Review: The Science of Avatar

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Science of Avatar
The Science of Avatar by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science fiction authors the world over will be thanking Baxter for this handy tome on the SF of James Cameron’s Avatar. Not specific simply to the film, Baxter’s book covers everything a modern writer of speculative space adventures might need to tell a convincing tale: quantum entanglement, relativity, eco-apocalypse, time dilation, super conductors, military tech, blue shift, red shift… And all in handy, easy-to-digest chunks. Baxter did it, so you didn’t have to type the words into Wikipedia. This is a dense wallop of edification for your research shelf.

The book does tackle those specific parts of Avatar which are not common to SF in general. Particularly engrossing is the exhaustive exploration of Cameron’s fictionalised Alpha Centauri system, from planetary formation right the way down to the way Pandora’s complicated magnetic fields affect its life and weather. It’s here that Baxter becomes coy. Granted full access to cast and crew, he never outright says “well, this is obviously nonsense”, even about flying mountains, although he does drop hints.

For Avatar fans, there is plenty of detail mined from Cameron’s backstory and universe, much of it unseen on screen. Avatar, flaws aside, is more rather than less rooted in actual science; this book reveals just how deeply.

Less engaging is Baxter’s non-fiction style. He’s a tremendous talent when writing stories, Baxter, and to his credit he conveys complicated concepts clearly here, but he lacks journalistic flair, and that just occasionally makes the book stilted.

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Review: Unrest

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

Unrest by Michelle Harrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spooky goings on plague 17 year-old Elliot six months after a road accident sees him clinically dead for several minutes. Being cut loose from your body and menaced by ghosts is a tough break for any teen, but it gets worse when it looks like one of them wants to take his place…

Unrest delivers plenty of chills topped with a gripping twist. Harrison’s Elliott is neither too dorky nor too supercool, and although he’s maybe a little too “perfect boyfriend” (and therefore pretty unbelievable), Harrison just about keeps him on the side of real. There’s some factual errors involving antique guns, and the middle third of the story isn’t as gripping as the opening or the climax, but otherwise Unrest is deliciously creepy fun.

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Moving back to Yorkshire

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Random wifflings

I’ve been away for a few days in the land of my fathers (well, the ones that weren’t German or Lancastrian or southerners), where I’ll soon be decamping to permanently. That’s why no posts. There are many long periods when I do not post, but usually it’s down to work. This time it’s owing to ARGH! no! Stressssss. House move. Normal erratic service will resume sometime in May, I expect.

Review: The Company of the Dead

Posted: April 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Company of the Dead
The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Winner of two Aurealis awards when released down under back in 2007, The Company of the Dead is a subtle novel of counterfactual history.

In an alternative 2012, the world is about to be destroyed by war between the German and Japanese Empires. Joseph Kennedy, a cousin of JFK, discovers his entire reality is a should-never-have-been timeline created by the well-meaning meddling of an accidental time-traveller, and sets out to change it back.

Kowalski’s alternative Earth is lovingly crafted, inhabited by plausible characters all its own. Some historical figures are present and correct, but they are far outnumbered by original creations, refreshing in time travel SF.

This isn’t a book for everyone. Kowalski has a nice turn of phrase, but his poesy drags the pages out. The majority of the book is the story of Kennedy and his followers struggling to get to the time machine. Their adventure in time, where they return to the moment it all changed at the sinking of the Titanic, is a quarter of the story. It’s thus more akin to alt-reality thriller Fatherland than a time travel caper. For extra SF points, there’s effective use of time paradox, and the story also plays with the ephemeral nature of existence, and the possibility of a more actual version of history hiding just out of sight. It’s cruel to compare, but Philip K Dick did this more incisively in The Man In The High Castle.

A good book then, but not great

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Review: Echo City

Posted: April 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

Echo City
Echo City by Tim Lebbon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a frustrating book. Lebbon’s an author of dark fantasy with a serious fanbase, and you can see why here. Set in the last city (might be on Earth, might not be), Echo City manages a high level of invention. The eponymous city is baroque creation, enthralled to its own past, the city being built not on, but over the buildings of yesteryear. Ghostly cities of successively great age – the Echoes – are entombed beneath its bustling streets.

Echoes are what you get, with Lebbon playing with the idea of mutability in flesh (this world’s tech of “chopping” is bio-based), stone, identity and reality.

Top marks for world-building, but what he does with this excellent creation is less impressive. Lebbon takes so many trips into our character’s psyches that it robs readers of a sense of interaction. We’re being lectured to by Lebbon, not invited to join in.

A lot happens in Echo City – it’s the end of the world – but because of the mode of delivery, it feels leadenly empty of incident, and reading becomes tiresome as different parts of your brain war over whether the need to find out what happens next or the desire to rip out a page with yet more tedious dialogue upon it and eat it is more important.

There is loads of room for pleasing speculation on the nature of the mysterious city itself, but there’s not enough of that crucial engagement with characters to make this all that it could be. For a more engaging fantasy with underground themes, check out Chris Wooding’s The Fade.

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Review: The String Diaries

Posted: April 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

The String Diaries
The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Generations of a family is plagued by a Hungarian horror in this gripping, multi-stringed thriller. The Hosszu Eletek – the “long lifes” – are a subspecies of humanity, blessed with great longevity, who possess the power to heal themselves and alter their appearance at will. Unfortunately for Hannah Wilde, the one known as Jakab is insane, and has been stalking and murdering her family since the late 19th century.

Using the old cliché, The String Diaries is a page turner, and will keep you awake late into the night. This is not for its mild horror content, but mainly because the multiple storylines it presents – modern day UK, late 19th century Hungary and points between – are thoroughly engaging – to a point. For here the book also lets us down, as Jakab’s backstory turns out to be simply a chronicle of his budding evil, passing up several opportunities for twists in favour of a predictable throughplot.

The impact is somewhat further lessened by dubious usage of language; in the main the use of words that don’t mean quite what the author thinks they mean. He’s not alone, we’re seeing more malapropisms in finished works these days. Although we did read a proof copy, so this might change, such dodgy wordery shouldn’t get to this late stage. A shame, as Jones’s otherwise solid writing (he’s no Dan Brown) is one of several positive attributes that takes The String Diaries some way to being a standout read.

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