Tag Archives: Books

Scifi in Chiangmai

Greetings fellow Scifi fans. Huge apologies for not having written much but I am currently in Laos – a place that is very far from the futuristic realms I always dream about. In fact it distinctly feels like the past.

Consequently, I don’t have a whole lot of Scifi related news. I am reading an awesome Scifi book though called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Very heavily into the geek stuff, so it may not appeal to all. It seems to be aimed at someone exactly my age (nearly 40) who has grown up obsessed with computer games, Scifi, movies, comics, books, etc. The main character that causes this obsession in the book (although he isn’t the protagonist) has a birthday two weeks from mine in 1972. Spooky. Anyway, I will do a full review later.

I realised that a lot of people travel these days and my blatherings on this site get a surprising number of hits. So, and this may seem a bit random, I will give you a travel tip if you happen to be passing through Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Statistically, it is bound to happen (Chiang Mai gets millions of visitors a year and so will this site soon).

Near the Thapae gate just outside of the old city walls you will see a sign pointing to Gecko books. Go there. On that road are several sizeable second hand bookshops that have surprisingly good Scifi book sections. You can get old editions with the original cool artwork (which is a minor obsession of mine).

I bought ‘The number of the beast’ by Heinlein and ‘Empire Earth’ by Arthur C. Clarke and they both have awesome covers. Especially Empire Earth as it has a double cover thingy.

If you aren’t in Chiang Mai when you read this, you should definitely go there. I bet it’s warmer than where you are for a start.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

I’ve recently decided to get into epic Space Opera. So I’ve stocked up on Iain M. Banks, Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and so on. Plus I’ve also just finished the third book of E.E. Doc Smith’s Skylark classic Skylark series. My mind is filled with exciting adventure on exotic planets. Actually it’s always like that just but normally there are slightly more zombies, a few pirates, and a ton of hot women in shiny spandex. I love my brain.

I’ve read quite a few of Iain M. Banks’ scifi stuff and Consider Phlebas is a good one.

The story concerns a guy called Horza who is an agent for an alien race called the Idirans. He is asked to rescue a mega powerful multi-dimensional computer brain called a ‘mind’. The Idirans are at war with the humanoid based ‘Culture’ who are ruled by these ‘minds’. But in a good way. Complicating matters, there’s also an agent of the Culture, a lady called Balveda, who also wants the get the mind. Unfortunately, the mind has crash landed on a ‘Planet of the Dead’ which is guarded by a being from a massively powerful race of aliens that consist of pure energy.

Got that? Good.

Actually the plot doesn’t really matter all that much. The first two thirds of the book just follow Horza as he has a series of extremely exciting adventures across the galaxy. Consider Phlebas begins with him strapped to a wall in a dungeon that is rapidly filling with water and has already reached his head. That’s how damned exciting things get from the start. As a series of mini adventures this book works brilliantly. He joins up with a crew of mis-matched mercenaries, has to fight to the death in single combat, raids a temple filled with armed monks, gets tied up and offered as a sacrifice to a really gross entity, escapes an exploding artificial world, has a massive gunfight in underground tunnels, and lots of other exciting escapades.

I massively enjoyed Consider Phlebas but I am already familiar with the Culture and Banks’s space worlds. Consequently I was able to just sit back and enjoy the adventure. If you are new to his scifi work I would probably recommend Player of Games or Use of Weapons to start with. They are a bit easier to read and work better as complete novels. If like me, however, and you somehow skipped this book (it was his first) then definitely give it a go. It’s full of his awesome ideas and has some truly brilliant episodes. As a novel, it doesn’t quite satisfy, but as a series of Space Opera adventures it’s great.

Incompetence by Rob Grant

Incompetence by Rob Grant

Incompetence by Rob Grant is funny. In case you didn’t know, Rob Grant was one of the writers of Red Dwarf and I suspect he was the one who wrote most of the jokes.

Incompetence is set in the United States of Europe in the not too distant future. A detective for a secret organisation who goes by the name Harry Salt (among others) is trying to track down whomever it was that killed another member of his team. He is hindered somewhat by the fact that in the future United Europe no-one can be discriminated against for gender, race, weight, age, etc but in particular they can’t be discriminated against for being utterly incompetent.

That is the entire plot and there are very few surprises. It really doesn’t matter though because Incompetence is all about the jokes. Because of the incompetence law pretty much everyone he meets is utterly useless at their jobs. This is the main theme and the constantly recurring joke throughout the novel. There are waiters with Tourette’s syndrome, stupid or unbelievably angry policemen, petty minded station guards, and so on. The characters he meets provide the humour throughout the book. At times they can verge on slightly tiresome but that is forgiven as Incompetence is consistently amusing and has some superb set pieces and situations.

There isn’t really a lot of Science Fiction in it – the premise is there to basically tell gags and rant against stupid rulings coming out of Europe. Consequently, the humour is quite British. There are some good moments which couldn’t quite happen right now. For example, even though you can’t be discriminated against for incompetence, you can be busted for pretty much anything and held in a holding cell. With the constant stream of ludicrous laws coming out Brussels this is causing a lot of arrests. At one point our hero gets arrested and is taken to the temporary holding cells. These are vast rooms with plastic partitions. He is then led down a staircase and there’s another series of colossal cells. He then descends further and further with each floor being identical and full. Finally 20+ floors down he is put in a cell. In the corner there is a digging crew that works 24 hours a day tunneling downwards to create more cell space. Again this isn’t giving much away. The humour and enjoyment of this scene is a character he meets in the cell.

There are a few more ideas like this but nothing really new. The plot, as stated is pretty basic. What makes Incompetence a good read is the fact that it will make you laugh. If you aren’t expecting much but simply want a fun, easy to read, fast-paced, mock-noir, holiday type book then I can highly recommend Incompetence.

 

’48 by James Herbert

48 by James Herbert

’48 by James Herbert is the most exciting book ever written. Probably. It’s certainly the most exciting book I have ever read (although Conan and the Road of Kings comes close.)

The story is set in 1948. Hence the title. When the Second World War was coming to an end and Hitler realised that the good guys were going to win, he implements his final solution. This involved firing a load of rockets that contained a deadly virus that pretty much wipes out the whole of mankind. Everyone except people with AB negative blood in fact, which is about 3% of the population. It’s the ultimate in spitting your dummy from the pram.

’48 begins with an American pilot who was stationed in London but is now just trying to survive. He is perfectly healthy because of his blood type. Not everyone got a full blast of the virus, so some are dying slowly. In London, most of the remaining ill-types happen to be blackshirts. British fascists who were fans of Hitler and had consequently been in the out-crowd for most of the 40s. They also happen to be slightly insane and want some healthy blood.

So we have the setting for a chase with diseased Fascists, lots of guns, all through a post-apocalyptic London. Which is pretty awesome.

As I said, this book is buttock clenchingly exciting. The first line is: ‘What the hell was that?’ There then follows an epic chase during which the main characters are established (our hero meets some friendly people), as is the setting and the premise. All while bullets fly, things catch fire, stuff explodes and buildings crumble. The first bit even resembling a moment of calm doesn’t arrive until about a third of the way in. Then it kicks off again until the end of the book where there is an epic showdown at the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

48 isn’t flawless but the flaws don’t detract from what the book is trying to do. There isn’t a lot of plot but there rarely is in post-apocalypse tales, they are tales of survival. There are a few other questions such as why the blackshirts seem to have survived in such great numbers and are all diseased. Everyone else in the book has AB negative blood and is ok.

James Herbert’s ’48 isn’t deep but is just great fun. Highly enjoyable action/occasional horror fare. The characters are great and the action is relentless and well done. It should be a movie but I suspect it will give people heart attacks. I loved it and this was my second read of it.

In conclusion:

Most. Exciting. Book. Ever.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones

Literally several people have noticed that I haven’t reviewed a book for a while and were wondering what the hell I’ve been doing. Well, I have an excuse as I have just read the first two books of the series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. I was going to read the whole series and then review it but given the length of the books and the slow rate at which Martin is writing them, I probably won’t finish them until I’m old and will be too busy ruling the world from my moon palace.

I haven’t read any fantasy books for about 15 years and was finally tempted back by constantly seeing this series at the top of bestseller lists. I was further tempted when HBO decided to make a TV series of it with my neighbour Sean Bean. (He drinks in my local and it was highly embarrassing when he saw me reading the book.)

This review is of the first book. Which is epic, huge, massive, grandiose in all ways possible. The story is set on a magical fantasy world, and primarily centers on a continent known as Westeros. Which is coincidentally like medieval England. In the West are hills and mines – Wales. The North is quite stern and fierce with hard people who lack humour – the north of England. Above them is a massive wall (think Hadrian) that was build to keep out the savage, uncivilised ‘widlings’ and pale ghostlike ‘Others’ who inhabit the cold lands up there – think Scotland. The capital, largest city, and place where all the good looking people hang out is in the warm and pleasant lands in the southeast. On a river. It’s pretty blatant.

The story primarily revolves around the nobles, lords and royalty in the land as they try to outwit each other with usually incredibly violent rewards for the loser. I say primarily because while the ‘Game of Thrones’ is the core, there are two other plot threads going on. One is what is happening up near the wall in the North, and the other is the story of what happens to an exiled Prince and Princess who have fled East.

The book has magic, but not much. Most of it is hinted at or referred to as things that happened in days of yore. There are hints of more magical things afoot and this feeling grows throughout the novel but don’t expect any lame-arsed elves or swarthy dwarves or electricity firing wizards. It’s mostly just dudes in armor twatting each other with swords.

The Game of Thrones is told from the perpectives of various characters. Essentially, a character’s name is the title of a chapter and everything is told from their point of view. This is actually pretty effective as it allows for some great characterisation and advances a story whose strands take place all over the world Martin has created. Most of the characters are superb and believable and you care what happens to them (some of them anyway, others are plain evil). There is the odd character that feels a bit one dimensional or cliched but they are in the minority.

The negative side of this technique is that occasionally major events happen and the character you are currently reading about just gets told about it. This sometimes feels like a bit of con, almost as if Martin couldn’t be bothered to write the actual scene. For example, at one point you are seeing things from the point of view of a woman who is hiding in a forest near a battle. The men go off and fight a battle which you don’t even see, then they get back and inform her that woohoo they won and the fight was awesome. Which is rubbish as I wanted to read about the battle.

I feel a word of warning is needed here. This book is not meant to be read as a one off. It is very much part of an ongoing tale which is epic. I have also been informed that books four and five were a bit slow plotwise and a long time coming publishing-wise. The series is supposed to be seven books long and Martin is getting old. Just saying…

The series: A Song of Ice and Fire is pretty violent at times (which is great and has some superbly exciting set pieces). It can also however, be a bit long winded with unnecessarily long lists of knights and nobles and their flags and sigils (which is a a bit dull but adds to the feeling of an epic world and only happens occasionally). Also, Martin has a mild obsession with incest – one family featured only breeds heirs through brother and sister marriages. A big chunk of the plot revolves about a different incestuous couple but I won’t tell you who (although you find out pretty early on) as it might ruin things.

To summarise though: I loved A Game of Thrones. It drags you in and you will desperately want to know what happens next. The plot has shitloads of twists and some pretty shocking deaths of people you really didn’t expect to pop it. This creates even more tension as anything could happen. The most telling point is that after finishing this 800 page book I immediately read the second, even longer novel in the series.

Which is high praise indeed. Recommended.

 

 

New Science Fiction eBook site

Old Sci Fi covers are brilliant

I bought a kindle about a month ago and have been experiencing a bank-busting eBook buying frenzy. I love books and will always buy them. Especially second hand science fiction paperbacks with the sorts of cool covers people don’t seem to do anymore. I do love the convenience of having hundreds of books in my pocket though. It’s a bit like someone who still collects vinyl but has an iPod.

Most of my old collectable books are currently in a load of boxes in my parent’s attic. Where they will stay until I have a huge house and can display them with pride. But the thing is, I still want to read the books. So I went to the kindle store, all excited, and prepared to buy some classic sci fi.

Harry Harrison

For some reason I had a hankering for adventurous science fiction. None of your deep soul searching novels just cool ideas with great characters – I wanted fun and exciting premises. Space pistols and daring adventure on dangerous planets. Cities in flight or planets of death. Killer robots and meddling aliens. Visions of the future where you could smoke a pipe on a spaceship’s bridge. And so forth. In particular I wanted two authors that have always satisfied this need: Edmund Cooper and Harry Harrison. There are obviously lots of others but these two were among my favourites when I was a teen. To my surprise they weren’t available until the end of September and they both had the same publisher – Gateway.

On the 11th October I got an email from this publisher informing me that their website SF Gateway is up and running. And I’m well impressed. It has only just started but they have a lot of old scifi books and authors on there already. Golden age maestros like James Blish, E.E. Doc Smith, Jack Vance, Joe Haldeman, Cooper, Harrison and more.

Before I sound like an advert I will stop. I’m just excited that someone is finally addressing this gap in the kindle market. Set lasers to die, charge up the rockets, get the women in spandex and lets get those evil aliens.

The website is here: http://www.sfgateway.com/

What to read next?

A friend of mine sent me a very cool link to a marvelous site called SFSignal (http://www.sfsignal.com). It’s a pretty cool site. Almost as cool as this one. Almost.
To be fair, they clearly put in a lot of time and effort as the chart my friend (hey Tim) sent must have taken bloody ages. And god bless ’em for the effort.
What they have done is to organise a list of the top 100 Sci Fi and Fantasy books of all time and arranged them into a ‘decision chart’. There is probably a correct terminology for this sort of chart but I have never worked in HR or worn a suit or even had my own desk in an office, so who knows? (Writing and TV work rules!) What you do is answer questions and find the book you should read next. Like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book without the dice or pencils or death. Errr, ok just the ‘choose’ bit. Anyway check it out.
Here’s the link: http://www.myextralife.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/SFSignalNPR100Flowchart.jpg

Or just click below.

Choose your own book!

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

I recently read Non-stop by Aldiss and having thoroughly enjoyed it I thought I’d give Hothouse a go. Happily I loved this too.

Hothouse is set in the future. The far, far future future. As in a few billion years from now. The sun is expanding and will soon go nova. The Earth and Moon have stopped rotating with the result that half the planet is permanently facing the sun. On this half the plants rule and the land is dominated by one huge, continent spanning banyan tree.

Plants have evolved and even mimic extinct mammals like birds or rabbits. Some plants are even more mental. One, for example has evolved into a mile long spider that has spun webs from the Earth to the Moon.

Most of the plants seem to be predatory, which makes survival a real bitch. The story starts with a small group of humans who live in the middle branches of the tree. I say small as there are only about 10 of them and also because they are about one foot tall. And green. Various things happen but essentially one of them goes on an epic adventure all over the globe.

I loved Hothouse because of the sheer imagination and wonder that went into it. As it is so far in the future it might as well be a fantasy. There are some mad as fuck creatures living on the planet. Some of the larger predators are the size of volcanoes and emit a hypnotic noise. Others are island sized or intelligent parasites and so on. After the initial set up, the book moves at an awesome pace with one adventure after another.

There are a few negatives though. The characterization isn’t all that strong. You don’t really care about the characters all that much. They feel like they are just there to witness the world as they travel. As that world is fascinating this doesn’t really matter. Also, the book feels a bit disjointed. The reason for that is because it was originally five short stories that have been pasted together and this results in a slightly disjointed narrative. There are also some minor contradictions that a good editor should have spotted.

One of the main criticisms is that the science doesn’t work. To that I say bollocks – it really doesn’t matter. As I said earlier, the book is practically a fantasy.

This is a great book with a lot more depth to it than I have credited here. It questions intelligence and the ‘live in the now’ mentality that is detrimental to progress. It questions other things too but I have gone on enough.

After a slightly slow start, Hothouse just goes from great to awesome. Highly recommended.

Bedbugs by Ben H. Winters

BEDBUGS

When Susan and Alex Wendt find their ideal Brooklyn apartment, everything looks rosy for the couple and their young daughter. Soon after moving in they begin to discover the odd problem but it’s nothing major – the landlady seems a bit eccentric, one of the floorboards is sticking up, there’s a strange smell in one of the rooms, and an odd pinging noise coming from somewhere.

But one morning Susan finds she has been bitten by a bug. She starts to suspect the apartment has bedbugs but exterminators can’t find any and no one seems to believe her. Why is she the only one getting bitten? The problem starts to intensify with Susan getting increasingly obsessed. Is it bedbugs or something stranger? Is she just losing her mind?

I can’t reveal any more of the story without giving too much away so I will stop there.

I don’t normally read horror these days so I approached this book with some trepidation. I initially thought it was going to be a ‘nature gone mad’ story with bedbugs rampaging and devouring screaming victims in seconds. Which could have been cool but this is a different type of book.

Bedbugs is more of a slow burner. Ben H. Winters very slowly builds the tension until things really kick off at the end. I was reminded of Rosemary’s baby crossed with a more standard thriller. I was surprised how much I liked it. The book is simply but well written. It is also fairly well-paced but I did feel that the ending, while satisfying, seemed as if too many things kicked off at once. It gets very intense very quick but I suppose that could be the point. This was a minor gripe though, as it was an exciting and surprising ending that I didn’t see coming.

The characters are well rounded although it was here I had my only real problem with Bedbugs. I found the main character Susan a bit too neurotic and paranoid from the start. Curiously, once she starts getting bitten and her paranoia is justified I found myself warming to her. So it isn’t that much of a problem as my empathy was there by the time the final scenes started to escalate.

Ben H. Winter’s Bedbugs is enjoyable and well written. It’s a quick read, with some genuinely chilling moments and tension.  It would be ideal beach or airplane fodder. Just be prepared to scratch.

The book is on sale from the 6th September.

Flood by Stephen Baxter

Flood by Stephen Baxter

The book starts in the year 2016. It begins superbly with the main protagonist, Lily, bound and gagged in the boot of a speeding truck. Her and some other hostages are being held in Spain after the country has pretty much broken down. They are then rescued by a billionaire called Nathan Lammockson who takes them under his wing. After their five years in captivity, the world has become a strange place with rising water levels and flooding in London.

Then the London barrier is overwhelmed and the city is pretty much screwed. From this moment onward people really start to understand the threat posed to human civilisation. As the water keeps rising people are forced to ever higher ground. This is not global warming, it is something else and the rise may not stop before the land runs out.

I liked this book, it reminded me of the ‘cozy catastrophe’ type of novels written by people like John Wyndham. The book is structured as a serious of jumps in time spanning decades. The main characters are a group of friends that spread over the planet and meet occasionally to swap info. This works pretty well although it sometimes feels a bit too much like a device to simply blast out a load of information. The science is apparently pretty solid and there really are hidden reservoirs of water deep under the land.

Where the book really gets good is in the disaster moments the characters get caught up in. When there is a storm surge and a huge wave rolls through London the story really comes alive. Another great moment is a gunfight in a sports stadium in the Andes mountains.

Unfortunately there are not enough of these moments. Baxter skilfully portrays an epic tale of global disaster with events occurring at locations ranging from Tibet to Peru but as the principal characters are shielded by the billionaire, the reader always feels a bit distanced from the action. There is also the fact that the characters are slightly cliched and never really come alive.

On the whole though, I found this a highly enjoyable read. Unlike a Wyndham novel the disaster truly feels global. But also unlike a Wyndham novel, the characters lack depth and the story lacks an element of charm. If you like disaster novels give it a go though, it’s remarkably good fun.