Tag Archives: transhumans

Review of The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

Standard

I picked up this book with delight from the library shelves, after hearing very good things about Lord’s writing. It didn’t hurt that the cover was speckled with stars, either…

thegalaxygameFor years, Rafi Delarus saw his family suffer under his father’s unethical – and illegal – use of psionic power. Now the government of Cygnus Beta has Rafi under close watch, in case he has a similar talent. Rafi hates their crude attempts to analyse his brain – but is also riddled with fear. What if they are right – and he is his father’s son after all? And how can he experiment with his powers to find out?

That’s as much of the blurb as I’m willing to share, as it gets far too chatty for my liking in the ensuing paragraphs. Although, I won’t deny I could have badly done with some kind of help at the outset – what the cover didn’t reveal, is that The Galaxy Game is the sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds. And given that this is epic science fiction, spanning a hatful of worlds and inter-galactic politics, I was initially adrift in a sea of characters and allusions to places that meant nothing to me.

I’m aware that the fashion for short overviews entitled The story so far… is well and truly over – but I have recently felt strong nostalgia for that consideration for the hapless reader, like myself, who picks up a book mid-series. Especially in this case, when I wasn’t aware it was part of a series… So my firm advice is if you, too, initially find it heavy going, grit your teeth and hang in there, because if your taste runs to character-led, coming-of-age stories set in interesting, original worlds, then this one is great – once it all starts making sense.

Ravi’s third person narration is interposed by his more sophisticated, worldly-wise friend Ntenman’s first person accounts which swing along with much more punch – probably because he is, outwardly at least, far more confident. And that is the glory of Lord’s writing. Nothing and no one is as it first appears. She has managed to present a society where financial obligation is only one, more minor preoccupation – what people really need to pay attention to, is their social obligations. Everyone builds up networks, and in a society where psionic power is the norm, it is this tradeoff in obligation and patronage that Rafi has to negotiate.

This would have been an impressive feat if the book was a doorstopper affair of 500+ pages – but it isn’t. The hardcover version is 340 pages long. Neither is Lord’s prose particularly choppy or noticeably high octane. She devotes the necessary description required to clearly depict her beautiful, original worlds in plenty of detail, along with the food and clothing requirements, to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hasn’t already snapped up the film rights. This book is cinematically sharp and would make a marvellous film, particularly for a director who likes a world laden with subtext.

By the end, I was aware that I had read a remarkable book by an extremely talented writer. And if you enjoy reading about people who have adapted in interesting ways once we reach the stars, then don’t track down The Galaxy Game – head first for The Best of All Possible Worlds, which is what I aim to do.
9/10

Review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Standard

I always find it fascinating how a cluster of books often appear on the bookshelves at the same time dealing with a similar subject. Not the slew of copycat wannabes who turn up trying to replicate a runaway best-seller no one saw coming – I’m talking about when the timing means that several authors were working on similar projects at the same time, often with completely different themes or approaches. I’ve been reading a steady trickle of excellently written books by established writers about this particular theme – that of a particular character living parallel or recurrent lives. And this is the latest addition.

first 15 lives of Harry AugustHarry August is on his deathbed again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always restarts to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a live he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes. Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next – and what he did before – and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

That’s the blurb and for my money – that’s one of the best blurbs I’ve read. Ever. Kudos to Orbit for that effort and the clever book cover – does the book measure up?

It’s certainly different to North’s other work. She writes the Young Adult Horatio Lyle series as Catherine Webb and her adult fantasy Midnight Mayor series under the name of Kate Griffin – you can read my review of her first book in the series A Madness of Angels here. This book is more literary in tone, relying less on breathless immediacy and more on measured exposition with a slower narrative pace. And there’s nothing wrong in that – but be aware that if you’re expecting the same full-tilt adventure-packed deal she offers in her other fiction, this is a more nuanced, considered book and while there is plenty of action, it is differently packaged.

As it happens, North is visiting a very familiar science fiction trope – that of the trans-human who has shifted into something different by dint of having lived so long. The big difference is that trans-humans as depicted by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Greg Bear owe their longevity to scientific development, while Harry August and the handful of other returnees he encounters during his lifetimes, owe their existence to a genetic quirk.  As a kalachakra, after he dies, he goes straight back to the year of his first birth – 1918 – and relives his existence, with the memories of his previous lives impacting on his choices and decisions. For my money, Harry August is the most effectively depicted post-human I have yet encountered. While never forgetting his difference, North has managed to still make him sufficiently sympathetic that I really empathised and cared about him – a feat, as he has become something other than fully human and is certainly not particularly cuddly or even likeable at lot of the time.

What we get is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be human and the effects of determinism – how far can Harry influence or alter the events in his lives – alongside the cracking adventure story that steadily evolves. North crafts this story with consummate skill and subtlety. The denouement is gripping and shocking and if this book isn’t shortlisted for every award going as one of the best science fiction books of the year, then she will have been robbed. Give it a go. It’s a masterpiece.
10/10