Category Archives: Science Fiction

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks

consider phlebas mindAfter enjoying the Wasp Factory and My Exploding Granny immensely, I felt I was missing a whole other side to Iain Banks – the side with an ‘M’ in it. I’m sure I’m not alone in being compelled to fill the space-opera-shaped gap in my reading list. Was it any good though? Well, yeah, it was excellent. There are still traces of Iain No-M but the environment is obviously very different from some Highland castle or coastal village.

I mean – it’s in space.

As a bookseller, I’d occasionally encounter a certain breed of reader who wouldn’t entertain or tolerate science fiction of any description. Most of these people would remain pretty rigid in their prejudices but, on more than one occasion,  they could only be swayed by the Culture novels simply because Iain Banks had never let them down before.

What’s the best thing about Consider Phlebas? Well, the first thing I recall is the Vavatch Orbital. Horza, the changer (what it sounds like) and our hero moves from calamity to catastrophe and ends up falling in with a group of space-pirates. If you enjoyed Firefly, by the way, then this is definitely a book for you. This motley crew decide to pull off a bit of cosmic theft on the orbital, a huge o-ring floating in space. The orbital belongs to the Culture, a super-advanced civilization at war with the Idiran Empire, a race of almost-immortal three-legged warriors. In a kind of folly that only war can generate, the Culture are so worried that the Vavatch Orbital might fall into Idiran hand that they decide to destroy it.

Woah, woah, woah! What the hell is an orbital?!

I was thinking the same thing myself for a while before I finally worked it out. It’s pretty self-explanatory when you think about it but the sheer impossible scale of it prevents you from accepting it. The orbital is a hu-fucking-mongous  circular space habitat. It’s about fifty squillion parsecs in diameter and 9 googol football pitches wide (Revision: 4.5 million km in diameter 35,000 km wide). The orbital spins in space just fast enough to mimic the effects of gravity with centrifugal force. If you’ve ever swung a bucket of water around in the name of science, then you’ll get the picture.

Consider Phlebas vavatch orbitalIf, unlike me, you have the right edition of the book, there’s a picture of the orbital on the cover as a hint of what it might look like. Imagine walking around on that! You could look spinwards (?) and see what should be the horizon stretching up into the sky and somewhere, you might see a thin band of darkness on the opposite side of the ring, still enjoying their night. Maybe it wouldn’t look like that, but it’d still be cool.

That’s what stood out for me but it’s hardly the only reason to read the book. Within the classic quest-to-find-the-thing-first plot, there’s plenty of political intrigue, war, spies and violence. Also, if you like random acts of near-comic tragedy that will suck the breath out of your lungs, then Consider Phlebas should be on your to-read list. If you like the sound of that, look out for the first death on the megaship.



Definitely Maybe – Boris & Arkady Strugatsky

Definitely Maybe - Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Definitely Maybe:

A good read? Definitely.

As good as Roadside Picnic? Maybe.

I’ve already mentioned my obsession with Roadside Picnic, so you can imagine my joy at finding out that Melville House were going to publish another book by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky as part of their Neversink Library.

This new edition was published in the last month but I found out about it AGES ago. It was like the break in the fifth season of Breaking Bad. I tried to hustle an advanced reading copy, but they were having none of it. I had to wait like everyone else. With all of the anticipation, I couldn’t help wondering if Definitely Maybe could fill the boots of Roadside Picnic…

definitely maybe

No, not that one

When I finally picked it up (from my favourite bookshop, in person), the damnedest thing happened. Every time I sat down to read it, something or someone would interrupt me. It was almost as if the Universe didn’t want me to read it. A couple of days ago, I said ‘to Hell with you, Universe’, and jumped right in.

Set in Leningrad in the 70s, the story concerns Malianov, an astrophysicist working on a thesis about how stars react to gas clouds…or something. He has sent the wife and child off on holiday so that he can get a bit of research done. When he finally sits down to work, it isn’t long before he realises that he is onto something, something big, something worthy of a Nobel Prize. But then the damnedest thing happens…

The chain of interruptions that follows leads Malianov to meet up with other professors who are experiencing similar weirdness to varying degrees of severity and in curiously individual forms. They try to find a link between their diverse fields of study and when they fail, they try getting drunk instead.

What the…?

That doesn’t work either and just as the chaos whirls to a crescendo, something really strange happens without the vaguest hint of warning. About half-way through the book, something changes, stays changed and is never explained. I don’t want to spoil it, but you can’t miss it and it’s definitely one of those rare double-take moments.

But, maybe that’s a little on the cryptic side.

definitely maybe

not that one either

To get back to the concrete business of what the book is actually about, it’s a story about a man who accidentally stumbles across something unimaginably powerful and has to decide between realising his lifelong ambitions and losing everything he has ever loved. The story itself has the pace and the mystery of a conspiracy thriller and it’s delivered with deadpan, defeatist humour, all without losing the cloud of certain doom.

I approached this book with one question on my mind – how does Definitely Maybe compare with Roadside Picnic? They both deal with humanity’s futility in the face of unknown powers. The message in both books is clear – we are all insignificant specks in a universe that doesn’t care about us, ignorant primates who only climbed out of the trees a few thousand years ago, hopeless playthings of vastly more intelligent beings.

It’s definitely not all bad though. In the world of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, we encounter wonders equally fascinating and terrifying. Like a chimpanzee trying to work a landmine out, these alien artefacts could kill us at any moment, but we are still compelled to understand them. However, like poor Malianov, even the merest fraction of insight could come at a terrible cost.

Okay, maybe it is pretty bad, but that doesn’t change the fact that these stories are fantastic in every sense of the word. So give Definitely Maybe a go – it’s a bit left-field, a bit obscure, but you’ll read it in a couple of days…unless you get interrupted.

Finches of Mars – Brian Aldiss: A Review

finches of marsRight, so I read some reviews of Finches of Mars. Glowing reviews they were, full of praise. It sounded good, so I read it. But now I’m confused. I’m confused because I think I’ve missed something…

Brian Aldiss, science fiction giant, has stated that Finches of Mars will be his final book. It’s set in a future in which overpopulation, extreme weather and war have made life on Earth pretty unbearable. Since the political leaders seem to have abandoned all reason, the Universities of the world unite and pool their resources to fund a project to colonise Mars. They find some water, build a few towers and fill them with Earth’s best and brightest.

Pets are banned due to the diseases they carry and religion is banned because it tends to destroy civilisations. Other than that, the colony is a liberal, pacifist paradise which is just as well because once you’re there, you can’t return to earth.

There’s a problem though. No healthy babies have been born on Mars and if they survive past birth at all, it’s never for very long. To make matters worse, things back home on Earth are spiralling out of control. Since the colony appears pretty doomed anyway, it slips off of the priority-list. All they can do is hope to find some proof that life on Mars is possible.

“Without children, no future, no permanence…”

The story itself is quite interesting and it’s easy to identify with such a desperate situation. In this respect at least, my will to see humanity survive kept me going. In places, Aldiss raises some very interesting questions and I found myself stopping for a wee think every now and then.

So what was my problem with it?

I’ve never read Brian Aldiss before but, given his reputation, I can only assume that there are better titles in his backlist. My main gripe is with the dialogue, which I found a little unconvincing, but maybe that’s just a thing with the genre. People perhaps expect that in the future, conversation will have evolved into something we, in 2013, find flowery and unrealistic.

The ending, about which I’ll reveal little, is intended to give us hope, to restore our faith in humanity’s ability to overcome adversity. To me, it felt like something improbable had been dumped into the story with little warning just to bring it to an end.

All that said it did indeed get excellent reviews, so maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe it’s because I read it on my phone and couldn’t give it the same level of attention as I might an actual book.

Maybe I’m just not that clever.

I can’t help wondering, however, if his last book would have received the same praise if it had been his first book.

We’ll never know.

Whatever the case, I haven’t given up on Brian and I’ll try one of his earlier titles some time. If you have any recommendations yourself, you know what to do.

My favourite underground shelter

Wool - Hugh HoweyI’ve just finished Hugh Howey’s Wool, which is excellent, by the way. The story revolves around the inhabitants of the Silo, an underground bunker comprising over a hundred floors of cramped accommodation and dystopian paranoia. It sounds a bit claustrophobic and uncomfortable but certainly a lot better than asphyxiating in the toxic winds outside.

It’s a really good read but it isn’t very realistic. I mean, come on – an underground complex designed to house a population of thousands in the event of a global catastrophe.

“Don’t be silly!” I thought.

I suppose any loon can bury a corrugated iron pipe in the ground, stick a sofa and a bucket inside, and then call it a survival shelter. That’s hardly the same thing as a sprawling underground network containing all of the amenities necessary for outliving the rapture.

On the other hand, there are a number of contractors who will build you a home ten feet underground complete with air filtration systems to get rid of that musty last-man-on-earth smell. But I doubt these projects are anything more special than an episode of Grand Designs.

As much as one might like to believe otherwise, enormous subterranean complexes just don’t exist outside of science fiction books.

Then I discovered Vivos.

Vivos LogoVivos was founded in California (where else?!) by Robert Vicino, a man who is certainly more interested in making a lot of money before the apocalypse than preserving the human race afterwards. The Vivos website is peppered with doom-laden phrases and promises of incoming horsemen designed to scare you into parting with your cash. They have a risk-assessment page which contains an exhaustive shopping list of potential catastrophes ranging from meteorites to terrorist attacks.

“Which side of the door do you want to be on?”

You see, certain people – certain Americans, in particular – are very serious when it comes to survival. You may be able to think of a galaxy of terms to describe them, but they prefer to be called ‘preppers’. At one end of the scale, you have the mountain-dwelling firearms enthusiast with enough tins of beans to last him until Judgement Day and beyond. At the other end, you have a whole different breed of prepper.

These people are not short of a few dollars and they think nothing of forking them over for place in one of Vivos’ underground cities.

And these cities are impressive indeed.

The Kansas site consists of a massive underground trailer-park 150 feet under a mountain. The rates are calculated depending on the size of your vehicle which can be anything from a modest caravan ($16000) to an eight-person coach ($45000). On top of this, residents are expected to pay $1500 per person for a year’s food ration. The website isn’t very clear about what happens once that year is up but we can only assume that dollars would be obsolete at that stage.

So what do you get for your money, besides the obvious luxury of surviving the end of the world? All of their sites are equipped with hydroponic farms, emergency services, and entertainment facilities. Needless to say they also have a rifle range and I’ll leave it to your own imagination to conjure up all the things that might go wrong there.

Gladly, you don’t even have to wait for the inevitable to benefit from the inclusion fee. In the meantime, the Kansas facility serves as a members-only resort. At least you no longer need to think about that survival-themed family vacation.

God knows there’s enough to worry about.

Roadside Picnic: An Obsession

RoadsidePicnicI don’t read a lot of Science Fiction so when I do, I want to make sure it’s something different. The genre is filled with books we all supposedly must read before we die. You can find George R. R. Martin or Arthur C. Clarke in any bookshop any day of the week. I sell these sci-fi essentials to people all of the time and their familiarity is taking its toll.

I first became aware of Roadside Picnic thanks to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Developed by the Ukrainian company, GSC Game World, this is a violent and brutal first-person-shooter set in the abandoned wastes around the ruined Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It’s easy to assume that a video game concept such as this was dreamt up in some board room but in order to find the origins of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., we need to go back in time.

Published in Russia 1971 by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic tells the story of Red Schuhart, a Stalker. Due to some extra-terrestrial event, pockets of weirdness have popped up all over the world.  The book is set in and around one particular area, known as the Zone. This is a strange and dangerous place where the normal rules of the universe no longer apply and where alien artefacts lie waiting to be found. To prevent this from happening, the zone is cordoned off and regularly patrolled by UN forces.

Who would dare brave the traps and anomalies of the Zone? Stalkers, like Red Schuhart of course. Because of their unique scientific value, the alien artefacts are worth a pretty penny on the black market. Red is after one artefact in particular, the legendary ‘golden sphere’. Stalker hearsay says that this artefact can grant wishes.

This is a novel filled with strangeness and wonder – not a plot-driven thriller. The images of an abandoned, overgrown landscape are beautiful and the characters deal with an existential angst that Satre would have been proud of.  One man who sought inspiration from Roadside Picnic was the enigmatic Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Mirror).

In 1979, Tarkovsky directed the movie, Stalker. Loosely based on Roadside Picnic, it’s a very long, very artsy film containing extended, hypnotic scenes where the characters are evidently just waiting for something to happen.  The unnamed Stalker leads two men known only as the Writer and the Professor through the zone to find a room.

Guess what this room does.

The wish-granting room lies at the end of an intricate path of invisible perils, haunting images and whispered Russian poetry. I don’t expect Stalker is everyone’s cup of tea but if you like Soviet art films of the 70’s, you might just fall in love with it.

zona_gq_21dec11_642Geoff Dyer is in love with Stalker. He’s into it in a big way. Last year, he wrote Zona, a scene-by-scene description of the movie including biographical details and miscellaneous trivia. You could consider it the script of an unrecorded commentary track. In Zona, Dyer himself questions the commercial logic behind writing a book about a film that few people have seen but it’s of little consequence to him – he has nurtured a love for the film for most of his adult life and this book is an expression of that love. I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that he has gained at least one satisfied reader.

As for Roadside Picnic, I’ll admit that from a bookselling point of view, it’s a hard one to shift but every now and then, I get talking to a particular kind of customer. They don’t normally read science fiction, but when they do, they want to make sure that it’s something different. For good or ill, these curious few trust my recommendations. And I do recommend Roadside Picnic whole-heartedly. If you too are sick of the old sci-fi clichés and want something unexpected, this is the way to go.

Equally, if you want to read a very funny book about a film you’ve never seen, pop along to your favourite bookshop and get them to order you a copy of Zona…because they probably won’t have it in stock.