Still not entirely here

I launched this site a while back with a hidden agenda.

I figured that if I wanted to climb the learning curve and learn how to write decent fiction in my preferred genre, I ought to read as much of it as I could. I can be quite a glutton when it comes to reading and the budget necessary to purchase that many books looked significant. To remedy this I figured I’d review books, get a reputation as a reliable reviewer and try to get some free copies of upcoming works from the various platforms that specialize in that.

That worked exactly as planned. Unfortunately the plan sucked.

To list the advantages: I read a great deal, discovered some new and exceptionally good authors that I enjoyed reading and did so without spending (too much) money. I saw how others were crafting their works and was able to identify things that worked, some that worked perhaps less well. I saw what worked commercially, and was able to identify the small subset that might work, commercially, for me.

On the other hand, money is not the only currency we have, and time is far scarcer. There were faster ways to gain that understanding than writing reviews in the dead of night when my daughter had finally found sleep.

Between my full-time job, new arrivals in the family and trying to read all these new books, there was simply no time for writing. You only have to read the first chapter of a book on writing, or the first couple of posts on a blog by any competent writer to learn that while reading is great, writing is a learning-by-doing kind of activity and without practice you’re going to get nowhere.

I soon dropped the whole reviews website concept to spend at least a little of what time I had left at the end of the working day on writing short stories. That got me somewhere (I have a few nice letters from editors explaining that various stories are good but… too long, too short, too dark, etc. I have a not insignificant number of form rejections), but not where I wanted to go.

Split over too many projects and with too many demands on my time, I wasn’t getting anywhere. I also had nowhere to post my own work where it might at least garner a little feedback, provide a birthplace for my writing hopes and allow me to speak to at least one fan, even if it’s a member of my own family.

The advice from modern authors is clear. Write lots, write often, interact with your readers, gather feedback, learn from your mistakes.

Time for a little course correction.

How To Make A Spaceship, by Julian Guthrie

This is not a science fiction book, it’s science fact.

It’s the story of how one man hacked human motivation to create incentives for other people to achieve something he thought was very important. A biography of sorts, it tracks the meandering path followed by one man in an attempt to wrest spacefilght from the clutches of the public sector by inspiring private organizations and individuals to pick up the baton and run with it. Continue reading How To Make A Spaceship, by Julian Guthrie

The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds

This is a bite-sized novella based upon the same characters as the excellent short story, “Merlin’s Gun”.

When I say “Bite Sized”, I mean, “I read this in the first 45 minutes of my flight to Miami.”

It’s not long.

Merlin is a rogue element escaped from a civilization, “The Cohort”, which is under existential threat by an aggressor known as the “Huskers”. They pursue pretty much any and all life in the galaxy and extinguish it, for reasons that have never been made clear.

The Cohort have taken to a fairly nomadic lifestyle in vast vessels called Swallowships to evade and combat the Huskers, and they have been losing a war of attrition over a very, very long time. By that I mean the kind of “long time” that only becomes possible when you start thinking in terms of relativistic time and long-distance space travel.

Merlin ran off, as was described in “Merlin’s Gun”, on a personally-appointed quest to find a weapon of vast power, which could tip the tide of war in favour of the Cohort, after endless engagements lost to the Huskers and centuries of running for their lives.

His quest is so spread out over time and space that Alastair Reynolds has built himself an endless story machine, not too unlike the Stargate franchise where you never really know what lies behind the next wormhole.

The fact that this is only the second story in the franchise demonstrates remarkable restraint, if you ask me.

Upon discovering a long-dead swallowship, Merlin finds out from their records that they traded a Syrinx (the alien artefact that allows him to travel an ancient high-speed galactic highway) a few thousand years ago in a nearby star system. Since his Syrinx has been damaged and his quest depends upon his ability to use the Ways, for which the Syrinx is essential, he goes in search of this rare and essential replacement, only to find himself embroiled in a local war between different planets in the same star system.

The story is well tied together, and Reynolds’ prose is tight, clear and well-edited as ever. The read is fun and satisfying. Don’t expect too much of a novella, there’s only so much space for character development. Also, it feels ever so slightly expensive for a meal consumed so rapidly. It is, however, a very good addition to the Husker/Cohort universe and to Merlin’s story and I’m glad to have read it, even if I still had to watch two movies and write 3 blog posts to get through the rest of the flight.

The Burning Page, by Genevieve Cogman

I find I’ve grown into Cogman’s novels set in parallel worlds connected through her great Library. Her confidence and comfort writing in this world that she’s created also seems to have reached new levels with this latest instalment, which also benefits from not needing to introduce the characters, since we know them from the previous novel.

Despite her heroism in saving the day in the previous novel, Irene the librarian is on probation for breaking quite so many rules in the process. She is therefore given sub-par assignments that are riskier than usual, but she seems to be taking it in stride. Meanwhile, the Library, eternal and unmovable and outside of space and time, is under attack. Quite how this is being achieved is not understood, but old enemies rapidly appear in central roles and a conspiracy begins to appear on the stage.

Our heroine, relegated to the sidelines by her superiors, finds herself rapidly drawn back to the center of current events, due in large part to a pre-existing relationship with the malefactor-in-chief. As she tries to play by the rules of the library, while nevertheless using her connection to the enemy to draw him out and foil (or at least understand) his plans, she comes to realise that she is not the only one preparing traps and moving chess-pieces on the board, and that everyone is not always what they seem.

The adventure is fun and the world and its rules are entertaining, but it is the characters that make the novel. It’s not that they’re drawn with incredible depth, in fact its rather the opposite, with Vale, Irene, Kai and almost every other character playing almost entirely to their stereotypes. With these simple notes, however, Cogman composes a highly entertaining score, and the pages turn easily as the story develops and the characters play their expected parts to perfection.

The founding premise of the series, of parallel worlds each on a spectrum between orderly or chaotic, allows Cogman immense freedom to invent universes inspired by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, with a shot of steampunk and the occasional flying sleigh or talking bear. The implausible becomes plausible when things like magic, sorcery and impossible technologies are justified as manifestations of chaos that grows and fades as opposing forces of the fae and dragons bring their influence to bear on each world. More than in the previous novels, it becomes apparent that one cannot exist without the other, and that chaos and order do not correlate nicely with “wrong” and “right”, and perhaps this will be further developed in future novels that are sure to come.

The Gilded Cage, by Vic James

The Gilded Cage is a new novel by Vic James, and the first part of a new trilogy, and a very promising beginning to a new world of stories.

A revisionist take on history tells us of a world divided between the skilled, known as Equals, and everyone else. Those born without hereditary Skill are bound by law to serve ten years of their lives in service to the skilled, and these ten years are known as the slavedays. This metaphor for empowered nobility versus serfdom is the foundation upon which the story rests, and from which a more intricate tapestry is woven.

While the individual characters remain drawn in shades of fairly strict moral and ethical black and white, the pieces are mingled. Some slaves are quite nasty individuals and some Equals are strong moral characters. Of course, most of the pieces still land on the expected side of the chessboard but there’s enough ambiguity to keep things interesting.

The story is then told from the point of view of a family of five about to begin their slavedays. Trying to get it over with early on in their lives, the group manage, thanks to an enterprising elder sibling, to get assigned to an important family of Equals, thus dodging the unpleasantness of Millmoor, the slavetown on the outskirts of Manchester, where they live.

From here we are drawn into the politics and conflicts of an England more polarized by class than even your most staunch and radical socialist could have imagined, with individuals entitled by birthright dominating the rest of society in a way reality hasn’t seen since the Middle Ages.

But the politics are modern, and the intrigue is simple enough to understand without lessons in the politics of this alternate reality.

Vic James draws you into her world and its intrigues with skill and strong prose, and the result is amply rewarding.

My only regret is that by the end of the novel, despite the ordeals of the major characters and the events that have unfolded, nothing much has changed. A few unanswered questions and open threads lead clearly into the next novel, which I will no doubt anticipate with bated breath, but as far as this first novel is concerned, the characters have evolved, but their environment has not. A few Equals have had their political intrigue, but from the point of view of a commoner, the world remains much the same, and I was really hoping for a cliffhanger of epic proportions, rather than the very personal story that will form the beginning to the next novel.

For sure, their situation of our heroes is both complex and dire, but if we accept the founding premise of the book that the Equals have real power, rather than just some inherited noble title, then it will take events of much greater import than we have seen so far to change the structure of this world for the better. A hint at what those might be, rather than the vague shadows of possibility we have glimpsed, would have been welcome.

Doctor Strange

The last time I wrote a film review, I had just seen quite possibly one of the worst science fiction films of all time. I was close to despairing at the paucity of decent stuff coming out of Hollywood.

Moreover, although I didn’t review them, the latest Marvel and DC Comics offerings have, to my mind, been driven far more by Hollywood profits forecasts and a need to overcome a Godzilla threshold than by inspired or original storytelling (even if it’s with established characters). Just because it worked in the comics doesn’t make it a good story on the screen.

So Doctor Strange is more than a good film, it is a huge relief.

It would be too generous to say that the Hollywood profit motive was not present. The stunning special effects take took perhaps more share of mind when compared to the storytelling than would have been ideal, but that’s my biases showing. Not every film can be written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Also, to claim that this movie didn’t also suffer from a by-the-numbers Godzilla threshold trope (and I use “suffer” very deliberately) would be untrue, but it’s an Avengers film, and in this context, anything less than the end of the world does not a story make.

What we do have is a brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (nightmarish American accent notwithstanding) in a fully fleshed-out role, introducing us to a universe of magic and urban sorcery that does not rely on any of the existing Marvel franchise. In fact, other than two references in the entire movie, the rest of the Marvel universe stays politely in the toy box.

Doctor Stephen Strange is a man who, despite being roguishly lovable and appreciated by a number of his peers, is clearly so self-centered and imbued of his own ability as a surgeon that his world-view is entirely egocentric. Take a man at the pinnacle of achievement and arrogance and strip him of everything in a terrible accident. Watch him wither on the vine and, at the last moment before total self-destruction, provide him with a new path to which he is uniquely suited, and which he would never have found had he not been through the pain and self-annihilation of his recent experiences.

In search of a cure for his broken hands, he finds something else, a role as a member of a society protecting the earth from forces unknown. His photographic memory and talent for all things complicated make him ideally suited to the task of mastering sorcery, something which is learned and not given, practiced and not innate.

His discovery and growth in this new world coincides (obviously) with the manifestation of one of the greatest mystical threats ever to face the earth, and he finds himself in the thick of it before he is entirely ready. But we are never ready, as the Sorceror Supreme, played by Tilda Swinton, tells him.

An visual feast and a fun story to complement it, not to mention a wonderfully hammed up performance by Benedict Cumberbatch who appears to enjoy every moment of playing Doctor Strange, this is definitely a film to take its rightful place at the very summit of the Marvel franchise.

Unfortunately now they’re going to mix Strange with Iron Man and Thor because that’s what they have to do to justify putting a new, bigger Godzilla on the screen, and like fine wine, you can only go bigger, never backwards.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

To start (and to state my conclusion), this is a fantastic book with brilliant worldbuilding that confounds traditional characterizations of nature, government, allegiances and magic.

Nature is out to get you, vindictive and vengeful. The system uses gifted individuals like animals, their enslavement preordained and accepted by all as a part of the natural order of things. Selfishness and brutality are enshrined in a hybrid of law and religion known as stonelore, which also provides guidelines for the survival of a Season – a period of tectonic, volcanic upheaval that occurs when vengeful Earth makes her festering hatred for mankind felt.

Orogenes are the magic-wielders of this world. Capable of sensing and influencing the seismic activity around them. At once necessary and feared, they are able to cause and prevent the very thing everyone fears most – seismic activity. The Guardians control the orogenes, ruthlessly, keeping everyone safe through a form of indoctrination and partial enslavement of orogenes.

Being born an orogene is to be born into a life of self-hatred, knowing you represent all that everyone fears and that your society will kill you sooner than let you breathe the same air. The day your parents give you up to a Guardian, they will be happy to see the back of you.

People live in comms, communal arrangements akin to fortified villages, designed to survive the Seasons when they come. They do this by keeping out those who would steal the comm’s stockpiles and by ensuring limiting its members to those who can contribute, and never more than the comm is able to feed. This is considered a good thing. It is written in the lore.

Into this stable, accepted but somewhat unpleasant context, Jemisin pours her characters. We follow them through three separate timelines that interrelate in ways that gradually become apparent around the middle of the novel. Jemisin’s world is a rich tapestry cleverly and thoughtfully woven to provide a coherent and satisfying environment for the story. This is the greatest strength of the novel, in my opinion.

The story is the second strong point – there are actors and factions in significant number, although the main characters are kept to a disciplined minimum, allowing us to keep track of how we feel about each of them, and follow their desires, constraints and difficulties in great detail. These characters have roles, by which I mean they play a significant role that goes beyond their desire to satisfy their own needs – they have little choice in this, it follows them like a curse. A lesser writer would have written about prophecies, fate or destiny, but Jemisin describes the events, and we see the pattern ourselves for what it is.

The story leaves a lot unanswered, as befits the first book of a series, but I felt a comforting subplot was missing from the narrative – something that would provide at least a sense of resolution at the end of the book rather than a fairly long list of open questions that no doubt lead to further questions.

I had only one real problem with the novel, and that was with the relentless attention of the sexual oppression of the characters. There is not a single one who is not either in some way sexually oppressed, violated or abused, or either gay, bisexual, transgender, androgynous or cross-dressing. Most can tick at least one box from both lists.

While I applaud and encourage the inclusion of these elements into characters in novels, their omnipresence in The Fifth Season felt “shoehorned-in” by the final third of the book. A new character’s introduction at this point leads to a patient wait for the big reveal when they will turn out to have been raped as a child, to actually be the opposite gender I thought they were, or turn out to not be a gender at all, or a “Breeder” or a sexual surrogate or something. This isn’t a problem per se, but felt somehow cloying by the end of the book. It isn’t a function of, and doesn’t contribute to, the overall story, so it feels unnecessary. Perhaps I will get used to this by the next book and it will become part of the story and less of a distraction. I hope so.

This minor gripe aside, the world as built by Jemisin is a glorious landscape for the construction of a fantasy novel, a new take on magic and its presence and role in the world, and I look forward to the next installment. The broad recognition this book has garnered is well-earned.