Book review: At the Speed of Light, by Simon Morden

6 08 2017

Simon Morden is a British SF writer whose ‘Metrozone’ series of novels, set in post-apocalyptic London, has won the Philip K Dick Award.


In the novella At the Speed of Light, much of the action takes place on a rogue exploration vessel crewed by an AI known as Corbyn, whose ship matches pace with a derelict. The book starts, however, with an entity, also identified as Corbyn, finding itself newly awakened in a rudimentary homunculus on what appears to be a spaceship, with a set of ultimately-unachievable instructions to follow. It then segues to a mental-health consulation between a client, also named Corbyn, and a psychiatrist Wu Yu, which doesn’t end very well. If this sounds somewhat confusing, there’s probably a reason for this. I should say that the story does settle down after that, and the introductory material does ultimately become integrated with the story.

At the Speed of Light is presented more-or-less as a classic SF puzzle story, and there’s a lot of problem-solving embedded within it, to do with trajectories, motives, and material resource limitations. While the story’s central conundrum is, in itself, intrinsically interesting, there is perhaps a little too much priority assigned to respect for the laws of physics, and not enough to the requirements of narrative fiction: the prose, while admirably clear (it is, after all, an AI who, for the most part, is serving as a viewpoint character), does read rather stolidly in patches. This isn’t helped, either, by the sheer solitude of much of the story: though contact is established between Corbyn and the derelict, it’s a rather pallid transaction, with no real heat or spark to the exchanges. That said, the story does achieve what I assess it sets out to do, which is to craft a solid work of old-style SF with some overall poignancy and mystery, and readers who maintain an ongoing interest in that subgenre should find the story worthwhile.

Book review: Thunderbird, by Jack McDevitt

26 07 2017

Jack McDevitt is an American SF writer who excels at big-picture SF with an updated ‘Golden Age’ vibe to it. He’s been shortlisted for numerous SF awards, and won the Nebula with his novel Seeker.


Thunderbird (2015) is a followup to a much earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996). While this second instalment can be read as a standalone, it makes considerably more sense to read Ancient Shores first. Both books deal with the discovery, on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota, of a functioning stargate, believed to be over ten thousand years old, permitting instantaneous travel to a few destinations at interstellar distances from Earth.

Thunderbird follows Sioux chairman James Walker, scientist Dr April Cannon, and radio show host Brad Hollister as they grapple with the best way to manage the Roundhouse’s disruptive new technology. There’s a network of stargates to explore, all with potential hazards (and the knowledge that, in all possibility, the device’s designers are still out there somewhere), met by a lot of political pressure to shut the site down. For every person who sees the Roundhouse as something akin to Aladdin’s lamp, there’s another who considers it to be Pandora’s box … in both cases, a device whose opening is legendarily difficult to undo.

There’s a less focussed feel to Thunderbird than there was to Ancient Shores. The second book has a more episodic feel to it, and though an overall story arc does eventually emerge, it takes its own sweet time to do so. The story’s telling is interesting enough—McDevitt doesn’t do dull—but I couldn’t help but think it’s a somewhat anticlimactic and scattered tale compared to the first book, an impression not helped by the prosaic pastorality of Eden, the planet whose exploration forms much of the book’s offworld narrative drive. Parallels can be drawn here with Fred Pohl’s excellent Gateway (another novel detailing the discovery of a magical-science transportation system permitting fast interstellar travel) and its disappointing sequels, or with Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (again, a novel of transportation by magical science, with attendant disappointing sequels). Perhaps, closer to home, one might recall McDevitt’s own copybook-blotting in his explanation for the enduring mystery of the malevolent ‘omega clouds’ first introduced in The Engines of God, wherein they are symbolic of the Universe’s deadly and incomprehensible nature, and then subsequently relegated to a still-dangerous but largely unsatisfying gimmick three books later. Thunderbird does cohere to a reasonable degree, and it gets to where it needs to, but it leaves me more strongly convinced than ever that, where a SF author has somehow hit upon the ideal way in which to build a novel around human discovery of ostensibly abandoned, magically-advanced alien tech (as Pohl did with Gateway and as McDevitt did with Ancient Shores), then he or she should make sure to never attempt a sequel of that work, since the revisitation will inevitably diminish the first book’s unfathomable mystery and sense-of-wonder. [There may well be exceptions to this rule—Alastair Reynolds’ Revolution Space series springs to mind—but I don’t think there’d be many.]

Thunderbird is not a bad book, by any stretch—it conveys McDevitt’s trademark sense of intriguing possibilities necessarily left unexplored, it even manages to be distinctly thought-provoking in several places, and McDevitt always knows how to craft a resonant ending—but it cannot help but seem slightly pale set against its predecessor.

Book review: Lotus Blue, by Cat Sparks

21 07 2017

Cat Sparks is an Australian speculative fiction writer, editor, graphic designer and publisher whose short fiction has won numerous Aurealis and Ditmar awards, and whose Agog! anthologies (as editor and publisher) remain an important representation of Australian specfic writing of the previous decade. Lotus Blue is her debut novel.


Star is a seventeen-year-old orphan travelling the Sand Road with her older sister, medic Nene, on the motorised caravan of Benhadeer. It’s a trek they’ve done often enough before, trading at the various settlements they pass through, but the journey this time takes an unexpected turn when an Angel—an old-tech combat satellite—crashes to earth not far from their route. The satellite’s re-entry is not in itself exceptional, there are thought to be hundreds of such Angels remaining in orbit, and they do occasionally fall through accident or misadventure, but a cascade of such events and the onset of some truly apocalyptic weather—semiautonomous ‘polyp storms’ which shred pretty much everything in their path—signals that something disturbing and potentially catastrophic is underfoot. There are rumours that a Lotus Blue, an ancient war machine of legendarily overwhelming power, has awoken somewhere out beyond the Obsidian Sea, beneath the desert sands of the Dead Red Heart.

Sparks’ vision of a far-future Australia ravaged by long-past global wars and by ongoing environmental degredation is a grim but surprisingly colourful exercise in post-apocalyptic fiction. The caravan’s bustle and the impressive detail in Sparks’ worldbuilding is captured in muscular prose that pulses from one confrontation or crisis to the next. This is a world in which Sparks has been writing for at least the past decade (there are several of her short stories published over that span which clearly reference the tech and the future geography on display here), and it shows—there’s an assuredness to the descriptions of place, lifestyle, and attitude that greatly promotes suspension of disbelief. It helps, too, that so many of the characters are sufficiently complex to encourage reader engagement and immersion.

I’m not particularly well-read in post-apocalyptic fiction, so there are almost certainly closer subgenre references that I’m missing, but it seems to me that, despite the numerous SF trappings, Lotus Blue hews closer in structure to orthodox quest fantasy than to straightforward SF. (I have difficulty, too, in reconciling some of the more out-there props, such as the polyp storm, with SF credibility, but the whole thing moves along so swiftly that such concerns don’t really derail it.) The book has an endearingly busy grittiness to it, rather similar in tone, structure, and degree of detail to Richard Morgan’s fantasy work, though Sparks’ characters are distinctly less potty-mouthed than are Morgan’s.

Overall, it’s an inventive and kinetic piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, with the first half in particular dazzling in its scope and variety. In the second half, the winnowing of viewpoint characters accelerates the pace but doesn’t, I think, show off the worldbuilding in quite such a splendid rush. (This is, in part, a consequence of the geography, with the action shifting into regions progressively more arid, more austere, less populated.) Nonetheless, the story arc is satisfying and complete in itself, and the book closes with just enough questions to leave the reader wondering what happens next.

Book review: The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett

15 07 2017

Leigh Brackett was an American novelist and screenwriter, whose movie credits include The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and The Empire Strikes Back (although her ultimate influence on the latter screenplay, revised after her death in 1978, remains contentious). A noted SF writer herself (at at time when women were notably underrepresented amongst SF novelists), she was married to fellow SF notable Edmond Hamilton and collaborated with (among others) William Faulkner and Ray Bradbury.


In Brackett’s short novel The Big Jump, first published in 1955, Arch Comyn strives to uncover the truth behind mankind’s technically-successful-yet-unfortunately-fatal first jump through hyperspace, after he breaks into a heavily-guarded hospital on Mars to hear the dying words of Ballantyne, the flight’s last surviving crewmember. Comyn finds a mystery; he finds trouble; he finds Sydna, the femme-fatalesque dranddaughter of tycoon Jonas Cochrane, the entrepreneur who bankrolled the first ‘jump’ mission. Comyn also finds an unnerving indication of something life-transcending, something sinister that waits on the planet around Barnard’s Star to which the first mission travelled, and where his childhood friend Paul Rogers ostensibly met his death. Given the dangers exposed by the mission, it’s out of the question that a follow-up should even be countenanced; given human greed and the lure of the distant planet’s wealth of transuranic ores, it’s inevitable that a second mission will occur. Readers will presumably not be too surprised to learn that Comyn succeeds in getting a berth on that mission …

It would be an exceptional work of space opera which, after six decades, managed not to appear dated in any fashion, and The Big Jump could not be called exceptional. It’s very much a product of its time, with social attitudes steeped in the hard-drinking, guns-and-fisticuffs approach to problem-solving typical of the era’s male-oriented genre fiction. There’s a lot of emoting, a lot of posturing, a lot of chauvinism inherent in the treatment and depiction of female characters (who are rather thin on the ground). This may well be an indication of the type of hoops which female SF writers of the time were forced to jump through—one wonders how many of Brackett’s readers would have known she was female—but it is something that dates the text by today’s standards. Moving beyond this, though, the story does make a reasonable fist of its scientific content: while there’s a little too much handwavium in the treatment of interplanetary and interstellar travel for the book to qualify as hard SF, it’s reasonably well-informed on the rudiments of the periodic table, and its extrapolations on the biochemistry of the transuranic elements are intriguing if distinctly fanciful. If the reader is not too averse to some sometimes highly purpled prose—and fifties SF arguably did pulpy purple prose better than anyone else—then this is an interesting and sometimes even thought-provoking encapsulation of the genre in which one can see, for example, prescient echoes of characters such as Star Trek‘s James T Kirk and Star Wars’ Han Solo.

Book review: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

20 05 2017

Nnedi Okorafor is an American academic and SF / fantasy writer of Nigerian heritage. She teaches creative writing and literature at SUNY Buffalo. Her fiction has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award.


The titular character in the Hugo- and Nebula- winning novella, Binti, is a young woman of gifted mathematical ability who wins a scholarship to Oomza University, the most prestigious institution of learning in the Galaxy. Her parents and siblings don’t believe she should accept the offer: it would mean leaving home (and leaving Earth, besides) and that’s just not something that the Himba do. Binti’s heritage is deeply important to her, but so is the opportunity to advance in her beloved field of mathematics, so she absconds and catches a shuttle. The subsequent flight from Earth to Oomza (in a living starship which is more-or-less an oversized, flight-capable prawn with bioengineered onboard living chambers) takes around twenty weeks, but is attacked enroute by the Meduse, a race at war with humanity. Almost everyone on board the ship is slain by the Meduse, but Binti survives and must then find a way to prevent carnage when the ship reaches its destination.

The strength of Binti is in the portrayal of the title character, who is smart, rebellious, respectful, fearful, and determined, and whose identity and culture are intimately tied to her braided, beaded hair and her precious clay-and-oil bodypaint, otjize. Her bridge-burning departure from her hometown places her in a position of substantial vulnerability, as a metaphorical ‘fish out of water’ within a literal one (the ‘Third Fish’ living spacecraft, plying the vacuum of space). I wasn’t completely convinced by the Meduse villains, and I’m not entirely satisfied that the pretext given for the longstanding conflict (which may have been between the Meduse and humanity, or between the Meduse and all of the Galaxy’s other sentient, spacefaring races–of which humanity is only one of quite a few) really held up. But the ‘otherness’ of the Meduse is well captured (in this respect, Okorafor’s writing shows some common ground with that of Octavia Butler, Amy Thompson, and Phillip Mann, though Binti is categorisable as ‘science fantasy’, which is not the description I’d apply to those other authors) and the story’s fairly sharp divergence from the customary furniture of space-based SF is, for the most part, refreshing. The story arc is well handled and sets things up beautifully for further work in this fictional universe. The novella might not convince devotees of space opera, but it should satisfy readers whose SF interest is primarily in character-driven fiction.

Book review: The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K Le Guin

15 04 2017

Over the past half century or so, Ursula K Le Guin’s work has received just about every SF / fantasy writing award going, and has achieved a greater degree of cut-through into the broader literary sphere than almost any of her genre contemporaries. I first encountered her writing through her ‘Earthsea’ trilogy (as it was then), but have also read many others of her books including the avowed classics The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.


I first read The Word for World is Forest about thirty years ago; it didn’t particularly resonate with me at the time, and I think I subsequently confused it in my memory with her YA novel Threshold (also known by the title The Beginning Place), which I read at about the same time. When I realised recently that I didn’t recognise its synopsis, I decided a reappraisal was in order.

The Word for World is Forest is set on Athshe / World 41 / New Tahiti, home of a diminutive race of docile, intelligent green-furred humanoids known, by the terrestrial scientists who are studying them, as Athsheans, and as ‘Creechies’ by the soldiers and sawmill operators who have moved in to cut down the planet’s trees for precious timber to be sent back to a now-treeless Earth. Many of the Athsheans have been pressganged into service as labourers across the various timber-felling operations, but their largely nonconfrontational nature sees the Terran (‘Yuman’) settlers taking greater and greater liberties with their small green slave labour force. Eventually, a line is crossed, and a vicious insurrection ensues. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Captain Donald Davidson, the supervisor of tree-clearing operations at Smith Camp; Selver, an Athshean held at Smith Camp, whose wife Thele has been raped and killed by Davidson; and Dr Raj Lyupov, a researcher at the central Terran, whose efforts to unravel the secrets of Athshean culture—a matriarchal society which places great importance on the technique of directed dreaming—have been substantially assisted by his interactions with Selver. All three individuals are, in their own way, quite strongly rebellious, and seek to follow their own directions rather than follow the guidelines explicitly or implicitly set for them by their respective societies, and this leads ultimately to disaster.

There are clear parallels between WWF and the movie Avatar: substitute wood for unobtanium, change the locals’ skin colour from green to blue, and you’re mostly there. The more immediate (and openly acknowledged) parallel, though, is with the Vietnam war, at its height when the story was first published in 1968; and I would say that there are also echoes, whether conscious or unconscious, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Depressingly, the book has scarcely dated at all, and seems at least as topical now as it was fifty years ago.

Of the protagonists, Davidson is ruthless and venal; Selver is determined but troubled; Lyupov is prone to doubts. All three are utterly self-consistent, but with sufficient complexity of personality to render them both interesting and believable. There’s a solid moral subtext to the story, but it plays out cleanly as a contest between wholly motivated characters, and the text leaves you in no doubt as to why they’ve behaved as they have. Within its short frame (it is, I think, somewhere on the border between novella and novel) there’s enough vivid depiction to build up a clear and detailed picture of Athshean society—as befits, I suppose, the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer—and of the planetary ecology. The story has a kind of horrible inevitability to it, the atrocities are contained and yet truly shocking—as befits, I suppose, a tale of conflict written at the height of the Vietnam war—and the ending rings true. There are almost certainly more comprehensive treatments of the dehumanising effect of war, elsewhere in the SF canon, but WWF endures as a compact and insightful look at the depths to which human nature can descend.

Book review: We Who Are About To…, by Joanna Russ

22 03 2017

Joanna Russ was a US writer and literary critic perhaps best known for her seminal (or should that perhaps be germinal?) work in feminist SF, as typified by her novel The Female Man. Her genre writing has won the Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree, and Pilgrim awards.


We Who Are About To is a novella or short novel (I’m not sure of its wordcount, but I’d estimate it’s on the cusp between those categories) first published in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction in 1976, appearing in book form a year later. Its narrator, who never names herself, is one of eight starship passengers (there are four women, three men, and one twelve-year-old girl) who become marooned, with a limited set of resources (a water purifier; food for six months; a single-seat ground-effect vehicle) salvaged from their vessel, on a habitable but deserted and probably uncharted planet. Most of the group want to establish a colony that will allow them (and / or their descendants) to survive until they can be rescued; the narrator just wants to be allowed to wander off and die, because she knows the prospect of rescue is exceedingly improbable. This aspiration causes friction within the group, not least because she’s one of three potentially-childbearing women on the planet. And, because any sufficiently-small group of people, in complete isolation, is essentially lawless once it starts to notice that there’s no higher authority on call, this friction is taken to a conclusion. It is, in a thematic sense (though not in style or in tone), rather reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Or, if you prefer, a riff on the Gilligan’s Island trope, but with the misanthropy dialled up to eleven, or maybe higher.

It’s a very bleak story, in several ways: none of the characters, not even the narrator (and perhaps especially not the narrator), is likeable; and the predicament doesn’t engender hope. And yet the first two-thirds of it are quietly compelling, as one watches the miniature conflict of ideas that erupts between the narrator and her fellow maroonees, and as one grows accustomed to the narrator’s voice, anger, and mindset. I did feel that the latter section was rather too rambling and unfocussed. (There’s a reason it has this form, which I can appreciate even if I disagree with the author’s choice of presentation.) And there’s also scope for confusion: is Russ railing against society, or against a popular trope in SF? If it’s the latter, then I think it runs the risk of presenting itself as novel-by-strawman-argument. But this description is probably too harsh: there is some very good writing in here; the plotting is skilful, making optimal use of a minimal palette; and the narrator is deeply drawn, with her own particular strengths and vulnerabilities, and a sense of drive that’s admirable whether or not one agrees with the choices she makes. It’s probably better suited to those who are more comfortable with dystopias than am I, but it’s certainly a thought-provoking read, and that’s seldom a bad thing.