Tag Archives: near future science fiction

Review of The Hive Construct by Alexander Maskill

Standard

This book caught my eye as it won The 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize, complete with a complimentary comment on the back cover by the great man, himself. So I was expecting something remarkable by this young writer.

hiveconstructSituated deep in the Sahara Desert, New Cairo is a city built on technology – from the huge, life-giving solar panels that keep it functioning in a radically changed, resource-scarce world, to the artificial implants that seem to have resolved all of mankind’s medical problems. But New Cairo is also a divided city – a vast metropolis dominated by a handful of omnipotent corporate dynasties. And when a powerful new computer virus begins to spread through the poorer districts, shutting down the implants that enable so many to survive, the city begins to turn on itself – to slide into the anarchy of violent class struggle. Hiding out in the chaos is Zola Ulora, a gifted hacker and fugitive from justice. Her fervent hope is that she can earn her life back by tracing the virus and destroying it before it destroys the city. Or before the city destroys itself…

It takes a great deal of technical skill to be able to immediately pull a reader into a technically complex world with a suitably layered, sympathetic character that allows your reader to fully bond with her. While the world was interesting, the pace was initially silted up by too many chunks of information on how it all worked. However, I persevered because the world was well constructed and entirely plausible, while

Maskill endeavoured to give a fully nuanced take on the situation unfolding.

As it all started kicking off, the pace picked up and provided plenty of unexpected twists I really didn’t see coming, although the themes are very familiar to science fiction fans. Maskill can certainly provide a plot with plenty going on. While I initially was concerned that the outcome was all too predictable, he was at pains to provide a rounded view of the struggle threatening to rip New Cairo apart. Although I would have liked to have spent a bit more time in Zola’s viewpoint. There was a reasonably large cast in a relatively short story and Maskill hasn’t yet acquired the knack of immediately writing a solid bonding moment with the reader and viewpoint character. The consequence was that I wasn’t as heavily invested in the story as I would have liked.

I’m conscious that I have sounded very critical – but this is by no means a bad book. The world certainly works and because of Maskill’s approach, there is an attempt to look at the crisis from both sides – this near future scenario is probably the hardest form of science fiction to write well and there is plenty in it for fans of the genre to enjoy. What this first book has demonstrated is Maskill’s undoubted talent. I look forward to following his writing career – he is certainly One To Watch.
7/10

Advertisements

Review of Down To The Bone – Book 5 of The Quantum Gravity series by Justina Robson

Standard

This is the concluding volume to Robson’s interestingly original take on a world peopled by demons, elves and fae, after the quantum bomb detonated in 2015 tore through the fabric keeping different worlds apart. Earth is now Otopia and humankind are having to rub shoulders with the likes of elves and demons.

downtotheboneWhatever you do, though, don’t pick Down To the Bone off the shelf and expect to get engrossed in the story without first reading at least the first in the series, Keeping It Real – and even then I think you would be significantly short-changing yourself if you didn’t continue with the series. The cool cover and arresting strap line, I think, sells these books short. Neither pure erotic urban fantasy escapism, nor cyber-punk dystopian adventure bulging with gismos, the Quantum Gravity series borrows tropes from both camps. There’s a fair bit of serious science fiction embedded within this apparently classical fantasy world, and Robson’s main character, Lila, has a very familiar feel if you are a sucker for urban fantasy – complete with some steamy sex.  So, has Robson succeeded in satisfactorily concluding this ambitious, genre-melding series?

The gap between the worlds was so thin in places, you could nearly step across without meaning to… Lila Black can still turn into a lethal war-winning machine with the merest thought but she doesn’t work for the agency any more. Problem is, she has no idea what to do next. Teazle is a demon who may have become Death’s Angel. And Zal is a has-been elven musician without a band. They don’t add up to much that when they get together major stuff goes down. And now the dead are walking, the veil between the worlds is tearing and if it fails altogether all bets are off. Someone has to do something and it looks like it’s going to have to be Lila. Is attitude enough to get you through life and death? Will it get you a happy ending?

As with most series, the tone in this last book is a whole lot darker than it was in Keeping It Real, but there is still plenty of humour – I particularly enjoyed the fairy who spent her time arbitrarily fashioning herself into Lila’s clothing. Robson manages to create sufficient vulnerability for her main protagonists despite their staggering powers to evoke the necessary narrative tension and it is in the final instalment that we get a full, final slice of exactly what she has been aiming for throughout the series.

Has she succeeded in bridging the gulf between cyber-punk and classical fantasy with her own particular mix of both? Absolutely. Her nods to fanfic, gaming allusions and hardcore science fiction exposition tick all the boxes in that genre set, while her characterisation of all her main protagonists, particularly Lila as the can-do, conflicted heroine, provides the emotional engine driving the plot forward that is often missing in hard-core science fiction stories. The whole series has been such a roller-coaster, epic ride that this final volume needed to provide Robson’s unique brand of angst-filled action in quantum quantities to provide the necessary, satisfying conclusion. And as far as I’m concerned, she succeeds in fulfilling that requirement, too.

Any niggles? Not sure if it’s actually a flaw, or a necessary by-product of Robson’s ambitious writing, but her style is very dense. This is not a skim-read, brain-snooze book – you need those little grey cells standing to attention to fully appreciate Robson’s world-building and crafting. During the action scenes, Robson’s pacing is perfect but at times during the character interactions, I found I needed to slow down and reread sections, or I missed something crucial. I noticed this when reading the last two books and I’ve come to the conclusion that as I generally zip through an urban fantasy far faster than a hard science fiction read, it was my expectations pressing the ‘go’ button, when I needed to ease up. Rereading this series from start to finish would be a satisfying treat – and something I don’t often consider. But then, encountering a series like the Quantum Gravity isn’t an everyday reading experience, either. Give it a go – love it or loath it, I guarantee you won’t have come across anything else quite like it.
9/10

Review of Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Standard

‘Absolutely compelling’ is Greg Bear’s verdict on the front cover. Generally I take those credits with a pinch of salt – but this time around, he is spot on. This unusual, thought-provoking near-future science fiction novel is the best thing Moon has written to date – and the lady is no slouch.

speedofdarkLou is different to ‘normal’ people. He interacts with the world in a way they do not understand. He might not see the things they see, but he also sees many things they do not. Lou is autistic.

One of his skills is an ability to find patterns in data: extraordinary, complex, beautiful patterns that not even the most powerful computers can comprehend. The company he works for has made considerable sums of money from Lou’s work. But now they want Lou to change – to become ‘normal’ like themselves. And he must face the greatest challenge of his life. To understand the speed of dark.

Moon has achieved a very difficult feat – she has managed to get right inside Lou’s head and give us an insight into someone who processes information in quite a different way, while continuing to capture our sympathy and understanding. Lou’s characterisation is masterful. The way we perceive the near future through his eyes and begin to appreciate the difficulties that he constantly has to overcome – his acute sense of smell and sensitivity to sound; his constant uncertainty as to whether he has accurately decoded the subliminal signals people give off; the way he cycles and recycles through ideas that concern him… I used to care for a little boy with autism and I found Lou completely convincing.

However as with the very best science fiction, this book is so much more than an entertaining, escapist read. This novel raises issues that are starting to smack society across the chops – issues that we should all be discussing and debating both at a personal and political level.  Of course, being the limited creatures we are, instead we obsess about the daily habits of a handful of celebrities and it falls to books like this one to raise this far more important matters. If a cure for autism does turn up, should high functioning autistic adults who are wholly capable of leading productive, independent lives consider undergoing such treatments? Especially as we’re talking about tampering with the brain…

And while Moon has selected autism as her example having raised an autistic son, this argument is already raging amongst the deaf community about cochlea implants. Many deaf people feel very threatened at the prospect of a cure that will remove them from the community in which they have grown up and with which they identify themselves – to the extent that they refuse to allow their deaf children have an implant. Others feel that deliberately preventing their children from taking advantage of a cure is being irresponsible, if not outright abusive.

I’m conscious that I’ve made this novel sound rather worthy and dull – and it’s not. Because Lou has several other issues to overcome, in addition to coping with this overarching challenge, and, besides, Moon isn’t a writer that does boring or pedestrian plots. So the result is a gripping, intelligent read that leaves you thinking about the issues it addresses long after you’ve finished it. Try it. It’s certainly one of my outstanding reads of the year – and one I’m going to continue recommending to anyone who’ll listen…
10/10