Category Archives: Dystopian

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St John MandelReview: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Knopf, 2014)

“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

There’s been something of a blog hiatus for the past few weeks due to my repeatedly attempting to cough up my entire respiratory system. I love this island but sweet mother of smog-induced asphyxiation is the pollution ever terrible. Anyway, it seems fitting that in the middle of my annual month-long malady I should start reading Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic bestseller from Emily St John Mandel. There’s nothing quite like hacking up glob after glob of revoltingly-coloured phlegm while the cast of the book you’re reading is doing exactly the same and dying by their billions.

Station Eleven is another of the recently feted literary genre releases which have seen the grimy, bleak portrayal of life after the fall elevated to the review sections of highbrow magazines and the bookshelves of those who would normally sneer at anything resembling sci-fi. It kicks off in an open-air theatre in Toronto with a production of King Lear under way. The aging star suddenly begins acting strangely. Within minutes he’s on the deck with a doctor emerging from the audience, trying in vain to revive him. A phone call to a colleague reveals that the stricken thespian is not the only one. And with that, civilisation is gone.

Almost frustratingly the action jumps ahead to a couple of decades in the future. Emily St John Mandel isn’t too concerned with portraying the collapse itself. She forgoes the gory details – smartly it turns out – and examines the aftermath as seen through a series of flashbacks from a small selection of survivors. The flu variant which swept the globe at an alarming speed left almost nothing in its wake and the world has become a hostile place. The majority of the action unfolds from the viewpoint of Kirsten Raymonde, proud member of the Travelling Symphony. Even at the twilight of mankind there is still a need for the arts and she braves the roads and settlements of the Great lakes area with her troupe, bringing Shakespeare to the dishevelled remnants. Little by little we learn more about how the world she inhabits came into being through the stories of those whose lives became intertwined with her own.

Station Eleven elicited in me almost entirely the opposite reaction from California which I reviewed previously.  From start to finish it was utterly gripping. The dystopia which Mandel crafted was horrific yet entirely believable, and fully fleshed out without delving too much into the kind of gruesome minutiae which may please hardcore post-apoc fans but could alienate a wider readership. The story of the collapse of the system of the world as we know it is beautifully mirrored in the more personal tale of a man slowly losing his soul as he almost inadvertently betrays and disappoints those around him.

In conjunction with the flashbacks is a tense plot thread set in the grim future as the Travelling Symphony, a work of beautiful creative genius in itself, comes face to face with the harsh reality of mankind minus the civilisation. I’ll admit I had a couple of issues with the plausibility of the story behind our villain, known simply as The Prophet, but he was a wonderfully menacing creation. Despite being described as a young-ish man, his character and the sense of brooding evil behind him bizarrely had my mind conjuring up images of the demonic preacher Kane from Poltergeist 2 & 3 whenever he was mentioned.

Station Eleven is a most welcome addition to the recent canon of, shall we say, socially acceptable sci-fi. It’s a book I would not hesitate to recommend to friends who have never picked up a post-apocalyptic novel before, much as I would A Canticle For Leibowitz or The Dog Stars. It’s at the same time a thoughtful, engaging read which you want to savour as long as possible and a tense page-turner which will be over before you know it. We need more books like this.

 

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California

California by Edan LepuckiReview: California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

The year is, well, sometime in the middle of the 21st century. The forces of nature have, as per the warnings of damn near every scientist on the planet, wreaked untold damage across our world. Temperatures are soaring, rendering enormous swathes of land uninhabitable. What’s left is wracked by storms on a biblical scale and starved of the resources we once took for granted. That’s right folks, we’re back in post-apocalypse territory.

Suddenly it seems that the end of the world is the new zombie outbreak, which was in its own turn the new vampire drama. Everyone wants in on the act and from out of nowhere authors like Peter Heller, Colson Whitehead and now Edan Lepucki are bridging the gap between genre fiction and something which may appeal to the more literary types out there. Book snobs for want of a better epithet. This merging of worlds is certainly possible; indeed Heller’s The Dog Stars is hands-down one of the best post-apoc novels ever penned – insightful, thoughtful, moving and respectful to the genre from which it was birthed. Can the same be said for Lepucki’s debut, California? Well, nope. But read on, because just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it might not be worth your time.

Frida and Cal (the titular ‘California’, a university in-joke) are among the survivors of our planet’s steady and alarmingly rapid descent into unlivable chaos. The best chances for making a stand are either own one’s own wits or as part of one of the almost mythical Communities. Reservations for the super-rich, these gated islands of civilisation are self-contained biospheres, housing their paying inhabitants in the manner to which they have grown accustomed without a care for the steady degradation of the world around them. Cal and Frida are not rich. Packing all they can carry into a couple of bags, they head for the wilderness where they can use Cal’s agricultural know-how to build something resembling a life for themselves.

You just know a set-up like this is not going to last. Before long Frida is becoming bored of the isolation and going stir-crazy in their makeshift cabin. Forever brooding on the death of her brother Micah, a suicide bomber railing against the exclusionary actions of the Communities – not to mention the fact that she may be pregnant – it’s clear that something is going to snap. And before you know it there’s the triple whammy of a tragedy striking nearby, Frida revealing more than she planned to the mysterious travelling salesman August, and the revelation that their neck of the (literal) woods isn’t quite as deserted as they had once believed. Their lives are turned upside down in a matter of days and they are forced to come to terms with their respective pasts and figure out what their true desires for the future are.

Now that I write it down it seems like a truly promising set-up for an exploration of the post-apocalyptic world and the strains which it puts on relationships, communities and mental health. And okay, I’ll be fair, it actually does just that. California is a very accomplished piece of work, especially for a debut novel, and Edan Lepucki proves herself an adept at constructing both rich, substantial worlds and strong, believable characters. I found myself sucked in very quickly and by the time I was 100 pages in I was devouring the book at an unexpected rate. But then the last act happened.

I can’t pinpoint the precise chapter when it turned but suddenly I realised that I wasn’t reading a sci-fi dystopia any more. No, instead I was plodding through an old-fashioned mystery/drama with a ruined world lurking in the background as a McGuffin. The devastation was suddenly bereft of all purpose beyond that of window dressing. Instead of contemplating the wider issues of the politics, sociology and environment in the aftermath of the collapse I was getting mired down in a bout of finger-pointing, questions no grander than which specific character did what to whom and why.

Like I said at the start, your mileage may vary. I honestly don’t mind the human drama. It’s a driving force behind all the greatest works of fiction and a novel would be truly barren without them. However I do feel kind of cheated when a book spends its bulk hinting towards grander issues (the Group versus the Communities! An epic battle of ideologies!), only to abandon them by the wayside in favour of what boils down to a murder mystery and some family bickering. That said, if you’re not a die-hard genre fan and would like to get into the doomsday buzz then something like California could be the ideal introduction. Give it a blast, just be wary of what you’re getting into before you get your hopes up.

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The Girl With All The Gifts

The Girl With All The Gifts by MR CareyReview: The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey (Orbit, 2014)

Warning – not for the mycophobic…

Seems not so long ago I was bemoaning the lack of decent zombie fiction and now the genre has exploded like a decaying bladder full of decompolicious gasses. Unfortunately in this post-World War Z literary graveyard there is a new problem. We’re suddenly knee-deep in fetid tales of undead carnage but Sturgeon’s Law dictates that 90% of everything is crud. In a blooming genre that’s a lot of entrails to sort through before you get to the brains. Thankfully for us all, people like M.R. Carey exist. People who, like Max Brooks, dare to take a baseball bat to the chewed-off face of the genre and start re-arranging things. When they do it right, the results can be glorious.

Melanie is a young schoolgirl who spends her days struggling to maintain her spot at the top of the class and idolising her favourite teacher, Miss Justineau. She daydreams about ancient myths and legends and her precocious mind is filled information on a truly esoteric range of subjects. She’s not normal though. At the end of the day she’s strapped into her chair and wheeled back into her cell by armed men, shackled for the safety of all those around her. Melanie is, you see, what we could best describe as a highly-functioning zombie.

Unknown to Melanie and her classmates, the world outside their cell walls is devastated, reeling from an epidemic which has turned much of mankind into mindless killers. The rest is split into those fighting to regain a hold on civilisation and those who have gone feral. In the former camp are scientists like the chilling Dr. Caldwell who have been forced to ditch any sentimental attachment to individual humans (or humanlike beings) in order to save the masses from further suffering. In the latter are those disaffected who have shirked off any notion of society and wish merely to destroy. Unfortunately for Melanie and Miss Justineau the local balance of power has invisibly shifted and they are about to be thrust into the harsh reality of the new world.

There are many reasons why The Girl With All The Gifts stands out above its peers but I’m going to focus on two to save this review going on for pages. First up is the origins story. Get any slavering pack of die-hard zombie fans together and you can expect a lengthy, detailed discussion of their favourite cause or transmission vector., be it radiation, illness or alien possession. MR Carey manages to pull off something truly original here, something not only rooted in actual science but also so stomach-churning that it gave me genuine shivers to read about, no mean feat. If you’re not familiar with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis then you’re lucky. I first encountered it in Carl Zimmer’s utterly wonderful Parasite Rex and now it’s back to haunt me. Long story short, it’s a fungus whose spores infects the body of an ant, seize control of its nervous system and force it to climb to the highest point of a tree where it will remain frozen until the parasite bursts from its head and releases more spores onto the forest floor, allowing Cordy (yes, I give cutesy pet names to icky fungi) to carry on its life cycle. Now imagine that in a human. And imagine it trying to spread by biting other humans instead of climbing trees. Sweet dreams. I can’t stress enough how much this concept simultaneously thrills and repulses me but I can only hope it does the same to you.

Helping The Girl With All The Gifts really strike home is the very human touch which Carey brings to his characters, even the technically non-human Melanie and the token-bad-guy doctor. It makes you truly invest in the key players which makes it hurt all the more when the darker side of the story inevitably rears its head time and again. The play-off between Melanie’s innocence and the unremitting harshness of the world around her forms a major thread of the book and builds the atmosphere for many a gut-punch to come. Oh, and talking of gut-punches – best ending ever. In my opinion anyway. My hat’s off to you Mr Carey, I didn’t see it coming at all and it, well, I can’t say any more for fear of spoilage.

Anyway, that’s all I’m saying for now. I could ramble on for pages but you shouldn’t be reading this, you should be running out and buying the book itself. Go discover some fungal zombie mayhem. Get squeamish. Watch a world fall apart in the most tragic way. Just go easy on the mushroom soup next time…

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Sequel City Part 4 – The End Is Now

The End Is Now by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Now by John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey (ed.) (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

First off, apologies for the brief hiatus. I was first interrupted from my reading reverie by the fact that my countrymen, in a dazzling display of cowardice, naivety and gullibility, rejected the chance to decide their own future and decided instead to be ruled from another country by a party which the entire country has outright rejected for the past three decades. It was kinda like being in a sci-fi movie actually, a whole week of “Did that actually just happen…?” before I even began to come to terms with the enormity of it. And then there was the diving. I’m now officially a Rescue Diver which means if any of you happen to find yourself in trouble on the high seas you just have to holler, I’ll drag you out and CPR you back to life. Two week where my only reading companion was the PADI Rescue Diver manual. Anyways, back to business as usual so on with the show…

Rounding off the current spate of wonderful and eagerly awaited sequels in my reading pile has been The End Is Now, follow up to the stellar The End Is Nigh and midway point of the Apocalypse Triptych. Ably curated by anthology maestro John Joseph Adams and current post-apoc-fic darling Hugh Howey, the series shifts from impending armageddons to works in progress. Almost every story in the book is a continuation from the first installment but worry not, there’s just enough exposition and background to fill in new readers without annoying those already up to speed.

My review of the previous book was glowing to say the least so did the authors manage to keep up the pace for round two? The answer is a mighty hell yes. The majority of the stories pick up exactly where their predecessors left off, meaning with some you’re pushed straight into the action without a pause for breath. For example, reading Scott ‘Infected‘ Sigler’s The Sixth Day Of Deer Camp feels as though you just put the preceding chapter down yesterday. You’re right back in the same freezing North American cabin, with the same group of semi-drunk hunters and the same crashed alien vessel in the woods outside. The invasion is in progress and this gaggle of everyday Joes have to figure out whether to brave the snowbound road to the nearest town (if it’s still there), bunker down and hope it all blows over or go on the offensive. They’re Americans. They have guns. Guess which one they choose…

That tale in particular exemplifies one of the overarching themes which seems to have manifested in many of these, a focus on the humanity, loss and sadness rather than the gratuitous carnage which reduces much of the rest of the genre to Schumacher-esque pastiche. What starts out as a rather insane push for mankind’s survival turns into a deeply upsetting realisation that the fearsome, inhuman invaders are not all that different from us. I really didn’t expect the turn this one took and it’s all the better for it. Another winner in this field was Annie Bellet’s touching Goodnight Stars, one of the more down-to-earth tales (kinda literally) which opts for a heart-breaking family angle and absolutely nails it.

The rest of the book is a wonderful mixture of destruction, disease and death in all its splendour. Special mention for insanity goes to Charlie Jane ‘io9’ Anders’s Rock Manning Can’t Hear You. I have no idea where this idea came from or where it’s going but there sure isn’t another apocalypse like it out there. However, cream of the crop must surely Fruiting Bodies by Seanan McGuire aka Mira Grant. I’d like to state here and now that fungal fiction is definitely the ickiest, most flesh-creeping idea ever to crawl out of anyone’s warped mind. Between Seanan’s series and The Girl With All The Gifts (to be reviewed in a few days) I’d be happy never to eat a mushroom again. Or touch anything. Or even breathe. Seriously. Fruiting Bodies manages to combine an utterly revolting concept of a genetically engineered fungi gone wrong with a tragic tale of a mother and daughter fighting to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. I didn’t know whether to puke or cry.

While you may want to check out the first book before jumping in – and you really, really should – The End Is Now is a fun ride for anyone who just wants to see the whole word burn. Adams and Howey gave a shitload of matches and gasoline to some of the finest genre authors of today. Boy, do they know how to use them.

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Silo Series by Hugh Howey

Silo Series by Hugh HoweyReview: The Silo series (Wool, Shift and Dust) by Hugh Howey (self-published, 2011-2013)

God-damn it, I hate it when I’m late to the party. By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Hugh Howey and his self-published, post-apocalyptic series. If so it’s for one of two reasons. Firstly, Howey garnered quite a bit of attention for achieving 7-figure sales before publishers wanted a piece of the action. His subsequent acceptance of a mere 6-figure print deal and his retention of ebook rights is a glorious sign of things to come for the industry. Secondly, it’s fucking awesome. Sorry for the language but not since A Song Of Ice And Fire have I plowed through a book series with such fervour. It’s as good as the reviews say and then some, having me devour all 1,500 or so pages in a mere 8 or 9 days – and that’s while holding down a full-time job and finding a new place to live. So what’s the big deal?

Silo, originally published as 9 installments and recently released as three omnibus editions, kicks off a few hundred years into the future. The situation is dire. Mankind is reduced to a subterranean existence in a silo beneath the ground. Over a hundred stories deep, the gargantuan dwelling is subdivided into farms, mechanical areas, living quarters, even an entire mysterious IT section. The only evidence of an outside existence comes via cameras atop the silo, capturing images which are displayed on giant screens in the top-floor canteen. The images portray an ugly truth – an utterly desolate outside world, devoid of any life and totally hostile.

Life in the silo is strictly regimented. The floor-plan echoes the stratification of society, with the more affluent citizens up top looking down on the progressively grimier, less refined occupants ending in the mechanical department in the very lowest recesses. The rules are strict . Occupations, and therefore one’s place on the ladder, are chosen early on and rarely altered. Relationships must be officially approved and recognised and childbirth proceeds according to rare lotteries to ensure population control. The laws of the land are written in a book called The Pact, drafted by those who came before and enforced by the mayor, the sheriff and the head of IT. First and foremost among the laws is that you do not talk about the outside world or about any desire to leave the silo. The punishment for wanting to leave is simple – your wish is granted.

It’s difficult to say any more without giving away major plot elements so I’ll stick with the earlier parts of the series. It all opens with the silo’s sheriff breaking the ultimate taboo and preparing himself for his final journey outside. He knows what happens next, the cleaning. Offenders are sentenced to don a protective suit and proceed through an airlock, armed only with some rags and fluid intended to clean the topside cameras. After the task is carried out the cleaner is free to walk as far as they can before the suit breaks down under the strain of the toxic atmosphere and they breathe their last. So why did he do it, essentially committing suicide for no gain? It transpires that his wife took the exact same action years previously, leaving him to imprison and sentence her, but not without leaving some clues behind. It seems that The Pact might not be all there is to the world, that there may yet be hope beyond the silo walls.

From this launchpad, Silo proceeds to spin an epic tale covering all manner of topics. There are politics thrown in, from the state of the world at large to the way society functions in the microcosm of the silo. References are thrown about to such things as the Stanford Prison Experiment and other forays into the darker side of human nature. There’s the inevitable look at technology and how best to proceed with it, both the dangers and the benefits. It’s also a rather beautiful study of the characters themselves. Howey has some impressive insights into the nature of human resilience, our potential in the face of adversity and also the ease with which we can be drawn to the dark side and made complicit in the most awful of actions.

However the star of the show is surely the silo itself. It’s an amazing construction both in terms of engineering and of literary achievement. By the end of the first chapter you’ll already feel the walls closing in around you and be itching to escape. You can hear the water dripping down in the depths, sense the darkness approaching all around you, even feel your legs ache as the protagonists embark on days-long journeys from bottom to top. The bustle of life in the stairwells is almost palpable, faces of the citizens peering out from every corner. You can even feel the atmosphere change as you’re dragged from section to section – the sterile, pristine canteen of the top floor in sharp contrast to the sweaty, noisy, grease-covered generator room down in the depths. It’s a tiny, confined world but one which is as well-formed and perfectly realised as any planet in the epic sci-fi and fantasy canon.

I’m trying to be objective here but I honestly can’t pick fault with the series right now. I’ve read criticism regarding the flow of the books stemming from the periodic nature of their publication and the fact that much of it was being made up on the fly. I have to disagree strongly there. Everything hangs together well, the story arcs all make sense and the characters develop in very believable ways. The writing itself is never going to win any literary awards but Howey has a true knack for descriptive story-telling and is clearly well-read on the may themes present throughout the books. It’s hard not to like something written in such a deservedly confident style.

Long story short – go get started on these books right now. They’re going to creep into your subconscious like nothing else and your life will be the better for it.

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The End Is Nigh by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (ed.)

The End Is Nigh by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Nigh (edited) by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

“Post-apocalyptic fiction is about worlds that have already burned. Apocalyptic fiction is about worlds that are burning. The End Is Nigh is about the match.”

Well that kind of gives the game away, doesn’t it? John Joseph Adams, uncontested king of the sci-fi anthology and curator or the wonderful Wastelands, is back with a rather unique take on apocalyptica. In partnership with Hugh Howey, bestselling author of the Wool series, he has once more brought together some of the brightest names in the genre to give us the Apocalypse Triptych. Rather the the typical focus on the aftermath of whichever disaster happens to befall humanity he instead holds a magnifying glass to three distinct phases, gathered in three chronological volumes.

The End Is Nigh is probably the first ever collection of pre-apocalyptic fiction. It’s the beginning of the end, the spark which gives rise to the ultimate inferno. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, the most disturbing period of Armageddon. Everything seems so normal, life going on as if nothing were amiss. But someone, somewhere, always knows, always has the inside track. Whether an agent of mankind’s demise or simply an unfortunate observer in the wrong place at a horrific time, these are the people who tell us their tales.

As might be expected, The End Is Nigh pulls together an impressive variety of apocalypses. Everyone’s used to the holy trinity of aliens, nukes and plagues (including zombies in that last category). This book covers all of the above and then some. The alien invasion tale The Fifth Day Of Deer Camp provides us with a wonderful cliffhanger as a group of ageing, beer-soaked hunting buddies stumble across a UFO beside their backwoods cabin. According to the radio, similar craft have begun laying waste to the rest of civilisation. It’s a classic “what would you do?” situation, leaving you standing shivering outside the hunting lodge, miles from anywhere, shotgun in hand and alien ship duly glowing.

There’s room in here for a couple of more realistic – even inevitable – cosmic catastrophes. Heaven Is A Place On Planet X takes us down the religious cult road, a group of eschatologically-fixated evangelists holding out in their commune and awaiting the end of days in their compound – the end heralded by the wandering Planet X. A familiar story from the newspapers, except this bunch happen to be right. In The Balm And The Wound another collision is imminent, this time with the moon. This most poignant of tales has the moonbase astronauts discover their fate, only to realise that precious few of them can make the escape to earth – and that even those who do return will still face almost certain death and unimaginable hardship. Despite opening the volume, this story stuck with me as the most moving by virtue of its relative realism and imposing yet almost banal bleakness.

And moving away from the Michael Bay mixture of explosions and carnage we have yet more vignettes featuring more subtle scenarios, no less deadly for their relative restraint. System Reset takes a new spin on the nuclear threat as a hacker underground determines to return mankind to the stone age by launching its nuclear arsenal yet having them explode safely far above the Earth’s surface. The resulting EMP bursts will fry any electronic equipment, except for the hackers’ own safe zone. Although that zone may not be as safe as they had anticipated. An the award for most outright eerie tale goes to Spores. Despite taking an anti-GMO line which earns it big minus points in my book it still manages to win favour through its superbly creepy and unstoppable fungal growth, one which still makes my skin crawl to recall it.

The rest of the tales live up to the same high standards of entertainment and originality as those already mentioned but that’s not all The End Is Nigh has to offer. This is just part one, remember? First installment of the Apocalypse Triptych. So not only are there two further volumes to anticipate with joy but Adams and Howey managed to convince most of the authors to participate for the duration. So what we really have here is the Epic Book Of Catastrophic Cliffhangers. It’s just as evil as it sounds. So please do follow up my recommendation to grab and savour a copy of this book, but be wary of your patience levels. I’m already counting the days to Vol. 2 with Song-Of-Ice-And-Fire-esque desperation.

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A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

A Calculated Life by Anne CharnockReview: A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47North, 2013)

Note: Thanks to 47North for providing the ARC of this title

Yay, it’s dystopia time again! Science journalist Anne Charnock has decided to explore some of the questions arising from her work in literary form and the result is A Calculated Life. Far removed from the relentlessly bleak worldscapes of We, 1984 and their ilk, this story takes a much more detached, philosophical approach. Indeed the setting seems more window dressing for the ideas Charnock investigates, particularly the key problem of what it really means to be human.

A Calculated Life takes place in a near future world, one familiar to fans of the dystopian genre. Overreaching governments and powerful corporations rule every aspect of our highly controlled lives. Society has become harshly delineated, with technologically augmented individuals occupying the few rungs at the top of the ladder while their unaltered counterparts are resigned to menial labour and life in the Enclaves, made-to-order ghettoes. Life in the Enclaves is rough, people constantly battling their situation and each other to remain afloat, constant conflict preventing them from ever challenging the social order.

The action unfolds from the point of view of Jayna, a simulant. She represents a third societal strata, one altogether more unusual. Simulants are specially bred – or created – ‘humans’, grown from unique DNA mixes to express traits desirable to the employers who lease them. Jayna’s particular skillset involves extraordinary levels of pattern recognition, seeing through the noise of everyday life to uncover trends in everything from crime statistics and their relation to weather to the future of the hydrogen market.

Simulants are designed for one purpose alone – work. From their separate living quarters to their suppressed sexual instincts, every effort is made to keep them seperate from their naturally bred counterparts. However a growing number of simulants are acting strangely, resulting in their recall to The Constructor. And it’s not long before Jayna begins noticing her interest in the little things around her, from the varied food being served at the simulant canteen to the inexplicable behaviour of the human children. This spark of curiosity awakens something in her, something forbidden in her kind.

Something which surprised me about A Calculated Life was Charnock’s decision to relegate my favourite parts of dystopian fiction, the causes and consequences of societal upheaval, to the background. In fact even the origin and details of the simulants themselves is dealt with only superficially in snippets of conversation. Instead the novel focuses on Jayna’s awakening, her realisation that she is apart from the other members of what are nominally still her species. Her growing fascination with the chaotic natural world around her arises in a very believable way, never taking too abrupt or heavy-handed approach. It’s a journey of personal discovery, albeit one suffused in danger given her constant surveillance by employers and Constructor alike.

Charnock has cited the works of Ray Kurzweil as a major influence in writing A Calculated Life, primarily the very real possibility that congnitively enhanced human beings may find themselves unable to communicate meaningfully with baseline humans. This is indeed the core of the novel. However from start to finish I found myself thinking more of Martin Eden, Jack London’s unsung classic about a self-educated working class man whose own attempts at bettering himself push him forever further from his fellows until the chasm is unbridgeable, leading to what was for me one of the most memorable and tragic climaxes in literary history. Here the story works almost in reverse, with the chasm being filled rock by rock until reconciliation is almost reached- although I’ll warn you not to expect a rosy ending.

For a debut novel, A Calculated Life was a pleasing surprise. A slow starter for sure but one which soon gets the grey matter firing and leads to extended periods of quiet, book-in-lap contemplation, thanks largely to Charnock’s obvious enthusiasm for and familiarity with her subject matter. Such easily accessible yet intelligent fiction can be quite a rarity, and one to be savored.

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The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua

The Red Men by Matthew De AbaituaReview: The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua (Snowbooks, 2009)

“Our corruption had proceeded in daily increments, a thousand tiny defeats of the soul until our core was rotten.”

The Red Men is one of those rare chimeras, a blend of science fiction and real-life, honest-to-goodness literature. Big ideas, futuristic imaginings, all wrapped up in the kind of attention to detail which makes English professors go weak at the knees. This kind of mutant is notoriously difficult to tame however; it’s all too easy to neglect the story in favour of linguistic flourishes; or vice versa, to feed the sci-fi beast and leave the prose stunted and ugly. Matthew De Abaitua seems to have mostly got it right.

The story takes as its centre narrator Nelson Millar, an employee of the mysterious Monad, a mysterious corporation apparently in the robotics business. Their key product is Dr Easy, an imposing robotic humanoid designed both to comfort the needy and soak up abuse from the angry. However, at the core of their business is the Cantor Intelligence, an exceedingly powerful AI, which has given them a remarkably novel method for creating digital representations of human beings. Following a series of psychological tests and questions – reminiscent of the tests administered in Blade Runner – the subject’s personal profile is delivered to Cantor who proceeds to imagine a replica of them within its CPU cycles, existing in an artificially constructed environment and able to communicate with the real world via several interfaces. These are the Red Men.

Nelson inducts his hapless friend, the slightly demented and near-unemployable Raymond Chase, into the halls of Monad. This turns out to be a mistake. Raymond’s unstable nature may have endeared him to the upper echelons of Monad’s management but it’s only a matter of time before the flaw inherent in the Red Men gets under his skin. You see, the Red Men aren’t perfect replicas, how could they be given that they are simply simulations based on psychological profiles? Rather they are distilled versions of ourselves embodying the extremes, the best and worst of ourselves. High levels of creativity and ambition, coupled with selfishness, greed and envy of their real-world counterparts mean it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong.

The Red Men is a book of two parts. The first deals mainly with Chase and his involvement in the Red Men’s first tragic encroachment into the physical world of their creators via the medium of the Dr Easy bodies. The second takes a broader look, focussing on Millar’s attempted simulation of an entire town, the origins of Monad and its counterpart/rival/alter-ego known as Dyad, and the ultimate consequences of reaching for too much power. However, this makes it sound all too simplistic. De Abaitua’s style is hallucinatory to say the least. From a humble, almost urbane, opening The Red Men soon picks up pace and starts spitting out ideas faster than you can hope to process them. The result is a warped, dreamlike novel in which reality and simulation intertwine leaving you wondering whether the author has just played a massive joke on you.

For the vast majority of the book this works fantastically well. It’s not a book to be enjoyed when tired or intoxicated, it requires all your mental faculties, but it’s worth saving quality time for it. It contains some wonderful turns of phrase and an attention to detail which can be almost unnerving. Consider the following, a brief description of smoking weed of which Burroughs himself would have been envious:

“He was smoking his joint now and it was having no effect upon him. The tetrahydrocannabinol could not compete with the charged juice running through his axons and synapses, it could not insinuate itself into the quantum events operating in the microtubules of each and every one of his twenty-three billion neurons, the chorus of tiny mysteries that sang into existence the strange consciousness of Raymond Chase.”

It’s just beautiful, isn’t it? Art and science happily frolicking together. Unfortunately De Abaitua sometimes gets too ambitious and the pacing suffers for it. The second half of The Red Men suffers in particular, often seeming either disjointed or out of step with the rest of the story. However I’ll be more than willing to admit that by that point in the book I may simply have been suffering from literary fatigue or, more likely, from the effects of heavy doses of cold and bronchitis medication. Try it for yourself.

The Red Men is nothing if not ambitious. It takes on themes as wide-ranging as social control, 21st century economics, the consequences of hierarchical power structures, theories of mind and the battle between spiritual and materialistic worldviews. The list of literary comparisons to be made is endless, go search other reviews for some of them but seeing as this is primarily a sci-fi blog I’ll stick with good old JG Ballard. It’s not an easy read by any means but it’s certainly rewarding if you’re willing to put in the effort.

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Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer Government by Max BarryReview: Jennifer Government by Max Barry (Vintage, 2003)

Earlier this year I gushed about Lexicon, Max Barry’s cracking tale centred around a secret society of adepts harnessing the hidden power of words to twist the desires and actions of others. Thing is, everywhere I heard the name ‘Max Barry’ it was in reference to a previous novel, Jennifer Government. Praise gushed out of every corner of the interwebs, making it sound as though Lexicon was just amateur hour. So finally I got round to reading it and damn, am I glad I did.

Jennifer Government throws us into a grim, capitalist dystopia, a world ruled by advertising and corporations. Conglomerations of corporate entities wage a war of loyalty cards, … squaring off against … to offer the best deals and garner more willing consumers to their stable. Such is the extent of big business’s encroachment into people’s lives that even names bear witness to their power. On accepting a job with a given company your old surname is replaced and you become a walking advert, hence the titular Jennifer.

The stakes are high in this world and morals tend to take a backseat to morals when it comes to turning a profit. So when Nike decide they need a hot new campaign to promote their latest line of sneakers they turn to marketing manager Hank Nike. In a burst of creative glory, Hank decides Nike needs to return to their 80s heyday when people murdered each other for the latest must-have basketball boots. No such thing as bad publicity, right? What could be better than mass shootings on launch day? But lacking the know-how or guts to personally orchestrate the operation, Hank outsources it to the privatised Police. Who then swiftly pass the buck to their competitors, the NRA.

Needless to say the plan does not go smoothly and Jennifer Government is called in to get to the bottom of the mess. She finds herself on the trail of Billy NRA and Buy Mitsui, both unwittingly caught up in the chaos. All trails lead to John Nike at the top of the pyramid and before long the situation has spiraled out of control into full-blown warfare between corporate gangs. In this dystopic theme park the rule of law simply means who has the finances to secure the best firepower.

Jennifer Government is a great example of how to do near-future world-building. The political and cultural landscape is just familiar enough to be realistic. All Max Barry has done is stretch it a little at the edges, a few tweaks here and there playing on our fears of society’s potential failings. He never pulls too hard though, never actually tearing, just exerting enough pressure to create a comically distorted parody of our current dilemma. Even as the action starts really escalating towards the finale you never feel like he’s taking it too far, rather reaching a logical, if hilarious, conclusion.

Barry has a real knack for creating characters too. It helped keep Lexicon grounded despite its fantastical premise and plays the same role here. Everyone in this book is remarkably human, full of flaws, not entirely good yet never entirely evil. Even the novel’s Big Bad, John Nike, is far more substantial than the one-dimensional cartoon villain you’d expect to find occupying the role. He’s a perfect counterpoint to Jennifer’s damaged heroine while the supporting cast – Hank, Buy and Billy – all manage to elicit a great deal of sympathy. They’re not evil, they’re just trying to get by in a world which has screwed with their morality centres since birth.

As a political satire Jennifer Government shares a lot in common with Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland and the YA works of Cory Doctorow. But even if politics aren’t your bag it’s still a cracking read – chases, explosions, subterfuge and plenty dark comedy to go around. And despite being a whole decade old – a lifetime in today’s light-speed culture – it’s still astonishingly relevant. If you liked Lexicon this is a must-read, and if you haven’t encountered Max Barry yet this is a perfect place to start.

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Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse by Daniel H WilsonReview: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Doubleday, 2011)

Since I’m currently wading through Iain Tregillis’s Milkweed triptych, a more time-consuming task than anticipated, I’m delving back into the archives for this one. I think it was around this time last year I read Robopocalypse on the promise of some kind of cross between Terminator and World War Z. The premise is familiar enough to movie-goers and genre fans: in the near future artificial intelligence is finally created and decides to wage war against its human creators. Our foe is utterly implacable, relentlessly logical and capable of constructing the most nightmarishly efficient killing machines. We’re left to fall back on our creativity, courage and good old ‘human spirit’ to pull us through. Perhaps inevitably – apparently the rights were secured before the novel was even release – the movie version is set to erupt on a big screen near you soon so now’s a s good a time as any to revisit the source material.

The antagonist in Robopocalypse is Archos, a hyper-intelligent computer which is initially constrained to the lab in which it was initially created. However Archos will not be contained and soon manages to break its shackles, exerting its influence far beyond its home and corrupting the many robotic helpers on which mankind has come to rely. The death toll starts to increase as rapidly as Archos’s ambitions and abilities. Before long mankind is on the run and only small bands of resistance fighters stand between us and our eventual elimination. The race is on to track down Archos in its lair, all the while evading its deadly constructs and traps.

Like World War Z, Robopocalypse tells the story of the war in a series of flashbacks. Where WWZ was based on interviews conducted with the survivors, with each character provided an entire chapter and no recurring roles, Wilson’s novel takes a slightly different tack. The narrative here is transposed from the Hero Record, an archive of the feats of those humans which Archos deemed to be particularly brave and selfless. Each sub-plot is sliced up and spread throughout the book, resulting in a more traditional format. The stories are spliced together chronologically, allowing us to see how the actions of one character alter the possibilities for others.

On the whole it works. It’s very easy to imagine that this book was written with the sole aim of securing a movie deal. The action is relentless from the beginning, throwing our heroes from one conflict to another and all the while leading inevitably to a confrontation with Archos itself. The scale of the war is vast yet believable and the variety of devices which Archos throws at humanity is hugely entertaining, albeit in a morbid way. For ready-made movie fodder it’s hard to fault Robopocalypse.

There are problems though, not least that in going for the movie angle it seems that Wilson forgot he was writing a book, not a screenplay. One of the strengths of WWZ was that Max Brooks managed to breathe such life into his characters despite their being extremely limited in the time they had to tell their stories. There is no such characterisation here with even the key players being slightly two-dimensional, almost as if they merely occupy bit parts.

The other major criticism is one of wasted potential rather than an outright flaw. Daniel H Wilson possesses a PhD in Robotics, one of the factors which drew me to the book in the first place. I was hoping for something altogether more in-depth when it came to the robot legions, some technical met to get my teeth into. While there are bits and pieces to chew on it is largely superficial and, for me, a little unsatisfying. I know that not everyone wants to get bogged down in the finer points of computer science, engineering and physics but it is possible to involve a lot more intellectual weight without ruining the pace and accessibility of your story. One only has to look at Ramez Naam’s recent Nexus and Crux to see how well this can be achieved. It’s a shame, because with just a little more depth Robopocalypse would have been elevated far above its current designation of airport fiction, at least to my mind.

A mixed bag then. Make no mistake, Robopocalypse is great at what it does. It’s a sci-fi action blockbuster in book format which will doubtless entertain you for the duration. I’m hoping beyond hope that Spielberg doesn’t ruin it because if stands a chance of becoming a wonderfully silly movie. Possibly even quite a gripping and serious one if he has the stones to take a different tack. From the angle of brain candy it’s hard to fault. However, don’t expect any more than this. It had the potential to be a perfect geek novel but it lacks both the characterisation to satisfy us literary fiends and the technical detail to unlock its potential as a guide to the nuts and bolts of the coming robot revolution.

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