You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘sci fi’ tag.

That’s our man’, he said, pointing at Ashbless, ‘and that’s….what was the name, haven’t seen him in a while…Jacky Snapp! – whose involvement in this I’ll want explained…but who’s the sick old bastard?’ The hijackers shrugged, so Ashbless said quietly, ‘He’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a very famous writer, and you’ll be buying more trouble than you can afford if you kill him.’

I’ve been singing the praises of the Fantasy Masterworks series of Gollancz publishing for years now. A carefully selected collection of out-of-print, or underappreciated genre fiction novels, I have yet to encounter a title I did not enjoy. This book is no exception. Tim Powers weaves a tale mixing science fiction and poetry, time travel and Egyptian sorcery, and casts Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as unwitting heroes.

Brendan Doyle spends his days absorbed in his research of the little-known 19th century poet William Ashbless, or drowning his sorrows in the wake of his wife’s death. Then one day he receives a fantastical proposition. An eccentric millionaire pays him twenty grand to give a lecture on Samuel Coleridge to a select group of poetry lovers – in 1810. Curious and bemused Doyle agrees and finds himself transported back in time! He gives his lecture, even meets the
famous laudanum addicted poet himself, but is kidnapped by a band of gypsies moments before he is due to return to 1983.

Stranded in the 19th century with no means, no useful skills and no access to modern day hygiene, Doyle resigns himself to a life on the streets of London. However, he stumbles onto a conspiracy among Egyptian sorcerers and a criminal plot to assassinate King George. Soon he finds himself targeted by an evil dwarf, cackling homunculi and an army of beggar assassins. His only hope of rescue is to find William Ashbless and seek refuge with the man who’s life he knows intimately from his studies.

But is Ashbless whom he claims to be? And what caused the holes in time that Doyle travelled through to 1810? Who is Dog-Faced-Joe and how is he connected to the Anubis worshipping Egyptian cult that plots to overthrow the British Empire?

Powers has fashioned a rip-roaring yarn that serves up implausible solutions to a number of literary and historical mysteries. What caused Byron’s crippling fever while on his Hellenic tour? Was there another cause behind Coleridge’s demented visions? The failure of Lord Monmouth’s attempted rebellion in the 17th century? Doyle himself is an amusing character, taking a time out from the trauma of being shunted through time to enjoy a fine cigar and jug of ale. There’s a whimsical underlying the labyrinthine plot, with body swapping and Egyptian gods stepping out of the wings during the proceedings to keep the story racing along.

19th century poets are something of a sci fi staple. Douglas Adams also included Samuel Coleridge in his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and Byron in the company of Mary Shelley appeared in Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound. There’s fun to be had with a contemporary figure interacting with these controversial figures, whose mystique far outlasted their words.

Powers serves up neck-breaking changes in plot and contrivance to engage the reader and teases with possible solutions to age-old mysteries as a casual piece of high-brow dressing. Great fun.

So tell me, comrade commissar, what does Marxism/Leninism say about headless mutants? It has bothered me for a long time. I want to be ideologically strong, and I’m drawing a blank on this one.

In one leap I jump from aristocratic London, to post-apocalyptic Moscow. I have very broad taste in books. This is certainly quite different. As the quote above attests though, Glukhovsky brings some welcome humour to this usually dour fare. The world has ended! Let’s joke about communists.

The last remnants of humanity huddle together in the Moscow subway system, the surface of the earth scorched by nuclear war. Many years have passed and the survivors have built communities around individual stations along the Metro line. At first they were confronted with radiation sickness, birth mutations in the next generation, plague. Then there were additional threats – starved rats attacking the communities at night, territorial conflicts over control of the line, diverging ideologies taking over each station until finally an uneasy peace was declared when people could no longer afford to fight and die. Then the dark ones came.

No one knows who or what they are, but they’re thought to have come from the surface, hunting the surviving humans underground. When the attacks on the northernmost station VDNKh suddenly increase, young Artyom is sent on a mission to warn the remaining communities of the danger should the dark ones break through. Along the way he meets different guides, experiences strange dreams and visions, and begins to wonder if some greater purpose is working through him. Could he be the chosen one who will save mankind?

Immediately I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere while reading this book. But Glukhovsky offers a meatier treat. While it is exposition heavy, with the various characters Artyom meets offering their own take on the situation and giving clues as to what led to the destruction of the surface, the author loads these philosophical discussions with a degree of richness and verve. Of course he’s Russian!

For a horror novel, Metro 2033 is unusually metaphysical in its concerns. What would happen to man if the world ended? Is the human race capable of survival, of transformation into a new form of life? Each of Artyom’s guides mark a different stage in the argument. He meets the self-proclaimed last incarnation of Genghis Khan, who insists that the Metro is a prison for the souls of the dead, heaven and hell having been obliterated by nuclear war. An elderly academic whispers of a hidden University that preserves all the greatest annals of culture and history and that will restore to humanity what it has lost. He even encounters a revolutionary cell of dogged Che Guevarrists, who insist that the battle to achieve true socialism must still be fought.

Within the cramped confines of the Metro, humanity has turned in on itself and Artyom has to contend with Neo-Nazis, communists and cannibals, all staking their own claim to territory along the line. Mutants, Nazis and rats are all well and good, but there is something simple and terrifying in walking along a pitch-black tunnel, where every unexplained sound is a possible threat. Glukhovsky understands this and does not overdo the gore quotient, instead allowing the reader’s imagination to share in Artyom’s growing unease.

At times the pace of the novel slows to a crawl, which is a shame for all of Glukhovsky’s world-building is thrilling in itself and would have been sufficient had he thrown in a few more surprises. Instead towards the end familiar landmarks and destinations are rushed past, with the characters racing to catch up with the plot. Certain passages feel like padding and this is certainly quite a thick book. Nevertheless there is dry wit and even occasionally a surprising degree of poignancy here alongside the claustrophobic horror of mankind being herded into the darkness below the surface of the Earth. On two occasions characters mention how similar their dilemma is to that of the Morlocks in Welles’ The Time Machine.

This is a thoughtful and rewarding addition to the dystopian sub-genre of horror fiction. You can even buy a game based on the novel now for the X-Box/Windows. Just wait, there’ll be a film next.

Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care anymore about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. Perhaps we could have figured this out about the Bugs by noting the grief the Chinese Hegemony gave the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance; however the trouble with ‘lessons from history’, is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.

Okay, a couple of notes. First off, yes, I snapped this book up because I’m a big fan of Paul Verhoeven’s film. If you haven’t seen it yet I would advise you to drop everything and check it out. It is one of the most darkly humorous sci-fi satires I have ever seen. Plus it has Neil Patrick Harris goose-stepping on screen in a mocked up SS uniform. Secondly, and maybe that last sentence gave you a hint, I’ve made myself a promise of not using the ‘f’ word in reviewing this book. Not that it isn’t…a word beginning with ‘f’ that rhymes with – ascist. Just that, in doing so, I immediately scupper the review.

I plan on doing that anyway, but I’m trying to establish ground rules here, c’mon! Be fair.

Anyway Heinlein’s novel begins with young Johnny Rico narrating to us a military ‘drop’ on an alien world inhabited by a race referred to as ‘Skinnies’. Equipped with large robotic suits of armour that allows soldiers to leapfrog over buildings, the humans bomb sites that will cause the mass amount of panic. At one point Rico throws an intelligent bomb into a crowded building that begins to audibly count itself down to destruction. He is one of Rasczak’s Roughnecks, a platoon that’s known for being mean and fast, dedicated fighters. Once their objective is achieved they pull out and we flashback to Rico’s first days in the army.

The majority of the book itself is occupied with the hero’s training and experiences in boot-camp. This was something of a surprise, but it eventually became clear to me what Heinlein is looking to achieve. Rico is inspired to join up by the example of his stern Moral Philosophy teacher Mr Dubois. Throughout the book Dubois is seen as more of a father-figure than Rico’s own businessman dad, who argues against his son joining up. Only enlisted men are offered the opportunity to become ‘citizens’, meaning only they can vote in elections, should they survive long enough to make it to the next ballot. When Rico signs up he becomes estranged from his father, who wanted him to go to Harvard and take over the family business. He only receives letters from his mother from then on, who tries to intercede between her husband and son. It is Dubois who actually reaches out to Rico, sending him a note to say how proud he is that a student of his volunteered to join the Mobile Infantry.

We are told that 2009 recruits signed up, including Rico. After relentless training, hard discipline, even naked survival treks through mountains – less than 200 grunts remain for graduation. Rico ships out and joins the fight against ‘the Bug’, an enemy race of giant arachnids that operate under a hive-mind and feel no mercy. By the time Rico graduates the human race is at war with the Bug, which has struck Earth and wiped out Buenos Aires. He soon learns that life is cheap and the Bug never quits. We follow his progress up the ranks during the conflict.

Verhoeven received many plaudits for his subversive take on Heinlein’s novel, but the author himself has written quite a work of subversion. In short this book is nothing less than an attack on contemporary liberal values, with the militarist state raised up as an utopia. The Bugs are equated to communists and Dubois dismisses Marxism with a pithy culinary analogy. Social workers and psychologists are blamed for teenage delinquency and ‘the Terror’ is cited as a pan-global 21st century epidemic of adolescent violence.

Basically this future society is a response to hoodies.

What’s more, we never really leave Dubois’ classroom. I expected action scenes, but most of the novel occurs in flashbacks. Rico continually reminisces about Dubois’ lessons on morality. And this is Heinlein’s philosophical outlook, in fictional form.

 

Every story here has been a passion. Every story here has been written because I had to write it. Writing stories is like breathing to me. I watch: I get an idea, fall in love with it, and try not to think too much about it. I then write: I let the story pour forth onto the paper as soon as possible.

I actually regret choosing this book for the Book A Day challenge. Bradbury is a fine, literate writer, worthy of anyone’s time. However, as a collection of short stories We’ll Always Have Paris is a book that should be read slowly, instead of ploughing through as one might a novel. A short story should be given time enough to breathe and even be read a second time so that none of its nuances are lost. Maybe I should have read the whole thing twice, so. We’ll Always Have Paris is a great introduction to Bradbury for those who are yet to discover him. Known for his science fiction classic The Martian Chronicles or his dark fairy tale Something Wicked This Way Comes, this collection offers more neutral fare with tales of strained marriages, mysterious old men, troubled priests and affairs over mixed tennis.

There is often a surreal tone to these stories, with ordinary lives made strange by small occurrences and random events. Arrival and Departure simply describes an elderly couple swept away by enthusiastic plans for a night out. Hours pass. And they’re back into the same old routine. Troubled marriages are a recurring trope within the collection. Ma Perkins Comes to Stay takes a relationship straining due to emotional neglect and ends with the fantasy lives of lonely souls around America replacing reality. Un-pillow Talk features a friendship that has taken a wrong turn into an affair, and Doubles uses tennis as a metaphor for infidelity. While, the title story, We’ll Always Have Paris, has a married man encounter a stalker of an unusual stripe in the city of romance.

Bradbury mentions in his introduction that his favourite story of the bunch is the first Massinello Pietro, which he has dedicated to an acquaintance. It is a bittersweet retelling of actual events, with an old man being threatened with eviction due to his menagerie of exotic pets and habit of playing old records loudly in the middle of the night. Personally, I enjoyed Pater Caninus, an amusing fable about two priests and a very devout…dog. It has just the right amount of the uncanny. There is a world-weary tone to these stories, with an undercurrent of loss and missed opportunities. Fairy tale romances end with objective certainty but here, life with a loving partner is filled with doubt.

Bradbury is a master story teller who redefined American fantasy and science fiction by injecting it with literary style and well-developed plotting. His influence can be seen in contemporary writers such as Kelly Link, Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. Each of them has followed his lead in taking genres known for identikit plots and cardboard cut-out characters and introducing a note of the sublime. In short, Bradbury taught science fiction and fantasy some self-respect.

There are six thousand New Men on Earth, ruling with the help, such as it is, from four thousand Unusuals. Ten thousand in a Civil Service hierarchy that cuts everyone else out…five billion Old Men with no way – He lapsed into silence and then he did a surprising thing: he raised his hand, and a plastic cup of water floated directly to him, depositing itself in the grip of his hand.

 

It is the 22nd century and mankind has been divided into three distinct strains. The New Men are an intellectual race of humans, capable of advanced computation and extremely arrogant towards the others. The Unusuals are gifted with psychic abilities and maintain an uneasy peace with the New Men overseeing the administration of the world. Finally, the Old Men, so named for their lack of notable advantages, trapped in dead-end jobs and prevented from entering the Civil Service, which is designed to exclude all applicants from their caste.

 

Nick Appleton is a law-abiding Old Man whose last hope is that his son Bobby passes the test and is accepted into an administrative role. When his son is rejected, Appleton finally snaps and sets out on a course of action that unwittingly leads to a revolution.

 

Our Friends from Frolix 8 reads like a mash-up of Aldous Huxley and Orson Welles, with Philip K. Dick‘s own recurring themes setting the pace of the novel. Characters pop pills in order to experience emotion, but drinking alcohol is a criminal offense. Television is strictly controlled by the New Man/Unusual government, but viewers are fooled into thinking the media is interactive as when they speak out loud the news anchor replies. There’s even a revolutionary saviour, Thors Provoni, an Old Man who fled into space to find a solution to the tyrannical oppression of his people. After Appleton’s son is rejected by the Civil Service, the long-vanished rebel leader sends a communique to the Under Men revolutionary movement from deep space. He is returning and he is bringing help.

 

Dick’s novels always manage to impress. The science fiction genre is employed as a vehicle for his own musings on religion, identity and morality. There is a poignant moment in this novel when a character states that the ‘aging disease’ was cured in 1985. Dick died in 1982, shortly before the release of Blade Runner based on his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Often when reading Dick’s novels I feel he was attempting a personal dialogue with his readers, even going so far as to insert his fictionalised self into the narrative. In engaging with his stories on such a personal level, Dick sought to export his personal problems onto the typed pages of manuscript. His own personal therapy released to the world.

 

Dick was married five times and his protagonists are often themselves unhappily married. Shortly after their story begins they encounter a younger, more attractive woman, although disenchantment soon follows the initial attraction. Our Friends from Frolix 8 is no different. Appleton meets a young seller of revolutionary pamphlets named Charlotte, then leaves his wife to live a life of adventure with her. Dick was also known to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs and it’s amusing to read his take on a society that has repealed anti-drug legislation, but has then arbitrarily ruled against alcohol.

 

 

Our Friends from Frolix 8 is a book inspired by professional and romantic frustrations. I describes a world controlled by forces that can see into people’s minds and manipulate their thoughts. The New Men/Unusuals oligarchy is callous in its treatment of the human population under its control, imprisoning and executing anyone who dares to read the contraband of Thors Provoni. Yet when the are faced with a force more powerful than they, Dick elicits a surprising degree of compassion for the bewildered one-time oppressors.

 

I would recommend this, or in fact almost any book by Dick to readers. Just get started! This is why I chose one of his novels at such an early stage of this blog. I knew that I could fly through the clipped prose and terse dialogue in a single day, then sit back and enjoy the exhilarating thoughts of his extraordinary imagination. Give him a go.

 

Join me at The Momus Report

Vote For Me!

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share