The Last Reef by Gareth L Powell

I will openly admit I know very little about Science Fiction. Not because I dislike it, but just because I read so little of it and I don’t know where to start. It isn’t often I thank Facebook, but in this instance it put me in touch with an old school chum, Becky,  who is now married to Gareth L Powell, Sci Fi author extraordinaire.  A Facebook chat ensued and Becky recommended The Reef to me as an introduction to her hubby’s work. I duly trotted off to the library to get a copy.

The Last Reef is a series of short stories, some of which have given rise to full length novels. I am not sure I am going to be able to describe this book and do it justice, but I’ll give it a try.

This collection may be catalogued under “Sci-Fi”, and it is, it has all the hallmarks. Spaceships? Check. Alien planets? Check. Lots of cool tech? Check. It also has very human and well-drawn characters, driven by real emotions and thoughts and. The backdrops that Powell has created also feel strangely familiar, despite the futuristic setting. I guess human motivations don’t change, just the tools at our disposal.

Out of the collection I had two particular favourites. The Last Reef explores the idea of artificial intelligence networks, and the mega-corporations exploiting them. I am not going to even attempt to explain this, it is far better to read the story. What really engaged me was the recognition that we may not be close to this level of technology yet, but I am not sure we are as far away as we think. The dire warnings from Professor Stephen Hawking on AI ran through my head as I read.

The second story which really got to me was Arches. Arches have been popping up randomly around the world, and when people go through them they don’t come back. An arch opens up in Oxfordshire, and of course our heroes decide to drive through it to try and find a lost brother. On the other side they find various waifs and strays and end up in a camp for those trying to work out what is going on. It turns out, if I may borrow a Dr Who quote, that it is all a bit “timey-wimey”, and really rather frightening too. As with all the stories, what makes these so believable is the characters, the setting makes life exciting, but I really bought into the inhabitants of Powell’s worlds, and wanted then to survive.

Apologies to Gareth for my rather inadequate review. The long and the short of it is that I loved all these stories, many of which have stayed with me. I have read a few books this year which keep popping back into my mind, and I can add The Last Reef and Arches to that list. They are even now making a strange alliance in my brain with Meadowland, Stoner, and The Vegetarian. Make of that what you will.

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Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

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So, where to start with this one? It isn’t my normal bookish fare, but I had a thoroughly great time reading it. 

The book is set in LA, an LA where hellions and angels walk the streets and magic is possible, although most folks are not magical. Don’t get the wrong end of the stick here, this is about as far away from Harry Potter as you can get. 

James Stark was a member of a group of magicians, learning to control their magical skills, lead by a rather power and slightly mad chap. The group trick James and manage to send him to Hell, whilst still alive. In Hell, it turns out being alive is a bit of a novelty and he is pitted against the worst of the monsters in Hell as sport for Lucifer and his generals. 

James manages to escape and ends up back in LA and out for revenge against those who sent him to Hell and went on to kill Alice, the love of his life. The trouble is that during the twelve years or so that he has been gone, relations between the hellions and the angels seem to have become a bit strained, and things are bordering on all out war. 

It is rip-roaring, violent, blood splattered, comic book fun, with a protagonist that you can sympathise with, even if his morality is a little bit off kilter.  The other characters are interesting, and a few minor characters look as though they may have an interesting back-story that could come out in later books. 

There are six books in the series.  The Delightful Mr F is currently devouring book two, and I suspect will be seeking out the remainder of the series in due course. 

Having read this, I am now wondering what other great writers in this type of Sci Fi I am missing out on. Any suggestions would be gratefully received!

The Girl With All The Gifts by MJ Carey

I bought this on a complete whim when on a jaunt to Woking. It was the blurb on the back which got me:

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.

When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.

Melanie is a very special girl.

Intriguing… 

So, we have a class of children who are kept in solitary confinement, for reason or reasons unknowns (until about page 100). Each morning the military comes to their cell, and straps them into a wheelchair, clamping their hands, legs and necks so they can’t move. They are then wheeled into a classroom for lessons. Every so often one of them is wheeled through a mysterious secure door, never to be seen again. 

I’m going to try and avoid spoilers here if I can, so this review may start to come apart at the seams, but we’ll see how we go. 

The story is told from the point of view of one of the children, Melanie, who seems to be slightly different from the other children. One day, something happens (no spoilers!) which means that she ends up outside in the big wide world, where things are rather chaotic, not to mention dangerous due to, well… no spoilers…

What transpires is Melanie, and several adults from the compound where she was kept, trying to get to safety, and in doing so, what makes Melanie so special is revealed. 

In reading this I blew hot and cold on it. At first thinking it was utterly compelling and then veering towards thinking it was daft. I did keep reading though, and when I got to the ending I was rather disappointed. The interesting thing about this book is that I finished it several weeks ago, and am now only writing this post. On reflection, I realise that I have been going back in my mind to Melanie and her situation on and off over time, and the ending has settled with me as being the right way to wrap things up. It couldn’t be any other way. So, although it has taken a few  weeks to bed in, I have decided I rather liked this one. 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This copy published by the Folio Society

I was delighted when this was chosen as a book club read a couple of months ago. I love the Hitchhikers books, but haven’t read them in a good few years. 

I have the first three of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy (a trilogy in five parts) as Folio editions, and as with all Folio books, they are beautiful.

Our hero is a very ordinary human called Arthur Dent, who awakes on Thursday morning to discover his long term pal, Ford isn’t Human at all and is going to rescue him from the imminent destruction of the Earth by the alien race the Vogons who need to bulldoze it to make room for Hyper-spacial express route.

From then on in, Arthur dressed in his PJs and dressing gown is introduced to an array of mad characters who take him on an adventure across the universe. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy of the title is the book which Ford is employed to do research for, so that the entries on the various places around the galaxy can be kept up to date.

Whether you have read the book or not, the characters names have entered the everyday lexicon, including Marvin the paranoid android (brain as big as a planet) and the fantastically titled Slartibartfast who won awards for designing the Fjords of Norway.

It is frankly one of the most bonkers and yet clever books I have read. The adventure is funny, and thrilling, and full of intellect and clever observations. If Steve Jobs didn’t base the iPhone on the Hitchhikers Guide, I’ll eat my towel.

Remember, Don’t Panic!

Guest Post: The New Golden Age Of SF By Ray Blake

There is nothing like a good rummage through the blogosphere every so often, it is amazing the amount of interesting stuff you can find. Ray Blake’s blog, My Life In One Place, is where he talks about organisation, particularly using his Filofax. He is also a whiz on excel, and with Steve Morton from Philofaxy have created free custom diaries which are the best thing since Terry Pratchett left the Gas Board to be come a writer. 

Philofaxy is running the “Philofaxy All Stars”, a place where bloggers can guest post  on each other’s blog, and this excellent post about SF is a part of that. SF is not something I know much about, and Ray has picked out a few writers which really appeal to me. Anyway, enough waffle from me, here is Ray’s post:

Science Fiction’s Golden Age roughly coincided with World War II. This was the era during which the SF genre first gained wide public attention. Writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov  and Ray Bradbury became, if not household names, then at least well known to librarians. This was a major step forward.

Golden Age SF focused on big themes – mankind’s place in the universe, the conflict and reconciliation between technology and spirituality – and examined them on an often enormous canvas.

The Golden Age gave way to the New Wave of SF in the 60s and 70s, a more avant-garde, experimental phase, often with less ‘hard science’ but greater focus on character and society. In the 80s came Cyberpunk with its examination of myriad dystopian near-future societies, extrapolating from the advances of the time in computer technology and the growing awareness of industry’s impact on the environment.

Arguably, the Golden Age’s close marked a return to the closet for SF. SF was never again as widely read outside of the genre’s core readership. The general reader will still tend to fall back on Clarke, Heinlein and co when asked to name SF writers. Those general readers increasingly came to seek their speculative fiction choices in the new genre of fantasy instead.

But the genre has come full circle. SF today has entered a new Golden Age and has never been as accessible to a general readership as it is now. So, for those yet to dip into contemporary SF, here is a short guide to some of its key proponents.

Iain M Banks

Banks (who also writes mainstream fiction under the name Iain Banks, omitting the middle initial) sets most of his work in the Culture universe. The Culture is a sort of future galactic federation of vast wealth and ostensibly noble values, run by artificial intelligences. It gets into all sorts of issues when trying to deal with other civilisations who do not necessarily share its values, and Banks uses such conflicts to explore the ethics of superpowers on the scale of individual people.

Although there are multiple novels in the Culture series, there is no continuing narrative so you can pick up any of the individual novels. The best of them in my view is ‘Use of Weapons’ (1990), a fractured narrative about a man forced to do terrible things in the cause of a just war.

Charles Stross

Like Banks, Stross is a Scots writer (something in the water, perhaps?) His range is rather more eclectic, though, encompassing hard SF, space opera, Cyberpunk and SF spy thrillers. In his ‘Laundry Files’ series, a lowly IT specialist working in a secret UK government department (The Laundry) has to help defend the realm against Lovecraftian horrors which can be summoned by anyone with advanced mathematical skills and a reasonably powerful computer. Best to start at the beginning with this one, which means ‘The Atrocity Archives’ (2004).

John Scalzi

Scalzi is American. His ‘Old Man’s War’ series is something of an homage to the first Golden Age, specifically to Robert Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’. Yet Scalzi – younger than Star Trek – brings a more modern approach to the story. His characters are vividly portrayed, the science is very clearly rooted in today’s discoveries and themes, and the writing is gently humorous while utterly compelling. It makes sense to start with the original ‘Old Man’s War’ (2004), but the stand-alone ‘The Android’s Dream’ (2006) is another good choice, a hilarious novel set in the near-future US which is still trying to come to terms with all the new alien races that are now kicking around.

Alastair Reynolds

Reynolds writes hard SF with big themes reminiscent of the first Golden Age.  Although he is most famous for his ‘Revelation Space’ series, I am going to recommend two stand-alone works, ‘Pushing Ice’ (2005), a story about a space mining ship and its crew who have to face a series of adversities but in the process make an extraordinary discovery, and ‘Century Rain’ (2004), a deeply affecting time travel story with something of a ‘Blade Runner’ feel to it.

I could go on all week, but I’m just a guest here, so I’ll draw to a close. I hope I’ve encouraged an interest in SF’s new Golden Age and that you’ll give these fine writers a try.

Chocky By John Wyndham

ISBN: 978-0141191492

Published By Penguin Modern Classics

One of my all time favourites this week. Matthew is eleven years old, and his parents become concerned when he starts to have conversations with what appears to be an imaginary friend. It transpires that Chocky is an alien on a scouting mission from another planet. She talks to Matthew through a type of telepathy, teaching him new skills and saving his life which then brings Matthew to the attention of the press, and a secret government department.  Not knowing who to trust Matthew and Chocky try to keep her identity a secret.

I first read this book when I was about 8 years old, and have re-read it multiple times as an adult. Written in 1968 it has dated in some areas, but one of the key themes is sustainability and mankind’s dependence on fossil fuels which couldn’t be more up to date if it had been written yesterday.  The relationship between Chocky and Matthew develops from a frustration on both sides as they try to understand each other’s worlds to a deep friendship where the come to rely on each other.

It is an absolute cracker of a book for everyone.

The Island Of Dr Moreau By H.G. Wells

ISBN: 978-0141441023

Published by Penguin Classics 

This is my first HG Wells, I am not sure why I left it so long before reading his novels, but there you go.  Edward Prendick is adrift in a dingy, the only survivor from a ship wreck. He is picked up by a man named Montgomery who is carrying a cargo of animals in his boat. Prendick is near death and Montgomery takes him back to the unchartered island where he lives with the strange scientist Dr Moreau.

Prendick is nursed back to health and when he regains his strength he discovers that the island is Dr Moreau’s own laboratory where he conducts horrific vivisection experiments on the animals, creating strange and dangerous hybrid species.  The laws of nature are very strong and carry on regardless of what one does to try and change them, so inevitably, Moreau starts to lose his grip on the world he has created.   

This is a truly creepy book, and Wells was clearly concerned about the progress of science and the methods used to increase our knowledge. There are some passages which are extremely hard to read if you have any empathy for animals at all. The whole thing feels very claustrophobic with the island ringing with the screams of the creatures and the absolute terror which Prendick feels when he realises what is going on. 

Whether you read this as a straight forward Sci-Fi story, or choose to think a little more about the way in which science develops (just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean we should), it is a great read.