Category Archives: Sci Fi

A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon

Angry Robot | 2017 (3 August) | 384p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

A Man of Shadows by Jeff NoonWithin the world lies a very strange city indeed, concealed by a dome. Almost half of it is called Dayzone, where endless bright lamps reproduce hot sunlight for every hour of the day. Connected to it by train is its opposite – the endless night of Nocturna. But, to travel between the two, the train must pass through an area of fog and permanent gloom called Dusk and therein lives the unexplained and the terrifying. As if all of this weren’t strange enough, the whole city has turned its back on the linear time of the outside world. Hundreds, if not thousands, of timelines co-exist, many available to be bought, and they mean that the inhabitants of Dayzone and Nocturna move from timeline to timeline, often obsessed with their watches and clocks. Never has the question ‘what’s the time?’ seemed so vital and yet also such a waste of time.

Moving between the timelines is a feared killer called Quicksilver, managing to commit murder in broad faked daylight, sometimes in front of an unsuspecting audience. Private detective John Nyquist has taken on the case of a runaway wealthy young woman Eleanor but he’s soon sure that there are links with Quicksilver. His pursuit of Eleanor takes him not only across Dayzone and Nocturna but also into the place he dreads the most, Dusk, and even to the very edges of his sanity. And all the time, all of the times, he has that feeling that he’s being watched and judged.

A Man of Shadows is a quite extraordinary novel. Its world building is absolutely fantastic – intricate, complex, moody and disturbingly real. The movement between timelines means that John Nyquist rarely sleeps and you can strongly sense his extreme fatigue as the hours pass. People who become too time-obsessed almost literally lose their minds and you know that Nyquist is well on the way to this state. It gives his task an extra urgency and desperation.

Dayzone and Nocturna are brilliantly visualised and would have been sufficiently impressive on their own but the skill of Jeff Noon astounds even further with his treatment of time. I found myself wondering why anybody would chose to live such an existence, what its appeal might be. Many of the inhabitants of this city have almost a euphoria about them as they defy the restrictions of a conventional life but others are clearly damaged by it. This is a book that makes you think as you read it. It is extremely clever.

We never see the world beyond the city, although occasionally characters are nostalgic for a sight of the real sun or the real stars. The city itself has a 1950s’ feel to it, just as the mystery element of the novel is detective noir. Now and again we’re given extracts from guidebooks which tell us a little of the background to Dayzone, Nocturna and Dusk, but generally we experience it all through the increasingly fraught mind of John Nyquist. This can be claustrophobic at times and there is also chaos and confusion. It is certainly atmospheric.

In the final third of the novel, the mystery inevitably takes us into Dusk, and what a frightening place this is. I must admit that I did become a little lost during this section as it becomes increasingly surreal and fantastical. Throw in some mind bending drugs and you get an idea of the state of Nyquist’s mind during this phase of his hunt. It’s hugely disturbing. Personally, and this is probably because I’m more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, I enjoyed more the majority of the novel which portrays so brilliantly life in a world of endless day or endless night, in which time is a force to be controlled, manipulated and even sold. And all the time, outside the city lies the ‘real’ world, out of reach in so many ways to a man such as John Nyquist.

I was completely absorbed by A Man of Shadows and deeply impressed by the skill and imagination of this author. This is the first novel I’ve read by Jeff Noon and I’m not sure why that is – there are such big ideas here that provide an unusual and quirky perspective on our own lives. I love a book that makes me think while also entertaining me and A Man of Shadows does just that.

I love the cover – it really contributes to the mood of 1940s’ and 1950s’ detective noir in an extraordinary environment.

The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison

Tor | 2017 (11 July) | c.100p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and JS HerbisonSaga is an explorer of abandoned starships and asteroids, regaling her fans with video of her discoveries. Conveniently, Saga is marriage to Michel, a renowned hacker, just the sort of person who can get Saga inside these ships. But the couple are finally ready to take a break and at last have the children that they long for. And then Wei shows up. Wei offers Saga and Michel (and their pilot, Gregor) a huge amount of money to do one last job. The Martian Queen is a luxurious spacefairing cruise liner that used to carry tourists between Mars and Earth. Twenty years ago she was mothballed but she continues to cruise between the two planets, bookmarking a lucrative tourist route and so, according to the law of space, preventing anyone else from taking it over.

It isn’t clear exactly what Wei wants with the ship but she has some strict rules for her team and the chief one is never, ever to remove their protective suits while on board The Martian Queen. But when Saga, Michel and Gregor roam the beautiful corridors and cabins of this enormous and eerily empty ship, it all feels completely harmless and the air is breathable. What harm can it do to take their helmets off? And yet there are moments when Saga could swear that somebody or something is watching her…

I love spooky tales of ghost ships, whether they’re floating on the seas or soaring through space, and so I was instantly drawn to The Ghost Line. It’s a novella, of about 100 pages, and so it’s a quick read but I soon found it to be immersive and pleasingly creepy. Links are made to the Titanic and in fact The Martian Queen seems modelled on that doomed vessel – only missing the funnels and an anchor. The ship has an elegance to it and an evocative nostalgia. It reminds me just as much of the empty grand hotel in The Shining. You just know that somewhere horror is waiting.

Saga and Michel are great characters, particularly Saga from whose perspective we see much of what happens. The short length of the story did leave me wanting. I would have liked many more pages filling out the characters of Saga, Michel and Wei. They’re such interesting and intriguing people – they deserve a full length novel. That way I might have understood a little more the reasons for the ways in which Saga acts. On one level, I can see why she acts as she does but I’d have liked more about what it meant to her and to her relationship with Michel. I definitely wanted to know more about Wei – there’s a story there very ready for telling.

The mood and the atmosphere is excellent and the setting of The Martian Queen is wonderful. For a short novel, the authors do a fine job of evoking its bygone splendour as well as the chilling isolation and loneliness of space. It’s not a bad thing to be left wanting more and The Ghost Line certainly achieved that. I read it as a late night read – the best time for spooky tales – and it was perfect for that.

The Rift by Nina Allan

Titan Books | 2017 (11 July) | 423p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rift by Nina AllanOn 16 July 1996, 17-year-old Julie Rouane left her home in Cheshire telling her mum and younger sister Selena that she was off out to see a friend. Julie didn’t come home. Twenty years later, Selena picks up the phone to hear Julie’s voice on the other end. Julie’s back. And what a story she has to tell. Julie tells Selena that she has spent the years away on Tristane, a distant planet, and there she lived another life, with another set of friends who insisted that she had been born on Tristane and not on this strange planet Earth that preoccupies Julie’s mind.

But Julie’s absence deeply affected the lives of those left behind, including those who were suspected by the police or media of having been involved in her disappearance and likely murder. None were hurt more than Julie’s family, particularly her father.

The Rift fills in those missing years by moving between the perspectives of both sisters, focusing in particular on Selena who now has to pick up the pieces once more. But their narratives are complemented by other bits and pieces – newspaper articles, letters, extracts from fiction and non-fiction, diary entries – which aim to throw light on the devastating impact of Julie’s disappearance while also recreating before us the planet of Tristane. It’s a powerful tale. We’re removed from the reality of what happened by the unreliability of our narrators. The evidence is before us and it’s up to us to rearrange it into order. There are a multitude of possibilities and each at some point pulls us towards it.

This is one of those novels that crosses genres. If I had to categorise it, then I’d probably say that it’s a clever and rewarding psychological thriller but there is a science fiction element to it that I found very appealing. Tristane is presented to us in an unassuming and non-sensational manner and there is a real melancholy to it, a touch of the tragic and a sense of loss. I would have liked more of this but what there was I really enjoyed.

The Rift is a beautifully written novel about dealing with loss and coping with trauma – I found the story of the sisters’ father especially moving. Both Selena and Julie have fascinating stories to tell and, when they come together to try and come to terms with their renewed relationship, I was gripped. This is powerful stuff mixed with the exotic of Tristane, the allure of love and the sinister beauty of some of the novel’s settings on Earth. It’s a haunting read and one that rewards our questions.

Night Without Stars by Peter F. Hamilton – Signed paperback giveaway!

Today sees the publication of the paperback of a new Peter F. Hamilton paperback – always a cause for celebration. Night Without Stars, which concludes the two-part Commonwealth series Chronicle of the Fallers, is out in paperback today and the publisher has kindly given me a signed copy of the book to give away.

If you’d like to enter, please either email me (forwinternights@gmail.com) or give me a tweet. This is open to anyone in the UK and the deadline is Monday 31 July.

To get you in the mood, here’s my review of this corking novel by an author whose books, with no doubt at all, would be my desert island picks.

Review

Pan | 2016, Pb 2017 (27 July) | 784p | Review copy | Buy the book

Night Without Stars by Peter F HamiltonNight Without Stars concludes the two-part Commonwealth series Chronicle of the Fallers begun with The Abyss Beyond Dreams. Under no circumstances whatsoever would I recommend that you read one without the other. This review assumes that you’ve read – and most probably adored – The Abyss Beyond Dreams.

Thanks to Nigel Sheldon, the Commonwealth’s first great explorer (along with Ozzie) and a legend in his own interminable lifetime, Bienvenido has been expelled from the Void. But this was no peaceful event, the cost was great, and now the planet exists in a starless night, one of several planets in an isolated solar system. Each of these planets was expelled from the Void, each containing mysteries, secrets and outright horror, as one might expect from planets judged so troublesome that the Void could no longer tolerate their existence. Mother Laura Brandt had used Commonwealth technology to open up wormholes to these other planets, searching for possibilities of escape from this blackest night, but the failure was outstanding. And release from the Void had not meant an end to the Fallers – the Trees continue to orbit Bienvenido, releasing their parasitic eggs to the surface of the planet where they exist to replicate and consume their victims.

Bienvenido is not the planet it once was. It has become a police state, controlled by the PSR which despises the Commonwealth just as much as it hates the Fallers. The Elites, those who are born with the genetically modified improvements of the Commonwealth, are ostracised, treated as second-class citizens. But the PSR are in for a shock. The Elite have managed to infiltrate all levels of society but so too have the Fallers and now it is time for the greatest showdown of them all – the Faller Apocalypse will happen and mankind must unite if it is to have any chance to succeed. The stakes have never been so high. And when a small Commonwealth starship lands on the planet containing a tiny baby, its message of hope is undeniable – for some, that is, not for all.

My adoration of Peter F Hamilton’s novels has been well-recorded on this blog over the years and the original Commonwealth duology (not a fan of that word), Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, hold a very special place in my heart, Pandora’s Star being my most favourite novel. You don’t need to have read these first, although if you do you’ll have the pleasure of meeting old friends (and beasts) once again, and you certainly don’t need to have read the Void trilogy either. These novels sort of independently co-exist in the same time frame as The Abyss Beyond Dreams and Night without Stars and don’t have a direct impact on their events. But these two novels together form a perfect addition to this most rich and generous of space opera universes, the Commonwealth. There are even shadows of the Night’s Dawn trilogy, which are so fantastic to spot.

Night Without Stars is a good length – about 800 pages (I read an ebook proof so length was hard to measure) – and it is so full of life that when I reached the end and thought back I could hardly believe how far this wonderful novel had carried me. There are such memorable characters, all trying to deal with the planet’s forced expulsion from the Void. When the novel begins, arguments and beliefs seem almost petty. When we reach the second half of the novel, nothing less than the survival of humanity on the planet is at stake. Laws and prejudices are far less relevant. But this is not an easy thing for some characters to accept.

This is a planet undergoing a most critical transformation. It desperately hurts. And when enemies have to work together it’s never going to be easy. But the darkness of this world and its brutal politics is offset by the charm of the scenes in which this baby is cared for. There is great humour and enormous empathy for the efforts of the surrogate father who had little choice about raising this infant but in doing so has found his destiny.

It is a joy to travel around Bienvenido, encountering its different communities, even its alien species. Although this is science fiction mostly (although not entirely) contained within one planet we’re not allowed to forget the strange universe in which Bienvenido now finds itself. Humans are not alone. And then there’s the Fallers of course – we see a little bit more of them in this novel, reminding me of the Night’s Dawn possessed.

Night without Stars is a tremendous novel. It is vast, ambitious and wondrous. Its main characters, male and female, are intriguing and constantly evolving. It has a complicated plot but the novel is so well-structured and it takes us in all sorts of fabulous directions. It completes and complements The Abyss Beyond Dreams perfectly. The Abyss took place within the Void and now we see life outside out it. Both are captivating and as a pair it is unmissable. I can only hope and hope that this is not the last time Peter F. Hamilton returns us to the Commonwealth. But, if it is, what a gift we have been given.

Other reviews
Pandora’s Star
Judas Unchained
Great North Road
The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn 1)
The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn 2)
The Naked God (Night’s Dawn 3)
The Dreaming Void (Void Trilogy 1)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers 1)

The New World by Scott K. Andrews

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (27 July) | 342p | Review copy | Buy the book

The New World by Scott K AndrewsThe New World completes the TimeBomb trilogy, Scott K. Andrews’ thoroughly entertaining young adult science fiction time travelling adventure series that began with TimeBomb and continued with Second Lives. This is a deliciously convoluted and complex trilogy, with more time travelling paradoxes than you can shake a cat at, so you’d have to be barking to read The New World without having read the other two books first. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

Having said all that, I don’t want to give much away here about the contents of this book or the two that went before because there’s pleasure to be had in trying to unknit the knots that Scott K. Andrews tangles before us. But over the course of the novels we have grown very attached to our gang of three: Dora (the 17th-century maidservant), Kaz (from our present) and Jana (from the 22nd century). All three have changed enormously since we first met them in extraordinary circumstances. Approximately five years have passed, I think, since the beginning, but there is nothing linear about time in these novels. We have leapt around, backwards and forwards through the years and centuries, as our three attempt to put right the crimes against time that are being committed by Quil and the President of the US (or World, as she likes to describe herself).

If you can’t remember too clearly the events of the earlier novels, which would not be surprising, there’s a handy synopsis of past events at the beginning of The New World and this really helps to immerse the reader in this complicated yet thrilling world once more. There’s a lot of going back over past events in this third novel as the narrative attempts to tie up loose ends and unravel knots before its conclusion. This does mean that, mainly for the first half of the novel, there’s a lot of talk about memories. But this is done rather well, particularly for making us understand the torturous relationship between Quil and Jana. It’s moving, it really is. Added to that is the growing emotional bond between Jana and Dora, which is such a wonderful part of the book. A side effect is that poor Kaz plays a much smaller role in this third novel. But we need to spend the time with Quil, Jana and Dora. This is where the heart of the story lies and it is a thoroughly satisfying place to be.

In the second half of The New World, the action really kicks off as events build up to the glorious denouement of the trilogy. You’ve got to keep your wits about you to keep up – how many earlier versions of one character can there be? – but the effort is well worth it. I loved the end and thought it did a fine job of completing the circle. It’s satisfying as a fun thrillfest but also as an emotional journey.

The plot is undoubtedly complicated and, at times, exceedingly confusing. As one character muses: he could really have done with a flow chart to keep track of all of the timelines that have been contaminated and altered. At the times when the story is at its most confusing, then it’s best simply to enjoy the ride and let the paradoxes sort themselves out – or not. These are wonderful characters and the story is a lot of fun, backed up by some emotionally powerful threads about love, loss and betrayal. I really enjoyed myself reading this trilogy and I’m very sorry to say goodbye to Dora, Jana and Kaz.

Other reviews
TimeBomb
Second Lives

Tomorrow’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Tor Books | 2017 (11 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Tomorrow's Kin by Nancy KressAliens have arrived in New York. Their spaceship, known as the Embassy, floats on a platform in the city’s harbour but nothing has been seen yet of its inhabitants, although communication has been made. The aliens, dubbed the ‘Debnebs’ out of a mistaken belief that they had arrived from the Debneb star, are, thankfully, friendly but are unable to show themselves due to the danger physical contact could bring to themselves and to humanity. But after two months, the Debnebs reveal that they are ready to meet their human hosts. Dr Marianne Jenner, an unremarkable scientist working on the human genome, is picked as someone they particularly wish to make contact with. And so Marilyn and a few other scientists are brought to the Embassy and taken inside its strange walls.

The Debnebs warn of a threat that is travelling to Earth, due to arrive in only ten months. All life could be extinguished. The only chance is for human scientists to work with the Debnebs to come up with a solution. Time is short, the outcome unlikely, but there is little choice for Marianne and the others. But as the doors seal behind them and work commences, the rest of humanity is affected by the knowledge of both the aliens in New York and the threat that they warn against. People are affected in different ways but nobody is immune, including Marianne’s three grown children who each react to the challenges facing mankind in their own way.

Tomorrow’s Kin has a deceptively calm beginning. All seems normal. Marianne is receiving acclaim for some of her breakthroughs in tracing the human genome into its distant past while her two sons and daughter are each living their own separate lives. But everything is thrown into uncertainty by the revelations that follow thick and fast throughout this thoroughly absorbing and captivating novel. First contact stories are a favourite of mine and almost without fail they suck me in and Tomorrow’s Kin did this very quickly indeed, largely, I think, because of the sophisticated and seemingly simple way in which we’re guided into the Embassy and into knowledge.

There are plenty of big themes here, notably the shaping of the family. Several years are covered and more than one generation plays a role. Despite all that is going on, we’re still given time to immerse ourselves in Marianne’s family life with all of its complications, both for better and worse. When the grandchildren play their role later on, I was particularly hooked. I love what these children bring to this novel. But apart from family, the novel is equally concerned with our relationship to our own planet, to Earth. This is a novel with environmental warnings but they are made very well indeed. This isn’t a book that bludgeons the reader with message and policy. It achieves its aim with wit and a gentle touch. We are shown the effects that an alien species can have on another, or on a world, in so many ways. There is a sensitivity in the way that some people react to their world that strongly affected me.

Tomorrow’s Kin is the first in a trilogy and this is such good news. The novel ends at a good point – there is some conclusion but it also opens another door to any number of possible futures. Nancy Kress’s writing is wonderful – this is the first novel by her that I’ve read – and I loved its style, pace and humour. Tomorrow’s Kin tells a great story very well indeed and I can’t wait to see where we’re taken next.

Xeelee: Vengeance by Stephen Baxter

Gollancz | 2017 (15 June) | 346p | Review copy | Buy the book

Xeelee: Vengeance by Stephen BaxterIt is AD 3646 and mankind, and with it peace, has settled across the solar system. Earth has recovered from some of the environmental disasters of the past while the occupation of Mars, Mercury and other planets and moons has allowed humanity to harvest resources for a prosperous distant future. The Poole family has engineered some of Earth’s greatest technological achievements for centuries and Michael, its latest heir, is about to display arguably their greatest achievement yet – wormhole technology. But as the wormhole opens for the first time an object emerges from it – an immense alien vessel, the exact size and shape of the wormhole, and it brings with it a message. It tells of a future in which Michael Poole will be regarded as a prophet and, at the centre of the Galaxy, there will be an immense statue raised to Poole by a species that waged war against humans for thousands of years.

The Xeelee have arrived in the solar system using the wormholes created by Michael Poole. Their progress is slow and their intentions unknown but, when they arrive at Mercury and incredibly, amazingly extract from the planet a ‘cache’ or body that crashed onto the planet billions of years ago, it becomes clear that their intentions are not kind. It’s up to Michael Poole and his colleagues to try and understand their fixation on him as a person while offering resistance to an onslaught that has the potential to devastate the solar system once and for all.

In Vengeance, Stephen Baxter returns to his Xeelee universe and in it he gives the Xeelee the chance to wipe out the human that has caused their species so much harm over the millennia. I should say at this point that I’ve yet to read the Xeelee novels and I did wonder, heading into Vengeance, if I would be able to follow its story without having knowledge of what has come before and after. But Stephen Baxter is such a great writer, who always makes me step back and gasp in amazement at the universes that he creates, that I thought I’d give Vengeance a go. I’m so glad I did. And I’m equally pleased that I have the Xeelee novels ready to go on my reading pile. After this, I don’t want to miss them.

It’s true, not having read the other novels, that I have no background context for the characters (human or alien) that fill this novel. Nevertheless, I felt immediately invested in them, particularly Michael and his colleague in danger, Nicola. With Michael’s parents (and Nicola’s mother) playing a significant part in the events of Vengeance, it was very easy for me to become caught up in the family tensions that have such repercussions for the whole of mankind. Michael and his powerful father Harry are regarded as both saviours and devils. Michael has the weight of the world on his shoulders while expecting constantly to disappoint the world he wants to save.

This is a future world in which people have been genetically enhanced and artificial intelligences have equality and status. People can move around ‘virtually’ and some, such as Michael’s mother, have no choice but to do so. I really enjoyed the relationship between Michael and his mother, Muriel, but it’s easy to see why Michael should be drawn to his co-pilot Nicola, another of the novel’s exceptionally strong characters.

Although I have yet to discover the wider picture of the Xeelee universe, there is so much to enjoy here. Fundamentally, Vengeance is a first contact novel, describing the story of an alien attack on the solar system. It is both ingenious and utterly horrifying as well as being completely irresistible. I loved the premise and it delivered perfectly. The drama is intense, the science is fascinating and the wonder is awe-inspiring. The Xeelee species is enigmatic entirely. And its depiction here made me desperate to read the original novels to discover more of the truth.

The focus here is very much on a small group of people. The annihilation of so much life in the solar system is observed in horror rather than experienced ‘on the streets’. It is so well done. Stephen Baxter is such a brilliant writer of hard science fiction. He also captures ideas and makes them feel real and dazzling. There is plenty to enjoy in Vengeance and its forthcoming sequel if you haven’t read the Xeelee novels but I think after reading it you’ll not want to resist the pull of those earlier novels. For that, I’m so grateful to Vengeance which is, from start to finish, a wonderful and always thrilling novel about humanity’s ability to face the unknown and the harmful while still wishing to explore his or her potential and the reaches of space.

Other reviews
Proxima
Ultima
With Terry Pratchett
The Long Earth
The Long War
The Long Mars
The Long Utopia
The Long Cosmos
With Alastair Reynolds
The Medusa Chronicles