Sunday, August 28, 2016

Free SF short story collection - Out There

New subscribers to my Beyond newsletter can now download Out There a free ebook of my collected short stories including:
'... They First Make Mad' - Travel advisory: time-travel can seriously damage your health.
'To That Which Kills' - Is humanity only good for destroying things?
'A Mirror, Darkly' - Isobel didn't want to be lonely any more. Her mirror had other ideas...
Beyond is delivered every two months by email and includes short articles on science fiction and science fact, a roundup of Australian speculative fiction publishing and other articles and links for lovers of all things SF.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review - Use of Weapons - Iain M Banks

Use of Weapons (Culture, #4)Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Use of Weapons marks a departure for Banks from the more linear storylines of Consider Phlebas and Player of Games to what is effectively a character study of Cheradenine Zakalwe: a non-Culture human who has been recruited by Special Circumstances to... do what SC do.

There were a lot of elements I liked about the book, providing as it does a better look at the imperatives and motives of Special Circumstances and - by extension - the broader Culture, and there were some funny and often gut-wrenching set pieces along the way, but the overall effect (including the disorienting time jumps to different epochs in Zakalwe's long and dangerous life and the barely explained 'shock' ending) was not as satisfying as a more conventional approach to storytelling could have been. As a result, the book felt more like it was trying to make a point at the expense of entertaining the reader.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 15, 2016

Deadly supernovas

Richard Cowper’s 1974 science fiction novel The Twilight of Briareus is one of the weirdest alien invasion stories I’ve read. It made a big impression on me as a teenager, and the central idea of the book is still very strong (although when I re-read it recently its storytelling hadn’t stood the test of time). The Briareus of the story is a star 130 light years from Earth that goes supernova. When the wavefront finally hits our planet it causes immediate climatic events, including storms and tornadoes that lash the British coastline, and the slow onset of a mini ice age. But that’s only the visible effects. Soon it’s discovered that the entire human race is now sterile, and certain people – including children conceived at the time of the Briareus event – have telepathic abilities. One scientist begins to suspect that alien entities have used the supernova to take over humanity…

It struck me on first reading as a very ‘left field’ concept, so it was interesting to read the latest studies about an actual event that occurred in our galactic neighbourhood during human pre-history. Two supernovae exploded several hundred light years from Earth about two million years ago, leaving radioactive traces that can still be detected on the ocean floor and the surface of the Moon. It’s been theorised that both these events could have affected the development of homo erectus, who was busy descending from the trees at the time.

Certainly the increase in ambient light – the supernovae would have been as bright as the Moon for at least a year – would have affected the behaviour of animals that take such cues to navigate or mate or lay their eggs; and we can only wonder what our ancestors made of it, perhaps inventing stories of sky gods and titanic battles in the heavens. Luckily the wave of radiation that followed – approximately five hundred years later – was relatively weak, raising background radioactivity to only three times what it is today. That’s a small amount, likely to increase the risk of cancer, for example, by only three per cent.

So we dodged a bullet two million years ago. And in case you’re wondering, the risk of another nearby supernova happening today is less than one in several billion.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review - The Circle - Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a pretty chilling extrapolation of what might happen if the geek inherited the Earth: the overpowering tyranny of a single mindset with the grunt of a global tech company (a lot like Google) behind it, that decides privacy and secrets are bad and full access to everyone's data is good. The descent into dystopia is presented through a series of reasoned arguments - who wouldn't want to protect children from child molesters - nicely balanced with the real-world implications of the suggested 'solutions' to such problems for the rest of us.

As a polemic against the potential excesses of digital entrepreneurs, it's a powerful piece of writing. The narrative strand with new employee Mae Holland being sucked into The Circle and coming to embody its insidious philosophy is less compelling, but still handled well.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

The internet is not your friend

Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth’s classic novel The Space Merchants posited a future where it was impossible to escape advertising, with marketing messages beamed directly onto our retinas. But they didn’t foresee how big data could be used, or misused, in the real world. Or how lethal the whole system could become.

Your mobile phone carries a great deal of information about you, including your browsing and internet purchasing history which, if accessed by marketers, can be used to build up a profile of the type of person you are: male, female, new parent, teenager, Ford driver, etc.

Each phone has a unique ID that marketers can use to gather this information. As well as this ID, if you’ve ever permitted an app to know your location then the marketers can also see where you are at any particular time and send ads that will show up while you browse Facebook, for example when you’re enjoying a drink at a cafĂ© or bar, to tell you a shop is nearby that sells stuff you are interested in. This is called geo-fencing, where your phone’s location triggers an ad to be sent your way. It all sounds slightly creepy.

But it became even creepier when an anti-abortion group in America contracted a marketer to geo-fence abortion clinics. As a result, phone owners who had been profiled as female and young, based on their browsing history, and who were present (with their phone) at the clinics were sent anti-abortion/ pro-choice adverts. This is not an invasion of privacy because the marketer didn’t know who they were, but browsing histories create uncannily accurate virtual profiles.

Of course this is a fairly unsubtle use of what could be an infinitely more delicate and insidious tool. In Horizon, governments waged ‘information wars’ to sway public opinion and leave countries ripe for takeover without a shot being fired. Misinformation is already becoming a problem on the internet and it is only going to get worse.

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review - Into Everywhere - Paul McAuley

Into EverywhereInto Everywhere by Paul McAuley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Paul McAuley is a British speculative fiction author, best known for his Arthur C Clarke award-winning science fiction novel Fairyland, which has just been re-released twenty years after its initial publication under the Gollancz ‘SF Masterworks’ imprint. His Quiet War series of books chart a Solar System-spanning war between Earth-born humans and the ‘differently evolved’ descendents of early settlers on the asteroids and moons of the outer planets. It’s a richly detailed work that combines big science with fantastic descriptions of desolate and surprising alien environments.

His latest ‘Jackaroo’ series begins a few years in our future when Earth, facing all the problems we can see today, is ‘rescued’ by the alien Jackaroo who gift humanity fifteen wormholes linked to fifteen habitable worlds. The Jackaroo say they want to help, but what are their motivations and what happened to the Elder Cultures – previous recipients of aid from the Jackaroo – who seem to all have died out?

In the first book, Something Coming Through, which I reviewed last July in the Newtown Review of Books [], researcher Chloe helps a young boy infected by an alien ‘information virus’ – or eidolon – to travel to one of the gift worlds where he discovers Elder Culture spaceships that humanity can fly without the help of the Jackaroo.

If you’ve read my review, you’d know I had some reservations about the book and it ended with a lot of the questions it raised unanswered. Unfortunately Into Everywhere shares a few of the issues of its predecessor as well as some problems of its own, which means that I really didn’t enjoy it.

Into Everywhere has two story strands. The first is set some years after the first book, with Lisa, a retired Elder Culture artefact hunter, being drawn into an investigation mounted by Chloe’s nemesis, Adam Nevers who is now investigating a series of fatalities linked to an alien dig run by Lisa’s estranged husband Willie.
After Lisa is visited by Nevers and one of the Jackaroo’s avatars, she contacts Chloe to find out what is going on.

‘Was it Bob Smith?’ Chloe said.
‘Excuse me?’
‘That’s what the avatar Nevers was working with back then called itself.’
‘We weren’t introduced,’ Lisa said. ‘It was mostly tagging along as an observer.’
‘Nevers was carrying a kind of wire that generated a copy of that avatar,’ Chloe said. ‘It got into a fight with a Ghajar eidolon that called down the ships, and it lost. One of the !Cha once told me the Jackaroo made a thing of preventing us finding and using certain kinds of Elder Culture technology, because they know it will make it seem all the more desirable to us. Forbidden fruit, the apple in the Garden of Eden and so on. I don’t think Nevers understands that. That he may be helping the Jackaroo to manipulate us.’
‘You make him sound like some kind of fantatic,’ Lisa said.
‘He’s deadly serious about the dangers of Elder Culture technology. And he more or less lacks a sense of humour. Goes with his vanity, the way he presents himself.’

The second strand is set a hundred years further in the future in the rim worlds, settled by humans who utilised the alien spaceships discovered in book one.

Tony Okoye is the wayward son of one of the original founding families and he’s engaged in a piece of illicit research on alien artefacts to try to discover a cure for ‘sleepy sickness’, an alien plague that is infecting children in alarming numbers. His hope is that by finding the cure he will return the honour of his family to its former glory. When his research dig is attacked, he returns to his home in disgrace, where he is placed under house arrest.

Although Tony is described as a daring ‘freebooter’ he’s fairly passive as a character, straining against his familial bonds but still trapped by them until he’s offered a chance to escape and work for the shadowy Captain X. Lisa is also very passive. She wants to find out what happened to her husband but increasingly she is under the compulsion of an eidolon that infected her and Willie years ago to go on a journey. It’s a compulsion that is facilitated by Captain X’s enemies. The other problem with Lisa is that her story is basically the same as the story in book one: a person infected by an eidolon is compelled to go somewhere to discover something.

Neither Tony or Lisa are in control of their fates. In Lisa’s case her goals and desires are subservient to the eidolon and Tony seems to discard his espoused goals to suit the plot. After the initial chapters he isn’t actively trying to find the cure for sleepy sickness and the entire sub-plot with his family is discarded as easily as the new lover he also leaves behind. He’s firmly under the thumb of Captain X and – later – his own eidolon compulsion. Also Tony and Lisa are probably the two characters in the story that know least about what is going on and they have nothing of value to bargain with in order to find that information out. Instead they have to be told what’s happening when the time is right, and one of the final scenes in the book has them basically watching from the sidelines as the story’s real movers and shakers have an argument.

It’s also true that not a lot seems to happen, or not a lot that is particularly engaging. Whenever the Jackaroo turn up they spout the same unhelpfully enigmatic epithets, which become grating after a while. Much of the action has to do with travel through a variety of wormholes towards a ‘destination’, but as we have no access to the reason for the journey or the forces at play on the way there it feels drawn out.

There are some flashes of interest along the way, for example when Tony escapes into a series of tunnels cared for by a strange underground society, but these highlights are few and far between. Lisa’s home planet has – as with the gift worlds in book one – been McDonaldised, so it’s not a good source of wonder either and her encounter with a bikie gang echoes the kind of stereotypic treatment the detective story in book one contained.

And now men were standing up, big and muscled in leather and denim. Shaved heads, beards, tats. Wolfman Dave. Little Mike. Mouse. And Sonny Singer, unfolding from the shelf of stone where he’d been sitting, strutting over to Lisa as she swung off Bear’s bike.
Sonny addressed Bear first, punching him hard on the shoulder, asking him if he remembered what he’d been told.
‘Come on,’ Bear said uneasily. ‘When I phoned you said I should bring her in.’
‘I also said you shouldn’t have let yourself get compromised.’
‘This is Willie’s old lady, dude. I don’t see how she compromises anything.’
Sonny ignored that. A black and white doo-rag was knotted around his shaded skull; his eyes were masked in mirrorshades. ‘I trusted you to do the right thing, Bear.’

But the thing I found most unforgivable in Into Everywhere was the lack of answers. There’s a contract entered into between writer and reader at the beginning of any book. The author introduces questions or mysteries to the reader to draw them into the story and keep them reading. The reader trusts the author will provide entertaining answers to those questions after they have invested a sufficient amount of effort in reading the narrative. But after a combined 700 pages across two books, we are no clearer at the end about who the Jackaroo are, what their game plan is and what happened to the extinct Elder Cultures they ‘helped’ previously. It’s deeply disappointing.

There will be a third volume, but I’m no longer sufficiently invested in the story to look forward to its release.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How far will we see?

From the Pantropy stories of James Blish to novels like Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, speculative fiction writers have often dreamed about changing the basic human design. Science fiction is quickly becoming science fact.

For the first time ever a blind woman has been injected with a virus containing DNA from a light-sensitive algae. The hope is that the DNA will bind to the ganglion nerve cells in her eye to replace damaged photoreceptors that would otherwise send optical signals to the brain.

But why stop with visible light? Now scientists in the US are implanting sensors that detect infra-red directly into the brains of mice. By using a series of switches that reward the mice with food when an IR emitter is pressed, the mice have been trained to recognise and interpret infra-red impulses. In effect they ‘see’ infra-red. Further experiments will increase the sensory bandwidth to include ultra-violet, microwaves and beyond, culminating in animals that can see all wavelengths.

Meanwhile another group is trying to isolate the genetic or chemical element that enables animals like pigeons and lobsters to sense the Earth’s magnetic field to guide navigation with a hope that the ability can be replicated in humans. So one day you may be able to ‘see’ exactly where you are with your eyes shut.

Hacking humanity has only just begun.

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -