Echo Volume 1:Approaching Shatter

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I’ve been trying to expand my reading by allowing a certain randomness to enter my selection of books. In this case I saw a post on the author’s blog, dirtyscifibuddha.com, saying that he was doing an Amazon giveaway for this book. I decided to give it a go and I’m glad that I did.

Approaching Shatter is a SF novel set over a thousand years in the future on Echo, a distant planet where a brutal civil war rages. Echo is a dangerous world, and the protagonist, Atriya, is one of the most dangerous people on it. He is one of the ‘Crew’, highly trained super-soldiers who lead the fight in the regime’s war of extermination against the dissidents.

At first I wasn’t sure that this was really for me. I like SF but at first glance this seemed a little too military, like Call of Duty meets Starship Troopers. But as I read on I began to see there was a lot more to it. Echo is superbly realised, with layers of history, politics, religion, and spirituality. Approaching Shatter is not just about Atriya’s fighting prowess, his inner journey is far more important. I found the writing interesting, the action is very well described with an economy that keeps the pace moving, yet every now and then there is a complexity that lifts the story to another level, for example:

The ineffable pressure of an obscure sentience hell-bent on snatching away his cancerous peace.

Which was one of those sentences I read twice then wrote it down because I liked it so much.

It’s quite short at about 47,000 words but it felt right for me. I was able to read it pretty much in one go which makes the book work like a film, you kind of get an instant hit. When I finished it I thought “That was good”. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

 

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N is for Neuromancer

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Nineteen Eighty Seven. My first year at university. One evening I was having a beer with a boy in the same hall of residence when he he turned to me in a conspiratorial way and said:

“If you go over to the computers in East Block at two o’clock in the morning and log in, you can connect up with other universities. You can play MIST”

MIST turned out to be a Multi-user dungeon game. The Wikipedia entry describes it thus:

“MIST was notorious for its “dog eat dog” and “anything goes so long as some more powerful character doesn’t decide otherwise” philosophy, as well as its unparalleled bloodthirstiness. Wanton killing, deception, and using magic powers to compel players to attack others without warning, were common and acceptable”

That pretty much sums it up, although I would replace the word ‘acceptable’ in the above sentence with ‘encouraged’. There were no graphics but even though it was all text based it was incredibly fast moving, because if you didn’t move fast you died. I got so I could type certain commands very fast indeed. Looking back its hard to explain why, but it was seriously addictive. It got to the point where I was staying up all night, every night just to play. I had a virtual map of the whole MIST world in my head so that I could navigate around without having to read the text descriptions of every place. I knew where all the treasure was and where all the best weapons were. I would go to the bar until eleven a clock and then kill time until two so I could log in and start playing against people from all over the UK. I didn’t know it at the time but I was taking part in an early manifestation of the Internet. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web four years later. I didn’t see the Internet being used until 1996, didn’t have it at home until 1998.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer was published in 1984. It’s about Case, a burned out, drug addicted hacker, who gets picked up and then cleaned up for a very special ‘run’ into cyberspace. Recruited with him is Molly, a leather clad bodyguard with extendable razor finger nails and enhanced mirrored eyes who effectively acts as his minder.

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I read it for the first time in 1988 and the opening line (pictured above) grabbed me straight away. It was one of those books that drops you straight into another world so that when you stop reading you feel like you’ve come up for air. I also think my experiences on the embryonic Internet gave me a tiny glimpse of the  possibilities which made the cyberspace of Gibson’s book seem all the more possible. I read it again last year and loved it just as much. It has been called visionary, introducing the word cyberspace and practically inventing the cyberpunk genre. This may well be true, but most of all its just a great story.

Anthony Vicino posted a good article on cyberpunk on his blog here

D is for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel is better known as Blade Runner, the Ridley Scott film that is widely regarded as a SF masterpiece. I saw the film in the late 80s and loved it, and I watched it a few times once it came out on TV and I was able to video it. That’s right, video, no DVDs in those days!

The film plays like a Raymond Chandler detective story, with Harrison Ford’s voice-over adding to the Noir atmosphere. It’s a great film. The portrayal of a post nuclear dystopian future has been extremely influential.

I’m glad there was some distance between watching the film and reading the book a few years later. They are very different even though the basics of the story are the same, i.e. jaded cop hunts down a band of renegade androids. The book presents a question: What is it to be human?, and those familiar with the author’s work will rcognise this as a recurrent theme. It makes for a more interesting and thoughtful read and there is a much greater sense of completeness than in the film. In fact there are many bits of the film that only really make sense when you’ve read the book. Remember the owl?

C is for Consider Phlebas


Strange title. That was my first thought when a friend lent me this book in 1988. I’d like to say I recognised it from T.S.Elliott’s The Wasteland, but I didn’t. The author, Ian. M. Banks is reported to have said that he chose that title because:

1) the story is about someone who is shipwrecked

2) all the other titles he thought of sounded like something from Star Wars.

It is the first of the Culture novels, and it was my introduction to the Science Fiction of Ian. M. Banks. Later on I discovered he also wrote novels under the name Ian Banks, and I read The Wasp Factory among others, as well as all the other Culture novels I could get my hands on.

I love his writing. His vision of the vast interstellar culture of the future rings true from the first word. Consider Phlebas was one of those books I read in one sitting. When I (reluctantly!) gave it back , my friend accused me of leaving it open face down resulting in the spine being over stressed. I hadn’t of course, I had just been holding it open for eleven hours straight.

I’m going to read it again. You should read it too.

A is for A Clockwork Orange


This may seem like a strange choice, and you might argue that it’s not even in the right genre, but it’s set in a dystopian future and the key theme of the book is science so it’s in. What makes it unusual is that the science in question is Psychology.

In 1988 I attended an unofficial meeting of the Psychology Society at my university. Unofficial because the purpose of the meeting was watch a bootleg copy of the notorious ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Originally released in the early 1970s, the film was soon withdrawn by its director, Stanley Kubrick, following outcry over the graphic depictions of violence and media reports of alleged copycat incidents. The book was also banned from schools and libraries in America.


It was a considerable time later when I read Anthony Burgess’ novel, and as in most cases it is better than the film. It is the story of Alex, a teenager whose interests include ultraviolence, rape and Beethoven. Much of it is written in ‘nadsat’, Alex’s own way of talking, a sort of youth dialect, which includes many invented words. This makes it difficult to read, a bit like reading the Edinborough dialect of ‘Trainspotting’, although in both books I found that I very soon adjusted to the language. The other thing that makes it difficult to read is the content which, as in the film, includes graphic accounts of rape and violence. The real point of the book is what happens when Alex gets caught. In return for the offer of release from prison, Alex agrees to undergo a series of ‘treatments’. These involve him being shown videos of rape and violence while being drugged and shocked, and the portrayal of this behavioural conditioning is almost as harrowing as the earlier violence.

And of course it is the behavioural conditioning that made it the focus of our psychology meeting. Such techniques have been used in reality and behaviourist techniques remain ethically dubious to this day. And if you wondering if this effects you consider that most social media relies strongly on behaviourist principles of reinforcement.

Consider that next time you get an alert telling you that someone has ‘liked’ your post.

Station Eleven – Hello dystopia my old friend

  
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is without doubt a good book. It has ‘The New York Times bestseller’ emblazoned above the title which is one way you can tell. I really enjoyed reading it, which is another. The central event is a devastating plague that wipes out society as we know it (that’s not a spoiler, it says as much in the blurb on the back), and the narrative plays backwards and forwards over this fault line between present and future. 

It is beautifully written. Even several weeks later thinking about it conjures up scene after scene, from the accurately described moments of mundanity among the apocalypse to the vividly conjured visions of the world that evolves afterwards. There is a range of nicely drawn characters, and enough excitement and suspense to keep the book in your hand, you don’t want to put it down.

And yet when I finished I was left with a sense of disappointment. Sometimes this happens when you read a good book, you’re just sad that a good thing has ended. In fact sometimes I anticipate the end from about two thirds through, dreading  it like an appointment at the dentist. 

In this case though I don’t think that was it. To me it didn’t quite resolve at the end, I felt that I was left hanging, like listening to a symphony that ended prematurely on the penultimate note. But maybe that’s the way it is supposed to be. 

Neat resolution is rarely a feature of real life.

What’s so great about Dystopia?

   In my previous post I referred to the world of The Hunger Games as Dystopian, meaning a place that is terrifying, evil and generally not nice. It’s not the only franchise that uses such a setting, see the Maze Runner and the Divergent series to name but two. But why are we so fascinated by such a dark vision of society?

The standard answer is that while Utopia (a good and safe world) might be a nice place to bring up the kids it is actually pretty dull. We want excitement from stories and that requires danger. Our heroes and heroines need to overcome peril and defeat their enemies, preferably against the odds and in the nick of time. Fair enough.

But maybe there is more sinister reason.

Perhaps there is something in human nature that wants chaos, because chaos brings opportunity. Maybe we value ‘winning’ more than happiness, maybe what we all really want is a little bit of mayhem. I realise this is a cynical point of view but look around the world at the moment. War in Syria, terror in Europe, you’ve got to admit I’ve got a point.

Personally the thing I fear most is boredom.

Although being torn apart by a bunch of flesh eating mutants comes a close second.

Either way the message for a writer is this. Give your characters a hard time. Keep them on their toes. Put them in danger. Make your story exciting.