Sunday, August 30, 2015

Superheroes never die...

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

Even with the superlative highs of superhero movies like The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, someone on some forum or other eventually says, ‘Sure, these superhero movies are great, but as a phenomenon it won’t last.’

If we were stuck in the origin/reboot cycle of the bad old days of superhero movies (I’m looking at you, Spiderman), I’d say they were right. But things have changed a lot in the last couple of years.

Firstly, movies like Chronicle and even Birdman have shown just how flexible the genre is and how talented directors can use it to tell very different stories. Marvel in particular have consciously made superhero movies that play with tone and setting and feel, like Captain America: TWS as 70s political thriller and Ant Man as caper movie.

And secondly we’re seeing a joining together of different media streams that enable stories to be told and built on across multiple platforms. Story no longer needs to end. It evolves. It has peaks and quieter moments. It bifurcates and grows together again. Video games have been doing this for years with add-on mission packs that extend the narrative, but now story is going truly cross-platform.

Done right, this kind of storytelling has longevity built in. Look at Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Marvel demonstrated early mastery of this approach, shepherding a shared universe that allows stories to cross from movies to TV shows like Agents of Shield, comics and video games, and that’s just the beginning when you consider the next crop of Netflix/ Marvel collaborations and how Netflix in particular is approaching storytelling. By comparison DC, eager for a piece of the action, seem hobbled by studio partners that create barriers to this type of storytelling. So the Warner Brothers movies and the CW TV shows won’t be allowed to cross-fertilise.

Time will tell. Superheroes never really die. Maybe the same will be true for superhero movies.

You can read more about the new approach to longform story telling from Netflix here.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review - Lexicon - Max Barry

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books

Wil Parke prays it’s a case of mistaken identity when he’s waylaid in an airport toilet by a couple of guys who stick a needle in his eye and propose radical brain surgery. But when he’s hustled outside and a bunch of people, including his own girlfriend, try to kill him, he ends up on a journey with his supposed kidnappers that takes him from the frozen American countryside to the boiling wastes of outback New South Wales. Welcome to the world of Max Barry’s Lexicon, where Poets can stop you dead with a word, people are not always who they seem to be – or who they think they are – and your lover can become your killer in the blink of an eye.

The silence stretched. He couldn’t help himself. ‘Are you going to shoot me?’

‘I’m thinking about it.’

His bowels shivered.

The man lowered his gun. ‘She made you forget,’ said the man. ‘You really don’t know who you are.’

Wil sat in the snow, teeth chattering.

‘New plan,’ said the man. ‘Get back in the van.’

The Poets who cause so much mayhem in Lexicon are a secret group who use their advanced training in neurolinguistic programming, market segmentation psychology and a host of other tricks and tools that bombard us every day on a subconscious level through modern media in order to pull down our self-absorbed barriers and persuade us to go along with whatever they want. They’re like the smoothest tongued, most likeable sales guys you could ever meet times a million. Being a secret group, of course, you can tell they’re not using their powers for the public good. And beyond their cleverly persuasive phrases there’s the barewords, strings of sounds that, when spoken by a Poet to the right personality type, strip away any final reserves and leave the target a willing puppet.

The other protagonist in the novel is Emily, a 16-year-old street kid recruited by the Poets to enter their elite school (kind of like an evil version of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) because she shows a certain aptitude for persuasion. It’s a fantastic opportunity, but when things go horribly wrong, she’s set on a collision course with the Poets’ inscrutable leader, Yeats.

Lexicon plays out as a taut contemporary thriller. The novel tracks both Wil and Emily, with the story moving backwards and forwards in time, and Barry demonstrates a virtuoso control of plot, taking full advantage of the reversals that can occur due to the strange power of the barewords. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the story twists into a whole new set of operating parameters, then it does it again. In fact the way Barry uses the barewords and how he reveals their origin is one of the strengths of the novel. A lesser writer might have been tempted to resort to magical mumbo jumbo:

People still fell to the influence of persuasion techniques, especially when they broadcast information about themselves that allowed identification of their personality type – their true name basically – and the attack vectors were primarily aural and visual. But no one thought of this as magic. It was just falling for a good line or being distracted or clever marketing. Even the words were the same. People still got fascinated and charmed, spellbound and amazed, they forgot themselves and were carried away. They just didn’t think there was anything magical about that anymore.

The action in Lexicon is non-stop, the characters are strongly believable, the dialogue is snappy, the situations vividly portrayed and there’s tension and dry humour in equal measure. This is a top-notch action adventure with a subtext – expounded through a series of emails, blog posts and newspaper articles – about what the media and governments are doing to us, and how we are manipulated on a daily basis by having the millions of tiny details we reveal about ourselves in our social media interactions fed back to us to inform our choices and influence our decisions. It would be marginally less terrifying if it wasn’t all so very true. If this is science fiction, it’s science fiction on the bleeding edge of the now; the kind of two minutes into the future stuff that makes the later works of William Gibson so compelling.

I actually found myself slowing down while I was reading Lexicon because I didn’t want it to come to an end. If you believe in the power of words, you’ll do the same.

View all my reviews

Review - Proxima - Stephen Baxter

Proxima (Proxima, #1)Proxima by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books

Analog Science Fiction and Fact was my magazine of choice as a teenager. Often it featured stories written by people who were primarily scientists and engineers rather than writers – people like Robert L Forward and Charles Sheffield. In those kinds of stories, characters, emotions, motivations and situations were only there to set up scenarios that could demonstrate the scientific theories the author wanted to explore.

Science fiction is pompously called the ‘fiction of ideas’, which rather ignores the fact that all fiction is about something. But the best of these idea stories were the ones that allowed the reader to pick up on the excitement and wonder of the scientific concepts they expounded. And, after all, if you’re reading science fiction, you should at least be a little bit interested in science.

Stephen Baxter’s new novel Proxima, the first book in a duology, reminded me a lot of those early Analog stories. Baxter is a mathematician and engineer, but since 1995 he’s made a living writing a number of successful SF series. And in Proxima he demonstrates that same desire to explain the wonder of the scientific concepts he imagines in his future solar system:

The intense radiation, intended originally to deliver compact solar power to the factories and homes of distant Earth, now filled her own hundred-metre sail body. She felt her skin stretch and billow as terawatts of power poured over her. It was not even necessary for her structure to be solid; her surface was a sparse mesh, a measure to reduce her overall density, but the wavelengths of microwave photons were so long that they could not pass through this wide, curving net of carbon struts. And the microwave photons, bouncing off the sail like so many minute sand grains, shoved her backwards, at thirty-six gravities, piling up an extra thousand kilometres per hour of velocity with each new second.

Baxter has chosen a canvas that stretches from Earth to the planet Proxima C four light years away and spans some 60 years; and the story, written in his accessible style, is very engaging. Yuri Eden is a corpsicle from the Heroic Generation who fought climate change on Earth. Defrosted on Mars, he’s soon press-ganged to join a group of unwilling settlers on a one-way trip to Proxima. The Kernel technology that drives the ship is not man-made, but was discovered buried under Mercury’s crust. Stef Kalinski witnessed the launch of the first Kernel ship when attending another launch of an automated Artificial Intelligence headed by much more conventional means on a survey mission to Prox C 11 years before. She decided then and there to become an expert in Kernel technology.

The arrival on Prox C of Yuri and his unhappy companions is at the same time distressing and amusing. As one of the characters says, ‘Everybody wants to be a pioneer, you see … Nobody wants to be a settler.’ This group don’t even want to be pioneers. They’ll be damned if they turn into farmers and breeders, and Baxter has a lot of fun showing their modern day reactions to what is really a future retelling of the forcible transportation of convicts to Australia.

John Synge said, ‘And what about the rights of those children? Who are you to condemn them, and their children, to lives of servitude on this dismal world — all to serve your ludicrous, Heroic Generation-type scheme of galactic dominance?’

Martha Pearson stood now. Yuri knew she came from old money on Hawaii; in her late thirties, she was tough, self-contained. ‘And what right do you have to condemn me and the other women here to live as baby machines?’

The main attraction, however, in this section of the story is the planet. Prox C is tidally-locked to its red-dwarf sun, so there is no day and night, no sunrise or sunset. And the biology and wildlife of the planet provide further shocks for the new inhabitants as they learn more and more about what has naturally evolved here in such an alien environment. Baxter also throws in quite a few surprises and reversals along the way, which keeps everyone entertained.

Meanwhile, back in the solar system, a political struggle is emerging between the Framework, the Chinese economic empire which does not have access to Kernel tech, and the United Nations. And when Kalinski discovers a metal hatch of alien origin deep beneath the Kernel deposit, things really take off, with political manoeuvrings, untrustworthy Artificial Intelligences, and the threat of interplanetary war.

In among all these events, the novel tackles a lot of big ideas, not only about the evolution and future of the indigenous and introduced inhabitants of Prox C, but about the origin of life in the universe, whether humanity can express itself in Artificial Intelligence and just what the creators of the Kernels have in mind for us all. If I have one criticism, it’s that in between expounding all these ideas, Baxter doesn’t demonstrate a tight enough control of plotting or character to make the story work as cohesively as it could. But at its heart, Proxima delivers a real sense of wonder about making a new life on another world that’s reminiscent of Frederick Pohl’s classic Jem. And that more than justifies the price of entry.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 28, 2015

Review - The Adjacent - Christopher Priest

The AdjacentThe Adjacent by Christopher Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books (

I’ve read a few books by Christopher Priest now, and I have to confess that often I don’t really understand what is going on in them; but still I read them, and look forward to reading more. This was certainly true of the Hugo Award-nominated novel Inverted World, where a lot of very strange (but entertaining) stuff goes on: I finished it without any solid idea of why or how the events portrayed had happened.

Reading The Adjacent, Priest’s latest, I was similarly confounded. And that feeling leads to a fundamental question about the nature of this or any novel. Namely, for a novel to be ‘successful’, must it contain enough information to ensure the reader is clear what its purpose is, or what the purpose of the author was in writing it?

If you’re not the type of person who likes to be confounded, then The Adjacent is not for you (or Inverted World or The Separation). But if you don’t mind feeling off-kilter all the way through reading a novel, and you don’t expect easy answers (or any answers at all), then The Adjacent may contain some special delights.

The book opens with photographer Tibor Tarent returning home to the IRGB (which we can infer – although we are never told – stands for the Islamic Republic of Great Britain) after his wife Melanie has been killed by terrorists using an ‘adjacency weapon’ while she was working as a nurse in war-ridden Turkey. The fact that this future Britain is under Islamic rule is merely mentioned in passing. The sky hasn’t fallen in as a result, although the country is wracked by tropical cyclones due to inevitable climate change, which has lead to an exodus by the national government to less storm-torn regional centres.

Tibor is being transported to a government centre in the north of England for debriefing:

They passed through increasingly built up areas, approaching the capital. The younger official leaned forward to the driving compartment, said something quietly to the driver, and almost at once the smoked-glass effect deepened on all the windows as well as the dividing glass, making it impossible to see outside. Two dome lights in the car’s roof came on, completing the sense of isolation.

‘Why have you done that?’ Tarent said.

‘It’s beyond your security clearance level, sir.’

‘Security? Is there something secret out there?’

‘We have no secrets. Your status enables you to travel freely on diplomatic business, but national security issues are a matter of internal policy.’

‘But I’m a British citizen.’


He visits Melanie’s parents on the way and we learn her father is Polish by birth and had changed his name from Roszca to Roscoe when he resettled.

Tibor’s story abruptly ends while he is still trying to reach his destination, and we follow the fortunes of stage magician Tommy Trent heading to the front during the First World War and encountering HG Wells on the way (Priest is the vice-president of the HG Wells Society). Both men are on missions to improve the war effort. Tommy has been engaged to develop a camouflage system to protect spotter planes as they fly above German lines. He ponders the potential use of misdirection to make enemies look elsewhere – at an adjacent space – whenever a plane passes overhead. But his mission comes to an abrupt end when the pilot who sponsored his trip is killed as soon as Tommy arrives.

Next we’re with journalist Jane Flockhart, who’s doing a piece on theoretical physicist Thijs Rietveld, creator of the Pertubative Adjacency Field. Flockhart is joined by a young Tibor at the start of his career and Rietveld demonstrates the adjacency theory which allows him, like a stage conjurer, to make a conch shell appear in one hand, then the other, then disappear altogether.

After that we follow the fortunes of Mike Torrance, an ‘instrument thumper’ working on Lancaster Bombers during World War II, who meets, and falls in love with, a young female Polish pilot – Krystyna Roszca – delivering new planes to his squadron. Krystyna yearns to know what has happened to her lover Tomak, who was separated from her during the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Then Tibor Tarent resumes his story and is trapped in a government facility by another tropical cyclone. This is followed by Tomak Tallant’s journey through the imaginary island of Prachous …

You can see what’s happening here. Story strands, names and people are bleeding into each other, echoing or retelling occurrences with subtle variations. Nothing is certain and every observation, every utterance, seems suffused with meaning as a result. It’s all very strange and the characters feel that too, sometimes leaning outside the novel’s frame of reference and addressing the reader:

I feel as if this country has changed out of all recognition. I assume it’s just the way I see it now. I feel stuck in the past, but in some way I find completely confusing it’s a past I never actually knew – Tibor Tarent, IRGB

There were times in the past when he had not been here but his memories were textureless, uninterrupted, a smooth continuity. He felt an agony of uncertainty, memory being tested by rationality. ­– Tomak Tallant, Prachous

Something lay between us. It was intangible, inexplicable: we seemed to be shouting to each other across a divide. It was as if we were in sight, physically close, adjacent to each other but separated by misunderstandings, different lives, different memories. – Kirstenya Rosscky, Prachous

The resonances between these different stories multiply, calve off like icebergs forming or crash into each other. Tibor the photographer witnesses a collection of dead bodies being loaded onto a truck containing the corpses’ very much alive doppelgangers, he sees buildings that others around him cannot see, and travels to a time and place that predates his birth. Again and again there is the feeling that something significant is going on beneath the surface narratives. You can look for confirmation of what that something is in vain, and yet the feeling persists:

At some points, from some angles, the triangle contained the buildings of a city – from other views it became once again that terrifying place of zero colour, black non-existence. Whenever I was close to the apexes, the sixty-degree angle at each of the triangle’s corners, the image began to flicker with increasing rapidity. As I banked around the angle, the shift between the two became so rapid that it seemed for a moment that all I could see was a part of the reedland, but then, as my course took me along the next side of the triangle, the shifting between the two began to slow, and at the halfway mark what I could see was a steady view: from some sides it appeared as the black triangle of nothingness, from others it would again be the image of the city.

The Adjacent also visits a lot of the places and concepts that Priest has explored in other novels, for example, the Second World War squadrons that form the backdrop for much of The Separation (and in fact The Adjacent carries a name check for one of the main characters in The Separation), magicians and illusions familiar from The Prestige, the strange archipelago islands of The Affirmation and The Islanders, and the HG Wells-related The Space Machine. It’s as if Priest is visiting the back stage of his ‘mental novel-writing landscape’, brushing against scenery here, picking up an often-used prop there and creating an amalgam that blends and flows across lines he’s previously drawn between his books.

Maybe that’s what’s happening here. Or maybe it’s something completely different.

The fact is, I don’t know, and perhaps no one can except the author. But what Priest has achieved is a novel structure that provokes us to interact with it from page to page, constructing meaning, reaching for and discarding theories, trying to figure it all out. Ultimately we may fail to grasp what’s going on. I certainly did. But perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps Priest simply wants to create that interaction, to make us engage and not just sit back and let the novel wash over us. If that’s the case, he manages it masterfully.

View all my reviews

Review - Trucksong - Andrew Macrae

TrucksongTrucksong by Andrew Macrae
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books

Post-apocalyptic dystopian stories have been popular for a long time now and seem increasingly so. They allow us to play out our worst fears – climate collapse, alien invasion, zombie attack – while clinging to the hope that humanity (in some form) might survive. Particularly in the YA area, but in adult fiction, TV and movies too, many dystopias feature resourceful, basically good protagonists fighting to save and nurture a society where human decency still has a place. This is the territory of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games books or Melanie Stryder of Stephanie Meyer’s non-vampire novel The Host. We even see it in shows like The Walking Dead. Sure the characters have their dark moments, and some go way off-beam, never to recover, but most want to live in peace and rebuild what they had.

There is a strand of dystopia, which is particularly strong in Australian writing, that occupies a more ambiguous space. Part of the pattern – informed possibly by the very first Mad Max movie – is its brutality. The people in these stories are more selfish, more animalistic, less trustworthy. Bonds of friendship unravel when put under pressure, pacts and truces last only as far as the next meal. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the harsher Australian environment that many of our home-grown dystopias have this sensibility, leavening the darkness (also in typically Australian manner) with stark humour that’s black and bitter and ironic. These books are also more willing to tackle complex issues head-on. Books like Kim Westwood’s The Daughters of Moab, which deals with sexual and gender intolerance, as well as her Aurealis Award-winning short story ‘Terning tha Weel’, strongly occupy this space. Or Paul Haines’s highly charged and unforgiving novella Wives, about the lack of women in small-town Australia and the lengths some men will go to in order to get a wife. These stories are visceral and grungy. You can hear the corrugated iron ticking in the heat, feel the sweat tracking down your back and smell the dust mixed with unwashed bodies. Set solidly in this mould is Trucksong, the debut novel from Andrew Macrae.

As a child, John Ra was found by the side of the road, clinging to the stiffening body of his mother, who had died in childbirth. Taken in by Smoov, a showman, and his daughter Isa, he travels from shanty town to shanty town, where Smoov channels images from the Wotcher (a deranged satellite) as part of his ‘trancemission’ show to tell others of the way things used to be when humanity lived in sentient gigacities instead of scraping a bleak existence from the middens of a decaying past:

Sun went down, lightning in the west crackling dry sheets. No smell of rain. I strung the white tarp from where the show would come forth. And then the Wotcher spun, moving slow and the flash of it came up from the east like a shining eye in the sky. There was a gasp from the folks in the camp as it passed and the wonderment from the crowd that something like that could be so high up and move so slow and regular, and the power of those who must have put it there, and the hope that there’d be another way back to the time when a vessel could be launched and floated like a star. In the wake of its passing it left its messages in the showman’s linkmaker and out of the crackle of static and noise came the signs the showmans used to earn their meat and their smoke. They could listen the Wotcher. They could sing the signal and tune to the freek of it.

Isa believes that if she can just get access to Smoov’s trancecrypts, she can find the pattern to reseed the gigacities and reclaim the past. John Ra doesn’t want to save the world. All he wants is to be with Isa – and for Smoov to stop bashing him. But everything changes when a group of sentient trucks, led by the Brumby King, raids the town and takes Isa. John, using the linkmaker, teams up with Sinnerman, another sentient truck with a grudge against the Brumby King, to get Isa back.

The moral landscape of Trucksong is refreshingly tangled. No one, least of all John, is wholly good or bad. Actions are fuelled by needs and wants – not reason – and regretted later. The characters want to make things right for themselves, or those they love, or the world, but they just don’t have it in them to make that happen. It’s the reality and the tragedy of being human.

Trucksong’s world is also extraordinarily layered. Revealed steadily through John’s adventures and interactions, it feels at once wholly alien and entirely real. The symbiotic relationship that builds between John and Sinnerman is surely one of the strangest team-ups in recent fiction. I can imagine it being handled quite differently in a less ambitious treatment as a kind of Knight Rider rip-off with a gruffly talking truck. But in Trucksong the relationship between trucks and their riders is an elemental, hind-brain thing:

The sound flowed smooth through the air and trucktalk chatter in the link as Sinnerman and the Left Tenant sat head to head and tried to best each other with their sound systems and their skills. Putting on a flashy show, pulling samples from their memories and trying to call each other with the best take on an old tune or the freshest new vox they’d found chattering in the stacks from the data mines. The battle went on and on, deep bass booming through me bones and me head ringing with the echo of high freek sound wash. All watched by the grim Brumby King. Sinnerman shook on its shocks under the onslaught and I kept it fed with patches to mod the waves of sound, learning as I went what made a good effect and saving up the knowing for it would come in handy for tweaking Sinner’s rein, I was sure. The Left Tenant revved up hard and cranked the wattage. I could feel it in me guts, the whole cab was shaking, the noise was frightening, louder and louder and then it stopped and both trucks clunked in gear and started their dance. Sinner spun its wheels in a mighty show of blue smoke blowing over the truck parking. Its eight rear wheels were burning out and its tail came flicking around to match the Left Tenant’s own circling motion. The next phase of the battle was coming.

Plugged into the truck via an intravenous cannula, a mixture of blood and truck synth-fac haze, is the visceral medium of communication, carrying wants and desires between truck and human in the interplay of adrenalin and truck-borne stimulants. It’s just one example of a constantly surprising and cohesive world that morphs and accretes meaning smoothly, and part of what makes Trucksong such an impressive and well-paced story.

John Ra, too, is a fully rounded character, suffering, hoping and despairing in equal measures, telling his story through the clacking keys of an ancient typewriter, spilling out his dreams and acknowledging his demons. The message of Trucksong is that things are not always as they should be and might never be that way again. As bleak a message as that may sound, Macrae’s control of narrative ensures it’s not.

View all my reviews

Review - Unwrapped Sky - Rjurik Davidson

Unwrapped SkyUnwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My review of Unwrapped Sky originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books (

The city of Caeli-Amur was born out of the imagination of Australian writer Rjurik Davidson in 2005 with his Ditmar Award-shortlisted story ‘The Passing of the Minotaurs’. It appeared again in 2008’s ‘Twilight in Caeli-Amur’ in Jack Dann’s Australian speculative fiction anthology Dreaming Again, and its legends were further added to with the publication of two more stories set in the city in Davidson’s debut collection The Library of Forgotten Books.

It was clear at the time that Davidson was on to something. Caeli-Amur, and its sister city Caeli-Enas, sunk beneath the sea during the Cataclysm, was at once dreamlike and fantastic but also strongly grounded in industrial realism with an accompanying political sensitivity. The mixture worked well in the short form, but could the fine contradictory balance Davidson struck be sustained at novel length, or would the whole house of cards come tumbling down, solidifying Caeli-Amur into just another standard fantasy backdrop?

Unwrapped Sky is the first in a Caeli-Amur trilogy, so it is clear that those fears have not hampered Davidson’s ambition. In fact, dipping into the novel you see that he has in fact relished the challenge, diving in boots and all to not just fully realise his city, but also place it firmly within a wider geography informed by a detailed history that covers millennia beforehand while remaining relevant to the action depicted. Add to that an eclectic fusion of magic, science, revolutionary theory, philosophical discourse, inter-racial friction, inter-species disputes, extra-dimensional beings and mythological creatures, as well as a meditation on the terrible things people do to each other all in the name of security, love, freedom or the search for knowledge, and you begin to get an inkling of the prodigious tapestry that Davidson has woven here. He’s had ten years to think about Caeli-Amur, and he hasn’t wasted a second.

Over four hundred years that city had slept beneath the ocean, and with it the last secrets of the ancients. A sense of wonder awakened in Kata. For the first time in years, she felt that the world was a large place filled with possibility.

‘Most of the city was white marble,’ said Aemelius. ‘I walked those streets when I was young. I watched white-caparisoned horses pull crow-black carriages. I watched street-officers lighting gas lamps on hot summer nights as lovers drifted through the wide streets.’

‘How old are you?’ asked Kata.

‘Five hundred and twelve.’

Kata drew a long, quiet breath. So old. Eventually she said, ‘There is a sadness about you.’

Unwrapped Sky follows the fortunes, or otherwise, of three main characters – Kata is a philosopher-assassin indentured to House Technis, one of the three great houses that concentrate power in Caeli-Amur and keep the populace oppressed. Her latest assignment is to kill two minotaurs, who are visiting the city for the Festival of the Bull, so the house thaumaturgists can harvest their horns, eyes and other organs for their magical works. She’s representative of many of the people of Caeli-Amur, caught by poverty and circumstance and forced to do the houses’ bidding in order to survive. There is little nobility in this city.

Boris Autec was a tramworker but is now a sub-officiate for House Technis. He dreams of rising to power so he can exercise his authority to improve the working conditions of his former colleagues. His lofty aims, however, are subverted by the house and its shadowy controllers, the other-worldly Elo-Talern, who use his baser desires to compromise his character. There is much to dislike about Autec, because he continues to delude himself that he can make things better while indulging his vile weaknesses in rape and murder, but he’s just a puppet of the house system in the end, and as blameless as the rest.

Maximillian is a thaumaturgist and a member of the seditionist group who plot the overthrow of the houses. He dreams of a peaceful revolution and hopes that mastery of thaumaturgy might help him achieve that. But he also finds the pace towards revolution stiflingly slow and so supports a regime change in the seditionist leadership that may ultimately lead to the violence he hoped to prevent.

Maximillian kicked at the unravelling twine of his boot, pressing it close to the leather. ‘But that is very much modern thinking. The trend of the day is to see things as falling apart, to think that we still live in a world of cataclysm. Yet in the long view of history, have things not been rediscovered? Surely we are on the path of development back toward the time of the ancients. Are not our populations growing? Aren’t we emerging from that dark age of which you speak? Isn’t this the very basis for the growth of seditionism itself? With each step in our knowledge and our production, are we not better placed to build a better world?’

The philosopher in Kata was now alive. ‘You are relying on the illusions of the ancients before the cataclysm. They were wrong. There is no inexorable progress. Nor are the laws of history on our side. There is no line of improvement between the knife and the bolt-thrower, the sword and the incendiary device,’ she said. ‘The Houses control everything. They ruin everything. They kill – ’ She stopped and thought of Aemelius, of his long lashes, of his black eyes. ‘They – ’

‘They must be destroyed,’ said Louis.

‘Destruction?’ said Maximillian. ‘We must be purer. We must be the new people we hope a better world will create. We must avoid revenge.’

‘Revenge is for those who have lost their way.’ Again Kata thought of Aemelius. She would do the House’s bidding. She would survive. She always had.

To attempt to summarise the plot of Unwrapped Sky would be to do it a disservice. There are too many important strands that would have to be left out in any kind of summary. You may as well try to sum up real life, and that’s the complexity that Davidson is reaching for here. The story moves from personal struggle and tragedy to history-changing events and upsets and back again, cataloguing triumphs, defeats, reversals and bitter ironies. If I were allowed one personal quibble it would be that there are some sections that are unremittingly dark. This is not a cheery read on the whole and few characters reach a happy conclusion. But Unwrapped Sky is representative of the best of Australian contemporary fantasy writing. If you’re serious about the genre, this is one volume you cannot ignore.

View all my reviews

Review - Bound - Alan Baxter

Bound (Alex Caine, #1)Bound by Alan Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared at
Warning! Wizards are no longer weedy, spectacle-wearing dorks with wimpy scars on their heads waving sticks and reciting pig Latin. In the world of Bound, the first in the Alex Caine series by Alan Baxter, wizards are cage-fighting kickboxers, channelling eldritch powers as extensions of their murderous will in order to harden their bodies to punch through rock – or flesh/bone/brain matter – before bedding their girlfriends/sidekicks to quell their post-fight rage.

If you’re not that fussed about Harry Potter-type magic stories, then Bound is a solid action adventure with a couple of nice twists to keep your interest bubbling along. When we first meet Alex, he’s ‘just your average’ cage fighter, but he has an uncanny knack of being able to read his opponents’ intentions. It’s a facility he’s been honing and it gives him an edge in any fight. After a run-in with the local ‘match-fixing’ mafia he accepts an offer to travel to London from an old man named Welby who proves – against everything Alex believes – that magic exists and that Alex has some facility with it. Welby needs him to read a particular book – a seemingly simple act – but this book refuses to be read by just anyone and Welby thinks Alex might be the key.

Things go south very quickly and Alex finds himself bound to the book, which actually contains the remnants of the mad god Uthentia, as well as possessing a shard of the Darak Stone – another very magical talisman – that was originally used by a group called the Eld to banish the god to a nether dimension. Luckily for Alex, who has no idea of the hidden world he’s stumbled into, he teams up with Silhouette, a ‘Kin’ – one of a kind of fairy people who are long-lived and responsible for vampire and werewolf legends as well as a great many other expressions of humanity’s darker imaginings. Unfortunately, the book has an agenda of its own and exerts an influence over Alex that is hard to resist, particularly when he has to face down a powerful Kin in Silhouette’s nest:

‘So how do I get rid of it?’

‘You can’t. Eventually it’ll kill you, after it’s caused as much damage as it can, and then move on to someone else. The Eld did an amazing job really, reducing the power of Uthentia to that.’

‘Oh, well that’s good then!’ Alex rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. ‘I thought the book was special, that it could be read by someone with a powerful vision. Welby told me … ’

‘Welby?’ Joseph laughed. ‘Is that where all this leads back to? That whelp?’

‘Welby is the one who roped Alex in,’ Silhouette said. ‘He was aware of the grimoire, but couldn’t read it. He discovered that Alex could, but by then I think it was already too late.’

Joseph gestured dismissively, his face resigned. ‘Of course it was. The book always tacks itself onto someone with power, someone who can wreak as much havoc as possible before they’re overwhelmed. Welby, for all his studies, certainly isn’t powerful enough. But there are plenty of people who are. Welby really has no idea of the world he dabbles in.’

Silhouette made a noise of understanding. ‘Welby’s dead,’ she said. ‘So’s the man who originally had the book, although it was Alex who killed him.’

Joseph laughed. ‘You see! This is what it does. It led you here indirectly and if you’d died in the arena one of us would have got stuck with it. Look on the bright side, Alex. You’re one in a long, long line of poor suckers paying the debt incurred by the Eld to save the world.’

So Alex is trapped by the remnant of Uthentia and worried about what it will make him do. He’s also not so sure about Silhouette, who has an unsettling habit of feasting on human flesh. Alex is worried about becoming a monster like her, but he also can’t trust her motives. Does she truly want to help him or is she just stringing him along as part of some bigger gambit by her nest master, Joseph?

And then there’s Hood, accompanied by his factotum/lover Sparks, who wants to possess the magical items Alex has, despite the danger they represent, and sends an increasingly powerful range of magical beings to track down Alex and Silhouette with the hope of wresting the book and the stone from Alex’s dead fingers:

‘This situation bears the hallmarks of something very intriguing. I want to know who killed this despicable little man and why. Have the boys get round here and gather up anything of value before the police or some other busybodies stumble across it all. We can’t let an opportunity like this slip by. Any authorities will think it a simple robbery. There’s nothing to trace this back to us if we’re clean.’

Sparks nodded. ‘Yes, sir. And the killer?’

Hood smiled. ‘I think we need to call in the Subcontractor.’

Sparks face split in a wide grin. ‘Excellent!’

‘But first.’ Hood ran a long, thin hand through Sparks’s hair. ‘This whole situation rather thrills me. Bend over that desk, Ms Sparks. I have some excitement that needs releasing.’

Sparks dipped her head coyly, her grin staying put. ‘Why, Mr Hood!

So the stage is set for a round-the-world chase with Alex fighting personal and real demons in his quest to free himself from the curse of Uthentia. It’s all a lot of fun, although as you might guess from the extracts, I’d add a graphic language and violence advisory if you’re at all squeamish. The one thing that bothered me was the fact that, for the most part, Alex remains a cipher throughout the book. We know his parents died in a terrible accident, and he often thinks of the words of ‘Sifu’, his martial arts master, when squaring up to a rival, but it feels as if there is a whole backstory for Alex that we just can’t access, but can hope this is explored in the other two books, the second of which – Obsidian – is now available as an ebook.

View all my reviews

Review - Peacemaker - Marianne De Pierres

PeacemakerPeacemaker by Marianne de Pierres
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My review of Peacemaker originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books -

In the future Australia of Peacemaker we seem to be managing. There have been ructions, wars and incidents due to water shortages, asylum seekers and the other things most of us already see coming, but things are relatively stable in the vast megalopolis that extends along the eastern seaboard – Melbourne merging into Sydney merging into Brisbane – despite the loss of state governments and the welfare system. Of course there are technological advances too, but in this world created by author Marianne de Pierres, the technology has a ‘future contemporary’ feel that doesn’t intrude into her still-recognisably-Australian but somehow more cosmopolitan cityscape. It’s a city that also includes a vast walled pleasure zone, Birrimun Park, modelled on a Wild West Death Valley-type experience, which doesn’t seem out of place given our current penchant for Warner Brothers’ Movie Worlds and Disneylands.

In this park works Ranger Virgin Jackson who, despite her Christian name, is anything but naive. In fact, in a genre currently swamped by adolescent heroines like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and Divergent’s Beatrice Prior, Jackson is a welcome representation of a grown woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. That’s not to say she doesn’t have her flaws and her demons. She’s a very self-contained character, with only a small circle of friends she has chosen to trust; but if you found yourself in a scrape, you’d definitely want her in your corner.

This is familiar territory for de Pierres, who has established a strong line of female characters, starting with the totally badass Parrish Plessis in a trio of far-future cyberpunk novels, followed up by Baroness Mira Fedor in her space opera quartet The Sentients of Orion series and – writing in the contemporary crime genre as Marianne Delacourt – the smart-mouthed and quick-with-a-punch Tara Sharp. Jackson is another fine example of these very readable women and she really drives the narrative along.

The plot of Peacemaker starts as a straightforward murder mystery but gains in complexity quickly as it takes on supernatural overtones. Jackson witnesses a murder in the Park at closing time, however when she goes to help the victim the killer disappears and she is viciously slashed by a crow, which also vanishes. She then meets Nathan Sixkiller, an almost legendary US Marshall who has been drafted in to help with a suspected drug-smuggling operation occurring elsewhere in the Park. Jackson resents the intrusion but has to play nice and welcome him to the city. As they share dinner on that first evening she hallucinates a large wedge-tailed eagle – one that she used to see when she was a teenager and which she’d named Aquila back then and put down to an adolescent mental aberration. Seeing it now as an adult, she’s worried she’s losing it, but then Sixkiller reveals he can see it too, and admits he has a ‘disincarnate’ of his own.

I lounged, or tried to lounge, on the couch, as if relaxed. Truth is, I was jumpy as a feral cat in a cage. Seeing Sixkiller touch Aquila in the van had messed hard with my sense of reality. If only he and I were seeing the eagle, what did that mean? Or had I imagined that he was scratching the bird?
Chance interrupted my crazy thoughts by entering and planting her backside on the seat opposite. She carried a small tablet, which she prodded at with the dexterity of a lame cow.
‘I want you to tell me about last night, beginning from when you went back into the Park to get your phone. We have everything on the Park cams up until then.’
I retold my story to make out that the person who stabbed the dead guy had already disappeared when I arrived. Y’know … rather than say he turned into a bird and flew away!
‘Then why are there only two sets of footprints?’ asked Chance. ‘Yours and the dead guy’s.’
I laughed. ‘Footprints? In the desert. You are shitting me.’
‘We can tell more than you think.’
‘People come and go through that Interchange all the time.”
‘But you just happened to go back into the park without any monitoring devices?’
‘I was in a hurry to get to the airport.’
‘Aaaah, yes. Mr Sixkiller.’ Chance began tapping notes into her tablet. ‘So you claim to have never met the deceased before?’
‘Which deceased?’
‘Which one would you prefer to tell me about?’

Following a trail of clues, Jackson is forced to venture into the seamier side of the megalopolis, where Sixkiller’s unfamiliarity with the city brings them into violent conflict with one of the street gangs. But Jackson has contacts on the wrong side of the law and she uses them to gain an audience with one of the gang leaders, a big Islander called Papa Brise – an at once fearsome and comedic character – who swears like a trooper and identifies a feathered artefact Jackson found on one of the dead bodies currently littering her life as a ‘vodun’ or voodoo warning symbol. Which means Jackson will have to find and confront the ‘stone witch’, Kadee Matari, for help in understanding the symbol’s true meaning and origin.

For a book that has to service sci-fi, crime and supernatural tropes the story is light and fast and very enjoyable. The dialogue crackles and Jackson has a great set of one-liners and put-downs as she faces street gangs, shady ‘clairvoyants’ and downright scary voodoo priestesses in the lawless conurbations of the megalopolis, with Sixkiller at her side. There are plenty of incidents, fights and life-threatening scrapes along the way as Jackson finds that the single murder she witnessed leads her deeper into a plot involving organised crime, people-smuggling, a secret society and, possibly, the end of reality as we know it, and the book ends on a high note with some startling personal revelations for Jackson and the promise of more mystery to come in the next instalment of the Peacemaker series, Dealbreaker, due summer 2015.

Peacemaker is definitely a cut above the standard for books of this type: intelligent, witty and with a good heart. If you’re looking for a fast read that surprises and engages, then look no further.

View all my reviews

Review - Ancillary Justice - Anne Leckie

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My review of Ancillary Justice first appeared in the Newtown Review of Books -

Ancillary Justice, the debut novel from American author Ann Leckie, has been garnering a fair bit of buzz around the speculative fiction community over the past few months and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Philip K Dick Award. I have to admit I was at the point of giving up on it after the first few chapters – but I persevered, and I’m glad I did.

The story revolves around the highly stratified Radch civilisation, which is humanoid, spacegoing and expansionary. Earth, if it ever existed, is a long gone memory and for thousands of years the Radch have been annexing worlds in brutal fashion and subsuming resident societies, much like the Roman Empire. By a curious quirk of the Radch language, everyone is referred to as ‘she’, regardless of their actual gender. That’s just one of the surprising things about this book – that it demonstrates how little gender specificity actually matters to the story.

As I said, the start of the novel is fairly quiet. There’s a lot of world-building going on through the narrative. But the seemingly small events that occur in those first few chapters resonate through the rest of the book and gain in significance as we understand more about the Radch and, in particular, the quest of the key protagonist, Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen who, although she looks human, is actually an ‘ancillary’, a human whose mind has been wiped and infused with the distributed consciousness of the battleship Justice of Toren’s controlling Artificial Intelligence. That consciousness simultaneously resides in the ship, in One Esk Nineteen and in the minds of thousands of other ancillaries deployed during the latest occupation of a conquered world. But the controlling consciousness is not a soulless, electronic zombie animator:

Seven Issa frowned, and made a doubtful gesture with her left hand, awkwardly, her gloved fingers still curled around half a dozen counters. ‘Ships have feelings.’

‘Yes, of course.’ Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions. ‘But as I said, I took no offense.’

Seven Issa looked down at the board, and dropped the counters she held into one of its depressions. She stared at them a moment, and then looked up. ‘You hear rumors. About ships and people they like. And I swear your face never changes, but …’

I engaged my facial muscles, smiled, an expression I’d seen many times.

Seven Issa flinched. ‘Don’t do that!’ she said, indignant, but hushed lest the lieutenants hear us.

It wasn’t that I’d gotten the smile wrong – I knew I hadn’t. It was the sudden change from my habitual lack of expression to something more human, that some of the Seven Issas found disturbing. I dropped the smile.

‘Aatr’s tits,’ swore Seven Issa. ‘When you do that it’s like you’re possessed or something.’

For all that One Esk Nineteen is a ‘drone’ of the ship, she does exhibit some unique characteristics: an affinity for music and gathering songs of defeated cultures and a habit of humming. So there’s a dichotomy set up about her ‘conscious’ mind and the possibility that some remnant of her original, wiped personality still exists. Among all the action, the novel riffs on the potential causes and effects of this as well as exploring the idea in other contexts, most notably in the character of the Radch leader, Anaander Mianaai, who, while not a distributed single consciousness, is a series of networked clones, hundreds or perhaps thousands of them, that exists across Radch space in order to exert consistent command and control. The potential weakness of such an arrangement is exposed in startling fashion when One Esk Nineteen is forced into a confrontation with three iterations of Mianaai that results in a cataclysmic event. I can’t say too much, but the main section of the book focuses on the fallout of that event 20 years later when One Esk Nineteen, now seemingly a singleton divorced from her ship and fellow ancillaries, meets up with a Radch lieutenant she knew 1000 years earlier:

The instant my hand touched her shoulder, the red glass shattered, sharp-edged fragments flying out and away, glittering briefly. Seivarden closed her eyes, ducked her head, face into my neck, held me tight enough that if I hadn’t been armored my breathing would have been impeded. Because of the armor I couldn’t feel her panicked breath on my skin, couldn’t feel the air rushing past, though I could hear it. But she didn’t extend her own armor.

If I had been more than just myself, if I had had the numbers I needed, I could have calculated our terminal velocity, and just how long it would take to reach it. Gravity was easy, but the drag of my pack and our heavy coats whipping up around us, affecting our speed, was beyond me. It would have been much easier to calculate in a vacuum, but we weren’t falling in a vacuum.

But the difference between fifty metres a second and 150 was, at that moment, only large in the abstract. I couldn’t see the bottom yet, the target I was hoping to hit was small, and I didn’t know how much time we’d have to adjust our attitude, if we even could. For the next twenty or forty seconds we had nothing to do but wait, and fall.

‘Armor!’ I shouted into Seivarden’s ear.

‘Sold it,’ she answered. Her voice shook slightly, straining against the rushing air. Her face was still pressed hard against my neck.

The world of Ancillary Justice is immersive, layered and compelling, and as a result we understand so much about the framework in which actions occur, it makes for fascinating contemplation about the ramifications of those actions. I was reminded of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels while reading Ancillary Justice. Leckie doesn’t have Banks’s playfully black sense of humour or overtly political sensibility but she certainly knows how to make you believe in her world.

We all love those books we come across once in a while that give us a thrill every time we return to the world of the story. Ancillary Justice is one such book and though it’s early days for 2014, it will take quite a bit to knock it off the top of my list of standout reads this year.

View all my reviews

Review - The Godless - Ben Peek

The Godless (Children, #1)The Godless by Ben Peek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared at

The best epic fantasy is a seamless blend of intricately wrought elements that creates a fully-realised world with a comprehensive and weighty history that continues to affect the lives of the equally real characters that inhabit it. On the (now not so) small screen, shows like A Game of Thrones have replaced the soap opera phenomenon of the 1980s, with audiences glued to the reversals and treacheries of the Lannisters, Starks and Baratheons just as avidly as those ‘of a certain age’ used to follow the exploits of the Ewings, Barnses and Carringtons. A Game of Thrones is ‘real life’ on steroids with added dragons, and it also manages to encompass big ideas in amongst the action: the clash of armies and the vengeance of individuals play out against an ethical landscape just as detailed as the realistically crenulated coastline of Westeros.

The Godless marks the beginning of a new epic fantasy from Australian author Ben Peek, and it’s a remarkable achievement. Because as much as George RR Martin produces the gold standard of this type of story, Peek gives him a run for his money.

The world of The Godless is a strange one indeed. The gods were all killed in a war thousands of years before the novel begins. In that unbelievable battle the sun god was torn into three pieces so the landscape is lit by a morning sun, a midday sun and an afternoon sun, and the mountains of Mireea are built on the Spine of Ger, literally crystallised on the bones of a dead god who fell across the land. Of course, many peoples of our own world have such creation myths to explain how the world they observe is the way it is. But in The Godless these are not myths: the bodies of the gods are real. If you tunnel into the mountains of Mireea you will find deep channels that open onto the carcass of Ger. As you can imagine, the war and subsequent death of the gods had a profound effect on those who worshipped them, many of whom were also killed in that titanic struggle. But the power of the gods was not finished. It inhabited certain individuals, giving them fantastically extended lifetimes and strange and different powers. Some of these people thought they could become gods themselves,and instead became tyrants, bringing misery to an already disillusioned populace, but that too is ancient history and those would-be gods eventually stood back and allowed civil society to flourish into a series of nation states, one such being the merchant city of Mireea, perched on the Spine of Ger, and facing the prospect of a protracted siege when the book opens:

After the gods had died there had been temples, buildings erected to house the remains, relics and beliefs that were no longer in practice. Bueralan had never before seen one – they were, mostly, ruins now – and he felt a chill, as if a gaze had settled upon him. It enveloped him so fully that he did not know if he could step outside it.

‘Do you feel him?’ The Quor’lo’s voice was barely audible.

‘Yes,’ Zaifyr replied.

Bueralan said nothing.

‘We cannot find the remains of his wards,’ it whispered, not concerned with his response. ‘They are the air, the dirt, the fire, the ocean: Ger shattered their chains to him with what strength he had left. We are told that their remains are the anger in our weather, the floods, the droughts, the cyclones, the fires. They are lost to us.’

‘They are not lost. They are here. They live without him, just fine.’


The cry was sudden, angry, a denial that snapped Bueralan’s attention away from the submerged building and forced him to take a step back, reaching for the cold dagger strapped to his leg. What started as a surge of the Quor’lo to its feet ended with a shudder. It fell to its knees. ‘You and your kind,’ it whispered. ‘I will not listen to you and your kind.’

And there, its voice stumbling in an inaudible whisper of defiance, it fell still.

But as much as The Godless is about the events that shaped this world, it’s also about the characters that inhabit it. One such is Ayae. Training to be a cartographer, her world is changed forever when an incident reveals she is one of the god-touched, with the power to create and control fire. She has to quickly come to terms with being reviled as cursed by the people she counted as friends, and at the same time being prized by the Lady Wagan, ruler of Mireea, as a useful weapon in the upcoming battle for the city. She’s rescued early on by Zaifyr, another god-touched whose own history stretches back thousands of years. Zaifyr has a dark past, made only darker by the fact that only he can see and communicate with the spirits of the dead, who have been left with nowhere to go now the gods have departed.

Another of the Lady Wagan’s weapons is the exiled baron Bueralan Le, now Captain of Dark, a mercenary force that specialises in sabotage rather than open warfare. He has a dark history of his own and, with his small group of soldiers, he is tasked with travelling into the wasteland that used to be the kingdom of Leera – a land stripped by its own people in preparation to make war against Mireea – in order to poison all the wells between them and their objective and learn what they can about the enemy. As much as all these characters have a vital role to play in the unfolding narrative, they are also dragged at by their pasts, and the early stages of the novel unfold in digressive fashion as we learn more about how they came to be who they are. In other hands this could have slowed the pace of the novel, but their collected histories are so rich and build so much into the themes of the book, that they add to the import of the action rather than detract from it:

‘You think you can give up what is inside you?’ Fo’s scarred hands dropped to the metal end of the bed. ‘What remains of the gods finds us. In wombs, in childhood, in the summers and winters of our lives. Once it has found us, only death can drive it out. If that two-bit copper healer told you she could do that, she has done nothing but lie to you.’ His long fingers curled, one at a time, over the bed frame. ‘But you have nothing to fear, child. Not from this. Trust me. Trust us. My brothers and sisters and I study the remains of the gods. They lay around us as they lived: on our land, in our oceans, and in our skies, the power that made us originally still there, wishing to create.’

‘Wishing to create?’ Ayae met Fo’s disease-scarred eyes. ‘What is it that you’re implying? That I have been infected by a god?’

‘Possession is not infection.’ His smile was faint. ‘I can tell you that on a number of levels, child.’

‘Then what?’

‘We are being re-created, reborn. The power in the gods does not wish to die with its host. It is searching for escape, for a new home, and it has found you, just as it found me. With it, you and I are in evolution to take back what was once ours.’

The Godless also plays with a number of ideas through the narrative, central of which is the role of divinity in the life of the individual and society as a whole. Firstly, if the landscape you inhabit is covered with the remains of your gods, the idea of a god is more than simply an ‘article of faith’. The gods are unarguably real for the people of this world. But they are also dead. Imagine the effect on our own religions of such a revelation … Then there are the god-touched. Some try to become gods but fail and that opens up questions about the nature of godhood: What is divinity and can a being who comes from human stock ever truly shed the earthly? Clearly the failure of those early ‘pretenders’ indicates godhood is something other than great power and longevity. But there is a separate group of god-touched, called the Keepers, who have banded together and cloistered themselves away to search for another way to ascend. Not much is known of them but it’s clear their presence will be felt in subsequent volumes. As for poor normal humans, many have abandoned the idea of gods in disillusionment, but in some this creates a dangerous vacuum that can be exploited by those who believe they have a conduit to a new god – or say they do. Religious zealotry is a powerful force — as we see in our own world – and there are always those willing to believe, because without belief, there can be no salvation.

Peek handles all these epic fantasy elements with great sensitivity. Everything feels as if it’s working together and I found myself eager to return to the world of The Godless every time I picked up my e-reader. He even manages to pull in the beginnings of an expansive geography for the world. Just as in Westeros, there are lands beyond the city of Mireea: oceans of blood created by the death of another god, kingdoms where the animals speak, cities where the dead hold sway … It seems we’ve witnessed events in only a small corner of this world, and there are many more wonders to explore.

Finally, and as with all good epic fantasy, The Godless ends with a revelation that will have repercussions for all the characters and the world they inhabit. The experience of reading this book was so immersive, and so ultimately fulfilling, I can’t wait for the next instalment.

View all my reviews

Review - The Peripheral - William Gibson

The PeripheralThe Peripheral by William Gibson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My review of The Peripheral originally appeared on The Newtown Review of Books

William Gibson is one of the most famous science fiction authors of the modern age. His now classic Sprawl Trilogy, Neuromancer, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive, heralded in the era of cyberpunk, concerned with that shadowy interface between humans and self-aware artificial intelligences, which saw its cinematic culmination in the Matrix movies. The cyberpunk worlds he created were visceral and grungy. His was no gleaming, smooth-surfaced future, but one where hackers jury-rigged their way into non-real dataspaces to fight megacorporation black-ice security programs that would leave their synapses fried if they made one wrong move. It was heady stuff for readers who – in the real world – thought Microsoft Windows was pretty cool.

The Sprawl was a tough act to follow and after his initial success there followed a handful of novels that failed to cut through with the reading public as successfully as his other works. But Pattern Recognition, published in 2003, was hailed as a return to form, showing a sort of ‘five-minutes-into-the-future’ world that successfully highlighted our preoccupation with style over substance, concentrating as it did on the search by ‘brand whisperer’ Cayce Pollard for the origin of ‘the footage’, a series of obscurely connected film clips much prized by cool hunters. While the plot and protagonist were engaging, the book’s main drawcard was Gibson’s ability to create a detailed, functional near-future that felt completely real while you were reading it.

Spook Country and Zero History followed, again creating that immersive experience of a world that was familiar and disorienting in equal parts. They also utilised a thriller/ mystery framework to hang the story from, but in both cases the resolutions were less satisfying than in Pattern Recognition and perhaps hinted at a disconnect between the author’s intentions and the needs of the reader.

All this brings us to The Peripheral, which hits the high-water mark in terms of engaging the reader’s imagination and intellect, but is less successful in delivering the pace, tension and emotional investment expected of a thriller.

Flynne scrabbles out a living in the near-future United States doing piecework at a 3D print shop. Her brother Burton, who lives in a trailer on their property, is a veteran invalided out of whatever Middle East conflict the US was most recently embroiled in and plagued by uncontrollable shudders due to the surgical removal of his combat enhancements. There’s little real work around, the economy is down the tubes and the corporatisation of America seems all but complete. Smart phones are smarter than ever and other tech we can only currently imagine is easily available, but everything is covered by a greasy miasma, right down to the cardboard rental cars running on chicken fat:

Coming down the path, she saw stray crumbs of the foam, packed down hard in the dark earth. He had the trailer’s lights turned up, and closer, through a window, she partly saw him stand, turn, and on his spine and side the marks where they took the haptics off, like the skin was dusted with something dead-fish silver. They said they could get that off too, but he didn’t want to keep going back.

… Inside, the trailer was the colour of Vaseline, LEDs buried in it, bedded in Hefty Mart amber. She’d helped him sweep it out, before he moved in. He hadn’t bothered to bring the shop vac down from the garage, just bombed the inside a good inch thick with this Chinese polymer, dried glassy and flexible. You could see stubs of burnt matches down inside that, or the cork-patterned paper on the squashed filter of a legally sold cigarette, older than she was.

… Now he just got his stuff out before he hosed the inside, every week or two, like washing out Tupperware. Leon said the polymer was curatorial, how you could peel it all out before you put your American classic up on eBay. Let it take the dirt with it.

While sitting in for her brother, who’s moonlighting as a security drone operator, Flynne witnesses a murder and, very quickly after, Lev Zubov, her brother’s employer, contacts her and reveals that the company her brother works for is run from the future, which is where the murder she saw took place. But this is much weirder than a simple time travel tale. A computer server somewhere in China has inadvertently allowed information to flow between the future and the past:

‘You might begin by explaining this hobby of yours, Mr Zubov. Your solicitors described you to me as a “continua enthusiast”.’

‘That’s never entirely easy,’ said Lev. ‘You know about the server?’

‘That great mystery, yes. Assumed to be Chinese, and as with so many aspects of China today, quite beyond us. You use it to communicate with the past, or rather a past, since in our actual past, you didn’t. That rather hurts my head, Mr Zubov. I gather it doesn’t hurt yours?’

‘Far less than the sort of paradox we’re accustomed to culturally, in discussing imaginary transtemporal affairs,’ said Lev. ‘It’s actually quite simple. The act of connection produces a fork in causality, the new branch causally unique. A stub, as we call them.’

The stage is set for a time war, with Flynne engaged by Lev’s side to identify who was responsible for the murder while the murderer – who remains in the shadows for most of the book – hires assassins in the past to kill her. Lev sends back plans for a telepresence rig that allows Flynne to inhabit a ‘peripheral’ located in his time – basically a human facsimile without a mind – in order to help finger the killer. It’s during one of these telepresence trips that she learns about the ‘jackpot’, a sharp dividing line between Flynne’s time and the future: a multi-modal cataclysm that killed 80% of the world’s population even while it left the survivors in control of technological advances that enabled some among them to create kleptocracies – fantastically powerful nation states run by robber barons who take what they want with impunity. But if Flynne’s timeline has split off from the main branch, the jackpot may be avoidable.

The real joy of the novel is found in the detailed inspection of the technological, social and political landscapes of both these future times as well as continual extrapolations of the effects of time-travel communication and how it impacts on the characters in both time streams. When attempts to kill Flynne fail, both sides move on to economic warfare, using agents in the past to buy up huge amounts of stocks and shares and eventually entire corporations in order to get the upper hand. Flynne and Burton become controlling shareholders on one side of this economic arms race, which grows so quickly it threatens to topple the entire US economy before the government is prompted to act against them.

As with Gibson’s previous books, the detail and the world-building is immersive and the extrapolation is superb, but less attention is paid to the thriller aspect of the book, so while my imagination was fully engaged, my emotions were less so. I didn’t feel any real jeopardy for the characters, and action scenes were either told in retrospect or delivered in a flat style that failed to really build tension. Some thriller elements appeared a little clunky, such as the convenient way Flynne swallows a GPS tracker chip just before she gets kidnapped. And the pace of the novel never really picks up. We’re told early on that Flynne’s attendance at a party in the future will help her identify the killer, but most of the book flies by with little real progress towards that main objective and the party only takes place in the final few chapters. As with Spook Country and Zero History, the big reveal we all expect from a thriller fails to emerge. It seems we’ll never really understand the true cause and reason for all the plot machinations and as a result the novel grinds to a halt rather than a satisfying conclusion.

View all my reviews

Review - Clade - James Bradley

CladeClade by James Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared in

A near-future novel that uses the devastating effects of climate change as its setting and yet isn’t a complete downer: that’s quite an achievement, particularly as it also avoids resorting to the kind of Hollywood, gung-ho ‘Hey, we saved everyone, anyway’ device to make it all better. If I had to sum up James Bradley’s Clade in one word, it would be ‘unexpected’.

A ‘clade’ encompasses all the members of a species alive and dead that share a common ancestor. In the novel it refers most strongly to the entire human race, a clade that is in danger of being wiped from the face of the planet it has so egregiously damaged, although other clades are also being destroyed due to climate change in the book.

Clade is not so much a novel as a series of connected stories, time-hopping forward and centring for the most part on a single family and how they survive, or fail to survive, when faced with the myriad effects of a warming atmosphere. It’s an important point made by the book – but in a subtle, non-preachy way – that an increase of a couple of degrees globally doesn’t just mean we have to wear shorts all year round. It means increasingly destructive weather events, power ‘brownouts’, drought and crop failure, starvation and pandemics, not just as one-offs but as the norm, hammering at humanity again and again, killing millions: fathers losing daughters, wives losing husbands, not just statistics, but individuals. You, me and people just like us. And yet this is not a depressing novel.

Adam, a climate scientist, is worried about bringing a new child into the world with his partner because out on the Antarctic ice shelf, he can already see the end of the world accelerating towards them. Still, when Summer is born she is a gift, and her parents bring her up the best way they know how, even though it’s getting more and more difficult to pretend the world around them is normal. Fast-forward and Summer and her parents are estranged, with Summer living in England, which is being pounded by storms when her father tracks her down and finds she has a child of her own: Noah.

Now, though, the sea is returning. In recent years these fields and towns have flooded more than once, and although the windmills that drive the drainage systems testify to people’s determination to keep the water at bay, it is really only delaying the inevitable.

Those who live here know this, of course. Hence the signs of preparation, the rowboats in driveways and on lawns, the canoes and kayaks propped against walls.

There was a time when people talked about boiling the frog, arguing that the warming of the planet was too gradual to galvanise effective action, and although in recent years that has changed, delay having been replaced by panic, resistance replaced by more effective solutions, Adam still suspects that at some level people do not understand the scale of the transformation that is overtaking them. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, the reality is that this place is already lost, that some time soon the ocean will have it back, the planet will overwhelm humanity.

This isn’t a book about apportioning blame. And as the characters slide into the apocalypse and things get worse, the focus isn’t on all-or-nothing survival. Clade is not emulating The Walking Dead. If anything, it shares some DNA with the BBC docudrama Threads, which was banned by the BBC at the height of the Cold War because it showed what a stupid idea nuclear war really was. Certainly the survival element is here and the characters suffer loss, but they are still identifiably human despite what they’ve suffered. They try to understand what has happened to them. And, most importantly, they still have the capacity to hope, and find that hope in the most unexpected places:

It was sort of sad, all the trees there in the water, but it was also weirdly beautiful. The water was dark brown – tannin from the eucalypts, Dr Leith told me later – and so still you could see the grass and leaves and branches scattered in the shallows.

I would have stayed there longer, but after a while I began to feel uneasy, like somebody was watching me. Looking around I couldn’t see anybody, but then again if there was somebody it would have been dead easy for them to hide. Just like realising people had been in the house last night, it creeped me out, so I headed back.

Noah had his lenses on when I got there, his face twitching and his hands opening and closing. I watched him for a while, wondering how long the software agents and AIs would keep running if we all died. Would the games continue on without us? It was a strange thought, all those worlds left empty, waiting, their only inhabitants things of bits and light.

As I said, James Bradley has created something unexpected in Clade. He’s stripped the politics from what has become a very political issue and shown us the humanity that lies beneath it. He hasn’t made the apocalypse palatable, but he has made it something grounded and relatable to you and me. That’s quite an achievement.

I hope people read Clade. I hope they’re not scared by the world it portrays but that they see it for what it is: a future that grows more possible day by day. A future we should do everything in our power to avoid. And I hope that understanding makes it easier for them to press for change in their own lives and in whatever government represents them.

View all my reviews

Revew - Something Coming Through - Paul McAuley

Something Coming ThroughSomething Coming Through by Paul McAuley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books

Paul McAuley is a multi-award-winning speculative fiction author whose Quiet War series, which spawned four novels and a collection of short stories, is one of the most enjoyable space-based speculative fiction cycles to come along in the last few years. His latest venture, Something Coming Through, revolves around a fascinating premise. Starting just a few years in our future, Earth is going from bad to worse. You name it, we’re copping it: revolutions, counter-revolutions, civil wars, terrorism, water wars, netwars all mixed up with the growing effects of climate change and financial collapse. But everything changes when we are visited by extraterrestrial intelligence …

No one had ever seen one of the Jackaroo in the flesh. They could be devils with bright red skin and horns and hooves and barbed tails, or angels, or anything in between. Gas bags evolved to ride the frigid winds of an exoJupiter. Machine intelligences. Self-organising magnetic fields. No one knew. And no one knew whether or not the Jackaroo actually inhabited their floppy spaceships – the tangles of restless vanes that had somehow towed the mouths of fifteen wormholes, each mounted on the polished face of an asteroid fragment, into L5 orbit between the Earth and Moon. Soon after the Jackaroo revealed themselves, one of their ships had been vaporised by a thirty-kiloton nuclear bomb delivered by a Chinese Long March rocket.

Despite being attacked, the Jackaroo do not take offence. The wormholes are a gift to humanity, offering near instantaneous travel to 15 habitable worlds light years away, and well out of reach of our paltry chemical rocket spaceships. But these worlds had previously been inhabited by other aliens, previous recipients of the Jackaroo’s gifts, who have long since gone to dust: the Elder Cultures. Artefacts of these cultures are brought back to Earth as part of the regular Jackaroo shuttle service that supports Earth’s colonisation of the worlds, but some of these finds are dangerous, containing memes or eidolons, alien ghosts if you will, that place compelling ideas in the minds of those they infect.

It’s a huge starting point and plays immediately into all kinds of fears about the true nature of the Jackaroo gift and the effect on humanity of suddenly being given everything it desired without having to struggle for it: new worlds, untold mineral wealth, vast tracts of arable land, an end to overpopulation, hunger, scarcity as a whole. But what’s behind it? Is it meant to divert us or domesticate us? Or do the Jackaroo have some other purpose only they can understand? And did the Elder Cultures die out, were they destroyed by the Jackaroo or are they still out there somewhere?

Given the potential of these gifts for negative cultural impact and the very real danger from Elder Culture infection, it’s no surprise that a number of government and non-government enterprises emerge to study the effects of the Jackaroo appearance, while others attempt to monetise or weaponise the finds. It’s a potentially explosive situation for Chloe, the protagonist of the story.

Chloe works for a private research agency called Disruption Theory and it’s her job to sniff out potential Elder Culture flare-ups and outbreaks in the community so her colleagues can study them. One such event leads her into a dangerous search for a young boy and his younger sister who seem to have been infected by a powerful eidolon and who promptly go missing just as she tracks them down.

Meanwhile on one of the ‘gift planets’ that now hosts a burgeoning human settlement, ‘murder police’ detective Vic Gayle and his new rookie partner are investigating a suspicious death that has possible links to organised crime and in particular the illegal exportation of alien artefacts …

There’s quite a William Gibson vibe to Something Coming Through, with a thriller template being used to tell a story that goes to some very weird places indeed. In a quote provided for the book, SF author Alistair Reynolds says it’s ‘as tight and relentlessly paced as an Elmore Leonard thriller’. McAuley is a wonderful speculative fiction writer, but he’s no Elmore Leonard, and writing gripping thrillers requires a very different skill set. The Vic Gayle story thread reads like a fairly standard police procedural with a number of predictable plot beats and this is a distinct weakness in the book.

But McAuley’s description of the progress of human settlement on the planet Mangala has a depressing ring of truth to it. As we move out among the stars we bring all the bad along with the good. Crime is high on Mangala and the cities and residential areas are completely ‘McDonald-ised’ with every ounce of alien beauty seemingly wrung out of them on purpose.

On Earth, Chloe clashes with Chief Inspector Adam Nevers of the London Metropolitan Police’s Alien Technology Investigation Squad, who voices a similarly grim view of what ‘humanity’s greatest adventure’ has led to:

‘And what does it say about us,’ Nevers said, in a level, serious voice, holding Chloe’s gaze, ‘when just about the first thing we do when we reach other worlds is look for stuff to get us high? That when we find things that are a cross between animals and machines, all we can think to do with them is squirt extracts of their blood into our veins. That’s some sorry shit right there.’

‘And that’s an impressive speech.’

Chloe was wondering if she was supposed to agree with him, to renounce her work right there and then.

‘You and I know it isn’t all shiny toys, don’t we?’ Nevers said.

‘But the difference is, maybe, you see the worst in people, and I hope for something better.’

Chloe’s search brings her into conflict with a wider conspiracy that has some bearing on what Vic’s investigating out on Mangala, and as the story progresses, it’s the thriller aspect that more and more takes centre stage until the inevitable conflict between those who seek to use the alien artefacts for their own gain and those who just want to protect humanity.

Something Coming Through riffs on a lot of interesting concepts about cultural appropriation, the dangerous attraction of ideas – particularly ideas of alien origin – and the tawdriness of reality compared with our dreams. The engine room of the novel is powered by the central question set up at the beginning: what on Earth are the Jackaroo really up to? The ending of the book sidesteps an answer by focusing on the unexpected outcome of Chloe’s quest, which – frustratingly – is recounted via a third-person account. So I finished the book feeling somewhat perturbed. It was only while researching the title for this review that I discovered a (perhaps inevitable) sequel is in the works, Into Everywhere, which promises an answer to the central question. So, on reflection I’m not so annoyed. I’m hooked.

View all my reviews

Review - Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson

AuroraAurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on

Kim Stanley Robinson is pretty much a god in science fiction circles. Winner of 11 major science fiction awards, including the Hugo and Nebula, he’s written over 20 novels, including the highly acclaimed Mars Trilogy and the more recent 2312.

He writes about the big adventures facing humanity, whether it be terraforming Mars or taming our solar system. The Mars Trilogy, probably his best-known work, balances a deep understanding of planetary science with a sprawling tale of human vanity, intrigue, political manoeuvrings, rivalries and murder. The cast of characters is long and the scope of the tale is reminiscent of a James A Michener doorstop novel. There’s something for everyone in the Mars books and you come away from them not only having enjoyed a huge and enthralling adventure, but also having learnt something about how humanity might move out and tame our nearest planetary neighbour as well as how precious our own biosphere is and – by extension – how important it is to protect it.

Aurora, Robinson’s latest tome, centres on surely the greatest adventure any group of humans could embark upon: a one-way multi-generational trip in search of a new Earth to call home under an alien sun. The action begins with the final generation of starfarers closing on their destination, the planet Aurora.

The first short section introduces us to Devi, the ship’s main trouble-shooter, wrangling and jury-rigging ship systems that are in constant need of maintenance and repair. She’s frustrated by the constant losing battle to hold the ship together. And what a ship it is. Typically, Robinson has built his starship with exacting detail, working out all the necessary elements for such an enterprise and considering the problems faced not only by the mechanical infrastructure but the delicately balanced artificial biosphere more than 170 years after the original launch.

Devi’s daughter Freya is just beginning to test boundaries like any normal child, although her parents are worried about the pace of her development, and this first part is told through her eyes, which means we are introduced in part to the inner workings of the ship with a child’s understanding. There’s a lot to take in but the promise of landfall on an alien planet keeps the novel ticking along:

Then one day one of the printers breaks, and this puts Devi into an immediate fury of worry. No one sees it but Freya, as everyone is upset, scared, looking to Devi to make things right. So Devi hurries down to the print shop, dragging Freya along, talking on her headset and sometimes stopping mid-conversation to put her hand over the little mike in front of her mouth and curse sharply, or say ‘Wait just a second,’ so she can talk to people coming up to her on the corniche. Often she puts her hand on these people’s arms to calm them down, and they do calm down, even though it’s clear to Freya that Devi herself is very mad. But the others do not see or feel it. It’s strange to think that Devi is such a good liar.

At the print shop a big group of people are packed into the little meeting room, looking at screens and talking things over. Devi shoos Freya to a corner with the cushions and paints and lots of building parts in boxes, then goes over to the biggest group and starts asking questions.

The subsequent sections are quite different in tone, however. Devi talks long into the night with the ship’s computer and at one point charges it with telling the ‘story of the journey’. The ship’s efforts begin as a series of facts and figures – as you might expect – but Devi exhorts it to invest the tale with some narrative verve and to vary the language with metaphor and simile. At first it’s interesting to read, as the computer hones its storytelling skill, but I soon found the computer voice became not only wearing, but extremely limiting.

The fundamental problem with ‘computer-as-narrator’ is that it can’t effectively write first-person point of view or even third-person subjective narrative, because even the smartest computer can’t infer human feeling from anything it observes. As a result, the story doesn’t have many characters. It has Freya and her dad and a couple of others who are ‘described at a distance’ but in no way are they living, breathing people. It feels as if Robinson has hobbled himself and the story by choosing to tell it this way.

All the computer can do is tell us what happens and what people do about it and often speech is not direct but reported speech and action is summarised. Arguments are spoken about in general with ‘some people’ espousing one view and ‘others’ loudly disagreeing. There’s little impetus for the reader to invest emotionally in what’s happening because we don’t really get a chance to inhabit the characters. Equally there’s little demonstrable emotional depth shown between the characters for the same reason. The people in Aurora feel like little more than mouthpieces for a particular set of ideas being explored within the narrative framework. And the framework itself is laid bare as a result. Violent scenes are dispassionately reported and analysed, because what else would a computer do? But that means when things go bad it’s hard to care, even when we’re told the effect of living on a spaceship for so long is affecting the development of the travellers’ children:

The first new generation passed their second birthdays, and most of them began to walk a little before or after that time. It took a few months more to be sure that as a cohort their ability to walk was coming much later than had been true for earlier generations in the ship. We did not share this finding. However, as it become more statistically significant it also became more anecdotally obvious, and soon became one of those classes of anecdotes that got discussed.

‘What’s causing this? There has to be some reason, and if we knew what it was, we could do something about it. We can’t just let this go!’

‘They get such close attention, more than ever before–’

‘Why should you think that? When were babies not attended to by their parents? I don’t think that was ever true.’

‘Oh come on. Now you have to get permission to have one, they’re rare, they’re the focus of everyone’s lives, of course they get more attention.’

‘There were never good records kept of developmental stuff like this.’

‘Not true. Not true at all.’

I can’t give too much away about the plot. They reach their destination, things don’t go as planned, difficult decisions have to be made, all of which causes conflict. But it feels very distant and uninvolving.

A lot of the time I was reminded of those semi-dramatised documentaries you see on the Discovery Channel, like Race to Mars. The main focus of the show is telling you about the technology required to travel to Mars and to live in space while you get there. There are clips of factories building ship components and stock footage of launch pads and talking heads from NASA and Boeing or whatever aerospace company is involved. And to make sure the whole thing isn’t too dry, they throw in an actor in a spacesuit reacting to some pretend emergency during the voyage, such as a meteor shower conjured by some bad CGI effects. It’s interesting to watch but it’s not something you feel emotionally invested in. Aurora is like that. Not as dry as a textbook on extra-solar exploration but a long way from being a full-blown immersive experience.

The greatest of all human adventures should be something to fire the imagination and inspire us. Robinson’s shown us how it’s done in more than a few of his earlier novels. But Aurora fails to rekindle that fire.

View all my reviews