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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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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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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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Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira GrantReview: Parasite by Mira Grant (Orbit , 2013)

Note: Thanks to Orbit for providing an Advance Reading Copy of this title. Sorry the review took so long to appear!

We live in a pretty filthy and creepy-crawly world when you think about it. We’re surrounded by life, it’s everywhere and it’s mostly so small we’ll never see it. Even your own body plays host to more non-you organisms that it does to your good self. Something like two-thirds of the body’s cells are non-human which will either have you gasping in awe and trying to find them if you’re like me or wretching and itching uncontrollably if you’re more normal. Don’t worry though, the hygiene hypothesis tells us that this is kind of okay. Our daily exposure to these alien organisms, both within and without, helps maintain a healthy immune system and keeps a whole host of diseases and allergies at bay. Unfortunately our recent reliance on disinfectants and the like is drastically reducing our exposure, and our resistance is likewise plummeting.

Such is the central thesis of Mira Grant’s Parasite. What can we do to reverse the damage our increasingly sterile environments are wreaking on our bodies’ natural balance? Enter SymboGen, a bio-engineering company which has created a concept so radical it will revolutionise the medical industry forever. The Intestinal Bodyguard is a parasite based on the the tapeworm which lives happily in our guts, programmed to secrete any medication we need, as and when we need it. Far-fetched? Of course it is, verging on ludicrous, but suspend disbelief for now and strap in – the ride’s going to get a whole lot crazier.

Sally Mitchell is unique. Well, aren’t we all? The thing is though, she used to be dead. Following a serious car crash her brain was so badly damaged that doctors pronounced her beyond hope – until, that is, her SymboGen implant kicked in and began reconstructing brain tissue. Overnight she became a sensation, a miracle and above all a poster girl for the new parasitic technology. There was a problem though, her revival came to late to save her memories, forcing her to re-learn everything, from relationships to language, from scratch. Her recovery continues at pace, monitored closely by SymboGen and their legions of doctors and psychologist, and all is looking rosy. Until… it seems some of those carrying implants aren’t faring so well. Suddenly a rash of incidents occurs, parasite-carriers turning blank-faced and immobile before attacking those close to them. What’s happening? Why is SymboGen preventing the news from hitting media outlets? And why do the affected all seem to know Sally’s name?

If this all sounds ridiculous then don’t worry, you’re absolutely right. And, as you should know from reading this blog, ridiculous is often a wonderful springboard for a good story. Does it work for Parasite? Well, yes and no. Let’s deal with the good first. Straight off the bat the parasitic implant idea if bloody wonderful. It’s visceral, creepy and pushes all of David Cronenberg’s favourite buttons. It’s hard to get more disgusted than by an enemy which lurks inside you. Once the story gets moving we’re in good old horror movie territory and it rattles along at a fair old pace.

Unfortunately, Parasite could have done with slowing down a little and paying attention to some details. The characterisation in particular could have used some work. Sally, the novel’s heroine and central character, is at times painfully weak and pathetic. Rather than eliciting a sympathetic response I found myself groaning at yet another ‘screaming and running away’ situation. Okay, she’s technically six years old and dealing with an insane problem but still, some backbone would have gone a long way. To be fair perhaps this will develop in the forthcoming two installments in the planned Parasitology trilogy. Further, the two ‘bad guys’ in the book seeming to represent the evils of science and business are truly ridiculous caricatures. One would do anything for money, the other for knowledge, neither appearing remotely human and thus losing a lot of plausibility.

Still it’s a fun read despite its flaws. Good fodder if you want to switch your brain off for a few hours and enjoy a good, icky story. It’ll be worth seeing how the tale develops in the next two books, I see catastrophe looming…

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Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

Neptune's Brood by Charles StrossReview: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2013)

Economics is a deep and complex subject, one to which I can claim almost no knowledge whatsoever. The mechanics of how small lumps of metal and pieces of paper can hold value, alter said value constantly and bring entire species to ruin is baffling. Thanks then to Charles Stross for giving me the impetus to finally apply myself to some self-education on the matter. Inspired heavily by David Graeber’s Debt: The Last 5,000 Years, Stross’s latest sci-fi adventure is a fascinating treatise on the concept of debt slavery and how it might apply to interstellar distances which should, at first glance, render money worthless.

Neptune’s Brood takes place in mankind’s distant future, at a point where galactic colonisation has become the norm and traditional human forms are a rarity termed Fragiles. Our protagonist is one Krina Alizond, one of many instantiations of her brood-mother Sondra, an extremely wealthy and powerful banker. Krina was created to be a historian of accountancy fraud – trust me, it’s more interesting than it sounds – but her life is complicated by the disappearance of a sibling. While exploring distant star systems in search of her missing sib she discovers that she is now part of the search for the Atlantis Carnet, the remnant of one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated. Several parties are suddenly extremely interested in her whereabouts and will stop at nothing to track her down.

So far, so space opera. What sets Neptune’s Brood apart from the rest is the attention paid to the economic underpinnings of the universe it creates. This future is one created entirely by debt. From instantiation one is lumbered with the debt of one’s creation, which must be paid off before becoming a truly free and independent being. Such debts are trifling in comparison with those incurred in colonising new systems though, and every newly-settled world seems to be little more than a thinly-veiled pyramid scheme built for the sole purpose of debt creation and repayment. This eternal debt cycle is fueled by monetary speed, a wonderful concept which requires some explanation.

Fast money is what I used to pay for the tablet on which I’m writing this. It’s easy to use and fully liquid yet is subject to all the vagaries of the market. Saving a 1,000NT note would make no sense were I planning to spend it 1,000 years from now. Medium money takes the form of physical assets – think of today’s obsession with owning property. It’s safer, holds more value, but is less easily accessible. Now, for interstellar trade it makes little sense to use either of those currency forms. The distances and timescales involved in transmission (no warp drives here) require a new standard, slow money, whose value depends on being transmitted and verified several times during the course of a transaction. Slow money is intensely valuable, with the flip side that it is so far from liquid that attempting to exchange it at a bank results in value losses on the order of 90% or more.

Stross takes these two ideas of ubiquitous debt and money speeds and weaves them through a highly entertaining economic whodunnit thriller in space, no mean feat. What comes out the other end can tend towards the confusing for those whose brains aren’t tuned into the world of commerce. Several times I had to re-read a passage a couple of times before its consequences even started to properly sink in. Thankfully the light show surrounding the economics lecture is entertaining enough that this wasn’t discouraging in the slightest. Rather it has sparked an urge to understand this strange universe.

And let’s not forget that Charlie is a master of entertaining yet knowledgeable sci-fi so he never weighs the reader down too much. There are space pirates, communist squid, clone assassins and battles aplenty to keep things moving. The entertainment value is also elevated by some cheeky name-dropping – characters as diverse as Dan Dennett, Jeff Bezos and a certain ocean-going accountancy firm from Monty Python all have cameos.

It’s a book of contradictions and contrast , that’s for sure, and perhaps that’s the ultimate beauty of Neptune’s Brood. Bodyforms are altered from humanoid to cephalopod and back at the drop of a hat, roaming interstellar churches are peopled by insane chefs and the roboticised remains of former clergy, soul chips retain backups of our mental states as well as self-constructed ‘memory palaces’. Yet none of this is remotely as confounding or unsettling as the monetary trickery involved in founding a new colony. While the heavy-going nature of the economics explanations may be off-putting for some, most should be entranced by the ease with which Stross renders the mundane bizarre and vice versa.

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