A review from #SFX249.

TWO AND A HALF STARS

Author: Will McIntosh

Publisher: Orbit

482pp

Genetically engineered pudding

When telepathic “starfish” aliens invade Earth, humanity is in big trouble. Our only hope is the genetically engineered defenders, created to have unreadable minds. But what do you do with a new race created for war when that war is done?

Defenders reminds us of Robopocalypse by Daniel H Wilson and other, similar tales – a terrible threat, civilisation overthrown, a plucky band of characters who are gradually drawn together, the chapters headed with their names and time-stamped.

But Defenders is a fairly unexceptional example of both the alien invasion and apocalyptic subgenres. Firstly, it’s predictable. Indeed, the first twist, of the defenders turning on their creators, is heavily hinted at in the cover blurb, but it’s not very surprising when the starfish ally with their original enemies either. There’s plenty of handwavium on display too – the aliens can read our minds because, well, serotonin; humanity’s only defence against the starfish, whose invasion starts off very low key, is to create an entirely new race from scratch at the 11th hour, using technologies that are poorly understood; while the starfish’s motives for aggression are not terribly believable.

None of this would matter too much if this were a gripping invasion story, but it is not. It seems to be setting itself up to make a point, but the intellectual content is paper thin, while the war part of it pedestrian. McIntosh writes well, and his characters are great, but ultimately it’s not enough.

Did you know?

Will McIntosh won the Hugo Award for his short story “Bridesicle” in 2009.


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As promised, here are a couple of beastmen. Me and my regular gaming partner are playing a little Path to Glory campaign at the moment. As I’ve bought a fair few beastmen to play with in Age of Sigmar, I had to include some in my warband. The campaign has given me the excuse (if I really needed one) to buy some Slaves to Darkness models too. I find the start collecting boxes great value, so I got one of those and a box of Chaos Marauder Horsemen. Actually, only the Chaos Warriors are currently in my little army, but like I said, excuses to buy more models…

I really enjoy the opportunity to put whatever I like in my army. It works particularly well with Chaos, which is so diverse an alliance. I’ve got a bit sick of painting orruks for the time being, so having that all important gaming rationale for working on a bit of this and a bit of that is very welcome.

One thing I’ve noticed in putting all this stuff together is how constrained the sculptors were by having to get the units in old Warhammer to rank up. The older models, while nerd-ticklingly cool, lack the dynamism of the latest Age of Sigmar products, so I did a fair few arm and weapon swaps on my 30 beastmen to get a bit more variety and some attacking poses.

I’m halfway through the first little lot of ten Gors. Then I’ve ten Ungors to paint. I dismissed these as being puny in game, but I’ve become rather fond of their goaty little legs and their angry little faces. Pictures soon(ish).

Letters to Lovecraft, a book review

Posted: June 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

A review from #SFX257.

Lovecraft pic

THREE AND A HALF STARS
Editor: Jesse Bullington (editor)
Publisher: Stone Skin Press
280pages

Love letters to Lovecraft
If your skin crawls at Lovecraft pastiche or sub-par mythos shenanigans, don’t be put off this book. The premise is intelligent – to engage with Lovecraft through his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. The eighteen authors picked a quote, and wrote a story inspired by it. The results are variable, and the introduction could certainly have been pithier. But although non-Euclidean geometries and Deep Ones raise their fish-eyed heads, refreshingly the majority of the stories are non-mythos, and all are fiction of the better sort.

Chesya Burke’s “The Horror at Castle of The Cumbernauld” is most affecting. This tale of gross injustice shocks with its real-world horror, and is also genuinely “weird”.

In fact, Burke’s story is so effective it brings into stark focus the problem with modern horror: few of these stories are horrifying, frightening, or even that weird. Lovecraft’s own fiction is so chilling because its wellspring was the real (if repugnantly erroneous) terror he felt for the other. Burke’s story works because it too is powered by strong emotion – she is an African-American writer directly engaging with the terrible engine of Lovecraft’s creativity.

Unlike in H.P.’s time, modern life is too lacking in pain, madness, and fear to inspire terrifying literature. Most of us have enough to eat, and spare pennies to spend on Cthulhu plushies. Letters to Lovecraft reflects that.

Did you know?

Jesse Bullington is a writer who expends his efforts exploring Lovecraft’s mythos. This is his first anthology.

Firefall, a book review

Posted: June 10, 2016 in Journalism, Reviews

From SFX #254.

FOUR STARS

Author: Peter Watts

Publisher: Head of Zeus

Pages: 761pp

Human obsolescence beckons.

Firefall is by turns brilliant and merciless, a science-fictionalised philosophical argument that human sentience is neither inevitable nor necessary, and that freewill is an illusion. Dressed up, naturally, with aliens and spaceships and such. Originally two books, it’s released here in the UK in one volume.

Blindsight (original publication date 2006) is set at the tail end of a post-singularity 21st century. The catalysing event is the unexpected survey of Earth by an alien intelligence. A mission is sent out to investigate, crewed by a bunch of barely human transhumans and a vampire. (Watts’ vampires are an offshoot human species that died out, resurrected from junk DNA by modern idiots).

Sequel Echopraxia (2014) concerns a second mission. Another story where characters sit around in a spaceship arguing the ontological toss makes for over-familiarity, and it lacks the first’s impact.

A sort of callous Rendezvous with Rama, the book’s tone tends to the didactic, while the over the top abilities of Watts’ vampires in particular betray the author’s contempt for the human condition. Watts is a sort of anti-H.G. Wells, or a latterday Invasion of the Boys Snatchers Kevin McCarthy shouting unbelievable, unpalatable truths into the traffic. However, there is an immense amount of actual science, applied creatively – Watts’ aliens are almost inconceivably alien, for example – and it gives much food for thought. By no means nice, this is science fiction that is harder than granite, and about as compromising.

Did you know?

There are “synthesists” in the book, who process complex information for consumption by the masses without understanding it. A sly pop at SF writers, we think…

A review of Zodiac Station

Posted: June 9, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

A review from #SFX 249. Funny, I can’t remember this book at all. Sounds good though.

FOUR STARS

Author: Tom Harper

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Ice Station Hero

Cheerfully referencing a host of polar-set SF stories from Frankenstein to the Thing, Zodiac Station starts out as a mystery, segues through the spy genre into techno-thriller territory before becoming full-blown speculative fiction. Pacy, sharp, and beautifully described, it is one of those books for which the cliché “hard to put down” is happily true.

Numerous characters tell us our tale, starting and concluding with Tom Anderson. Picked up near-death from an ice floe by a coastguard ship (a la Victor Frankenstein), he is a biologist who’s all out of luck when he was unexpectedly invited to join the crew of the eponymous Arctic research station by his old mentor, only to find the man dead when he arrives. Further testimony is given by other survivors from the now-destroyed base. They contradict and interweave with each other, until the shocking truth(s) comes out.

It’s a necessarily artificial way of telling a story – nobody delivers such dramatically artful witness statements – but it can be forgiven. Harper draws us in, scattering clues like those in a point-and-click videogame adventure, a format for which Zodiac Station would be admirably suited. And in this case, that’s a compliment.

To go into too much detail risks spoilers, so we’ll leave it at that. Harper, who did a ton of research, describes the Arctic fantastically well. Overall it’s not quite as accomplished as Dan Simmon’s Arctic fantasy The Terror, but it comes damn close, and that’s no mean thing. Great holiday reading, we’d say.

Did you know?

Harper grew up in Germany, Belgium, and America. It sounds 007-glamorous, but then he spent his early working life in the pensions industry.

A short burst of news

Posted: June 7, 2016 in Uncategorized

Wotcha. I don’t really have much to say today, only a sense that I should say something seeing as I’ve been away a while from this here blog. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I say this periodically, you must be used to it by now.

I’ve been busy this year. Already in 2016 I’ve written 250,000 words, give or take. That’s one novel, one short novel, one novella, two short stories, the back end of a very large novel and sundry other bits and pieces. I’ve just come off a period where I’ve been working pretty much every night as well as during the day. That time is passed, for now.

Hobby wise, I’ve been playing some Bolt Action with 20mm plastics, but mostly Age of Sigmar. We started a Path to Glory campaign last week, and I’m now painting my warband. I’ll have a shot of a test beastman to show sometime later this week.

There’ve been a few days trips. I’ve damaged my elbow fencing and now have to stretch the tendons in my arm several times a day. I’m in the process of sourcing a new dog; I still miss poor old Magnus greatly.

Oh yeah, and the Euro referendum’s coming up. After much thought, I’ve decided to vote remain. The way I see it it’s a vote between being ruled by an massively unwieldy surpranational club that can’t agree on anything, or our own hereditary class of out-of-touch toffs. Like the Norman barons they’re descended from, they’d prefer to avoid closer ties with France, unless they’re ruling it personally.

The former is preferable to the latter, even if the EU have been stupidly stubborn about British unease over mass immigration, and seems implacably resistant to any kind of reform. Cameron’s been weak, the EU’s weak. Our most important politicians are ditherers who constantly have one eye on their post-political status within the global plutocracy. There’s no vision to be seen.

So much bollocks has been spouted by both sides in this campaign, it really is the lowest form of politics. Shameful on all sides. Brexit offers no viable alternative other than some kind of thinly veiled  nostalgia for empire. Vote Remain has played the fear card so strongly their propaganda is as realistic as a tarot table full of Death cards in a horror flick. Boris dropped the Hitler bomb well early. I mean, come on. When Hitler comes out in an argument, it’s all over.

I got the fear this morning that I could soon be living in a world where Donald Trump is US president, and Britain screws itself over royally for the fears of old folks and the deliberately misled. I can see one plus point in a Trump presidency – he’ll make such a hash of it it will shock the US establishment out of its deeply entrenched partisan deadlock. Either that, or we’ll all perish in nuclear fire. Britain leaving the EU leads to less dramatic misery, but misery nonetheless. I keep getting flashbacks to the 70s.

Still. Plenty of books to write, plenty of toy soldiers to paint. Life goes on, even if I can’t bend my arm properly.