Monday, April 24, 2017

Review - The Silent Invasion - James Bradley

The Silent Invasion (The Change #1)The Silent Invasion by James Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are books you just fall in love with when you read them as a young person. For me they included Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Susan Cooper’s Under Sea, Over Stone and Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Others come to mind that I enjoyed as an adult because they gave me that same kind of feeling: John Christopher’s Tripod books, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and so on, all of them treasured by one generation or another.

James Bradley’s The Silent Invasion delivers just that feeling. A brave young person standing up against the injustices of the world they live in, taking risks to save those they love, being confronted with terrible trials and overcoming them. The story is timeless, but Bradley makes it relevant to now: the idea of a planetary environment that is hostile is – sadly – a very contemporary idea that children growing up now will have to confront as a reality in the not too distant future. The book also riffs on very familiar SF tropes like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids as well as more modern films like Gareth Edwards’s 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters. But it’s all the more compelling for that because the story telling feels so fresh. The plot flies by effortlessly and the writing is clean and compelling – which means Bradley has put a hell of a lot of effort into it – and the ending just makes you want to devour book 2.


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Monday, April 17, 2017

Review - Lotus Blue - Cat Sparks

Lotus BlueLotus Blue by Cat Sparks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

World building is the real star of Lotus Blue, the debut science fiction novel for Australian author Cat Sparks.

Very quickly in this novel Sparks creates a vision of a future Australia – an already ancient land – that’s further weighed down by centuries of environmental disaster, turmoil and wars so that the ‘present’ of the novel feels old and tired indeed.

Caravans wend their way across the land between scattered outposts as the red desert encroaches more and more on what semi-fertile land is left; towns ruled by bandits or merchants squat in the heat, their dirt walls studded with old and broken tech; deep beneath the ground others rich enough to be able to turn their back on the wars live in hermetically sealed arcologies reliant on failing machinery to keep them alive. Out in the desert battle machines called Tankers, running on corrupted programs, patrol the slagged remnants of the past, hunted by modern-day whalers crossing the wastes on jerry-rigged sandships. And then there are the cyborg Templars, genetically and mechanically enhanced human troops, the last of whom have all but lost touch with their humanity. It’s a monumental feat of imagination and the details build through the early chapters until you can see the ruin around you and understand the misery that created it.

Memory intruded as she stood there in the sun, eyes closed, soft winds teasing the hem of her skirts, sand skinks dodging around her shadow. Visions of great reliquaries of old tapping the deep, hot rocks beneath the ground. Blasting fissures in the brittle crust, sucking up their heat and oil and ore.

Clandestine bases swarming with quicksilver drones, zipping overhead to missions in far-off territories. Emblazoned with the insignia of nameless foreign corporations. Swarms of human misery moving from county to county, stripping and consuming greenery like locusts.
Big reds bred mean to patrol the razor wire perimeters. Replaced in time with barriers of lantana raze, a particularly virulent form of weaponised weed, coded feral when the government defaulted on suppliers. Genes programmed with a killer switch, once initiated, fated to grow forever, consuming everything in its path. The land became exhausted, eventually stopped giving and started taking back. So the white-coats panicked, manufacturing strange new plants and animals tailored specifically to suit the harsh terrain. New soldiers too. Stronger, tougher. Better. TEMPLARS, they called them—she couldn’t remember why, even though she knows she is one of them herself.

The story of Lotus Blue is far more straightforward. Star is bored with life as an itinerant traveller on one of the many perpetual caravans and pushes against the constraints imposed by her elder sister Nene, who holds the important position of medic. Star dreams of running away to the settlement of Fallow Heel and reacquainting herself with Allegra, a rich merchant’s daughter she’d met last time their caravan passed through. But ancient forces are awakening beneath the desert and when a storm destroys the caravan, and those left alive have to walk to safety, she learns a secret about herself that changes her life forever. In Fallow Heel, she falls foul of a Templar called Quarrel and is forced into taking a sandship journey where she will confront what she is becoming and face the terrible truth of Lotus Blue.

She had never set foot upon a ship before this day, either sand- or the ocean-going type, although she had once stood upon the cliffs of Usha and watched three ocean vessels bound for foreign lands.

Glorious and mighty, their sails had puffed out like chests, moving headstrong into the breeze, as if with a will and purpose of their own.

There was nothing glorious about this ship. The deck was made of ancient timbers meshed and mashed with other salvage. Old world metals, wire, and plastics. Broken doorways, window frames, and doors. Unsettlingly uneven. Construction that creaked and squealed with every slamming gust of wind. The railing rattled wildly beneath her grip, threatening to snap and send her hurtling over the side at any moment.

No part of the ship matched any other. The same could be said for the crew. The sailors were not uniformly large, nor uniformly male, as she had initially supposed. At first they had seemed alike as brothers, exposed flesh patterned with inkings that told her these men and women had crewed a lot of ships. They had hunted tankers and survived the experience.

Lotus Blue has a number of point-of-view characters through which the story unfolds. Star, of course, and Allegra, the proud daughter of Mohandas, Fallow Heel’s pre-eminent merchant; Quarrel and Marianthe, both Templars, and petty thief Tully Grieve. All of them help to build up a strong picture of the world and there’s a nice manipulation of their timelines, which may not all be synchronised with the main story arc. Some of these characters appear very infrequently, which made me question why the reader was asked to invest in them. But that’s a minor quibble.

Jack Dann has often said that novels and stories are conversations between authors working in the same genre. We read the work and it has an effect on what we in turn produce. Certainly there’s a strong sense of that in Lotus Blue, and in her afterword Sparks acknowledges the influence of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Terry Dowling’s Tom Rynosseros stories – influenced in part by JG Ballard’s Vermillion Sands collection, and featuring a more romantic view of sandships – and the ruined machine-punk world of Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong, reviewed in NRB a couple of years ago. It’s a gracious statement but Lotus Blue also stands on its own as an impressive piece of imaginative writing, and one you’ll enjoy from start to finish.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Free copy of Horizon

Get a free copy of Horizon when you sign up to Beyond, my bi-monthly Mailchimp newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction.

Get your free copy from BookFunnel.

You can see past issues of Beyond here and learn more about the book on the Horizon page.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ultraviolet - Blast from the Past

I’m not talking about Ultraviolet, the decidedly B-grade movie with Milla Jovovich, which is currently sitting at 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the rather excellent UK TV series from 1998. Here’s the teaser:

CJD. AIDS. Global warming. For the first time in history, mankind has the ability to destroy itself. So now vampires need to take control of their food source. Against this enemy, religion is no defence but folklore has some truth. Not wooden stakes but carbon bullets. Not garlic but the chemical allicin. Not simply daylight. Ultraviolet ...

So why was it so good? Well, it had an amazing cast …

Jack Davenport, Susannah Harker, Idris Elba, Philip Quast
… and an intelligent, modern take on the vampire legend. The vampires in Ultraviolet are ‘electronically invisible’. As Idris Elba’s character Vaughan explains: ‘Look, the only machine that can see or hear a leech is us. You can only see them face to face. No mirrors, no photos, no videos. Audio’s the same. He can make a call, but his voice won’t go down the line. Surveillance is a bitch.’

Over six episodes, a secret organisation of vampire hunters funded by the British Government and the Vatican try to find out what the vampires are planning for mankind who are, after all, their food source. Why are they bankrolling research into leukemia; what about synthetic blood; and why are they so interested in climate change? Even though the show is about the undead, it features strong SF concepts right down to the guns fitted with video screens to confirm potential vampire targets.

The writing is also a perfect lesson in showing not telling. From episode one, we’re thrown right into the action. Nothing is explained and the word ‘vampire’ is never used, but we discover the world and its threats through the evolving action. The characters are also really well-drawn (and acted). Jack Davenport’s Detective Mike Colefield is ambivalent about the organisation’s tactics; Idris Elba’s Vaughan is driven by revenge after what the vampire did to his army unit; Harker’s Angie Marsh lost her husband to the vampires; and Quast’s Father Harman is worried about his own mortality. Through the series, all the characters reveal strong arcs; they all want something, which is ultimately denied them.

Even with such a short run, the show finishes on a satisfying conclusion, although there is a possibility the story could continue. That never happened. The show’s creator Joe Ahearne ended up writing and directing all six episodes (not the original plan), which meant he was too busy with season one production to plot out where the story might go next. In an interview a couple of years later, he said that he’d fought hard to bring the story to a final conclusion because they had no guarantee of being renewed. You have to admire his integrity for doing that.

In 2000, an American reimagining by Fox Network, described as a  ‘sexy vampire soap opera’, made it to only one unaired pilot. So you can still enjoy Ultraviolet in all its self-contained and unspoiled glory. Order the DVD 
here. You won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

You can't plan to be creative

Back in 2003, I wrote ‘Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?’, an editorial for Aurealis #31, where I interviewed a number of Australian speculative fiction authors about the well-spring of their creativity. The answers, which you can read here were diverse but also shared a common thread -- the ability to be open to the world around us and to recognise the potential of what we find.

A recent article by Christine Aschwanden on Writer Unboxed reveals how studies in Artificial Intelligence, are developing an emergent idea of creativity. The Picbreeder site uses an algorithm called NeuroEvolution of Augmenting Topologies (NEAT) developed by AI researcher Kenneth Stanley. NEAT presents a matrix of random shapes; viewers select one, which then generates a new matrix of ‘child shapes’, and the process is repeated. Through this continuing interaction it’s quite common that recognisable images are created, but it’s only in hindsight that the emergence of the image is obvious. There’s an interplay here between the random shape generation of NEAT and the choices made by the viewer. No human action is entirely random; there is, at the very least, an unconscious aesthetic guiding the viewer’s picture selection. But it’s not as if the viewer can set out to create a specific image of, say, a butterfly, because NEAT makes it impossible for that degree of planning to manifest in the end result

Psychologists are now theorising that the Picbreeder results provide a good roadmap for how creativity works. The artist is presented with a given ‒ maybe a piece of wood, maybe the view out their window, maybe a story setting, character or situation. The choices they make incrementally create new options, which they react to in an intrinsic way, perhaps guided by their sense of shape or colour, or what feels right in the context of the story they are creating. That reaction then impresses itself on the work, which gives rise to another reaction, and on and on in a feedback loop of discovery.

It’s a common theme in discussions with writers that the book they think they are writing at the outset is not what it ultimately becomes. The book finds its true meaning along the way. In my own writing, I’m constantly amazed by how flexible story structure is. How it can bend and flex to allow for unintentional detours. And just how vital and exciting the changes that emerge from this process can be. That’s not to say a detailed plot outline isn’t helpful to some writers. But if we can at the same time be open to our instinctual feel for the potential of the new and different, perhaps that’s where true creativity emerges.