Monthly Archives: September 2015

My Favourite Aliens in Literature – Part 1

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Having started writing lists about all things writing – especially connected with speculative fiction, I can’t seem to stop… So today I’m presenting my favourite aliens that crop up in books, in no particular order.

Yalda from The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan – Book 1 of The Orthogonal
If you really enjoy hard science fiction with a strong, coherent and utterly different world and haven’t yet theclockworkrocketencountered this series, then do so. See my review of The Clockwork Rocket here.By tweaking a mathematical sign from minus to plus in an equation that governs space time, Egan has created a universe where light behaves completely differently – he writes at length about it on his website. To people his world, he also creates a species that don’t look like us and don’t breed like us. Once fertilised, the females bodies break down into two breeding pairs, effectively dying. So it is the males who are left with the task of raising the young and keeping society running. This creates tensions among women who don’t wish their lives to end prematurely, so refuse to mate with their co. Yalda is born without her opposite, larger and stronger than average and regarded as a freak in the farming community where she is raised. I loved her story from the first page.

Illisidi from The Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh
foreignerThis is another extraordinary series. I need to catch up on it, because I’ve read the first six, but now realise to my delight that since I last read them, Cherryh has written a whole bunch more. Yippee! These books are about a human outpost on a planet already settled by tall, predatory dark-skinned aliens who use numbers and maths to make sense of their world. The protagonist is the diplomat, Bren Cameron, who lives among them, constantly striving to ensure communications between the two species stays peaceful. Illisidi is grandmother to the ruler, a stately, enigmatic lady very heavily involved in politics. Scary and stately by turns, she is intrigued by Bren. Cherryh is superb at writing tension and miscommunication.

The Fithp from Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournellefootfall
This famous alien invasion book lodges in my mind as the elephant-like aliens may superficially resemble the grazing beasts that live in Africa and Asia, but the Fithp are far more lethal. They don’t understand the concept of diplomacy, regarding species as either prey or predators. Prey are to be turned into useful slaves and predators are to be subjugated. A frightening species I loved to hate…

NorcrystaltearsThe Thranx from the Humanx Commonwealth series by Alan Dean Foster
These insectoid species stumble across a human crew while waging war with the AAnn. After scooping them up, they tweak humanity’s DNA a tad and then forge a close alliance with them. Foster is one of a handful of science fiction authors completely comfortable with producing a whole slew of remarkable and original alien lifeforms, but the Thranx is the one that stick in my mind.

The Ariekei from Embassytown by China Miéville
This is another book about a small enclave on a planet already settled by an alien species – see my review here – but Embassytowndiffers markedly from Cherryh’s Foreigner series in all sorts of important ways. The Hosts are large, powerful crablike creatures, who communicate with pairs of specially raised and trained humans. Until it all goes terribly wrong when a new pair of ambassadors turn up from off-planet and attempt to communicate with the Hosts…
This is another extraordinary book that blew me away with its sheer inventiveness and worldbuilding – particularly around the alien species. Miéville has also lots of interesting things to say about language and how it is used, along the way.

I started this and realised that this article will be far too long if I include all my favourites at once, so these are the first five. What about you? Are there any aliens you particularly loved reading about? Have you encountered any of my favourites and if so, did you also enjoy them?

Review of Wool – Book 1 of the Silo series by Hugh Howey

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Like many others, I was intrigued to read about the success of this self-published author, who has managed to sell the print rights to the book to Random House for distribution around the world, while keeping the ebook rights himself. He started publishing this book in a series form through Kindle Publishing and as it steadily gained in popularity, it turned into the current trilogy – Wool, Shift and Dust. It also accounts for the episodic structure of the book, which is divided into different sections from the different viewpoints of the protagonists.

In the ruined and hostile landscape, in a future few have been unlucky enough to survive, a community exists in a giant underground silo. Inside, men and women live an enclosed life full of rules and regulations. But some people choose not to conform. There are the people who dare to hope and dream. These are the dangerous ones. Jules is one of these people. She may well be the last.

So… a dystopian, science fiction thriller, fraught with tension where a tiny handful of the awkward squad begin to pose major problems for the status quo. Sounds familiar? And if you haven’t already got there, a label on the front proclaims this THE NEXT HUNGER GAMES. Is this correct? Only up to a point. While superficially the two books seem to be covering the same ground, there are some crucial differences.

The Hunger Games – see my review here – is an exploration of how a struggle against injustice and overwhelmingWool odds can take place in a society where the masses place great importance on a chosen few to act out their own latent yearnings for action and danger. It very cleverly aligns many of our increasingly passive habits and appetite for spectacle, acted out in hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts, with the viewing habits of the Capitol’s inhabitants. These are aspects not even touched upon by Wool.

Wool is a gripping story revolving around Juliette. Bright, innovative and hardworking, you’d think she was an ideal Silo citizen. And yet she makes the upper echelons nervous – she is too imaginative and fond of thinking creatively. People who dream, or wonder too much about life in general – and particularly how it could be improved and altered within the current setup, are considered dangerous. Because what becomes increasingly clear as the book continues, is the ever-present danger of an uprising, or war. And the constant worry that this fragile pocket of humanity, existing in their hard-grafting world, could be snuffed out. For uprisings have happened before. And this is the fascinating theme of the book. What if a careful template for human survival is initially laid down that will maximise the resources, allowing for an ongoing community to exist for however long it takes for the toxic conditions reigning above ground to finally modify? What if the leaders aren’t charged with maximising the potential of each person living within the silo to ensure their lives are as rich and full as possible – what if, instead, they are simply charged with following this template?

It took me a while to become accustomed to the sudden shift in tone and viewpoint as each section came to an end, but once I became used to it, I was fully engrossed. Life in the silo is chillingly captured. Howey’s sensuous, pacey style had me in there, trudging up and down the never-ending spiral staircase which effectively stratifies the community both physically and socially. Those right at the top get the outside views, the best food, uninterrupted light and power. Those at the bottom work long hours in poor conditions, eating monotonous, poor quality food in a dirty, dangerous environment.

If you haven’t yet picked up a copy and have any appetite at all for well written dystopian fiction, then go and track it down. I find the grim silo existence still popping into my head regularly when I thought I was thinking about something else – and I have a hunch it’s going to continue to do so.
10/10

Shoot for the Moon Challenge 2015 – August Roundup

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We are sliding into autumn after a thoroughly grotty summer, apart from a glorious fortnight at the start of July, which is now a distant memory. So how are the crazy writing targets I set with the aid of my friend and encourager, Mhairi Simpson?

• I have just completed the first major edit of Dying For Space. The good news is that it is better than I remember moonand wasn’t riddled with a lot of the errors plaguing Running Out of Space. Mhairi has just returned the manuscript of Running Out of Space having done a wonderful job checking the Spanish phrases in it (someone hit me with a very big brick if I ever waffle about dotting another series with a lot of foreign phrases, again. Particularly if said foreign phrases are accompanied with accents all over the place…) and also suggesting some improvements, bless her. However she really enjoyed reading it, which is heartening! Having Running Out of Space ready for Fantasycon should be doable. I now need to turn my attention to stuff like ISBN numbers and book covers… As for Dying for Space – not so sure. But I’m continuing to work hard at it.
Challenge – To have first two books of The Sunblinded Trilogy published by Fantasycon. Hm. Watch this space…

• I wrote 10 reviews during July and read 11 books. Still not sure I’ll make this target, but it’s not one I’m going to lie awake worrying over.
Challenge – To review a minimum of 100 books during 2015. In progress…

• I am now gearing myself up for the new academic year, now writing the notes for my Creative Writing course on viewpoint and narrative time and during the next fortnight I have a series of planning and training meetings to attend.
Challenge – To strive to make my Creative Writing courses enjoyable and informative for my students. I’m really looking forward to meeting up with everybody in a couple of weeks.

I’ve found editing the first two books in The Sunblinded Trilogy incredibly hard work. For starters, I cannot get my head down and simply plough forward, as I do when I’m writing. I have to keep breaking off, or it’s pointless. While my editing skills have dramatically improved and I quite enjoy it these days, I’m really missing writing. But I simply cannot start another project, while my head is in Jezel’s world… The curse of the ultimate monotasker.

I spent a fair chunk of time grannying over the summer, which is a joy. But I sometimes wish I had a writing clone to continue toiling away at the computer at the same time. I wrote just over 10,000 words reviewing books and blogging this month and 7,200 words on rewrites on Dying for Space. It is a delight to announce that during August, I didn’t write a single word on teaching admin, which will doubtless rapidly be rectified during the coming month. So the total wordcount for August is a paltry 17,000 words, bringing my yearly total to date to 168,500 words.

Review of Charmed Life – Book 1 of The Worlds of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones

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I’ve been reading this entertaining series – see my review of Witch Week here – to my granddaughter, who is becoming a confirmed fan of speculative fiction, and during the summer holidays we have recently completed this classic. Would she enjoy it as much as I did?

Everybody says that Gwendolen Chant is a gifted witch with astonishing powers, so it suits her enormously when she is taken to live in Chestomanci Castle. Her brother Eric (better known as Cat) is not so keen, for he has no talent for magic at all. However life with the great enchanter and his family is not what either of them expects and sparks soon begin to fly…

CharmedLifeThis book is from the viewpoint of Cat, Gwendolen’s younger brother. I initially read it years ago and it simply blew me away. The writing is so sharply witty, the humour knockabout – but with a sharp poignancy underneath that also left me with a lump in my throat several times. So rereading it to a young audience, would the magic still stir again?

Oh yes. Reading it aloud, and knowing what happens next, I was able to appreciate the technical skill and storytelling genius of Wynne Jones, as Cat experiences the fireworks his wilful and lethally gifted sister produces. Cat is a wonderful character – quiet and unassuming, trying to slide through life without drawing any attention to himself and always looking to Gwendolen for guidance. We make assumptions alongside him, to find them blown away in the amazing, shocking denouement that is so delightfully pitch perfect in pacing, heightening the drama, providing the switch moment when Cat learns exactly what Gwendolen is up to and how it impacts upon him that I get goose pimples when I think of it.

If you are considering writing any form of fiction where a climactic moment is important, I urge you to go and hunt for this book. If you loved the Harry Potter series, then track down Charmed Life. It is a classic for a solid reason – quality fantasy action pings off every page and I don’t see why children should have all the fun, anyway.
10/10

Review of Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

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I was attracted by the cover, read the first couple of pages and scooped this offering off the shelves.

mothandsparkIn the country of Caithen, Prince Corin is tasked with freeing the dragons from their bondage to the Emperor. To help him in his quest, the terrifying beasts have allowed Corin a little of their power. But the history of the dragons’ slavery is shrouded in mystery and no one can assist in his quest to free them… until the arrival of Tam at court – a sensible doctor’s daughter, who discovers a remarkable talent.

It’s an intriguing premise – yes, I know that you’ve read the blurb above and thought, ‘what’s different?’. What’s different isn’t the fantasy element – it’s the romantic element. Think Jane Austin translocated into a fantasy setting and you’ve got the vibe of this book. While the fantasy storyline is the narrative that drives the novel forward, the courtship between these two passionate, intelligent protagonists provides the emotional tone. Romance can work brilliantly in speculative fiction, but all too often a trite, hackneyed boy-meets-girl setup frankly spoils what could be a quirky engaging story. Leonard manages to layer the romance into the story by making me really care about both protagonists before they got together.

As for the dragon component – these days they have to have something special. After the dragonriders of Pern and Smaug et al what does Leonard bring to the lair to make her dragons stand out? She writes them intelligently by keeping them very threatening, and although Corin is eventually able to ride one and even communicate with it, there is never a sense of being able to treat a dragon like a huge dog with scales.

Leonard manages to evoke the same threat and mystery about her magic with strong use of imagery and the sense both of her main characters, while able at times to harness aspects of it, are still very much floundering. Again, it underlines the sense of wonder and unease that all too often is missing in swords and sorcery fantasy, which I think helps to make this an enjoyable, engrossing read.

Any niggles? Well, there was a big build-up to the major climax with the dragons and despite there being plenty of tension and the stakes being very high, the actual denouement was slightly lacking in the full-on action I think this genre demands. However, this wasn’t a dealbreaker for me, as Leonard manages to tie up the ending satisfactorily.

I picked it up, wanting something a little less bleak after having read a string of grimdark fantasies and was prepared for it to be a frothy, fun read. Moth and Spark is certainly fun, but it also packs more of a punch than I’d expected and I shall be looking out for more books from this accomplished author.
8/10

Teaser Tuesday – (1st September 2015)

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Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

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• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

MY TUESDAY TEASER from The Thousand Names – Book 1 of the Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexlerthethousandnames

Genre – Military fantasy

The lieutenant gave a delicate cough. Marcus had been with him long enough to recognize Fitz-speak for “You’re about to do something very stupid and/or embarrasing, sir.” P.33