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…


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.


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.

Wassup? Been busy, as I said last time I was here. I’ve three novels to write in four months (+++STATUS UPDATE 1.4 NOVELS COMPLETE +++BLEEP+++), and also my dog, Magnus died. I mentioned it on twitter, but I was so cut up about it I didn’t feel like sharing in the modern-day way with a 3000 word eulogy. He was my friend. I was very upset. Enough.

So, all this is bit frustrating actually, as there is a TON of stuff I want to write about on this blog; some, as you know from past performance, I’ll never get around to communicating. But some things are timely, and if I have time to take advantage of the timeliness, I should. So I do. So here we go.

Today I got this message from Thor Odinson (@Thor_Odinson). I’m pretty sure he’s not the Thor, but you never know.

POINTS VALUES WERE NEVER BALANCED. They were actually unfair. Warhammer devolved into an exercise where power-mad dice chuckers would spend every waking moment breaking the latest army book. “Well, the points are equal. Therefore it is fair,” they would say of their latest hell-combo, when quite patently it was not fair, and what they really meant was “This arbitrary system of points attribution provides a cloak of legitimacy to my frightening need to prove my validity as a human being by winning at toy soldiers.”

So have you heard that GW’s adding points to Age of Sigmar?

I was going to answer this anyway, so I thought I’d share with everyone.

In short: Points in Age of Sigmar are a not a good idea, they’re a great idea.

What?! Yeah, you read that right. Let me explain.

I have nothing against points in games. I play plenty of games that use points-based army selection systems – X-Wing, Bolt Action and Saga among them. The difference with these systems is that the points values – more or less – have some correlation with how useful something is in the game (though X-Wing is edging its way out of that bracket).

But in Warhammer – and I definitely mean Warhammer 40,000 here too – not so much. Both 8th Edition Warhammer and current 40k are so complex, with so many layers of rules, supplements, exceptions and so forth that the points values were/are essentially meaningless. Games Workshop have always had a tendency to make their latest models more powerful. In the main this is just out-and-out “wouldn’t it be way cool if this could do that?” gaming geekery. Rules creep has been the norm in Warhammer right from when I was a nipper. Watch tourney players debating the 40k  “meta” as I believe the youngsters call it these days, and most of the top lists are drawn from the more recent codexes. I reiterate, this is nothing new. You should have heard me endlessly rant about how overpowered 2nd and 3rd edition Wood Elves were (and they bloody were).

Points values started out very simple. As did Warhammer. The more complex the game got, the less accurate points became as a metric of how powerful something was, and the more open to abuse the system was. Points gaming was the default way to play, therefore winning at all costs by breaking the army books became the game. As a more thematic, story-driven, hobby gamer, this bored and frustrated me.

However, points are good, if the system works. We’ve all heard the arguments for the need for them during pick-up games, and then there’s the tournament community, who were put out by the lack of pointage in AoS.

There was great debate about the points value thing within GW when AoS was launched. They wanted to get away from points as default gaming style. But the community didn’t entirely agree, and Games Workshop are listening to their fans again. That’s the really important thing here. I think they’ve moved from a position of “We’re the market leader, our customers will follow whatever we do,” because, well New Coke.

I’m all for it. Provided points don’t become again practically the only way to play, and they are executed with the same elegant simplicity as the Age of Sigmar core rules, then they’ll be really cool.

By dint of the timing of this decision, when open play is already embedded in the public consciousness,  I am reasonably confident that points gaming won’t come to completely dominate as it did in the past, and even if it does, then we’ve now all been freed from the “must have a 2000-point army that beats everything” mindset. Open play will continue to be a viable option. If the campaign system proves to be good too, then we’ve exciting times ahead.

I’m also confident that the points system will be balanced. Of key importance here, GW seem to be involving people who have lots and lots of experience in organised play like tournaments.

Every playing style will be accommodated in the upcoming General’s Handbook. That’s a good thing. I’m sure I’ll play all three ways.

Rules creep will happen. It happens everywhere. But AoS, with its free rules and warscrolls, offers the chance for constant tweaking and rebalancing. The core rules are so short that should they need adjusting it can be done relatively easily. It won’t take a 300 page rulebook every four years and a dozen codexes/army books.

I used the word “devolved” in my original post. Well, it looks like we’re getting a touch of progressive evolution.

Does that answer your question, Mighty Odinsson?


I’m breaking radio silence briefly today to announce the release of The Emperor’s Railroad, the first in my brand, spanking new series of novellas from

Here’s the blurb:

Global war devastated the environment, a plague of the dead wiped out much of humanity, and civilization as we once understood it came to a standstill. But that was a thousand years ago, and the world is now a very different place.

Conflict between city states is constant, superstition is rife, and machine relics, mutant creatures and resurrected prehistoric beasts trouble the land. Watching over all are the silent Dreaming Cities. Homes of the angels, bastion outposts of heaven on Earth. Or so the church claims. Very few go in, and nobody ever comes out.

Until now…

I’ve put a lot into the world building here and there is a whole lot of adventure as well as zombies, gun-slingers, and more! There is literally something for everyone in this. If you like cross-genre, you’ll dig it. Promise.

Best of all, the ebook version is less than two pounds (audio and paperback are also available). Part two, The Ghoul King, is out in July. US readers, check out The Emperor’s Railroad at your Amazon store.  Naturally, citizens of any nation can head over to the book’s page at where a variety of formats may be purchased.

There are already several, mostly positive reviews up at Goodreads. To further whet your appetite, here’s a snippet from Publisher’s Weekly, who rather enjoyed it…

“Haley serves up equal helpings of horror, fantasy adventure, and SF in this stark, intriguing story of a ruined Earth where the remaining humans are determined to survive.”

I will of course be answering questions on the book here and on my Goodreads profile, so if you’ve any questions, ask away. I will answer.

Eagle-eyed sorts (actually, anyone with basic sparrow eyes can spot it) will have noticed I’ve not been very present on the net these last six weeks. This is because I’ve had a very hectic period that is still ongoing. Once it is over, normal service will resume. Thank you.

More greenskins, of course. What do you take me for, some kind of elf-fondler?

After last week’s AoS game, I decided to split my two units of 30+ and 40+ Orruks into three. After snipping some arms off and rearranging things, I now have one unit of 23 with two choppas, one unit of 24 with two choppas, and one unit of 23 with pigstikka spears and Waaagh! shields. The larger units were just too unwieldy. With their low-sh bravery, I was losing far more to battleshock than actual fighting, plus you can’t bring the numbers of a large unit to bear. I’m hoping this will allow more flexible movement, while preserving that vital +1 attack for having 20 or more models, for at least one turn, anyway.


I cannot cure my orc addiction, now matter what you call them.