Category Archives: Science Fiction

Defenders

Defenders by Will McInstoshReview: Defenders by Will McIntosh (Orbit, 2014)

The invasion has begun. The Luytens, starfish-esque alien creatures, have arrived, initially sequestering themselves in remote rural locations but now mustering their forces and attacking our infrastructure. The battle is… not going well. The Luytens have one secret weapon, in addition to their deadly heat and lightning rays, which all but assures their victory: telepathy, If you’re within 8km of a Luyten, it knows all about it – and so do all of its comrades within range. Pop up from behind cover to sneak a quick shot at one and it’s already aiming for the precise spot you’re thinking of putting your head. Game over man, game over.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Having studied one injured Luyten, held in isolated captivity aboard a ship, far from its communication network, we discover that the telepathy depends on one crucial ingredient, the serotonin in our brains. No serotonin, no mind-reading. And so a team of scientists begin work on mankind’s last hope, a genetically-engineered breed of super-soldiers, the Defenders; towering, three-legged giants, designed to fight and hate the Luytens and utterly free of serotonin. Of course this renders them also bereft of emotions, creativity and everything else we take for granted, everything which makes us human. But they can fight. Oh boy, can they fight. And that might just pose a problem…

The above synopsis pretty much just takes up the first third of Defenders. Yes, the whole alien invasion, near-defeat of humanity and the epic battles resulting therefrom are merely setting the scene for what turns out to be a massively thoughtful and addicting read. Will McIntosh peppers his latest novel with a cast of conflicted characters who, over the span of several decades, must deal with not only the problem of contact with a technologically superior race, but also the consequences of our rash actions in defending ourselves. From Kai Zhou, the young boy who discovered and saved the injured Luyten known as Five, saved the world and yet became The Boy Who Betrayed The World, to Dominique Wiewall, head designer of the race who saved us and potentially architect of our downfall, there are no clear-cut heroes in this book. Everyone has their flaws and more importantly they all know it. As much of the book is dedicated to people wrestling their own demons as it is to the alien menace.

What’s more, McIntosh takes a very George RR Martin approach to character development. There’s no time for sentimentality here, this is a military sci-fi novel first ad foremost and he does not patronise his audience. War is brutal. People die. If it serves to move the story forward then heads must go on the chopping block, hero and villain alike.  So don’t be surprised when you see someone you have grown to love chatting happily in one scene, only to learn of their death in a throwaway line five pages later. Nobody in Defenders has a magical Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Behind all the explosions and gunfire there is a lot of serious work going on. Defenders raises some big questions along the way, mostly relating to responsibility and facing up to the consequences of our actions. Whether on a personal scale or at the level where our choices could lead to extinction, McIntosh wants us to think about thinking, about weighing up alternatives carefully. And given the three races clashing throughout the novel – humans, Luytens and Defenders – you’ll find yourself pondering the old adage, is the enemy of my enemy really my friend. At every turn we find divisions between races which were once united and unity where once division reigned. This is not a clear-cut, black and white war like War Of The Worlds (to which the opening of the book seems to be a sincere homage). Race relations in Defenders are subtle, ambiguous and ever-shifting, much as they are in our own world.

I’ll admit that when I picked up Defenders, based on mentions on a couple of websites I frequent, I was expecting something of a pulpy, sci-fi invasion story. I’m very happy to report that what I experienced blew my expectations out of the water. This is a tale which very much deserves to join the likes of HG Wells’ aforementioned classic and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in the canon of man vs aliens literature, managing to perfectly blend a compelling war story with a thoughtful examinations of the choices which arise in our darkest hours.

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Stories Of Your Life And Others

Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted ChiangReview: Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang (Small Beer Press, 2010)

“Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”

Finding an author like Ted Chiang is a rare occurrence. A writer who speaks not only to you personally but also serves to illuminate the works of others, revealing hidden depths you would never have stumbled across in works you’ve cherished for years. Chiang’s almost miserly output – a mere 14 short stories and novellas over more than two decades – cuts right to the core of the sci-fi genre, revealing its beating heart in all its imaginative glory and adding a shot of adrenaline for good measure. To have only discovered him now pains me. To realise that in finishing this collection I have depleted over half of his catalogue is unbearable. But at least I can do my best to tempt you to join me in the ecstasy.

Stories Of Your Lives And Others covers a bewildering variety of styles, subjects and eras. The collection’s opener for instance, Tower Of Babylon, thrusts us not into the future but the Biblical past. We join a team of miners on their journey up the mythical tower, learning the secrets of its constructions from fellow labourers as they go. Why would miners of all trades be required at the peak of this greatest of all monoliths? Because the vault of Heaven has finally been reached and mankind is ready to break through to the world of gods. The action takes place at a meditative pace, steadily ascending as the mechanics of this universe slowly reveal themselves. However, the gods of whom they are in pursuit seems mightily conspicuous by his absence. The story’s twist ending is pitched perfectly and will have you smiling and contemplatively stroking your beard (where applicable) for a time afterwards.

And so it is with the remainder of the stories. There’s a wonderfully novel mash-up of the time travel genre with the Arabian Nights style of story-telling, multiple story-lines and time-frames wrapping around each other to dizzying effect. I lifted the quote at the start of this review from a remarkably touching tale of a robot making the momentous discovery that his universe is approaching the equivalent of the entropic heat death which awaits our own. There’s the incredibly poignant and moving tale of a loving partnership in the process of disintegration, told through the lens of a terrifying mathematical discovery in Division By Zero. Yes, maths can be terrifying, trust me. Hell Is The Absence Of God drops us into a world where it’s taken for granted that Heaven, Hell and angels all exist – they’re there to be empirically verified by whoever cares to look. Given this premise, Chiang embarks on a study of blind faith versus rational investigation, managing to avoid appearing condescending to believers while still wielding his scientific skepticism like a scalpel.

And there’s the titular Story Of Your Life, of particular interest to the language teachers among us. Here Chiang grants us a unique twist on the first contact story, with alien lifeforms arriving on our doorstep and calmly awaiting communication. However, unlike other tales of this ilk, there is no universal translator available. Instead we join a linguist tasked with learning an alien language from scratch, painfully aware that we have not evolved to discern the sounds made by our visitors’ physiology and with an almost entirely unrelated written language to contend with. All the while the story is framed by an apparent series of letters to her daughter, speaking of events past as though they yet awaited in the future and leading us towards the time-twisting conclusion.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to get into a detailed discussion of each and every tale within these pages. They all merit extensive examination and there’s barely a wasted word anywhere. However I’ll simply leave it to you to find out, for the pleasure will be all the greater when you get there. I will say this though; if you care at all about science fiction, creativity, intellect and masterful writing then you would do yourself an enormous disservice by ignoring Ted Chiang.

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Newsflesh Trilogy

Feed by Mira GrantReview: Newsflesh Trilogy (Feed, Deadline, Blackout) by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2011-2012)

Sometimes a book comes along that makes you wish the entire rest of the world would just disappear and leave you to get on with the important business of reading. A book that you’re picking up in your breaks between teaching classes, caring not one whit that you’re already a couple of minutes into class time and still haven’t left the teachers’ room. One which has you cursing every pedestrian distraction which takes you away from it’s pages – “Dinner??? Who needs food these days?”. Mira Grant’s Feed is one such book, one I had dismissed as a potential rainy day time-passer and left neglected on the bottom of the virtual pile. I am so, so glad I randomly decided to give it a shot. So glad.

Let’s get this out of the way first; Feed and it’s sequels are, ostensibly at least, zombie novels. I know that’s going to put some people off but bear with me. There’s a whole hell of a lot more going on in these pages. Set a couple of decades following the event known as The Rising (eerily close to current day), the world is dealing with the aftermath of a series of unfortunate events. A combination of scientific curiosity, medical genius and well-intentioned yet idiotic do-goodery have unleashed a plague upon mankind. The dead walk. And they hunger. I’ll leave the details – and there are many – for when you pick up the book, but suffice to say that the zombie origin story in play here is one of the most plausible (in the loose, fictional sense) and original I’ve stumbled across. In fact the depth and knowledge with which is is suffused carries across every aspect of the book, from character to background to, well, everything.

This post-Rising world has given rise to a new form of information distribution. It transpires that old media really dropped the ball during the disaster, toeing he government line and assuring everyone there’s nothing to see here, even as the undead are breaking down the door. The only ones getting the truth out there were bloggers, not beholden to any corporate or political interests and full of Romero-based advice for dealing with the recently deceased. While newspapers and TV stations remain in business, blogging is suddenly moved far up the pecking order with the best content providers netting hefty salaries, wide audiences and lucrative sponsorship deals. One such blogging team comprises adopted brother and sister Georgia (named for Mr Romero, very common post-Rising) and Shaun as well as a host of accomplices. Opportunity comes knocking in a chance to cover the upcoming US presidential elections, the first time a new media team has ever been invited to accompany a candidate on his tour. It seems like a dream come true but before long the body count starts rising and it’s hard to know whether zombies or humans pose the greater threat.

Now here’s where the genius of Feed, Deadline and Blackout lie. They’re zombie books, right? But there is almost no zombie action. What we are treated to comes in the form of the occasional large-scale set-piece rather than a continuous gruelling onslaught of the undead. Instead the bulk of the books comprise two far more important aspects. The first is the political and cultural, dealing with the campaign trail and the media following it. The analysis of the future of blogging is just wonderful to behold, especially the fracturing of bloggers into Newsies, Irwins and Fictionals (as well as subgroups such as Stewarts), all co-existing with and dependent on the others. Mira Grant sharply picks apart the flaws of old media and the potential benefits of the new, while being careful not to fall victim to her own hype. Her blogosphere is intensely detailed and believable, a world within a world which is all too easy and comfortable to slip into.

And then there are the politics. My god, she totally nails it with her depiction of a society ruled by fear to the extent that the fear is almost welcomed for the security measures it provides. They say the very best science-fiction depicts not the future but our own present and this is no exception. The security theatre surrounding our day-to-day existence in the post-9/11 world is brought to life perfectly by Newsflesh‘s blood testing kits. Not only do they serve to build suspense in a truly beautiful way but they cut right to the heart of the shackles we ignore, if not gladly wear, in real life.

The trilogy’s second beating heart is the characterisation. It’s a long time since I’ve found myself so heavily invested in people within the pages of a novel, found myself feeling so keenly in tune with them, so familiar. And of course, so beaten and bruised when Grant deals one of the literary body-blows at which she seems so adept. The team of Georgia and Shaun are near-perfect protagonists – edgy without seeming arrogant, colourful without being over the top and imbued with some mystical energy which seems to bleed off the page and infect your day-to-day life. The supporting cast is fleshed out (haha) equally well, from secondary players like Becks and Mahir down to bit parts like the wonderfully unhinged Dr Abbey. Hell, even her dog has more personality than a ot of leading fictional characters.

I can do nothing but heartily endorse these books and urge you to get reading right now. A word of warning though – it’s Feed, then Deadline, then Blackout. I steamrolled though Feed at an incredible pace and found myself slavering for more. Unfortunately I was using ebook versions. So I started the next book and wondered why there was so much discussion of seemingly major events following the first installment which were given little more than cursory treatment; disaster, deaths, betrayals, all dealt with in passing sentences. It wasn’t till 300 pages in that I checked. Yup, I was reading book three. Exit stage left, back to Deadline, charge through it then finish Blackout. And it was still one of the best reading experiences I had in 2014. That says it all really.

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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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Filed under Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction

The Girl Who Would Be King

The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly ThomsonReview: The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thomson (1979 Semi-Finalist Inc, 2012)

This review has been languishing in the ‘must-write’ pie for months and it’s a damn disgrace. The delay that is, not The Girl Who Would Be King which is bloody splendid. Kicking myself now for not having spread the word sooner. I think I heard about this one over at io9 and ended up downloading it as a spot of light reading for my summer holiday back to Scotland. Good choice yet bad choice – it had me utterly rapt from beginning to end but unfortunately was over in a flash as I devoured the majority of the pages on one sleepless flight. But anyway, before the praise I’d best go through the formalities.

Bonnie Braverman was orphaned by a fatal car accident, leaving her to spend much of her youth in a group home and pining for the return of her long-lost brother. Always the shy and retiring type it comes as something of a surprise when she finds herself rescuing one of her fellow inmates (for want of a better word) from the clutches of an imposing bully and her gang. Surely people aren’t normally able to hit that hard? And did she really just jump onto the roof of that building? Something has awoken inside Bonnie and it begins drawing her inexorably towards her ultimate fate.

The other half of that fate is Lola LeFever, a girl of similar years and verging on adulthood. Lola shares Bonnie’s orphanhood but with a slight difference – she murdered her mother herself in pursuit of a power she believed her to possess. A power which was Lola’s birthright and squandered by her useless, drug-addled mother. Before long she too is feeling the draw of the force inside her, leading her towards her opposite number, her nemesis.

The Girl Who Would Be King pitches a fairly classic good-vs-evil story put dresses it up with two post-adolescent American girls donning superhero costumes and trying to figure out just what they’re capable of. Woah, holy coming-of-age metaphor. You might guess from the subject matter that Kelly Thomson doesn’t take things too seriously but the book does actually have a fair amount of emotional heft and depth to it. While Lola’s story does provide some wonderfully over-the-top supervillain shenanigans there’s a whole lot more darkness and gravitas with Bonnie as she struggles to do the right thing while the world’s deck of cards seems stacked against her.

Actually, halfway through the novel I kind of expected a ground-shaking plot twist as a result of Bonnie’s trial by fire. I could smell it coming, it seemed like such a perfect way to throw expectations out of the window. When it didn’t happen I almost wanted to hunt down Thomson’s email address and just ask, “Why??? Why didn’t you go this way???” But in the end it didn’t matter because the way things unfold is just fine. Sometimes it’s okay to just play it straight and keep piling up the tension until the grand finale and that’s the way it happens with The Girl Who Would Be King.

So yeah, maybe it missed a fantastic switcheroo but there’s still plenty to recommend this novel. An original plot despite borrowing heavily from the usual superhero tropes; two very strong characters in the form of Lola and Bonnie; and some action so ridiculously fun that Amazon had to print a disclaimer on their site that this is a prose novel, not a comic. It’s lightweight for sure but no less fun for that and noteworthy for the fact that its creation was funded by Kickstarter. Definitely one with which to while away the incoming winter nights.

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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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Filed under Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction

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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Filed under Anthology, Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Sequel City Part 3 – The Southern Reach Trilogy

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeerReview: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals, 2014)

Dammit, all good things have to come to an end. First it was the brooding yet uplifting Last Policeman series and now, I am sorry to say, Jeff VanderMeer’s dark, unsettling and gleefully weird Southern Reach trilogy. A prolific anthologist of strange tales and accomplished author in his own right, VanderMeer has a knack for knowing exactly what is going to send shivers up your spine and have you not quite reaching for the light switch so much as wondering what potential consequences such a seemingly innocent act might entail. The first two books of the series seemed to distill this ability into the crafting of a wonderfully original mythos, one which lurks in the most primitive parts of your brain long after the book is consigned to the freezer. A swift recap is in order…

In Annihilation we were introduced to Area X, a mysterious stretch of coastland on America’s eastern seaboard. Cut off from the surrounding world by an invisible barrier with only one entrance, the zone is the subject of intense study. Groups of explorers are sent to chart the disturbance but few return. Those who do are not the same, suffering from memory loss, personality changes and incurable tumours. Their reports, where they exist at all, are patchy at best and edging towards hallucinatory. We join the action as the twelfth expedition begins their journey. Known only by their job titles the group enters Area X and finds themselves in a thoroughly twisted world full of abandoned dwellings, a ghostly lighthouse, strange noises and an unearthly creature, the crawler. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Part two, Authority, took us back outside Area X to the Southern Reach, a government agency charged with investigating the anomaly. Despite the bizarre disturbance being left behind the weirdness is ratcheted up a few notches both by the impersonal and paranoid aspect of the Southern Reach and by the thoroughly transformed biologist from the ill-fated twelfth expedition. Under interrogation by the agency and now calling herself Ghost Bird, she is a link to Area X which seems to draw its warping influence ever closer to the outside world.

And so to Acceptance. Once more VanderMeer manages to pull on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of imagination and pushes the unease factor to maximum levels. We’re now caught jumping between times as we are filled in on the back story of the lighthouse keeper and the Southern Reach’s former director who, it transpires, was one of the twelfth expedition’s members. In present day we find ourselves following Control (the current director), Ghost Bird and Grace, the former director’s assistant as they make a final journey into Area X. By cutting up the narrative between five widely varying viewpoints and three distinct times we are never given a chance to settle down and recover our nerves. As the fractured narrative unfolds revelation is piled upon revelation, always threatening to throw some light on exactly what is going on, but only teasing and then shrouding everything in yet more darkness.

It’s impossible to read these books out of sequence, it’s best to get that straight right away. However, when consumed as intended they add up to a transcendent literary experience. You learn to trust nothing you are being told and to expect anything. In this receptive state of mind VanderMeer has a ball restructuring your psyche and twisting your thoughts back on themselves. Each installment has its own distinct flavour and is terrifying and unnerving in an entirely different way, but they roll together utterly seamlessly. Storytelling like this doesn’t happen very often. I can only urge you in the strongest terms to get on board right now.

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Filed under Bizarro, Fantasy, First Contact, Science Fiction

Sequel City Part 2 – The Last Policeman

World Of Trouble by Ben H WintersReview: World Of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2014)

It’s finally the end of the road for Detective Hank Palace. The asteroid which has been hurtling towards Earth on a 100% confirmed collision course, primed to wipe out all life on the planet, is on final approach. Society is duly crumbling even further. Infrastructure has collapsed, the government has bugged out and gone home. And yet Palace still won’t lay his badge to rest because he has one final case to wrap up. Before the end he must find his wayward sister, make sure she is safe just one last time.

The premise for World Of Trouble, concluding chapter of the Last Policeman trilogy, takes us squarely back into detective noir territory. Strip away the asteroid and the surrounding panic and what you’re left with could have come straight out of Dashiell Hammett. Girl falls in with a bad crowd, disappears, detective has to track her down. Along the way complications ensue. A cold trail, a half-dead girl and a missing bad guy. That the world happens to be going to hell in a handbasket all around almost becomes a footnote.

What lifts it above the rest of the crop isn’t the sci-fi backdrop thought, but the character of Palace himself. No weary, hard-knuckled bruisers here; he’s the polar opposite of the usual jaded noir anti-hero. Hank’s still a rookie more or less and, though no naive fool, his sense of duty propels him forward with relentless force. Between his urge to finish his case no matter what and his unswerving desire to simply do what’s right he’s an uncommonly positive protagonist.

For me that’s what has made the Last Policeman trilogy one of the finest and most refreshing book sagas of recent years. What could easily have turned into another grim, grimy, gritty tale of societal collapse in the face of impending doom has instead been masterfully transformed into an overwhelmingly upbeat tale. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows obviously – given the subject matter that could never be the case. But there’s a thread of optimism running the whole way through. Right up to the inevitable final page I was suffused with a sense of calm. Not thinking that everything was going to be alright, nothing so foolish, simply content to know that someone out there someone was keeping his head.

If you’ve already read the previous two books then you are in for a treat with World Of Trouble. It wraps up the tale perfectly, pulling no punches yet never succumbing to the hysteria seizing the world in which it’s set. If you’re new to it then get to the bookstore and buy all three. Settle into a comfy chair and prepare for a journey.

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A Vision of Fire by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin

A Vision Of Fire by Gillian Anderson and Jeff RovinReview: A Vision Of Fire by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Note: Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing the Advance Reading Copy of this title.

Before you ask, yes it’s that Gillian Anderson. Scully herself has finally decided to venture into the world of sci-fi authorhood and I managed to get a sneaky advance peek. How could I resist after all, surely having been steeped in some of the best mind-twisting weirdness that 90s TV had to offer must have left some indelible mark, right? Erm, well… not really.

But before I get into that, let’s have a quick synopsis. Caitlin O’Hara is a New York City child psychologist. Already charged with the task of single-handedly raising her own son while balancing a high-pressure job she suddenly finds herself pushed to her limits by a seemingly insane new assignment. This is a world in our near future, a world on the brink of nuclear catastrophe thanks to building pressure between India and Kashmir. Tensions are high at the UN and the talk on the streets is of war erupting any day now. So when Ganak Pawar, the Indian representative to the UN, narrowly survives an assassination attempt in front of his daughter Maanik, things take a turn for the worse.

Maanik soon starts developing worrying symptoms, slipping into what seems to be a coma and becoming, despite Caitlin’s scientific outlook (more on that later), apparently possessed by someone else entirely, speaking in tongues and manifesting even more bizarre effects in the world around her. Meanwhile in Haiti another young girl is suffering similar symptoms while in Iran a young boy apparently immolated himself following his brother’s execution for homosexuality. All three cases seem to be linked and finding the connection may be the only way to avert global disaster. To further complicate things a cabal of international treasure hunters has unearthed an artifact which seems to be driving all nearby animals insane. Caitlin only has a small window in which to put the pieces together.

So far, so good. A Vision Of Fire is driven by a decent plot, a bit worn around the edges but certainly has potential. Just a shame that the potential is never realised. A Vision Of Fire could have been an intriguing thriller but instead comes across as Deepak Chopra and Dan Brown ghost-writing for L Ron Hubbard. Can it be that bad? Well let’s go through those one by one. It’s Chopra in that the lead character is supposed to be a scientist – well, a psychologist anyway – yet instantly drops anything resembling critical thinking the second anybody murmurs some mystical woo to her. No application of Occam’s Razor, not even a suggestion that alternative hypotheses may be equally viable. Nope, it’s just “Oh, you say she’s talking to people from another dimension? Wow, I’d never thought of that, thanks!” It’s hideous and it infects every mention of anything vaguely scientific in the book. The last time I felt such science-rage at a work of fiction was the detestable The Happening where Marky Mark spent two hours looking confused and spouting bullshit because trees were making people commit suicide.

The Dan Brown reference is in regard to the writing itself. It’s clunky, simplistic and seems shoddy even for the genre of airport fiction to which they both belong. To be fair, maybe this is just me. Not being a bored, forty-something housewife crammed full of red wine and valium I’m not either of their target markets. Regardless, some of the sentences contained within, right from the outset, will put your teeth on edge. The L Ron Hubbard thing. Well, read the book and keep your knowledge of Scientology at the front of your mind. I bet I can predict at which paragraph face will meet palm. Maybe just a coincidence but sheesh, it could be an advert for those kooks…

It’s pretty rare I post a negative review here thanks to having read an almost uninterrupted run of wonderful books for the past few years.  However I have to be honest and this one was a big disappointment. It could have been good but it’s not like it just narrowly missed the mark, it was a mile off. I had to struggle to get to the end and I can’t say I’ll be hanging around to see how the sequels play out. Sometimes people should just stick to what they’re good at.

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