Current

December 23, 2009

Reading:

Omnibus edition of Stephen Baxter‘s ‘Mammoth’ trilogy. The world as told from mammoths’ purview in the past, the present(!) and the future, when mammoths have been reengineered and are populating Mars. Enjoying very much, albeit I think I have learned as much as I need to about the many uses of mammoth dung now.

Recently read:

   

  

Baxter writes hard science fiction, has a degree background in it and it shows. There really is a new, mad idea on every page, though: sometimes the sheer weight of information makes you want to take a step back and shake your head for a mo’.

The ‘Destiny’s Children’ quartet is relatively uplifting, with Exultant and Resplendent being some of the best sci-fi I’ve ever read. Exultant in particular unequivocally sets out the joys of actually trying to fight a possible future space war, where relativity and distance often mean that battles and consequences thereof can actually happen… er, before they’ve happened. And effective commanders can actually use this to make sure that terrible defeats that have already occurred — don’t occur. It’s heady stuff.

Space is a new world appearing on damn near every page and exhausting / exhilerating to keep up with.

Moonseed is an initial nod to the John Wyndham-esque ‘end of the world’ scenario, although a cosy catastrophe (which Wyndham was often, erroneously I believe, accused of writing) it is most certainly not.

And Titan is the most monstrously nihilistic and depressing epitaph to our current concepts of intrasolar travel I’ve ever read. Which did not make it a bad thing, by the by, but some of the scenes actually set on Titan made me… well, after the carrot poisoning bit I did check my feet. Don’t let the words here put you off, though: you need to read this book, if only to see how space travel really shouldn’t be done.

Also:

Birthday present to myself. Huge coffee-table tome with over 500 cover artworks (and many other standalones) of Stephen King‘s publishing history. Including a great deal of Dark Tower material and some new and exclusive pieces. Relatively in-depth interviews with artists and input into King’s writing history, a little of which I hadn’t come across before. Marred only by a few spelling / text-setting errors, which I can forgive more because it’s a small press. Recommended if you can afford it (and you’re a foaming-at-the-mouth-like-Cujo fan of King, like me).

Else? Probably seventy or eighty books since I last updated this. If I get a chance, I’ll try to pick out some of the worthies soon.

Writing:

Picked up PM2 again after a lag of some months. Found my voice immediately, which was pleasing. The past three days, little bits here and there in between other things (like work) have added another 3201 words and 17 pages to the total… which currently stands at 222 pages, 43,865 words.

With no end in sight.

 

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The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod.

Intriguing police procedural, set a few dozen years in the future and predominantly in Scotland. The Earth’s groaning in the wake of some fairly nasty climate change problems, resulting in a pair of massive space elevators being constructed to facilitate vast, floating solar barriers in an effort to mitigate UV radiation. Robots are becoming relatively commonplace and some of them are developing artificial intelligence, which is something of a problem for the general community as they don’t quite know how to deal with it — or integrate them properly into society. Add to this the fallout from the Faith / Oil War, which has effectively banned religions of all kinds, and we have a very interesting world postulated.

Into this mix we have the bombing murder of a man who turns out to be a Catholic priest, a title which has no official standing in this new world and has cause for potential future political ramifications, especially since religious terrorism has effectively been wiped out by the ‘winning’ of the Faith War. Casualties with ‘underground’ religious affiliations begin to mount as the protagonists, a Scottish police inspector and his robot aide-de-camp (once-combat mech) Skulk, desperately try to work out what is going on — and whether extremist religion is making a monstrous comeback as a very significant anniversary approaches…

Enjoyed very much. Particularly liked the fairly harsh, albeit balanced, treatment of religion — it effortlessly segued into an e-mail meme that’s circulating at the moment that’s very resonant and powerful: a picture of the World Trade Centre twin towers with John Lennon’s words: Imagine no religion beneath it. The story isn’t horribly politically correct (it can’t be with that type of subject matter) and doesn’t mince words as it beats down on the religious, the authorities and the fundamentalists alike.

The interaction of robots and people was also compellingly drawn, especially the sensitive and awkward issue of incipient artificial intelligence spreading like a slow virus through otherwise non-sentient machine workers… and the hideous potential for fundamentalist religious extremism to infect even the inhuman.

It becomes a bit chaotic towards the end (and not a little nihilistic either), but in the main MacLeod keeps all of the many balls he’s juggling in the air and the effect is, for the most part, mesmerizing. Definitely recommended.

 

 

 

…unfortunately, unlike the following three:

The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling.

 

Well, I liked the cover…

This is a mad, sprawling, incoherent future-tech-dying-planet-eco-disaster, er, splat of a novel. One of those books where the ideas outpaced the story — in fact, the story seemed almost nonexistent, or at most very flimsy indeed. Four clone women in different situations, bred to be avatars of now obsolete technology, trying very hard to… nope. Didn’t get it. Doesn’t mean others won’t, but for me The Caryatids fell very, very flat: it was like a future-tech wiki and a Greenpeace screed met in a bar, fell in lust over a few cigarettes and then went home and tried to shag out a story before realising they were sexually incompatible. I applaud the intent, loved some of the ideas, but the whole didn’t work at all…

 

 

…rather like Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente — and I’ll be brief with this one. Style over content, and of the latter there was none. People dream their way into a fantastical world, the trigger to enter (no pun intended) is sex with someone who bears a tattooed map of this oneiric wonderland. And then… nothing happens except a few weird sights, incomprehensible rituals and/or conversations, and a desperate neeed/want, like drug withdrawal, to stay there forever.

Not I. Unfortunately I wanted to leave from the moment I first got there, and am still somewhat surprised I persevered through to the end. If dreamy, poetic but ultimately meaningless prose and ridiculous, improbable characters desperately seeking escape into a world that makes no sense and is drawn about as clearly as a charcoal sketch on a blackboard is your thing, then go for Palimpsest and good luck. I like a little story with my opium musings, thanks….

 

 

 

…and that brings us to the titular ‘urgh’, which I will keep short and sweet:

Brian Keene’s Castaways.

  • Apparently a homage: Jack Ketchum’s Off Season and elements of Richard Laymon’s original ‘Beast House’ trilogy;
  • Apparently a homage: the television game-show Survivor;
  • Has cannibal Neanderthal monkey monster rapists in it;
  • And the most cardboard-cutout characterisation and phoned-in plot, complete with astonishingly out-of-place and romance-novel happy ending I’ve ever had the misfortune to read…

Sorry. Awful. I used to like Brian’s work a lot, but some of his recent work… well, I love horror, but for some reason I don’t seem to be his audience anymore, because his last couple have been indifferent to me, and this one was dire. From someone who absolutely loathes reality shows like Survivor, being unable to give a positive report on something that was essentially panning the TV genre is sad indeed.

 

 

‘Kay then. Next time it will be all good, rather than some good and some urgh, promise. 🙂

 

Another gem from the steampunk canon (cannon? heh heh oh forget it), George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge is a rather full-throttle Victorian potboiler of a murder mystery, set in a world of airships and brass automatons, clockwork technology and steam-powered road ‘trains’, all tied together rather neatly and gruesomely… and with a very effective twist at the end that I probably should have seen coming, and didn’t.

It follows a case — rather, two cases initially seeming quite separate — being investigated by Sir Maurice Newbury, former soldier in the British Army (and, incidentally, the only man known to have survived a bite from a particularly virulent Indian plague which turns people into flesh-craving revenants) and current antiquities expert-cum-investigator-cum-occultist, and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, a surprisingly forthright and capable woman whose actions and abilities scene-set the coming of the suffragettes. Allied with Newbury’s oldest friend, Chief Inspector Charles Bainbridge of Scotland Yard, they become involved in the issues of a string of murders perpetrated in Whitechapel by a glowing spectral policeman and an airship crash in the middle of London from which the pilot has mysteriously vanished. The latter case has an added complication: Queen Victoria herself (who continues to live and breathe somewhat past her prime via huge, hulking, steam-bellowing machines infibulated into her body) has asked that Newbury investigate it, with potentially serious political ramifications.

What follows is pure adventure, mixed with a very healthy dollop of violence and a fascinatingly realised world where the expected and the unexpected alike blur like the septic fog that perpetually clouds the Londons streets. A spreading plague of bloodthirsty dead Victorian workers, clockwork automata rewired as killing machines, lightning weapons and gruesome vivisection are only some of the treats you’re in store for in this tale: there’s much more packed in this compact little hardcover, and once you crack the cover you’ll be reading it ’til the wee hours, unable to pull away.

Mann’s writing style has been criticised a little for being plain and unadventurous; I didn’t mind it in the least and found it suited the breakneck pace of the story — I certainly couldn’t fault his sense of description which, whilst minimalist on occasion, eerily evoked the world and characters he was building and put across faultlessly some gruesome, evocative and fantastical scenes. This isn’t childrens’ literature though, unlike the previous post: although there’s no sex the violence is, on occasion, quite brutal and detailed.

If you’re fascinated with this particular genre or just want a phantasmagorical adventure story, you can’t go wrong with this one. Very recommended, and I’m now impatiently waiting for the next one

 

I’m in childrens’ books territory at the moment, and loving it.

Philip Reeve’s Larklight — and its sequels Starcross and Mothstorm — are a chaotic and wonderful mishmash of genre that collectively add up to wonderful entertainment. Part steampunk, part boys-own-adventure, part science-fiction/fantasy and part-WTF, this is the story of 12-year-old Art Mumby and his very strange family, who live in the floating Victoriana-goth household of Larklight which, thanks to its aether engines and some unusual, ancient enhancements, floats serenely through the asteroid belt (where Art’s father, a distinguished Victorian gentleman, is endlessly cataloguing asteroid ‘fish’ for his mindnumbingly dull treatises for the Royal Xenological Institute).

It’s all set in a retro-future solar system wherein, as per the best tenets of steampunk, the British Empire never decayed but flourished and conquered the stars by means of brass engines, clockwork, steam power and Good Old British Pluck (Huzzah!). In this brilliantly realised world, aliens and humans alike wear top hats and conform to strict British etiquette, Queen Victoria never died, monstrous bowler-hatted carnivorous intelligent spiders inhabit the rings of Saturn, you can talk to the sentient storm of Jupiter, wooden sailing ships sail the (thinly breathable) heavens on winged engines whilst the asteroids are linked by railway lines and dastardly plots hatch and abound everywhere.

Almost every page is richly illustrated by Reeve’s collaborator David Wyatt in a rich, luscious Victorian style, rendering such gems as the Pudding Worm, battleship-sized interstellar moths (obvious enemies of the gnome-like Threls, whose civilization is currently engaged in the Brobdingnagian task of knitting a tea cosy to cover their entire world), translucent and highly carnivorous sun dogs and rampaging glass buildings to perfection, greatly enhancing the astonishing mental feats that the author constantly bombards us with. There’s a new and splendid idea on every page (yep, the Britishisms are catching [huzzah!]) and the adventure is both endless and often hilarious.

I love these to death, and am both saddened by the fact that it is obviously a trilogy (with a little scope for continuation) and heartened by its perfection as such. Buy the hardcovers if you can: they’re beautiful little books with glorious endpapers in the Victorian style, full of advertisements for patent zero gravity moustache waxes, brass exoskeleta (for those intrepid explorers) and suchlike.  But whichever version you get, I guarantee you’ll fall in love… or you’ve got brass cogs for a heart and a Moob for a brain. 🙂

 

Shaking off the rust

November 14, 2008

Last time I was here was August. Bloody August. Time flies, no?

Well, things happen. For me, it’s interesting to note the general decrease of good blog content as everyone seems to wend their way over into Facebook or MySpace or twitters meaingless bullshit at each other. Everything is short and fragmentary and nobody seems to have very much to say. Me included.

I may not have been writing a lot about it but I’ve certainly been reading a lot; have to prise them books out of my cold, dead hands to stop me, to paraphrase a well-known lunatic firearms fringe. Also trying to write myself, as nearly 40,000 words of PM2 can attest. I had a real run on that too, especially when I took some time off, but now that I’m working again it’s more difficult to find the time. Which is probably an excuse, but time does seem to slither away like a headless snake bloodily slopping its way over an embankment and that was possibly the worse metaphor ever. Anyway. Should resolve to crack that 40,000 word barrier this weekend.

Reading-wise (oh god where to start):

Bought an enormous amount of Brian Lumley lately. Predominantly the ‘Necroscope’ series, some of which is criminally out of print, but, frankly, almost anything with his name on it. I never thought I was a particular fan of the Lovecraftian/Derleth Cthulhu Mythos until I started reading Lumley. Appears that I am, since a great big leatherbound hardcover of all of Lovecraft’s work in this vein, The Necronomicon, is winging its way towards me from Amazon UK as we speak.

Speaking of the Necroscope series, it’s excellent, although why the book covers persistently have blurbs shrieking, “If you like Anne Rice you’ll love this!!!” I have no idea. Anyone who thinks they’re going to get Lestat in a Lumley book might be in for something of an unpleasant surprise. Lumley’s vampires intermingled with psionic espionage and cold war machinations, and are less of the hand-wringing ‘Sweet-Lord-it-is-a-sad-sad-lot-to-be-a-vampire-oh-woe-is-me-never-to-see-the-sun-again-I-shall-existentially-pontificate-for-three-hundred-years-blah-de-sodding-blah’ and more of the shapeshifting horrendous monster that bites peoples’ heads off in one gulp type. His posit that vampires (Wamphyri) are infested by leechlike parasites which metamorphically change human flesh into fleshwreaking and bloodslurping monstrosities is highly entertaining, but more: his adversaries, psychics and spies, are quite unique in literature — a kind of James Bond crew with a unique array of very diverse psychic talents including the ability to speak to and raise the dead. (As a side note, the books all have lovely skull-themed covers, both English and American editions, which make me smile and chuckle evilly to myself)

The Necroscope series is Necroscope, Wamphyri!, The Source, Deadspeak, Deadspawn, Blood Brothers, The Last Aerie and Bloodwars. Thus far. There’s a few more I haven’t got through yet (The Lost Years, Resurgence, Invaders [come back into print, you swine: you’re holding up the bloody series!!], Defilers, Avengers, The Touch). Muchly recommended. Not a doubt when I finish ’em I’ll probably go into the whole thing in more detail, if I can staple my fingers and my attention to this blog again…

  

Currently reading Stephen King’s new short story collection, Just After Sunset. Just about every other book gets put aside when a new King appears. Not terribly far into it yet but ‘The Gingerbread Girl’ already deserves a special mention for creepy psycho of the week, whilst ‘Willa’ is an almost surreal ghost story. Lovely.

Should give a shout-out for Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, a door-busting brick of a book that’s a weird twist of monks, mathematics, science fiction and the end of the world. Difficult to quantify and it started a little slowly, but then abruptly grabbed me by the eyeballs and hauled me in. Very much enjoyed.

And can’t leave without mentioning Neal Asher, because two of his books showed up at the same time. Shadow of the Scorpion deals with the backstory of one of his perennial characters, the Polity Agent Ian Cormac; The Gabble and Other Stories is short (although some were novella-length) pieces expanding on elements of his sci-fi universe with a lot of emphasis on his completely weird and wonderful creations, the gibberish-talking, utterly unpredictable and occasionally human-eating gabbleducks. Superb, both of them.

 

 

An odd little one: Skull Cathedral, by Tim Waggoner — short story that’s barely a book, dream-like (nightmare-like, more accurately) and horrific descent into someone’s head via way of machinery, hideous fantasies/hallucinations and altered perceptions. Recommended for that shelf we all have (or is it just me? 😀 ) which overflows with bloody bodily fluids on a regular basis. Particularly liked the moment where the protagonist discovered he had rectal sphincters for eyes, all appropriately plumbed in as well, in a crowded restaurant… I mean, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? >:)

 

 

Will stop there for a moment: rambling. This blogging thing is hard lately… I read too many books. Run out of bloody shelf-space again… :O

Briefly, damnit…

August 5, 2008

Popping in to reassure myself I’m not dead, and am in fact drowned in other things. Promised myself I’d update this today and didn’t get to it until the deathknock. So, very briefly what has passed recently through the Reading Stomach™ and made it to the other side:

Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross: enjoyed very much, but not quite up to his previous three sci-fi extravaganzas. The convolutions were marvellous but became a little too much towards the end. Still, slightly sub-par Stross is still an order of magnitude over most of what passes for sci-fi out there, so it’ll certainly do me ’til the next one. Oh, and loved the cover, even though it seems to have polarised half the known world: very tongue-in-cheek (or, I guess in the case of protagonist Freya Nakamichi-47 sexbot, tongue-in… er, somewhere else).

Flesh House, by Stuart MacBride: gruesome and surprisingly funny police procedural re a serial killer who likes serving up his victims as cuts of meat. First book I’ve read of his; apparently fourth in a series so it looks like I’ll need to start searching him out backwards.

Heart Sick, by Chelsea Cain: enjoyable, slightly derivative detective novel wherein the chief character is basically a female Hannibal Lecter, even down to her psychologist / psychiatry background. And incarcerated, to boot, with the occasional prison conversation. Still liked it; occasionally squirm-inducing violence (using a hammer and nails to break someone’s ribs, for example) but ultimately a bit chaotic and the string of coincidences were too long. Hard to believe that someone could’ve killed over 200 people and not even been sniffed at by the law either. Nonetheless, worth a quick read… and now that I think about it, I must’ve liked it more than this paltry review probably comes across, because I’m rather looking forward to the sequel, Sweetheart.

‘Nuff now. Will do better as soon as I have time, I promise myself. Yep. Sigh. 😦

 

A seven-part space opera epic by Kevin J. Anderson.

I picked up the first of these, Hidden Empire, whilst trapped in Kalgoorlie with an utterly shite movie channel, desperately trying to find something to do read. The scope of the series had initially put me off (sixth book, Metal Swarm, has only just some out with the seventh and final tome, The Ashes Of Worlds, due in a month or two… and each book is in excess of 700 pages) but endless boredom in a hotel room makes you want to try something different (and time-consuming) and so I gave it a whirl, hoping for something as good as Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy.

And it is, thankfully, almost as good — not better, but almost as good. Certainly I’ve devoured my way through four-and-a-half of them thus far with no particular intention of slowing down.

The Saga of Seven Suns is basically about a moment in human history where we’ve built ourselves an interstellar empire. Humanity coexists with an equivalent alien empire, the Ildirans, who gave faster-than-light technology to the humans as a benevolent gesture, and are all interconnected via their Imperator, who controls his people via intangible threads of power called thism. Everything that the Ildirans have ever done is part of a vast oral/written history called, unsurprisingly, the Saga of Seven Suns, which is supposed to be a perfect record of their race’s history and munificence.

Except some of this Saga may have been edited, and some of it may be lies…

In the first book a warlike, utterly alien menace called the hydrogues rise from the depths of gas giant planets throughout the galaxy in vast, city-sized spherical diamond-hulled spiky warships. Indiscriminate slaughter and hilarity ensues, with the result that both the human and Ildiran empires begin contracting and stagnating rapidly as they can no longer access the hydrogen that they mine from the atmospheres of the huge planets. Diplomatic relations fall, and things get worse… and worse… and worse. Because the hydrogues aren’t the only hostile, all-powerful aliens out there — and there are many, many enemies within.

 

The Saga… is well written (or rather well-dictated and transcribed: Anderson apparently talks out his chapters but the subsequent writing style is clean if occasionally slightly over-simple), with short, jutting chapters that kept me frantically reading just a little more to find out what had happened to a favoured cast member. It’s also nicely bloodthirsty on occasion, and the odds against everyone seem appalling. I really don’t know whether anyone’ll be left at the end of it. Titanic space battles wiping out moons and suns, burning city-sized hydrogen mines, invasions of hundreds of thousands of insectile razor-armed robots, an internal android revolution, sentient trees clawing alien gunships out of the sky… it goes on and on, and just when one disaster is either averted or responded to, another five loom on the horizon.

Like I said, not finished yet. But thus far it’s been worth every second of the reading time. The only real quibbles I’d have would be the occasionally thin characterisation (given the amount of characters jostling for page-space, that’s not a huge problem) and that it’s not really hard sci-fi — the author doesn’t appear to have a particularly scientific background so the majority of the concepts are just there, rather than explained in physicist-level detail. But, y’know, I don’t really mind that either. What I’m getting out of this is a hell of a read, a hell of a story, mass destruction and triumph and tragedy against mind-numbing odds, all on richly detailed and well-imagined worlds and with vast amount of action and intrigue.

And that’ll do me. Roll on book seven. 🙂

Note: the books in order are: