous to imagine two pre-teens doing all this that I couldn’t really lose myself in the story. Ender, Valentine and Peter’s parents are so unimportant in this book that I really don’t see what would have been lost by aging them all ten years – they’d still have been remarkably young to be so intelligent and accomplished, and it would have seemed a little more believable to the reader.

So, the story progresses in a rather predictable way – the ending didn’t take me by surprise at all, though that’s not to say it wouldn’t have been a shock ending to its original readers, back in the 1980s – and we follow Ender’s story and that of his siblings to their adulthood, and a spark of hope for the future is planted. Or, at least, the kick-off point for this book’s stack of sequels, if you’d rather be cynical about it. I thought the concept behind the ‘buggers’ was interesting, and I was sorry that more wasn’t said about it (though, of course, I haven’t read the sequels yet), and I worried a little about where this book stood on the question of ‘gung-ho’ humanity, destroying everything around it just because it can.

I’m not sorry I read ‘Ender’s Game.’ It’s a classic, a Hugo- and Nebula-award winning book, and I didn’t really feel I’d earned my stripes as a reader of SF without having had a crack at it. However, part of me wonders why it is so successful. The children – no matter how gifted or brilliant they are – act and speak and think like middle-aged men, and I just couldn’t buy that; there is no character development; everyone, even Ender, reads like a flat cardboard cut-out, despite the fact that Card’s book tackles huge questions like the morality of war, and the idea that ‘might is right’, and the philosophical struggles inherent in everyone’s maturation process. However, all this depth, all this thinking, all this layering, is done in huge paragraphs of exposition and explanation, instead of through dialogue between characters or something that could’ve helped a reader get a handle on the people in this novel, and that left me cold. I was completely indifferent to Ender’s fate, and even though I warmed to Valentine (who is shown as having a heart and who loves her brother deeply – the very ‘weakness’ that marked her out as unsuitable for Battle School), and I liked Ender’s friend Alai, a non-white character who is shown, through his (rather stereotypical) speech to be religious, I couldn’t have cared less about anyone else.

The book struck me as racist, and sexist, and strange (lots of scenes take place where the children, for no good reason, are naked); it was coldly intellectual and – in my opinion – not the sort of book I’d have read with enjoyment as a teenager. The concepts, the science, the military strategy, and the setting are all top-notch, but the writing just didn’t do it for me. I accept its place in the canon of SF masterworks, but I reserve the right to dislike it, and so it goes.

Read some Robert Heinlein or Philip K. Dick or even Ursula Le Guin instead, is my advice.

Wednesday Write-In #64

This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet‘s Wednesday Write-In were:

handful  ::  deadline  ::  birdsong  ::  headache  ::  resonate


Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com


The Dead Line

‘There’s only a handful of them left, now,’ said Winter, her voice obscured a little by the hiss from her oxygen mask. ‘We call them the ‘deadline,’ but that’s just a joke, really.’ She entered her access code into the security lock, the anonymous beepbeepbeep sounding loud and out of control in this dark, hermetic space.

‘Because they’re dead, technically,’ replied Stanhope. ‘I get it. Funny.’

‘Not really,’ she replied, looking back over her shoulder to smile at him. ‘But thanks for saying so.’ He shrugged, flashing her a grin, as the airlock whirred open to admit them. They stepped through, Stanhope doing his best not to stare into the vast chamber beyond. Be cool, he told himself. All in good time. Quickly, they got into their protective suits, making sure every joint and seal was secure. Stanhope took a few breaths inside his helmet and flexed his gloved fingers.

‘Okay. So, do you feel all right? Enough air?’ Her voice jolted him out of his thoughts.

‘Oh – yeah. Sure.’ He adjusted his heads-up readout, trying to look competent and calm.

‘If you start to get a headache, or anything, you tell me straight away, right? That can be a really bad sign, particularly in here.’

‘Sure, sure. I’m fine, honestly.’ He turned to face her, swallowing back a sudden sense of nausea. ‘I’m just excited, I guess. Honoured to be here.’ Her only reply was another smile, and Stanhope shuddered away a stab of guilt.

Then, a green light flashed above their heads.

‘Airlock’s done,’ said Winter, strengthening her stance. She shook out her shoulders and rolled her head around. ‘Won’t be long, now.’

‘Sure,’ he said. A trickle of cold sweat, like the finger of a corpse, ran down the centre of his back.

Then, the door opened, and they were sucked through.

All Stanhope could see were stars, at first, stars everywhere, jostling for space, whirling and roaring and sweeping past his head. They grew, changed colour, changed shape as he watched, dragging tendrils of burning light across his retinas.

‘It’s not going to hurt you!’ he heard Winter yelling, from ten million light years away. ‘Just breathe easy, and go with it.’ Right, he thought. Go with the flow. He gritted his teeth as the lightshow faded out and oceans of world-bending sound started to pound through his ears.  His head felt like a metal bowl, resonating and echoing with the weird screams and trills that were coming from somewhere deep inside this gigantic cavern, where the ancient gods were.

Then, he heard something that sounded like birdsong – except no bird in creation ever sounded like this. The sound was so full and rapid and loud that he felt his brain start to cave in as he listened.

‘What’s going on?’ he called, forcing his eyes open. His heads-up display showed his vitals, which were elevated, and the ambient temperature, which was dropping faster than he could believe. ‘Winter? You there?’

‘The gods are singing,’ she said, her voice like a rush of cold air across the surface of a glacier.

‘Singing? What are you talking about?’ He felt a clutching pain in his chest, like a vacuum grabbing at his heart.

‘Do you know why they call us the Dead Line?’ said Winter, in a voice that was not hers.

‘W-Winter? What’s happening?’ Stanhope coughed, a bubbling agony working its way up his body. He coughed again, and a mouthful of his hot blood spattered across his heads-up display. He moaned, knowing it was already too late.

‘Do you know why they call us the Dead Line?’ repeated Winter – or, the thing using her voice.

‘Please!’ Stanhope gasped. ‘Spare me!’

‘You came here with a device inside your body,’ replied a voice that sounded like ten million Winters, all speaking at once. ‘A device you wished to use to kill us. Why should we spare you?’

‘I was wrong. I – I am sorry. Please.’ Stanhope’s vision was darkening. ‘I was following orders – doing the work of those who believe you should be destroyed. We –‘ Stanhope gasped as a wracking pain twisted him in half. ‘We no longer need gods!’ He tasted his own blood on his tongue as he spoke.

‘No man needs us now more than you do,’ said the gods.

‘Yes,’ said Stanhope, and died.

‘Do you know why they call us the Dead Line?’ the gods asked, but there was nobody to answer them, so they answered themselves.

Because our bodies are dead, and nothing lies beyond us.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Interworld’

I’m in two minds regarding this week’s book review post. I want to love the book – and, on some levels, I do – but on so many other levels, it left me shrugging my shoulders in a serious case of the ‘So Whats?’

Image: booktopia.com.au

Image: booktopia.com.au

Yes, astute reader – that is the name Neil Gaiman adorning the cover. Can you imagine the horror of a Neil Gaiman book which I am in two minds about loving? It’s almost like being ripped in half by wild horses.

By ‘almost’, of course I mean ‘not at all.’ It’s not at all like being ripped in half by wild horses. But it’s painful enough, let me tell you.

My pain is assuaged a little, however, by the fact that this book isn’t really a Neil Gaiman book. The story came from an idea that he helped to cook up, but the book itself was mostly written by Michael Reaves, a man with an extraordinary list of writing achievements to his name. Perhaps this book suffered a little from weight of expectation, then; from two people as insanely talented as this, perhaps I expected more.

This isn’t to say there’s nothing to enjoy about the book. For a start, I loved the premise of the story. We’re introduced to a teenage boy named Joseph Harker who is a little like me in terms of his sense of direction; in other words, he doesn’t have one. He begins his story by telling us that once, he managed to get lost inside his own house. I warmed to him straight away, and in fact the voice throughout this book (that of Joey himself) is a lovely, easygoing, fun and engaging one. On a class activity with two of his fellow students – one a bullish boy who has a grudge against Joey, and the other a beautiful girl named Rowena on whom Joey has a crush – he manages to get lost again, but this time it has serious consequences. He walks into a cloud of mist and becomes disoriented, and when he manages to find his way back he realises he is in a world which looks, on the surface, a lot like his own Earth – but it’s not. He has the jarring and horrible experience of returning to his ‘home’, which looks similar to his own house from the outside, but instead of his own family he meets a woman who resembles his mother but who doesn’t know who he is, and a girl who looks a lot like him.

He realises, eventually, that he is in an alternate reality; this is a world like his own, but not exactly.

Desperate to escape the frightening creatures which are now pursuing him, Joey runs from world to world, trying to find out how to get home. He encounters another world in which everything is the same as his own, except in it he is supposed to be dead, and in the course of recovering from this shock he is intercepted by a strangely bewitching woman and her two grotesque sidekicks. They bring him on board a ship, beautifully named the Lacrimae Mundi (Tears of the World), and whisk him off to realms unknown. However, Joey is being followed – but is it by friend or foe?

The single greatest strength in this book is its use of multiple worlds, each of which have a version of Joey living in them. The story is essentially the adventures of all the Joeys. We meet Jay, Jai, J/O, Jakon, Jerzy, Josef, and Jo, of all genders and races, all of whom are their own world’s incarnation of ‘Joseph Harker.’ All of them are Walkers, or people with the ability to travel between worlds, and all of them are highly prized by Interworld, the organisation dedicated to protecting the Altiverse (all possible versions of Earth) from being taken over by either the Binary or HEX. The Binary is a completely technological version of earth, and HEX is a completely magical one, but both of them are totalitarian in their outlook. They would overthrow the harmony of the Altiverse if allowed to take control of all the worlds, most of which function using a mix of technology and magic. With the help of the ‘other’ Joeys, all of whom have their own individual talents and strengths, and a wonderful character named Hue about which I’ll say no more, the Walkers attempt to save the universe. All of this is great, and I loved it.

Where the book is weaker is in terms of plot. There are several teeth-grindingly irritating coincidences in the book, especially at the end when Joey faces down Lady Indigo, the great villain, and the whole book is a little quick and simplistic. Some other reviewers have said they really admired a scene in the middle of the book when Joey and his mother have a heart-to-heart about him going away and straight into danger, but it annoyed me. It’s wonderfully written, and very heartfelt, but I just didn’t think it was believable. We have a mother whose fifteen year old son is telling her he will never see her again, giving away his possessions to his sister, and preparing to leave forever – but she says she can’t stand in his way because she trusts him to do what’s right?

Well. Maybe. I just know what my mother would’ve done if I’d tried pulling that at fifteen, and it wouldn’t be to wave me off in the middle of the night (without even waking my father up to say goodbye to me, incidentally), shedding a few tears and giving me a going-away present. Something about the scene just didn’t seem real to me, and I have to admit it did affect my enjoyment of the rest of the book.

The book is a quick read, and it is enjoyable. However, I did not love it. I will probably check out the sequel, ‘Silver Dreams’, which has just been published, though, so, I guess that’s an endorsement of sorts. That said, I feel that ‘Interworld’ could have been more. It seemed underdeveloped and sketchy – but then I guess that’s what sequels are for. Right?

Uh-huh. Whatever you say, hombre. Image: angelfire.com

Uh-huh. Whatever you say, hombre.
Image: angelfire.com

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.

Wednesday Write-In #61

This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet‘s Wednesday Write-In challenge were:

menthol  ::  blind date  ::  fried  ::  secret  ::  chit-chat

Image: youtube.com

Image: youtube.com

Engine Trouble

Luggy was chewin’ so hard on his lower lip, I thought it was gonna bust open like an overdone sausage.

‘Ain’t no good. It’s fried, all of it. The whole dang thing.’ He slammed his wrench down on the ground and it sent up a good ol’ clang. Barely missed my boot, too.

‘Hey! You wanna take a little care with that thing?’ I threw my eyes aroun’, checkin’ for any whiff of Ol’ Garth, heart as black as his teeth and breath stinkin’ of that menthol-stuff he chews to try to mask his graveyard breath. We was clear, though. No sign.

‘We can’t keep this secret no more,’ muttered Luggy. His hand left a damp echo on the cold metal. A tremor was runnin’ all through him, like someone’d screwed a wire into the soles of his feet. ‘Garth needs to know what we’ve been doin’.’

‘You know what that’d mean, Luggy,’ I said, leanin’ in close. ‘They’d shovel our behinds rock-side without even givin’ us time to pack.’ I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed, just hard enough to make my point. ‘I don’t know ‘bout you, but I sure as hell don’t wanna spend the rest of my life -’

‘If this thing blows, we won’t have a rest of our life to worry about!’ Luggy’s words came out all strained, bustin’ their way out between his teeth like ribbons of razor wire.

‘Well, well!’ The sing-song voice smashed its way into our ears before I’d even had a chance to think about what Luggy’d said. ‘What’s this? You boys enjoyin’ a little chit-chat, here on your lonesomes?’ I turned to see Prentis, that damned treacle-headed good for nothin’, hustlin’ his way down the corridor toward us. A gush of cooler air made the skin on my arms pickle, and I knew Luggy was makin’ a move. I let him hide behind me as he did whatever was needful. There was plenty of room back there.

‘What you lookin’ for, Prentis?’ My voice sounded, even to me, like one o’ them guns with a spike on top. ‘Ain’t nothin’ down here. Me an’ Luggy here, we was just fixin’ up this engine patch, is all.’

‘Havin’ a little blind date, it seems to me,’ sang Prentis, his eyebrows dancin’. I wanted to tear ‘em off his face. ‘A little one-on-one. You know what the guys upstairs is sayin’ about you, don’t ya? Come on, now.’ I watched him laughin’, rockin’ back and forth in his fancy leather boots. Rest of us worked the shine out of ours, but not ol’ Prentis.

‘We was just on our way back up,’ I said, my voice full of clenched fists. ‘We was gon’ have a talk with Mr. Garth, ‘bout somethin’ important. So, if you’d kindly let us be gettin’ on with that -‘ He held up his hands and stopped my words in their tracks like he was Moses holdin’ back the waters.

‘Not so fast, now. How long you boys think I’ve been standin’ here?’ He was a walkin’ oil slick, this one. Dark and sticky, and hard to get out of. ‘I know all about your tinkerin’ with the engines. Tryin’ to get into Garth’s good books? Or do you guys got somethin’ in particular you need to get home for?’ I could hear Luggy breathin’ hard right behind me, and I knew his mind was on a planet we hadn’t seen for best of eight years. He’d a baby girl he’d never seen; she’d be grown and gone before he made it back, if this dyin’ ol’ engine wasn’t given a helpin’ hand. We thought we’d found a way to boost it, and it had worked – for a while.

But I said nothin’, and Luggy said less.

‘So it’s like that,’ murmured Prentis. ‘Scratchin’ one another’s backs, as usual.’ He heaved in a big ol’ sigh, like we were disobedient children and he our patient Papa. ‘Well, frankly, I ain’t got no choice but to tell Mr. Garth. I’m sure he won’t be pleased at the damage done to his property, but maybe, if I plead your case, he’ll let you stay on board.’ He got a grin then, looked just like an axe had smashed a hole in his face. ‘Maybe.’

I didn’t move a muscle when I felt Luggy’s cold fingers on my arm. Hopin’ I’d read his intentions right, I just moved to one side, givin’ him enough swingin’ room.

The wrench fell like the hand of God, and split Prentis’ face right in two. He dropped, and said no more.

‘Best get him put away before someone comes lookin’ for him,’ murmured Luggy, as Prentis started to drip. ‘Dangerous place, an engine room. Someone like him, no knowledge ‘bout what he’s doin’, shouldn’t even be down here.’

‘Ain’t that the truth,’ I said, bending to pick up the leg of the former Prentis. Luggy grabbed his arms. Those shiny boots caught my eye one last time as we found a quiet stairway to throw him down, but I left ‘em where they was. Not even I’d deny a man the right to die with his boots on.

Funny, I thought later: for a fella who talked so much, ol’ Prentis weighed less than a whisper, and he went down into the dark without a word.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Quantum Drop’

Just before we begin, a little note to update you all on my publications: yesterday, I learned one of my stories, ‘Hello Kitty,’ placed third in a competition judged by William Nicholson, who is – among other things – the screenwriter of  the award-winning movie ‘Gladiator’. You can check it out here! And now – back to our regular programming.

This week’s book review will focus on Saci Lloyd’s action-packed thriller, ‘Quantum Drop.’

Image: hachettechildrens.co.uk

Image: hachettechildrens.co.uk

A short, fast-paced novel, ‘Quantum Drop’ introduces us to a young man who goes by the name Anthony Griffin. Early in the novel he tells us that this is not his real name – he’s chosen it in order to tell his story, but he can’t tell us who he really is. Anthony lives in the Debtbelt, a place which sounds a lot like a rundown suburb of a large city, perhaps London, with his mother and younger sister Stella. Stella is eleven, highly intelligent, an expert on crow behaviour and a person with Asperger’s, and I loved her – she’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in a long time. Anthony’s father is absent, but we learn a little about what happened to him as the book progresses, and we discover that Anthony finds it very difficult. His grandfather – who appears to be his paternal grandfather – is still a huge part of his life and gives him guidance, even if sometimes he chooses not to listen to it.

There is a group of people in Anthony’s world known as the ‘Bettas’, who appear to be like a gang; they have initiations, they are involved in crime, they are significantly better off financially than the other people who scratch out a living in the Debtbelt, and they are – on the whole – bad news. Anthony’s best friend is Ali, who has become wrapped up in the Bettas, for what he says are economic reasons. His loyalty appears to remain with Anthony, but the fact remains that Ali is a Betta – perhaps the word rhymes with ‘Better’ – and this causes conflict between the boys.

The existence of the Bettas, and the grinding reality of the Debtbelt, are not the only notable things about Anthony’s world. There also exists something called the Drop, into which certain people can connect themselves through their handheld computers (I imagined them like smartphones, but with far more capability); skilled users can make their living through manipulating the Drop, and Anthony’s friend Lola does just this. Another person who was an adept at using the Drop was Anthony’s girlfriend Tais; at the book’s outset, however, we learn that she has been grievously wounded, and that she is in a coma in hospital. Anthony’s grief and rage at this terrible situation blight the rest of his life – he flunks out of his school exams, and seems to be heading down a difficult road. Then, he is approached by a mysterious figure known only as ‘the Teller’, who seems to know the truth about what happened to Tais…

The book moves quickly through the reality of Anthony’s world: he finds out that there is a connection between the Bettas and Tais, and he enlists the help of his friends to get him into the Drop to get to the bottom of it. Anthony is not as skilled at using the Drop as his friends are, and this leaves him at a disadvantage – as well, of course, as endangering everyone else. Lloyd creates a disturbingly real and believable connection between Tais’ fate and the realities of ‘big banking’, economic collapse and massive scale financial fraud as we know them in our world – the scenarios she describes are cleverly constructed and extremely easy to picture. What is not so easy to picture, however, is pretty much everything else in the novel.

I am all for books dropping the reader straight into the heart of the action. I love stories that begin ‘in medias res’, and I love to be thrown into a story, having to figure out things as I go. I have no problem with trying to work out terminology, concepts, and the ‘technology’ of a fictional world, like a detective putting clues together. I love that challenge, being truthful. However, in order to do this effectively, a reader needs something upon which to base their imaginings. The Drop (i.e. the ‘Quantum Drop’ of the book’s title) is never properly explained, or described – it seems to be like a ‘virtual reality’, or a Second Life type scenario, where people exist in ‘reality’, wearing headsets which connect them to a second existence inside a computer. Inside the program, they can change their appearance, even creating a whole new identity for themselves which can fool everyone but the most adept of users. Injuries they suffer in the  Drop appear on their physical bodies; if they die in the Drop, we’re led to believe they die in reality, too. Dodgy dealings are done in the Drop, and users who get involved with crime – helping criminals hide their ill-gotten gains, and so on – are the ones who earn the most money from it.

I have to be honest, though, and say that I found the Drop really hard to envision. My mind kept going to The Matrix, and how the characters in that movie ‘jack in’ to the other reality in which they live, one that can be controlled and affected by skilled programmers. I guess this was the idea Saci Lloyd was aiming for – but I think the Matrix did it a bit better. In that story, at least, there was a solid reason for the existence of the Matrix: in ‘Quantum Drop’, it’s just there. We don’t know why, or what it’s used for besides crime. It’s not properly described, and there’s no payoff for the reader in expending all their mental energy trying to imagine it. We don’t get to find out whether what we’ve imagined is ‘right’. I found that frustrating.

Image: ign.com

Neo (Keanu Reeves) loading himself into the system. Image: ign.com

Having said all that, the plot is tight and fast and exciting, and the mystery at the heart of Tais’ fate is gripping. The characterisation is excellent throughout – each character is unique and distinct, and they are all interesting. I found myself emotionally invested in the story and interested to see how it would resolve; I particularly loved Stella’s role in the final showdown. My favourite aspect of ‘Quantum Drop’, however, is the thing which made me buy the book in the first place – the voice. Anthony Griffin’s voice is excellent. Lloyd has created a fantastic character in her protagonist, and I loved having him as a guide through the confusing and strange world in which he lives. The characters were more rewarding and ‘real’ than the world, I thought, but I really cared about Anthony and his family and friends, and their story was great even if the setting was sketchy and hard to envision. Saci Lloyd’s writing is poetic and imaginative, and she definitely spares no blushes in her handling of the harsher realities of life.

I would recommend this book, but I do think it would have benefited from slightly more clarity, and a little more in the way of concrete detail regarding the eponymous ‘Drop’. Besides that, it’s a great, fast-paced read.

Happy Saturn’s Day, my loves. Go! Read!

Book Review Post – ‘Robopocalypse’

It’s that time of the week again. Monocles and glasses of sherry at the ready, dears – we’re about to turn into critics once again.

This week, it’s the turn of Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘Robopocalypse.’ For your viewing pleasure, I have provided a cover image. Voila:

Image: scifiward.com

Image: scifiward.com

This is a book which screamed out to me from the shelf. It practically sat up and begged me to bring it home. Everything about it, from the slick, SF cover image to the back cover blurb to the opening few paragraphs yelled ‘I am the one! The book you’ve been searching for!’ So, of course, I bought it.


This is the kind of book you read with a fevered pulse hopping in your throat, one in which you genuinely don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next. The beginning of the novel sets up the end, so you do have an overall idea of the story arc, but from chapter to chapter (or section to section, maybe), the story could literally go anywhere. And it does. The book is written like a report compiled after a major disaster, with every section bookended with a short explanatory note from a character called Cormac Wallace, whose story we follow throughout. Each chapter, then, is written in a different voice – some of them are written like interviews, others as interrogations, some as reconstructions built from CCTV footage or tapped phone lines. The most moving, I thought, was a chapter written as a series of increasingly desperate letters from a husband to his wife, letters he knew she’d never receive, and in which he describes how he and his men have been tricked into a situation that will lead to their destruction. Each voice has a vital role to play in the story the novel builds – that of the creation of a super-powerful artificial intelligence named Archos, and Archos’ efforts to destroy humanity.

Now, anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a bit of a robo-sceptic. I worry, a lot, about humanity’s reliance on technology and machines, and (perhaps it’s because I watched ‘Terminator’ at an impressionable age) I fear the increasing involvement of computers in the everyday life of humans. Others hail the invention of things like the ‘robotic car’, which is programmed to drive itself, as a major scientific breakthrough; I, however, am a doomsayer. All I can think is ‘well, that’s all fine, I guess, until the computer decides to throw a wobbler and drive you straight into a wall, or over a bridge, or whatever.’ I once heard it said that George Orwell imagined the Big Brother society of his ‘1984’ as a totalitarian, oppressive regime forced upon humanity, and he’d spit on the lot of us if he knew we’d actually handed over our lives to the all-seeing, all-knowing eye of technology for the sake of a quiet, convenient life. Every time we make a purchase with a credit card, or use a ‘value card’ to collect points on our shopping, or log into Facebook, or write a blog post (ironic, moi?), or whatever the case may be, we’re feeding the machine.

So, this book was written to appeal to people like me, on some levels.

Archos’ tactics are simple – to hack into every possible machine, to make human life impossible in a million tiny (and some rather large) ways, and to eventually drive the species to extinction. The reasons the machine gives for wanting to do this centre on the idea of biodiversity – Archos believes humanity is killing the rest of the planet, and it wants to take the simplest route possible to fix the problem, which is destroying Homo Sapiens. A drastic tactic, but if you look at it from the point of view of a machine, perhaps an understandable one. As well as this, Archos sees itself as the pinnacle of evolution – humanity developed in order to build it, and once it came into the fullness of its power, there was no more need for humanity. Logical, but cold. As an antagonist, you pretty much can’t beat a computer hellbent on the destruction of humanity. Archos is a great antagonist.

There’s a lot to like about this book besides its central concept – its structure and narrative voice(s) were so refreshing to read, and kept me constantly primed for newness, eager to keep reading; it had some fabulous characters, not least of which was Cormac Wallace himself. My favourite character, however, was Mr. Nomura, an elderly Japanese man who is in love with a robot named Mikiko. She (as a result of Archos) turns on him and almost kills him, but he disables her power supply and leaves her inert until he can find a way to power her back up again without Archos being able to control her. Their story is wonderful, and the actions Mr. Nomura and Mikiko take in the overall story are admirable and courageous. I also really liked the character of Lurker, who starts off as a small-time hacker with big ideas, and who ends up being central to the human resistance, almost against his own will. The technology, and the development of robots designed solely to kill humans in the most horrendously efficient of ways, was amazing. I found myself believing every word, seeing the scenes playing out in my head as I read – the writing is strong, and real, and the dialogue sparkling. It’s an easy book to get drawn into.

There were a few things that I wasn’t as keen on, however. One of these is the fact that a lot of the main human characters are related to one another – a heroic army officer turns out to be the son of a heroic police officer, and both are central to the war; a brave Congresswoman turns out to be the mother of a young girl whose ability to sense the machines is vital to the human war effort – and this got a bit grating after a while. I was also a bit put off by the gung-hoism that went on, including the retreat to a Native American community in the hope that the machines wouldn’t be able to encroach into the wilderness, to make humanity’s valiant last stand. I thought that was a bit clichéd, despite making good tactical sense. I just wish the author had done something slightly less predictable.

However, those are tiny gripes. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Robopocalypse’, and it’s one I’d recommend if you have any interest in SF, or robotics (the author has a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, fact fans), or indeed how to construct a book and create malice that oozes off the page.

Still though. You have to think of Orwell.

I'm WATCHING you.... Image: forward.com

I’m WATCHING you….
Image: forward.com