OMG that’s so not fair

Aug 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Slated – Teri Terry
Pub Orchard ISBN 9781408319468
Hardback £10.32 ($11.98)
Paperback £4.69 ($7.53)
Kindle £4.49 ($7.11)

In Teri Terry’s dystopian take on the near future, nobody under 21 is allowed to carry a mobile phone.

There’s worse. (No phone? What could possibly be worse?). Troublesome teens are removed from their families and have chips implanted in their brains to re-boot their personalities. The young heroine Kyla is one of the slated, but as she struggles to get to grips with her new life it becomes clear that in her case the process has not been entirely successful.

The image of the mind as palimpsest, scraped clean and written on a second time, has a respectable history in science fiction, going back to We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Ian Hocking’s Deja Vu, reviewed earlier, is built around a very similar idea. Terry handles the concept deftly, greatly helped by the fact that her heroine can recall nothing before emerging from hospital. The reader’s gradual introduction to new family, new friends and old enemies mirrors hers.

And unlike the world of The Hunger Games, Terry’s England is creepily familiar. There have been riots and food shortages and the country is in the grip of the sinister grey-suited Lorders, but 16-year-olds still have to go to school to face bullies and unsympathetic teachers, and in the evenings their mothers still ban them from seeing boys with dreamy eyes.

Terry writes well, simply and with an occasional touch of lyricism. The present tense, first person narrative, often so irritating, fits the theme perfectly. The story is pacy and engaging and at the end of each short chapter the reader is hooked into the next.

After a while, though, this becomes wearing. The chapters are a little too obviously tailored to short attention spans and each one seems to finish on an upward inflection, like those annoying people who turn every statement into a question. The final straw is the ending. There isn’t one. The narrative just builds to a climax, then stops. And of course there is a sequel. Only four pounds.

The reader is left with a feeling of disappointment – and not just because she/he wants to know what happens next. However well handled, this is a rather cynical piece of work. Terry knows exactly where the post-Barbie buttons are, and she pushes them in a businesslike manner: parents, siblings, boys and bullies; the sense of being a changeling, someone extraordinary, misplaced and misunderstood in a monochrome world. All first class raw material, but she might have taken the trouble to finish this volume before starting the next.

Slated Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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Deja Vu

There and back again

Jun 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Long EarthThe Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Pub Doubleday ISBN 9780857520098
Hardback £11.39 ($15.41)
Kindle £7.64 ($12.99)

Synopsis: Our hero embarks on an epic journey through an infinite chain of alternate earths, accompanied by an annoying computer. Then he comes back.

That’s it. There’s no story to speak of. Plenty of incident, but this is a Gulliver’s Travels voyage of wonder rather than a closely-plotted adventure. There are long static passages in which one of the characters (usually the computer) explains to the others what is going on. Fortunately for the authors nobody in the book ever figures out how the alternate earths work, so there is plenty of scope for marvels. Think Discworld magic with extra quantum.

More Pratchett than Baxter, full of the dry absurdities one looks forward to – the machine that allows nearly everyone to travel between worlds is powered by a potato; the computer is the reincarnation of a Tibetan car mechanic named Lobsang. Characters combine eccentricity and common sense in about the same proportion as the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – Sister Agnes is a nun who rides a Harley and has a poster of Meat Loaf on her wall next to the Sacred Heart. Hermione Dawes is the British Prime Minister’s secretary. She also owns every single track ever cut by Bob Dylan.

Some of the ideas are a little derivative. The AI, which controls everything down to the drinks machine, is a touch Ian M Banks. The alternate earth theme has a respectable history, although Pratchett and Baxter give it a new twist. The steam-punk airship in which the adventurers travel could have come from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

There are elves and trolls, of a sort, but the book has more in common with the Johnny Maxwell trilogy than the Discworld. This is not simply because most of the characters are contemporary and human. As occasionally happens in Pratchettt’s books, he seems uncertain about the age group he is pitching to. Characters first encountered aged 10 never quite grow up even though some of them grow older.

Pratchett and Baxter fans will enjoy this, though perhaps not to the extent of shelling out for the hardback. The authors clearly had a great time, so that’s all right.

The Long Earth Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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The Last Man on Earth Club

Post-apocalyptic stress

Jun 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Last Man on Earth ClubThe Last Man on Earth Club – Paul R. Hardy
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)

Inter-stellar travel is a bust. The stars are just too far away. How much easier to slip sideways and visit other Earths, infinitely duplicated through a chain of alternate universes.

This is the premise behind Paul Hardy’s highly original novel The Last Man on Earth Club. Exploration teams fan out from the world they call The Hub to visit its doppelgängers. All too often they find disaster: war, genocide and natural cataclysm. The Hub becomes a magnet for refugees and survivors. Among them are six unique individuals, the last members of their respective races. They are gathered together to undergo therapy.

One of the things that makes this book so readable is its clinical approach. It begins as a collection of documents: reports from contact teams and transcripts of individual and group therapy sessions in which the six – all in their different ways severely damaged – introduce themselves and their home worlds. Gradually these merge into a first person account by the therapist (herself a refugee from an Earth that sounds uncomfortably like our own). There are plenty of dramatic twists and revelations, but the measured tone of her voice holds all the threads together.

Hardy has obviously researched his subject (in a note at the end of the book he recommends several works on post-traumatic stress disorder and “post-disaster psychological aftercare”) but he carries his studies lightly and there is no sense of undigested theory. On the contrary, the characters are marvellously strong and varied, as are the layers of guilt they conceal.

He has put together a cocktail of sf scenarios which genre fans will love: nuclear devastation, environmental collapse, AI wars, genetic manipulation, plagues of zombies, the lot. All are dramatised in detail through the survivors’ eyes and all except one are gripping and convincing. The lapse is a ludicrous Marvel Comics world of incompetent superheroes which the author himself doesn’t seem to take quite seriously. A pity – on several occasions it threatens to throw the book off course.

This is not a feelgood story. It has uncomfortable echoes in recent history: the Nazi holocaust; the treatment of native peoples in Australia and elsewhere; earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. The survivors don’t like one another much. They don’t like themselves. By the end of the book they still have a long way to travel, but we feel they have taken the first steps along the road.

The Last Man on Earth Club Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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Exiles Deja Vu

Eighty is the new thirty

Jun 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

Coffin DodgersCOFFIN DODGERS – Gary Marshall
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)

There has been a catastrophic collapse in the birth rate and an ageing population is taking it badly.

Sound familiar? If so, don’t jump to conclusions. Gary Marshall’s entertaining dystopian thriller is no Children of Men. His senior citizens are not just old. They’re old and rich. The few children still being born are doomed to waste their youth pandering to the whims of a generation of geriatric baby boomers – not as care assistants but as barmen, croupiers and aromatherapists. Eighty is the new thirty.

This is Simon Pegg territory – Shaun of the Dead meets Hot Fuzz. The three twenty-something protagonists, Matt, Amy and Dave, work in a vast casino complex and spend their free time bitching and dreaming up juvenile practical jokes to play on their elders. A bowling green has Old Farts written across it in weed-killer; flagpoles marking the holes at a golf course are coated in anti-climb paint.

Then young people start dying is freak accidents – and always two at a time.

Marshall has chosen a difficult narrative mode for his story – first person, present tense and lots of wisecracks. With a less capable writer this would be a disaster – beginners sometimes try it because it looks accessible, but too often it exposes their lack of control over language and plot. Marshall is completely in control. The writing is neat and slick and each element of the story clicks effortlessly into place. The jokes – not laugh out loud gags, but good for a steady grin – are rooted in daily life: supermarkets, car parks, beer and the familiar hassles of singleton existence. Even the most bizarre-sounding incidents turn out to be based on reality. Dave takes a date to a restaurant where diners eat in the dark, served by blind waiters. Yes, there is one. Google “blind waiters”.

The chatty tone could easily come to feel relentless, but Marshall varies the pace of the writing very effectively. There is a faint shadow of desperation behind the characters’ good humour and beneath the banter the relationship between Matt and Amy is tender and sometimes moving. The grumpy policeman the trio try to enlist on their side is splendidly down-to-earth and the climax of the story is fast-paced and gripping.

He also resists the urge to over-explain. The novel is set in the near future. Most things are recognisable, but we learn in passing that newspapers are published on tablet computers – the characters tap to read the headlines. The internal combustion engine is a thing of the past, but we pick this up through casual references to batteries. This is very refreshing: Marshall trusts his readers to keep up, a tolerance too many sf writers need to learn.

An enjoyable first novel. But I hope that with the next one he will try something completely different. It’s easy to get into a groove with this kind of book and it would be a shame to see that happen to such a capable writer.

Coffin Dodgers Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

Never mind the quality, feel the width

May 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

ExilesExiles (The Progenitor Trilogy, Book One)
Dan Worth
Kindle £1.49 ($2.99)

This self-published space epic would make a fat book. I don’t know how many pages there are because I’m reading a Kindle edition. A lot. It should have been 30% shorter.

It makes a promising start: two xeno-archaeologists, human and alien, discover a floating derelict. The ancient warship throws a new and disturbing light on the history of one of the Galaxy’s oldest and most advanced races. Before they can publish their research they are accused of espionage and find themselves on the run from the security forces of two planets. Meanwhile war looms between Earth and the K’Soth empire, and at the centre of the galaxy an ancient evil stirs…

Some of this may sound familiar (including the apostrophe in the middle of the bad guys’ name). The recipe calls for generous helpings of Babylon Five and Deep Space Nine, with a dash of Ian M Banks and a pinch of Frederik Pohl. Perhaps a soupçon of Arthur C Clarke. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. It doesn’t matter – Dan Worth’s imagination is wide-ranging and vivid and he pulls together a number of classic SF themes with enthusiasm. He slips confidently from the detail of alien cultures to monumental space battles and the interwoven story lines are enough to satisfy the most demanding space opera buff.

To me, though, the book reads like a draft rather than a finished novel. Not the first draft by any means, but not the final one either. There is a touch too much detail. Some of the descriptions of aliens and their planets read like travelogue rather than fiction. The battles last a plasma bolt too long.

The same goes for the writing: there’s sometimes a sense that paragraphs are a sentence too bulky, sentences sag under the weight of too many phrases and phrases are overloaded with adjectives. There are several fine action sequences – Worth can certainly do it if he tries – but a good deal of plot development is handled through dialogue, with the characters explaining to each other what is going on.

There are also a lot of errors – I counted about 40 without looking very hard. Most are typographical, a few are spelling mistakes and a couple are real schoolboy howlers. Wake up at the back there! Worth, explain the difference between principal and principle.

Like a number of self-published authors, Dan Worth hasn’t quite managed to sever the cord. The story is still partly in his head. One more draft might have allowed him to look at it more objectively, from a reader’s point of view, and cut away everything that didn’t serve the book.

In his About the Author note he says that he writes for his own enjoyment. Other authors have made similar comments. Terry Pratchett’s claim that he lives in constant dread that someone will discover how much fun he has writing, and stop him doing it… well, that about sums it up. But if you’re going to publish, it’s the reader’s fun that counts.

Exiles Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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Deja Vu The Last Man on Earth Club

With one bound he was… working on the next chapter

Apr 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Deja VuDeja Vu: A Technothriller – Ian Hocking
Amazon Kindle £0.70 ($0.99)

In an interview for the blog Futurismic Ian Hocking gives some of the backstory to this self-published ebook.

A few years back – in 2005 – I published my first book, Déjà Vu, with the UKA Press. There were a few obstacles in my path … but it was, by any objective measure, a success. I had great reviews in the Guardian, blurbs from Ken MacLeod and Ian Watson, and the odd bit of fan mail.

Anyway, while I started to finish the sequels, I garnered some interest from a traditional publisher, picked up an agent, and then, when the publisher pulled out, my agent began hustling. That hustling has been happening for five years or so. Last summer, I decided to retire from writing.

My plan is to finish editing the novels on my own and put them out as ebooks…

Deja Vu has been doing well in Amazon’s bargain basement. Deservedly so – it’s fast-paced, inventive, stuffed with great technology and stylishly written. What more could you want?

Well… As so often, the author’s account is revealing. Reviews in the national press, praise from Ian Watson no less, and then… the glass wall, the one that separates the really published from the almost published.

Deja Vu plaits together three storylines. Saskia Brandt is an officer in the Federal Office of Investigation, based in 2023 Berlin. At least, the microchip implanted in her skull is. Her body belongs to… someone else. Her quarry, David Proctor, once designed a virtual universe and is suspected of blowing it up afterwards, killing his own wife in the process. Meanwhile, David’s prodigy daughter Jennifer has invented time travel.

You see the problem. Clever and original, but there’s just too much of it, enough for three books. Hocking is so excited by each fresh idea that he leaps from one to the next without ever taking the time to suck the marrow out of the bone. It’s great fun and priced at less than a pound it’s worth every penny, but you can see what the publishers’ reservations may have been.

Because the wall is made of glass, it’s hard to tell what puts a book on one side or the other. In this case the issue isn’t professional editing – Hocking admits he had help from the best. It may have something to do with the film-fed sophistication we all now possess when it comes to character and plot. Imagination has to slow down to lay the words on the page and Hocking’s trail bike doesn’t have a slow gear.

Was he right to self-publish? I’d say so. Plenty of people will love Deja Vu. But some will feel that it could have been even better.

Deja Vu: A Technothriller Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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