Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Now I’ve only got a few bits and bobs left from Death Ray to put up, I’m starting to trawl through my old reviews for other places. I have, of course, done this before, but I’m going to be a little bit more organised about it from now on. This is from SFX #227.


Author: Ian Douglas

Publisher: Harper Voyager

357 pages

Battlestar Above and Beyond

Military SF is as American as testy insularity and fructose-induced obesity. There are moments in Earth Strike where you practically want to punch the air and shout “Hell yeah! America!” In a book about a multinational organisation, all the major characters are American, serving aboard a spaceship called America. But it is military SF; Douglas knows his market. Written to the best-seller beat of frequently repeated information, breathless infodumps and throttle-yanking action, Earth Strike at least has a pace that drags the reader along.

The plot is artfully straightforward: Mankind is approaching a Vingean singularity. An alien empire of extreme vintage and vast power would like us to stop, please. As nobody tells the Americans what to do, war begins.

Packed to the galactic gunwhales full of hard speculation on near-lightspeed combat, it’s superior to Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet and other war-stories that cover similar ground by dint of its crisp readability. The science is explained clearly and repeated often enough for all to grasp it – cool stuff, if implausible in parts. The characters and aliens fit into the usual slots – the aliens have lots of apostrophes, Admiral Koenig could only be played by Edward James Olmos – but it’s forgivable shorthand. And there is the exception of one of the lead characters, a technology-hating outsider, who adds a bit of freshness.

That old Republican lament about hard-working military types being undermined by politicians is front and centre, but again, military SF, isn’t it? Fun, fast-paced war.

Did you know?

Ex-serviceman Ian Douglas has written a shedload of books, including two 1980s Doctor Who titles.

I’ve a few more Death Ray articles left to put up here, really a bare handful. Here’s one of the last, a review of Charlie Higson’s really rather good zombie book, The Enemy.


Charlie Higson

Ex-Fastshow member leaves behind the antics of young James Bond, sets out to frighten children with thrilling zombie horror, mostly succeeds.

Like a lot of modern zombies, those in The Enemy are not dead, but diseased, like those in 28 Days Later and such. But where the adult protagonists of such fiction have to deal with the collapse of their world, the loss of their loved ones and the end of conveniently sited coffee shops, the kids in the enemy have to cope with their parents trying to eat them. It’s a hugely effective way of scaring the doo-doo right out of young-ish backsides, we expect more than a few nightmares as the result of this one.

The book, the first of a new series for the Young James Bond scribe, begins in Waitrose, where a gang of kids are struggling to survive some time after a mysterious plague killed most of the adults and turned the remainder into monsters. Led by the weary but capable teen Arran and his deputy Maxie, the gang decide to team up with the local Morrison’s kids to trek to Buckingham Palace after a messenger arrives from there, promising them an earthly paradise. Naturally, the journey is hard, and the new lad hasn’t exactly been telling the truth.

There’s enough action and scares in The Enemy to keep even the most jaded teen horror fan enthralled, while Higson writes with practised ease, moving his cast from one peril to the next, from massed adult attacks to an assault by diseased chimpanzees, finally to the rising of a zombie army under the command of a football fan whose mind is less rotted than most. If Death Ray were a more conservative publication, we’d no doubt be outraged by the book’s violence, but we were weaned on this stuff, and here it serves a purpose: despite some mildly wanton behaviour on the part of the children (smashing things up, rampant graffiti) it actually portrays youngsters in a very positive light. These are kids who band together to survive, who protect one another, sacrifice themselves for each other and are trying to build a new world from the ashes of the old, uncertain if they’re going to live another day, or if they’ll remain uninfected once they too become adult even if they dos. It’s a mirror image of Lord of the Flies, a blood smeared one, but it holds a kinder reflection of children; Higson’s kids are responsible and brave (he pointedly has one character talk about the rougher kids effectively wiping themselves out by acting like savages).

It’s perfect for teens, reminding us of the Tower King, a similar tale told in the 1980’s relaunch of Eagle, but it is way too scary for smaller children, the idea of powerlessness in the face of adult strength (though more than one overcomes this) or that of your parents turning on you is the kind that doles out long-lasting shivers with abandon – these are close to home horrors.

And it is, under its talk of Waitrose and Morrison’s kids banding together, a trifle middle-class, a little bit 70s Survivors, perhaps. Groups of nasty, bad children would remain, though his point that those who co-operated would perhaps fare better is a valid one, ne’er do wells would survive through raiding the better organised brainboxes we’d say (room for this in sequels, not doubt).

Higson does a good job, in the main, of rooting the story in the real world (he walked the route the children take, and London is meticulously described) but here and there its fantasy gets a bit out of hand and undermines the effect – a troglodytic, uninfected adult succumbing, vampire like, to the sun, and the idea that everyone over the age of fourteen becomes ill is rather specific when physical development differs from individual to individual This is a book for bright kids, and bright kids will spot that. Minor flaws, though. A gripping, and, peculiarly, uplifting, read.


Not the cover of the edition I read, that was so bad I’m saving you from having to look at it.


Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

180 pages

This book’s been in my collection for 15 years, according to the press release slip I found still preserved inside the cover. It’s set on a world dominated by the ocean, fittingly I read it on top of a cliff by the roaring sea.
A man wakes up on a beach in a strange world, next to him is a woman he doesn’t recognise but who he knows means everything to him. When she vanishes, he sets off to rescue her, taking him on a mind-bending journey that is a little like The Wizard of Oz for grown-ups, but with a lot more sea and a lot more sex.
Themes of circularity, eternity, free will, love and the persistence of self in the face of death means this lines up very closely with my own stories, so I was bound to love it.
Pleasingly enigmatic, gloriously written and full of invention, A Short, Sharp Shock is a book I’ll come back to in my twilight years. There’s a certain comfort to it that takes the edge off mortality.

If you’ve read and enjoyed A Short, Sharp Shock, do check out Champion of Mars (here’s the ebook). They’re thematically close.

Ant-ognising Ant Man

Posted: August 3, 2015 in Random wifflings, Reviews

Arf! Man I crack myself up.

I went to see Ant Man on Friday. This isn’t a review. I enjoyed it, except for the selfish bastard at the back who kept up a witless running commentary all the way through and was too many rows back for me to physically assault. I HATE talking in the cinema. I don’t even allow talking during films at home, so I might have an issue.

Ant Man almost didn’t work for me. It’s funny, it’s peppy, it has that well played comedy/nail-biting Thomas the Tank Engine fight at the climax. As so many others have said, it wisely scales down the superhero action from the world-endangering to the personal. It does all the things Marvel movies do well.

Here’s why it didn’t almost work for me: the science. So the science in all superhero movies is patently raging bollocks, but they work because ordinarily just enough hand-wavium is offered to present a narrative explanation. They don’t work when they then contradict themselves, even tangentially.

If you’ve read my review of Pacific Rim, this century’s most risible blockbuster (well, apart from the last part of the Hobbit), you’ll know it annoys my writerly brain cells when a story sets out something as a reason, then goes against it. In Ant Man it is the mechanism of shrinking. This is entirely un-possible, so any explanation would do. But the film makes the error of coming up with something nearly plausible.

Ant Man shrinks because Doctor Pym found a way of collapsing the spaces between atoms. Cool idea, right? Then we’re told that a miniaturised human maintains the same mass, but at a much greater density, hence the devestating nature of their punches. Awesome!

But, er, if Ant Man still weighs 200 pounds, how can a flying ant carry him? How does he not break the fragile things he’s bouncing around on? Come to think of it, how does he even move?

Problem one, right there. Problem two, if only the atomic spacing is being compressed and not the matter of the atoms themselves, how can he shrink forever, and fall into the subatomic world?

I know, I know. Best not think of this stuff at all, but the movie made me think of it by offering a half-believable explanation. Bad move. The Incredible Shrinking Man did this better by saying, “radiation did it, get over it, we’re moving along here”.

Otherwise, fun.

Another piece written for the very final, unpublished issue of Death Ray, which was halfway through production when it was cancelled. A little like the ultimate fate of SG:U, come to think of it.

I never liked Stargate. Not my cup of tea, really, although I acknowledge its immense popularity. I thought this last installment had promise, but I was far from convinced.


Director: Andy Mikita

Writers: Robert C. Cooper, Brad Wright

Starring: Robert Carlyle, Justin Louis, David Blue, Biran J. Smith, Jamil Walker Smith, Alaina Huffman, Elyse Levesque, Ming-Na, Lou Diamond Phillips

 The venerable franchise returns with a third (or fourth, if you count the cartoon) show. All brushed up and looking flash, but can it bring SG into SF’s major brains league?

Stargate has been around for a long, long time. We have to admit we have asked, sometimes, why. It’s never really had the brains of the best Trek, the chutzpah of Lost, the grit of Battlestar, or the charm of Doctor Who, in fact, it’s hard to think of anything it really excels in as a franchise other than persistence. It’s been there for a decade and a half, quietly but always on, the cosmic background radiation of televisual science fiction. It’s SF of a very particular sort, you can’t help but think that when mainstream types talk about SF in a less than positive light, it is the likes of the SG franchise they are talking about. It’s the soap-opera end of SF, the epic fantasy of the airwaves. Our problem with it? It matches the competency of the modern Trek franchises, with whom it overlaps in time, and with which it shares many similarities (the close-knit crew, the cosy soap opera character development, the same studio bound alien worlds and limited locations, the same rubbery-faced aliens) but it rarely reached the heights of those series, there is no SG equivalent of, say, ‘Darmok’. (more…)

This book review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel also comes from the never-published Death Ray #22.


Kim Stanley Robinson/Harper Voyager

Part historical novel, part SF story set in Robinson’s Accelerando universe, Galileo’s Dream returns Robinson to his favourite topics: human failings, human potential, memory, being and truth (subjective and objective); set against an entertaining, science-fictional theory of multi-dimensional time.

Galileo is one of the most important men in scientific history, whose observational rigour helped usher in the modern age. He is also, according to the book, an important nexus in the braided histories of reality, one whom the denizens of the Jovian moons in 3020 hold in especially high regard, partly because of his discoveries, but mostly because they are convinced that by altering his life, then later taking him to the future, they can shorten the centuries of horror that mankind must endure before achieving a state of rational grace. (more…)