Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

A review from #SFX249.


Author: Will McIntosh

Publisher: Orbit


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.


Firefall, a book review

Posted: June 10, 2016 in Journalism, Reviews

From SFX #254.


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…

prince_o_foolsFrom #SFX 249.


Author: Mark Lawrence

Publisher: Harper Voyager


Fools out of thorns

With his fast-paced plots and helpings of blood, Lawrence is perhaps closest to Abercrombie in tone (not G.R.R. Martin, not matter what the cover notes might say). A companion piece to the Broken Empire trilogy – different prince, same world – the titular Prince of Fools is Jalan, a royal wastrel who gets dragged off on an adventure to the Arctic by a big Viking. Horrific sequences of necromancy follow.

Lawrence is a sharp writer who keeps us turning the pages with a careful balance of quips and gory incident, but this book is in other regards disappointing. We’re in a future epoch where civilisation’s returned after a nuclear war, bringing magic with it. This is rich ground for adventure, the painted backdrop we get however far from lives up to the setting’s promise. It’s rife with illogicality and there’s a degree of unimaginativeness. Compared with the dazzling fantasy future Earths of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock et al, the Broken Empire is badly sketched.

Prince Jalan has tendency to repeatedly tell us he’s a coward, when, of course, he has more than a hero’s measure of courage. It reminds us of all those fantasies from fifteen years ago or so that had beautiful female heroines who, for various reasons, thought they were repulsive. We can only hope this doesn’t reflect a male-equivalent trend of protagonists who loathe themselves for similarly unbelievable reasons.

Did you know?

The Broken Empire is our own Europe, its map redrawn by cataclysmic warfare and flooding. All things said, it’s a great fantasy map.

A book review from SFX #249.



James Smythe/ Borough Press/376pp

Intimate techno-thriller

No Harm is an example of “big idea” SF, where one technology changes the world. In this case, it’s ClearVista, a predictive data-mining algorithm fast becoming an online soothsayer.

Laurence Walker is on track to become the next president of the US, until ClearVista predicts he has no chance, despite all indications to the contrary. Cue terrible tragedy.

No Harm… is the kind of book we’d love to love. Smythe attempts to build a deeply intimate portrayal of bereavement and breakdown by showing us every detail in every scene and every thought in every head. It’s only intermittently successful at best; overall the effect is paradoxically distancing. The story is neither gripping enough nor Walker’s fall from grace sufficiently believable to properly ignite such a writing style. The way Walker’s presented, you’d imagine he’d have a little more fight in him. Indeed, if he had, this might have been a more impressive work.

The SF idea, however, is strong, addressing the proliferation of the use of “big data” in our day-to-day lives. From this we get enough plot for a Hollywood SF thriller of Minority Report’s ilk, but no more. No doubt carefully shorn of distracting subplots (Mrs Walker is a struggling writer, a self-referential annoyance) it would be of minor on-screen interest. As literature, the book fails in some of its aims.

Did you know?

Smythe won the Wales Book of the Year Award for The Testimony in 2012.

A review from SFX #248.


Kieran Shea
Titan Books
336 pages

Koko is yet another hard as nails, kick-ass female heroine with funky hair and awesome combat skills. There’s a PhD thesis to be written on why such protagonists have taken over SF so successfully. Don’t worry, we’ll spare you that. Luckily for us, Koko is one the more winning examples of her type, an ex-mercenary with just the right amount of more prosaic character traits to make her both believable and rootable for.

In a 26th century Earth undergoing a somewhat violent rebirth after five hundred years of ecological cataclysm and economic catastrophe, Koko has jacked in her career as a corporate gun-for-hire and is running a brothel-cum-bar on the artificial paradise resort of the Sixty Islands. That is, until her ex-buddy – who got her the cushy retirement in the first place – decides to have her assassinated. On the run, Koko heads skywards, where the most unlikely of allies awaits her…

Set in a pleasingly well crafted future which dazzles and bewilders just enough to seem real, Koko Takes A Holiday is fast and furious fun pulp. No matter how tiresome kick-ass chicks have become as a trope (and they can be as tedious as the square-jawed spaceman or mightily thewed barbarian once were), when done as well as here it works just fine. The story itself is perhaps a little thin to support so many pages, but the level of panache exhibited in the writing more than makes up for any shortcomings. Good old-fashioned, hyper-violent entertainment.

Did you know?

Kieran Shea’s enjoyed a much-lauded short-story career thus far, mainly in crime. Koko Takes a Holiday is his first novel.


A book review from my archives. It appeared originally in SFX #245. Note that when I read this back in 2014, the film was yet to be made. When it was, it did not star Tom hanks. I enjoyed the book, with reservations. A good friend found it tedious, putting it aside half-read with the immortal words “Fuck you, Mr Watney, and your space potatoes.”


Author: Andy Weir

Publisher: Del Rey


Robinson Crusoe on Mars redux

Not often does SFX give the top slot to a novel by a first timer, but The Martian comes highly recommended. Originally self-published in 2012, The Martian garnered thousands of great reviews and praise from none other than Stephen Baxter. Does this story of an astronaut stranded on Mars live up to the hype? Mostly yes, but there’s a tiny bit of no in there.

Mark Watney is an astronaut on NASA’s third excursion to the Red Planet. Ares 3 is only a few days into its mission when a sandstorm hits. The ascent vehicle is threatened by Mars’ killer winds, so NASA orders its astronauts to mount up and head home. Watney is hit by debris and knocked flying. He’s lost, presumed dead, and the team’s commander makes the tough call to launch.

Watney is wounded, but alive. Waking up after his comrades have gone, equipped with a limited amount of resources, he has to figure out a way to survive.

The amount of research here is astounding. We’re suckers for well-grounded fiction, and on the technical side The Martian is exemplary. Weir has a good knowledge of several fields of science (much like his astronaut heroes), and besides a plausible manned Mars mission plan, we get some cracking lessons in botany, astrophysics, chemistry and mechanical engineering. Watney, an engineer/botanist, details his various survival schemes in his log. These witty first-person segments are the better part of the novel. When we shift to third-person passages detailing NASA’s attempts to rescue him, it’s jarring change of gear at first, and they are less engaging throughout.

Engagement is one of the book’s two weaknesses. There’s little emotional heft. Watney’s an astronaut, and a certain devil-may-care attitude to his own death is to be expected (warning: astronauts are awesome. Reading about astronauts can lead to feelings of inadequacy). But the sections on Earth, which could have injected genuine feeling, follow a similar joke-heavy trajectory. The Martian is funny, especially Watney, but backchat, considered swearing and fist-pumping take the place of poignancy. This kind of Whedon-esque interaction is the norm in idealised geek culture, but not absolutely everybody (even at NASA) behaves this way. A difficult balance to strike, we admit, for The Martian could easily have gone the other way and slipped into the mawkishness of 1998 film Armageddon. Even so, at times the novel seems like a jolly set of Dungeons & Dragons puzzles rather than a deadly situation faced by real people. This is an outward looking book. All Watney’s problems are ones that can be solved by the application of ingenuity. He doesn’t get lonely, or freak out, or miss pancakes. His inner life is skated over, albeit adroitly.

The other weakness is one partly brought on by the nature of the narrative. The Martian has been compared to Apollo 13 (real life disaster and hit Tom Hanks movie!). Fair enough, but there’s a subtle difference – on Apollo 13 one thing went wrong that led to a lot of other things going wrong. In The Martian, everything goes wrong. For the sake of story it has to, but Watney’s chain of disasters stretch credulity even as they have you turning the page. This is not a Martian Castaway (hit Tom Hanks movie!) story about the psychology of isolation, but perhaps with a bit of such affect the unlikelihood of Watney’s serial misfortunes would be less noticeable.

The Martian’s film rights have been sold, and it strikes us that, with the right director, this might be a tale that makes for a better film (perhaps a hit, with Tom Hanks). Impressive, but definitely one for the head, not the heart.


Champion of Mars still 99p/$1.50