Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Sci Fi Month: Science Fiction in 2016... and beyond


Find out all about Lisa and Rinn's Sci Fi Month here.
Hi friends old and new. Apologies for falling off the radar last week; I had a family wedding to go to at the weekend, which fell during a time when I wasn't allowed to take holiday from work, so I ended up swapping shifts with a colleague and working for nine consecutive days. Good old retail(!) But I'm back just in time to wrap up November by having a look back on just a few highlights from 2016's science fiction films.

Star Trek Beyond: I'll try to keep this brief, as I still haven't got around to reviewing Star Trek Into Darkness, and I'd eventually like to have the set of full-length reviews. Star Trek Beyond coincided with the franchise's fiftieth anniversary, and in many ways the latest film went back to its roots. Into Darkness was, as suggested by the title, a rather gritty tale, with terrorism, revenge and moral ambiguities (mixed in with a lot of borrowing from The Wrath of Khan and the episode "Space Seed.) Beyond returns to the more hopeful Utopia that Gene Roddenberry conceived - even if all is not as it seems beneath the surface. The plot is fairly standard Star Trek fare; there are too many explosions and action sequences, but it is a wonderful celebration of the characters, who spend a decent chunk of the film separated and working in pairs. After a rather irritating start in the prequel films, Chris Pine has settled well into the role of Captain Kirk, away from the popular perception of the character as a cocky womaniser, and closer to how he actually was. Bones and Spock's bickering friendship is a thing of beauty; their scenes together were the highlight of the film. There was also a moving tribute to the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who passed away last spring. And of course there was a double-whammy this time around with the death of Anton Yelchin this year; his Chekov played only a small part in the proceedings, but lit up the screen whenever he appeared, and we finally got to hear what was "inwented in Russia." A talented actor and an endearing character; he is irreplaceable and will be sadly missed.


Ghostbusters (2016 reboot): To be quite honest I wasn't sure whether to include this as science fiction, or whether it would be more strictly classified as supernatural horror. Ghosts aren't usually a feature of sci-fi, but, like the 1980s original, the team use science and technology instead of excorcism and magic in order to defeat the forces of darkness, so I'll include it anyway.

The new film attracted a lot of criticism when it was release, particularly from die-hard fans of the original cult classic. Remaking something so beloved is always a risky move. Although I've enjoyed the original, I must confess that I don't have a particular attachment to it (it is dryly amusing but I really don't see it as a comedy) and so I was happy enough to see what the new cast had to offer. It is more overtly comedic than the original, with varying levels of humour - some jokes were not to my taste, while others made me giggle like a schoolgirl in the cinema. On a repeat viewing, I wasn't sure it held up to my memory of it; perhaps being in a room full of laughing people made it seem funnier than watching alone at home. But the ghostbusting quartet (Kirsten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and the amazing Kate McKinnon) form a formidable team. The film does not make a point of the team being remarkable despite or because of being women, they just get on with the job in hand without a mention of their gender - just like their male predecessors do! It's a rare movie not to have even a whiff of romance, unless you include Kirsten Wiig's character finding Chris Hemsworth to be pretty, or Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann finding her pretty. It's all about strong friendships and fighting the apocolypse.

Perhaps there is a pointed lack of subtlety in the villain being a marginalised geek who has been bullied and sneered at all his life, and has taken to sneering at the rest of the world. I can see why he might upset Ghostbusters fanboys. But he has his foil in the Ghostbusters themselves. They too have lived with being the outsiders, the geeks, the "ghost girl" and the freak. It's no excuse, the movie says. You get to choose how your experiences shape you. Use your weirdness for good or for ill.

I suspect the new Ghostbusters will not join its predecessor in the cinematic history books as a classic; there are no plans for a sequel, but that's okay. The last thing we need is another never-ending franchise outstaying its welcome. As a stand-alone, it is fun and enjoyable, and a good example to little girls who want representation in the world beyond princesses and fairies.


Arrival: Most of the films I've seen in cinemas in recent years have either been based upon books I've read, or part of an ongoing franchise. Arrival is the exception; it was originally a short story, but not one I've read, so I went in knowing hardly anything about it. This is the best way to experience Arrtival, and I can't say very much without spoilers. It is the tale of a linguist (Amy Adams) who is tasked with communicating with aliens whose vessels appear above twelve spots around the world. Arrival is a quiet, gently paced film with a small main cast, balancing a deeply personal, bittersweet story with the big implications of extraterrestrial life, the links between language and understanding the universe. It is an intelligent movie, thought-provoking and hushing, combining sadness and hope, and it was very satisfying to my geeky heart and mind.


I've found it interesting to notice that the stand-out sci-fi of this year has been rather more optimistic than of late. How many dystopian futures have we seen in the twentieth century? How many darker and edgier remakes? (Battlestar Galactica, I'm looking at you!) Arrival is bittersweet but ultimately optimistic about humanity. Star Trek turned its back on the "grimdark" and returned to its hopeful vision of teamwork. And I've absolutely fallen in love with Becky Chambers' novels, with their vision of a far-distant future with good intergalactic relationships and alliances.

But science fiction inevitably is influenced by the time it was written, and 2016 has been a time of great change - and not for the better. The dark spectres of humanity have crept out of the shadows; people begin to forget the lessons learned from history's shames. The new year will bring with it a very different understanding of the world than many people held as we entered 2016. So I wonder how science fiction creators are going to respond to this changing world. Will we be deluged once more with dystopian warnings? There is a valuable place for this, but also for hope. Remember that Star Trek first aired in the 1960s, during the Cold War, in a time and place of great racial and gender inequality, and the show helped pave the way for social change. And I think we need that now as much as ever.
What were your science fiction highlights of 2016? Where do you think the genre will take us in the next few years? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Sci Fi Month: A Closed And Common Orbit - Becky Chambers (book review)

Read all about Rinn and Lisa's Sci Fi Month here.

Did I ever mention how much I enjoyed Becky Chambers' debut novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet? (Chorus: "Yes Katie, you did.") More often than not I prefer reading stand-alone novels to series, but I reached the end of Small Angry Planet utterly engrossed in Chambers' world-building and in love with her characters. One book just wasn't enough to skim the surface of the universe she had built, so I was thrilled to discover that there was to be another book in the autumn - if simultaneously somewhat apprehensive. Could any sequel possibly live up to the memory of the first masterpiece? Surely it couldn't?


Well, for once I can tell you that YES, I loved A Closed and Common Orbit just as much as the Small Angry Planet, or as near as makes no real difference. But although it follows on from the events of the first novel, it is not a sequel as such, and focuses on two characters who have only briefly been introduced: Pepper, a good friend of the Wayfarer's technician Jenks, and Sidra, who is sort of brand-new, but also sort of familiar under a different name. The narrative is told in alternating chapters; Sidra's tale in the present day, and Pepper's backstory, starting from twenty years earlier when she was known as Jane 23.

Sidra was formerly a ship's Artificial Intelligence (AI) responsible for monitoring and running all systems on a spacecraft, while having access to any information required at any time through the Linkings (or interstellar internet.) But due to events beyond her control, she has been housed in an illegal human-appearing body kit, and she struggles to adjust to this very different, and to her mind much more limited, sort of existence. Helping her through the process is Pepper, whose life as a mechanic at the busy and diverse Port Coriol is worlds away from where she started as a genetically engineered slave on a fringe planet. But as she works to help Sidra learn what it means to be alive and live like a human, she is reminded of her own journey of discovery years before.

Although I was a little sorry not to spend the course of another book aboard the Wayfarer with Ashby, Rosemary, Sissix and the others, once more Becky Chambers creates a cosy cast and warm friendships that it is a joy to be a part of. It is a celebration of love and self-made families, of curiosity, and a re-examination of what we take for granted, what it means to be alive. It flows beautifully on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and I instantly found myself immersed in the universe; before long it feels as though I've known Sidra, Pepper, Blue, Tak and Owl a lot longer than just a few days. Reading one of Chambers' novels already feels like coming home, as cosy and satisfying as a big mug of hot chocolate on a winter's evening (with a sprinkling of cinnamon and dollops of cream and marshmallows.) I'm pleased to know that Ms Chambers is writing a third book in the series, again, not a direct sequel, but set in a different part of the galaxy. I will be eagerly watching this space. 


Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Sci Fi Month: Creating Life - Artificial Intelligence in A Closed And Common Orbit and Channel 4's Humans.

Sci Fi Month is hosted by Rinn at Rinn Reads
and Lisa at OverThe Effing Rainbow

What was the difference between strung-together neurons and a simple bundle of if/then code, if the outward actions were the same? Could you say for certain that there wasn't a tiny mind in that bot, looking back at the world like a beetle might?
 - A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

It was quite by chance that I found myself reading Becky Chambers' second novel A Closed and Common Orbit at the same time that I finally got around to watching season one of Humans this month. Both works are based around artificial intelligence beings in humanoid bodies. As such, the book and TV series explore similar themes, although they go about it in very different ways.


Humans is set in a Britain that is superficially identical to that of today, but for one exception: the existence of Synths. Synths, or Synthetic people, are machines, created to help around the house, whether as domestic servants or care workers. They look like beautiful people, are capable of responding to a wide variety of conversations, but are not capable of independent thought outside their area of purpose. Nor do they have feelings like humans do - at least, that is the popular belief. However, early on, we learn that there are a few synths out there who have been programmed to have emotions, to think for themselves, and are nearly indistinguishable from humans. Only their green eyes and some of their stilted mannerisms give them away as synthetic. But it is that emotion that worries people, because where synths can have feelings and opinions, then they cannot be controlled. The scientists studying these enhanced synths have difficult decisions to make. If they destroy a being that looks, thinks and feels like themselves, where is the line between recycling technology and murder? But if the enhanced synths can go about unchecked, what does it mean for the human race? Even more complicated is the man who is being kept alive by synth technology, many of his memories recorded as audio and visual data. There are such advances in medical technology being made all the time, but at what point does the technology overtake the humanity?

A Closed and Common Orbit, by contrast, is a "far-future fiction" set in space, in a galaxy where humans mingle with diverse alien races: the Harmagians, Aandrisks, Aeluons, and many others. Artificial intelligence is a part of everyday life; there are AIs in the ships, delivery drones, artificial pet-bots and so on. But it is illegal to house an AI in a human-appearing (or other species) body-kit. One of the novel's two protagonists is one of those illegal AIs. Sidra is a ship's AI computer system installed into a body kit, and it is a huge struggle for her to adjust to this limited (to her) way of life. She is used to being able to process multitudes of information at once; see every view from the ship's cameras, be connected to the "linkings" (like our internet) at all times so that she can instantly access anything she needs to know. Now she's trapped in a perfectly lifelike body kit that can only see what is before her eyes, only process one thing at a time, only know what is stored in her memory files. Becky Chambers does an excellent job of helping us understand how limiting a human body must be to a computer, and consistently emphasises that the body kit is not really Sidra. She is the code installation, and would be herself whether she was in a ship, a body kit, or any other technological device. Because as a computer installation she cannot experience touch, smell and taste, these are translated into associated images - a soothing beverage triggers an image of a sleeping cat in sunlight, for example. It's an awesome exploration of how an AI being made of code, though they may be indistinguishable from a human to the eye, would experience the world very differently.

The fear of being replaced is a recurring theme in Humans, from the genius schoolgirl who worries about her future career options being eroded away and all positions being filled by the efficient Synths, to the husband whose disabled wife relies more on their live-in Synth assistant and doesn't seem to need him any more. And throughout the series, conscious Synths are viewed as a threat, by scientists and by some of the people who come into contact with them. Some are indeed dangerous, in particular Niska, full of cold fury. Others, such as wide-eyed Max and motherly Mia, are all goodness. They are formed by their experiences and their temperaments, but ultimately all they want to do is to be left alone and live their lives.

When the subject of AI body kits is first introduced in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the prequel to A Closed and Common Orbit, the character making the enquiry is sternly warned off. He doesn't know the risks, he is told. Quite aside from the danger of being caught, arrested, the "kit" destroyed and the installation erased, this is untested technology, and you just don't know what might happen if you start meddling with what it means to be a person. But in A Closed and Common Orbit, we don't really get to see the reasons behind the ban. It takes Sidra the course of the novel to adjust to her new life in a humanoid body kit, but the other dangers are not really explored. Of course, in a universe where humans are small, humble dwellers of a diverse interplanetary community, one more kind of life form isn't going to make many waves. In a setting such as the Britain of Humans, our position at the top of the food chain comes under threat, and we don't like it. But by the time of Becky Chambers' books, we have learned to take our place alongside others. It can surely only be a good thing to learn a bit of humility, that perhaps we will not always be the dominant species and to take care of how we treat the universe and other beings.

My review of A Closed And Common Orbit is due to go online Friday.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Sci Fi Month: Confessions of a Reluctant Trekkie - in celebration of 50 years of Star Trek

Find out more about Sci Fi Month here.


Confessions of a Reluctant Trekkie

I've long been at peace with my identity as a geek. I was never one of the popular kids at school; I read too much, took things too much to heart, and just didn't seem to live in the same world as most children growing up in the 1990s. Whatever I was interested in - whether that be volcanoes, the Titanic, early 20th century girls' boarding school stories, or a particular Irish boyband, that would take over all my waking thoughts. Although I had friends who could share my interest to a certain extent, I don't think these obsessions of mine quite gave me common ground with other people until the films of Lord of the Rings, and, to a lesser extent, Harry Potter came out in the early 2000s. At last my interests were current and topical, and I was even able to talk to the cool kids at school. These films coincided with entering the sixth form. Once the classmates who had given me such a hard time for all those years had left school, I came to realise that the line between cool and nerd was finer than I had realised. With my friends, we'd spend our free periods in the comfy chairs in the school library and geek out about Lord of the Rings, or discuss theories of what might happen in the next Harry Potter book.

By university, I was more comfortable with my identity as a weird kid, and I left behind my struggles to fit in and impress people. I found My People on the English and Creative Writing courses and settled into writing my own particular brand of fantasy fiction. But I had lines I wasn't going to cross. I wasn't going to get into Dungeons and Dragons, and I wasn't going to watch Star Trek. I had my ideas about what Star Trek was all about and that was boring grey futuristic corridors, deep and dull philosophical ramblings, Patrick Stewart being all inspiring and Patrick Stewartish, Leonard Nimoy being a logical (and therefore cold) Vulcan called Spock, Scotty doing some beaming up, and Klingons, whatever they were.

Never mind that on the maybe two occasions I'd seen a couple of minutes of a Star Trek episode I had been intrigued even though I didn't know what was going on. Over the early 2010s, I started softening to science fiction, mostly thanks to my best friend introducing me to Firefly and awakening a long-dormant desire to explore the universe. By the time 2013 came around with the trailer for Star Trek: Into Darkness, I realised that the film looked a lot more interesting, human, and exciting than I had given the franchise credit for. And so I settled down in front of the TV when the 2009 remake came on, and after a bit of confusion about which Captain Kirk was which (little baby James Tiberious, not his father George, is the Captain Kirk) I got drawn in. From my first impressions of Spock the Younger ("wow, he's kind of a jerk!") I grew to find the character to be (if you'll excuse me) fascinating, with his conflict between his logical Vulcan side and his human emotions. By the time Spock the Elder made his appearance, and the alternative-universe nature of the reboot was explained in the context of the story, I was hooked, and I was still thinking about the film several days later. I wanted to know more about these characters - especially that pointy-eared character. 



50 Years of Star Trek

Star Trek celebrated its fifthieth anniversary earlier this year. There have been five series (with at between three and seven seasons of each) and thirteen films. It has influenced scientific discovery, technological advancements, and is still going strong. There is another film planned for the reboot cast, and the new Star Trek: Discovery will be airing on Netflix in the new year. And yet it started off as quite a small series that was almost cancelled after two seasons, and was cancelled after the third. The quality of the stories varies vastly, the acting strikes a balance between restrained and ridiculous, and there is a great deal to mock from the special effects, to the fight scenes, to the fates of the away team members. And yet it is one of the most beloved science fiction franchises of all time.


The characters are at the heart of the show, especially the central trio: Captain Kirk, Commander Spock and Doctor "Bones" McCoy are a formidable  team, who can rarely agree on anything, and yet who have a powerful bond of friendship, whose skills and character traits complement each other and bring out the best in one another, with a warm supporting cast.

I think we're all very familiar with the use of science fiction to predict a dismal future; it is often used as a warning to humanity about where we could end up if we continue down certain paths. Star Trek is a vision of hope for the future, something to aspire to, not to avoid. If its scripts seem a little heavy-handed with a moral at times, or fall short of the mark for contemporary standards, it is important to remember how groundbreaking the show was for its time. Written at a time of racial segregation, it depicts a future where war, poverty and prejudice are things of the past, where people from all backgrounds, races and even planets can put aside the differences and work together for the betterment of all. It is a universe where people understand the ways they can learn from each other. The Enterprise's senior crew include men and women working together as equals, a black woman and a Japanese-American man, and later a Russian (remember this was during the cold war.) It was a remarkable message especially in the sixties, and is as important in the turbulent and divisive 2016 as it has ever been.


Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, was encouraged by Martin Luther King to stay with the show, to prove that there was an important place for her standing alongside white men: important not just as a symbol on a television programme but as an example for life off-screen too. Whoopi Goldberg cites Nicholls as the reason she took up acting (and later appeared as a recurring character in Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Nichols also played a part in recruiting astronauts of colour to the real-life space programme.

The series was revived in the form of the films in the '70s and '80s, and followed up with Star Trek: The Next Generation with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard. For many, The Next Generation is quintessential Star Trek, and it was certainly what I pictured before I ever thought of becoming interested in the series. It is solid science-fiction, it looks better and expands upon the original show's mythology, developing the Federation's relations with the Klingon Empire and showing us more of the other cultures introduced in the original series and films, as well as introducing the dreaded Borg, the hive-mind that destroys individuality in the ultimate quest for universal domination.

I'm probably in the minority for this, but I don't like TNG half as much as the original, for all that it is objectively a more consistently good show. I don't like the holodeck stories, I don't think a starship is a good place to raise a family, and Wesley Crusher, Q, Deanna Troi and her mother Lwaxana are just plain annoying. I like most of the characters, there are some excellent stories, but The Next Generation will always live in the shadow of its predecessor for me.


I am less familiar with the spin-offs of the 1990s and early 2000s. I've seen a few episodes of Voyager and none at all of Enterprise, so will not write about these, but I am working my way through Deep Space Nine, which moves away from the formula of a star ship exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilisations. Instead, Deep Space Nine is a space station, not Federation-run at all, but belonging to the Bajoran people, reclaiming it after a long war and occupation by Cardassia. The Federation has come to help the Bajoran people get back onto their feet, but there are many clashes between cultures, and being in a stationary setting, the series is strongly driven by character and more of a series-long overarching plot. It is perhaps more of a morally grey area than the other Star Trek series, going into more depth about the dilemmas faced by the characters, and for that reason it is rather divisive among Trekkies. But I like it better than The Next Generation, because although we need the optimism of Star Trek's universe, one can't afford to grow complacent; actions have consequences and the right way forward is not always obvious.



I've been late to the party on this one, but here's to many more years of boldly going where no man (or no one) has gone before. Live Long and Prosper.

w

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Sci Fi Month: Top Ten Star Trek Episodes

Read more about Sci Fi Month here.

Another Tuesday, another top ten list (although not technically part of the Top Ten Tuesdays series.) I'm taking one week of Rinn's Sci Fi Month to focus on Star Trek, which celebrated fifty years earlier this year. I've reviewed most of the films over the last few years, and I'll leave links to these at the bottom of the page. Today is the turn of the TV series, and I'll be going through my favourite episodes of all time. Please note, though, I am a relatively new Trekkie, and am still working my way through the later series, so this is not a comprehensive list, and only covers the original series, the Next Generation and the first half of Deep Space Nine.

10. The Naked Time (Original Series.) In which the landing party brings a substance to the Enterprise that brings out the crew's deepest suppressed desires and emotions, a great way of getting to know the cast better than perhaps they might like. Also, Sulu steals the show with a fencing foil.

9. Sarek: A devastating episode exploring the decline of a great man, the Vulcan Ambassador Sarek (father of Spock) who is suffering from a Vulcan disease which means that his much-prized logic is overpowered by uncontrollable emotion. All the more heart-rending because we've seen the character at his height through the original series and films.

8. Best of Both Worlds (Next Generation) Not the Borg's first appearance on the show, but their most harrowing; we learn what they are capable of, and it is a beast of a season-ending cliffhanger!

7. The Measure of a Man (Next Generation) A scientist wants to dismantle Lieutenant Commander Data. Data refuses, and a court appeal is launched to determine whether the android is a person or the property of Starfleet.

6. Trials and Tribble-Ations (Deep Space Nine/Original Series) A light-hearted celebratory episode, in which the Deep Space Nine crew travel back in time and have to save Captain Kirk and the original Enterprise from a sabotage. A thrill of nostalgia, a marvel of digital engineering to place the new characters into a classic episode. And you get to see why it looked like someone was behind the scenes throwing tribbles at Captain Kirk. Because they were, and they were Captain Sisko.

5. Journey To Babel (Original Series) In which we meet Spock's family, and the Vulcan is torn between familial loyalty and his duties as an officer of the Enterprise.

4. Darmok (Next Generation) A heartwarming tale of communication between species without a common language. Logically the premise falls to pieces if you look too closely at it, but it's rather ingenius and wonderful nonetheless.

3. The Visitor (Deep Space Nine) I was in two minds whether I love this episode or hate it. I had to put some space between me and Deep Space Nine for a few days after watching this as it emotionally destroyed me for a while. The story shows an alternative timeline in which the main character, Captain Ben Sisko, is killed, and the impact it has on his son Jake through the rest of his life - especially when it turns out the Captain isn't dead after all. You spend three years falling in love with these characters and then an episode does that and breaks your heart. Beware.

2. Amok Time (Original Series) In which we visit Vulcan for the first time and learn a great deal about its culture. Also about biology... Vulcan biology... ("You mean... the biology... of Vulcans?") By equal measures comic and heart-wrenching, it gives us "Live long and prosper," the iconic Vulcan salute, and a rare moment of pure joy from Mr Spock.

1. The City on the Edge of Tomorrow (Original Series) In which Kirk and Spock have to travel back in time to rescue Doctor McCoy. They have to try to make a living in 1930, and Kirk falls in love. But the universe requires a sacrifice, and there is no easy solution this time.


I have previously reviewed most of the Star Trek films on the blog. Links are below:


I have not yet reviewed Star Trek Into Darkness or Star Trek Beyond, but as a bonus you can read a mini-review of Galaxy Quest here.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Sci Fi Month: The Race - Nina Allan (book review)

Find out more about Sci Fi Month here.

I admit it, I bought this book without any knowledge of what it was about because the cover was pretty! That worked out pretty well for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet earlier this year, which I still can't shut up. It seems that I have a weakness for pictures of starry skies. (Just look at my blog background for further proof of this.)

The Race is a book in five parts, each one focusing on a different character, but these five parts make up two stories which are linked in some way. The first part, "Jenna" is set in a bleak future, a place recognisable as the South East of England, but in a dismal landscape that has been ruined and poisoned by fracking. Jenna and her brother Del try to make their way in that world, in a town whose main attraction is the illegal racing of smartdogs - greyhounds which have been genetically modified with human DNA. Del is an angry, bitter young man, only softened by the birth of his daughter Luz Maree (known as Lumey.) But when Lumey is kidnapped, everything changes.

Nina Allan creates a convincing society in the first part of The Race, a world that draws you in. The narrator, Jenna, is smart and endearing, but I felt that her brother Del's characterisation did not ring true. He just didn't seem all that bothered about his beloved daughter's safety, and as he focuses on raising the ransom money by winning a smartdog race, his priorities shift towards the winning; he seems to almost forget about why he's doing it. If the end goal was anything else, I could accept him being sidetracked, but not when the life of his little girl is at stake!

The second part, "Christy" switches to our own world, or something very like it. I was warned by Ellie's review that if I was expecting the book to be all about fracking and smartdogs, I'd be disappointed, so I went into The Race without any particular expectations. Yet as I engrossed myself in part one, I still got drawn into Jenna's world and story, then felt a little bit cheated as Allan revealed how the stories fitted together. When you read a sci-fi novel, you know it's fiction, and yet you trust the author to let you suspend your disbelief for a while. But within the "Christy" segment, Allan gave a new context to "Jenna," and it felt like a cop-out, at first. If she'd given us the stories in a different order, there may not have been that feeling of betrayal - but also, the novel would be less remarkable. And there are one or two hints that the link between the two settings is not as straight-forward as it initially appears.

The third part, "Alex" follows on from Christy's story from a different perspective, giving a sort of commentary on the novel the characters are in, where different timelines and lives bleed into each other in ways that they shouldn't. Then for the last two parts we return to Jenna's world, several years after Lumey's induction. Yet there are inconsistencies here too. Place names, spellings have changes since the first part, and we seem to have travelled further away from the real-world setting than would be likely in the time that passed since "Jenna." It's almost as though every character has not only a slightly different perception of reality, but that reality itself is different for everybody. What if everyone lives in intersecting but subtly different worlds?

The Race is an intellectually fascinating read, full of deep ideas about communication, about perception of the world, and with a bit of meta-commentary on the writing of a novel. It takes the familiar and makes it strange. The plot is a bit sprawling and untidy, but full of twists and revelations, and I appreciated that Allan does not spoon-feed the reader with all the answers, but leaves you to draw your own conclusions. But unfortunately, after being lured in by an incredible first segment, then having the rug pulled out from under my feet, I lost a bit of my emotional investment in the actual story. Still, it is a book with a lot to say, and I think it would benefit from a second reading to see what I missed first time around.

I really hate "looking into the mirror" descriptions but this is
actually an important moment in the book.
Shelve next to:

  • Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
  • The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
  • The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Sci Fi Month: Introduction and Top Ten SF Books.


Hello and welcome, whether you're one of  my handful of regular readers or if you've come to this blog because of Rinn's event. This is the fourth year of Rinn's Sci-Fi month, but it's my first time taking part. A month-long inter-blog celebration of all things science fiction? I couldn't resist, despite it clashing with National Novel-Writing Month, so I'm having to be very organised for a change and these posts written and scheduled ahead of time.

So, for those of you who don't know me, my name is Katie and I live on the Isle of Wight. I'm a relatively new fan of science fiction, although I've been reading fantasy since I was a kid. I started watching Doctor Who when it was relaunched back in 2005, but it wasn't until my best friend showed me Joss Whedon's cult classic TV show Firefly that I really got hooked on all things in time and space. And there are no half-measures for me; if I become interested in a thing, then it takes up a lot of room in my imagination.




Over the next month, I plan to post twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, with reviews of sci-fi books, films and TV, discussion posts and general fangirling. Next week will be Star Trek week, in celebration of the franchise's fiftieth anniversary earlier this year. But today, let me start off with a top ten list of my favourite science fiction books.

10: The Girl With All The Gifts - M. R. Carey. I think it's best to read this book without knowing too much about it, although now there is a film adaptation out there, I don't know how possible that is. It's a tale of human survival in an uncertain future, of hope, and an unusual but very important little girl.
9. Terra - Mitch Benn. By comparison, Terra is a happy little book, the tale of a human girl adopted by aliens and brought up on another planet; a celebration of cultural diversity and finding similarities in apparent differences. 
8. Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel The third in a row where a novel's catalyst is a small girl. When Rose Franklin is a child, she makes a discovery that will shape not only her own future but that of the whole world, and possibly beyond. But what shape will that future take? Is every scientific discovery doomed to bring the human race closer to destroying itself, or can it be saved from itself?
7. The Time Machine - H. G. Wells. The book that started all modern time-travel stories. Written in the Victorian age, The Time Machine reads as though it were written this year; with a humorous protagonist, science that even I can make sense of, and a surprisingly spooky ending. Without this book, the worlds of science fiction would be very different.
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke. I saw the film of this first; a very strange movie, slow-moving with a weird beginning and a freaky ending, and (aside from the bits of music you associate with the film) the most unearthly, terrifying soundtrack imaginable. Not one to watch at midnight in an empty house. I was on edge throughout the "Beyond the Infinte" section! But the film made a lot more sense after reading the book, which was written alongside the screenplay and explains a lot of the weird stuff you see on the screen. It also reminded me in a roundabout way about how when I was seven or so, I was obsessed with my space encyclopedia and used it almost as a travel guide, mentally planning which planets I most wanted to visit when I was grown up and space travel was as common as getting on a bus. (My inner seven-year-old is still mad we haven't even sent anyone to Mars yet.)
5. Redshirts - John Scalzi. You know in Star Trek, whenever Captain Kirk and the main characters beam down to a planet on an away mission, they always have a few unknown crew members come with them in order to die horribly and create a sense of peril for the characters who must survive? Redshirts is their story. Very tongue-in-cheek,"recursive and meta," and snort-your-drink-up-your-nose hilarious. Use caution when reading in public.
4. Ready Player One - Ernest Cline. A wonderful treasure-hunt story set almost entirely in a virtual-reality universe, a celebration of gaming and geek culture, and especially that from the 1980s. You don't have to know all the references - of which there are multitudes - although every recognition adds an extra layer of insider-enjoyment. A fabulous page-turner.
3. The Martian - Andy Weir. If an astronaut got accidentally stranded on Mars, how could he possibly survive long enough for another rocket to come back for him? Answer: with a quick-thinking scientific mind, a twisted sense of humour, and the first potatoes grown on Mars. I took my time getting into The Martian on my first reading, but by the end I was gripping the book tight, desperate to know what happens next. An intelligent, believable but often comical sci-fi novel. It has also been made into a movie, in which, once more, Matt Damon is in need of rescuing.
2. 11.22.63- Stephen King. You probably think of Stephen King as a horror writer, but he is so much more than that. 11.22.63 tells the story of a man who is shown a door that will take him back in time to 1958. The same day, every time, always resetting back as if it was the first time that day came around. His mission is live in the past for five years, in order to prevent the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, then come back and see how the world would be changed as a result. But his task is complicated when he becomes attached, and meanwhile, time itself seems to be fighting back. 11.22.63 is not a horror story, more a historical novel than anything else, with a new approach to how time-travel works. I enjoyed losing myself with Jake in the '50s and '60s, and forming a life for himself there, just as much as the suspense-filled main plot. Stephen King makes you care about his characters, and then fear for them. There was a TV adaptation earlier this year, but while it kept the shape of the story roughly the same, the details were different, and most of the little things that I loved about the book were either passed over or changed. It's a beast of a book, about 800 pages, and yet it never drags. It is a book you can enjoy spending time in.
1. The Long Way to a Small Lonely Planet - Becky Chambers. Anyone who has been book-shopping with me this year will not be surprised to see this book at number one. Just as Stephen King took a new approach to time-travel, so Becky Chambers (the only woman on this list - shocking!) has given us a fresh look at the space-opera genre. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is, as the title suggests, the story of a small crew on a journey; not a military vessel, nor even a starship on a noble quest for knowledge (albeit heavily armed for self-defence) but an unarmed engineering ship building wormholes. The setting is a space alliance between many planetary cultures, but unlike Star Trek's Federation, Star Wars'  Empire or Firefly's Alliance, humans are a very new and insignificant addition to the Galactic Commons. The crew of the Wayfarer is vastly diverse, both among the humans (who are still the majority on this ship) and the other members. It is a story of relationships between people who have to work at close quarters together, and it's absolutely gorgeous. I've been recommending it to everyone I know with an interest in sci-fi and they've all loved it. 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Happy Things.

Hi friends! I realise that this year has been fairly quiet on the bloggy front, and especially when it comes to reviews.


I've been working full-time since one of my colleagues retired, which has given me a much more regular weekly routine, although my working week is a day behind everyone else's. I don't want to go into much detail, but the last few weeks have been pretty stressful, and I've been trying to make some changes to my life to keep it from getting on top of me. For one thing, I'm drastically reducing my caffeine intake. I can't function without my morning cup of coffee, but for the rest of the day, I've been switching it for peppermint tea, to try to keep the anxiety fireworks in my brain to a minimum. I think it's helping a lot - but how I miss my coffee!


At the beginning of this year I signed up to Ali Edwards' One Little Word project, the idea being that each month you take part in a different challenge to make you take to heart the word you've decided represents something you want to concentrate on in your life. My word was "peace," but I have to confess I haven't done any of the challenges since the beginning of the summer. And yet I still feel that it's been ticking over in the back of my mind, helping me make decisions, and surprising me sometimes with wider definitions that contribute towards a peaceful mind and lifestyle.

One project that has continued and been very beneficial has been my Good Days journal. I think we can all agree that 2016 has been an exceptionally awful year all round, yet even so, I've managed to fill an entire notebook with good memories, a record of all the things I've done, achieved and enjoyed this year, so when New Year's Eve comes around, I'll have proof that I haven't wasted the year. I've loved doing this, and plan to make this an annual project.






I've also made a Happy Box for the really bad days. I wrapped a shoe box in bright paper and filled it with things to help to cheer me up when I really need it. There are cards from friends, humorous and uplifting little books, emergency chocolate and tea, Anne of Green Gables on DVD, a cross-stitch set, a little notebook of Things That Make Me Happy, and there's a little scrapbook of miscellanous encouraging things. Fortunately, I haven't needed it very often.




I turn 31 tomorrow. I was absolutely dreading my thirtieth birthday, mostly because back when I left university, I told myself, "Life is scary and uncertain now, but by the time you're 30 you'll be settled. And then 30 approached, life was still scary and uncertain, and I couldn't see the other side. And nothing's changed, but I'm feeling positive about 31. I'm on the verge of making some big decisions - and guess what! It's still scary and uncertain. I suspect that is the condition we call "life."

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel


When Rose Franklin was eleven years old, she fell through the earth and was found lying in the palm of an enormous metallic hand, surrounded by indecipherable glowing symbols carved into the walls of the underground chamber that opened up beneath her. This strange discovery shaped the course of this girl's life, and as an adult, she heads up a team of scientists investigating this impossible artifact. The hand lay dormant beneath the ground for millennia, but was composed of materials that just could not have come from Earth. Where did it come from? Why was it buried, and how was it that Rose should happen to stumble upon it? These are just some of the questions that Doctor Franklin wants answers to. Then other parts from the same gigantic figure start showing up, and it is no longer simply the business of scientists, but all of humanity.

The narrative of Sleeping Giants is written entirely in the form of interviews and journal entries, focusing on a few main characters connected to the discovery. Doctor Rose Franklin, of course, is one, and the "obdurate, volatile and irascible" army helicopter pilot Kara Resnik (who I am sure must have her origins in Battlestar Galactica's Kara "Starbuck" Thrace.) Then there are Kara's co-pilot Ryan Mitchell and linguist Vincent Couture, whose job is to find meaning in the glowing symbols, and the dangerously ambitious geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou. But the most interesting character of all was the unnamed interviewer. We do not know who he is - if they really are a he, that is, I can't remember if that's confirmed or assumed - what his role is, or his motivations; he clearly holds some position of power, because he knows too much about everything and is not afraid to coerce, blackmail manipulate people into doing things that go against everything they believe in. There is something off about his polite, stilted way of speaking, and I wondered whether he was connected to whichever alien race buried the pieces of the giant figure long ago. I pictured him much like the Observers in Fringe, softly-spoken, an "uncanny valley" version of human that is not quite convincing, the puppet-master behind the scenes of everything.

Sleeping Giants is a relatively short book, but epic in scope and awe. It examines the wonders of scientific discovery - but also the inevitability of its noble purposes quickly becoming corrupted and used for political and financial gain, and bigger and more devastating means of warfare. It gives a frightening picture of a human race bent on destroying itself before backing down. And yet there is a glimmer of hope there, too. It is the first part of a series, possibly a trilogy, yet it is complete in itself - though its epilogue leaves you hanging with a beast of a sequel-hook. I turned the final page and shouted "WHAT?!!"  Sleeping Giants is a compulsively readable, well-crafted masterpiece, and I await the sequel eagerly.


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Fair Fight - Anna Freeman


It is the end of the eighteenth century, around the same time that Jane Austen was writing of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Down in Bristol, three people are living very different lives. Ruth Webber was born and brought up in a brothel, but was offered an alternative life at a young age: to box at the local tavern and later on, at the fair. Charlotte Dryer, nee Sinclair, survivor of the smallpox that killed all her family except for her and her abusive brother Perry, is trapped in a loveless and lonely marriage. Meanwhile, George Bowden, the bisexual youngest son of minor gentry, is a lovable scoundrel looking to make an honest - or dishonest -living the best way he can. The three lives come together one evening, the night of Ruth's fight at the Bristol fair...

I found it really fascinating to learn through this novel about women in Regency England who defied the gender norms and took to prize-fighting on a stage. It is such a shocking, violent life when set beside Jane Austen's world of balls and courtships. So it's rather a shame that the book only focuses on that particular aspect for part of the story; Ruth's patron, Granville Dryer soon switches his attentions to training up her gentle giant husband Tom, instead. But the women's fights are not confined only to the stage; for both Ruth and Charlotte, under very different circumstances, every day brings its own battles.

Ruth was the richest character, the strongest voice. Her narrative is full of 18th century Bristolian slang; men are "cullies," babies are "babbers," to fight is to "mill," and to punch is to "fib." She is a most unladylike woman, shocking everyone she comes into contact with by her rough and aggressive manner. She is a fighter. But when she forms attachments, she is just as fierce in her loyalty.

Charlotte, by contrast, appears to be a proper lady, but she burns with an inner fire in need of an outlet. She is desperate to rebel against her repressive life. Her husband, Granville, is a thoroughly contemptible character. He is not a bully like Perry Sinclair, Charlotte's drunken brother, but he is unforgivably selfish and heedless of others. He values other people as far as they are useful or entertaining, but when that is no longer true, they just cease to exist for him.

I thought that the third narrator, George's story was the weakest part of an otherwise well-plotted and gripping novel. It starts off well, but seems to be dropped partway through, and when it resumes, although his actions do affect the other two story strands, his thread is not so tightly woven in as the rest of the book.

The Fair Fight is an exciting, punchy page-turner, with characters you grow to love (except for those you have to hate.) It shows a different side to a popular era in historical fiction, celebrating women who broke away from gender expectations at a time when a woman's role was seemingly fixed in place. An excellent read, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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