Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Ctrl + S by Andy Briggs

Orion | 2019 (28 November) | 405p | Review copy | Buy the book

CTRL+S by Andy BriggsTheo Wilson’s life is pretty rubbish – he works in a cheap burger joint, he lives with his mum in a house that is a shambles, not particularly surprising considering she’s living on the edge, taking drugs and involved with the wrong people. And now she’s disappeared completely, even leaving her rig behind. Everyone, no matter how poor, has a rig. They enable the user to hook into the alternate or enhanced version of reality that controls so much of everyday life. On her rig, Theo finds messages that don’t just threaten his mother but also him. If she doesn’t give these people what she owes then they will cut Theo into pieces. Theo knows he has to find her before they find him.

Theo discovers that the clues can be found in SPACE, a virtual universe so powerful that nobody is permitted to stay in it for longer than three hours at a time before they’re booted out. It is a universe fueled by intense emotion and sensory experience. People can do anything they like there, including playing elaborate games (in which one can die repeatedly), but Theo and his friends are about to discover that they can do much, much worse. People are being stolen, their emotions harvested and fed into the system, turning it into a playpen for the twisted. And Theo can’t trust anyone, especially the vPolice who patrol this alternate world.

Ctrl + S has a fantastic premise and is a fast and entertaining read that takes us into what seems on the surface to be a gamer’s paradise. This is a near future world in which many of the bad things, like global warming, have been fixed and people have been given a release from drudgery in the heavily controlled but irresistible SPACE. The descriptions of SPACE are the highlight of the novel. It’s all extremely visual. It feels as if we are in a game ourselves. This is the colour while the reality of Theo’s life is the grey. That real world is dark and seedy and increasingly so as we learn more about Theo’s mother.

With the four main characters aged about 20 years old, including the feisty girl that Theo can’t help falling for, and the story involving the hunt for the mother of one of the characters, Ctrl + S does have the feel of a Young Adult science fiction gaming adventure. The young people also seem to spend a fair amount of time throwing up, so there’s also an icky factor! Nevertheless, this is a book I gobbled up in a couple of sittings. There are some dark themes, and we meet evil people (there’s one moment early on that really shocked me), but this is a surprisingly light, sometimes humorous, novel with some interesting ideas about a possible direction in which the world might go, taking the idea of people not being able to cope without their phones to another level. I especially liked the idea of how emojis have developed into more than a language, almost as an emotional force. I think younger readers in particular will really enjoy this.

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

Orbit | 2019 (14 November) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire NorthIn 1884, English medical doctor William Abbey was in Natal in South Africa and stood by while a young boy was beaten and burnt to death by a mob in front of his eyes. He stood by and did nothing. His mother, who held her murdered child Langa in her arms as he died, looked into Abbey’s eyes and cursed him. Forever now, William Abbey will be pursued by the shadow of Langa. Wherever he flees, Langa will always follow him and will find him. Every time he catches Abbey, a person dearly loved by the doctor will die. The first person who dies is Abbey’s dear sister. Abbey must now frantically keep one step ahead of his relentless, terrible shadow to keep alive everyone he loves, while never daring to love again. He embarks on an endless journey that takes him across Africa and back to Europe and beyond, even to India, culminating in the trenches of France in 1917, where the novel begins. It’s as he travels that Abbey discovers another side to the curse. He can see the secrets in the heart of people around him and when Langa gets very close he is unable from shouting them out. It’s terrifying.

Claire North is one of my very favourite writers and has been ever since I read the first novel published under this name back in 2014, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, a tremendous novel. One of the top reads I’ve had in 2019 is The Gameshouse, one of the most clever books I’ve ever read, and so it was a joy to discover that we were to have another novel by Claire North this year. William Abbey, like all of these books, has the most fantastic premise, which really appealed to my love of speculative fiction. It’s a mesmerising idea. But, again as with the other books, this premise is explored to throw light on something else, something dark, something significant, and in William Abbey that something else is colonialism

What Abbey witnesses in South Africa, and also in India, is appalling and he cannot escape it because the truth is pursuing him – across oceans, mountains and deserts. We witness cruelty and prejudice, great injustice and terrible anger and sadness. Abbey comes to the attention of the Nineteen, a government agency working across the British Empire who need men such as Abbey to discover the truth about what their targets are thinking. This is dangerous as it means he has to allow Langa to get very close indeed. It’s no way to live if Abbey can be said to be living any kind of life at all.

Abbey himself is an intriguing character. He’s a man caught in his time who sees it at its worst which means he’s hard to warm to, or like, even while we try to understand him. He narrates the novel, we experience his world through his eyes, we feel the terror and the fear, as well as the guilt. One of the most fascinating elements of the book is when Abbey meets other men and women like him and learns some of the reasons behind their curses. This can be troubling but also heartbreaking as Abbey learns why people cannot forget the past, why it must continue to live through them, through their curse. So many lessons to learn, so much to atone for.

This is a disturbing tale and there is a lot of empire to cover. One drawback of this for me is that I found there was an element of repetition, perhaps inevitably due to the structure and endless chase of the novel. This also led to a bit of a lag in the middle. Nevertheless, while William Abbey isn’t my favourite Claire North book, it is still an excellent and significant novel with some extremely powerful sections of prose. Claire North is a fine writer who impresses time after time. What an extraordinary imagination she has and how gifted she is at telling us her stories. I look forward to reading every single one of them.

For another review of William Abbey, please do take a look at David’s excellent review at Blue Book Balloon.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day
The Gameshouse

Body Tourists by Jane Rogers

Sceptre | 2019 (14 November) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Body Tourists by Jane RogersIn the near future, England is divided. The rich live well, as they’ve always done, in the south while the poor are ghettoed in the northern Estates. There is no shortage of poor people. Many if not most jobs have now been replaced by robots. Making a living is nigh on impossible. The only way to live well is to inherit money. But the poor have one thing that the wealthy want more of – time. When the wealthy die they are ‘backed up’, their consciousness digitally stored waiting for a host body in which it can be implanted. And that’s where scientist Luke Butler comes in. He has used his aunt’s wealth to develop technology that will transfer the consciousness of the dead into the healthy young bodies of especially selected poor people. In return for losing two weeks of their lives, the poor are rewarded with £10,000, a mighty sum in these dystopian days. And so now the rich can be resurrected for two glorious weeks which means an opportunity to say a final goodbye, to right a wrong, or to make the same mistakes all over again. What could possibly go wrong?

Body Tourists has an irresistible premise and I couldn’t wait to read it. The structure works well. We follow the stories of Luke and his rich aunt, but we also spend time with a series of people, one at a time, who either make the step of bringing a loved one back to life for two weeks, or who decide to become hosts themselves. And then there are the others, the families and friends of those who become hosts, and have to deal with a kind of loss of their own. This is a fascinating and horrible society. Money is so precious and so scarce. People have to make decisions they shouldn’t and the consequences can be awful for them.

There is some great worldbuilding here. The descriptions of the northern estates are especially compelling. People are effectively sedated by their virtual reality games, turning themselves into zombies, while a few fight back setting up gyms and dance studios, anything to get people to engage with a real world that cares nothing for them. I really enjoyed the chapters that we spend here, especially with Paula whose life is transformed by her experiences as a host. There are other stories that are really moving, that of the teacher accused of a terrible crime whose lover never got the chance to say she was sorry for disbelieving her, or disturbing, such as the man who brings his father back to life so that they can try and reboot their relationship. These are the very real strengths of Blood Tourists.

I did have issues with the novel, mostly involving the character of Luke Butler, who is just too unpleasant. He and other characters are too light, mostly those involved in running the clinic, and the whole idea of bringing people back to life for only two weeks seems flawed. How would they ever be expected to give up life again? How could you get anything from two weeks when there’s a death sentence at the end of it? And then there’s the unsatisfactory idea of the paradise island where they’re all sent. Well, not all, and that raises another issue about why some body tourists are allowed to have contact with loved ones and others aren’t. In other words I loved a lot about the ideas behind this novel but I would have liked them explored with more depth and consistency. This is a short novel, a longish novella really, so perhaps it could have been longer. I would certainly have liked to have read more. There is so much going for Body Tourists and, above all else, it’s a fun read and a fascinating portrayal of a near future dystopian England.

Other review
The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The Grid by Nick Cook

Bantam Press | 2019 (14 November) | 407p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Grid by Nick CookJosh Cain, ex-military and doctor to Robert Thomsen, President of the United States of America, is summoned to a church tower close to the White House. An ex-Marine stands ready to leap to his death. He seems to know who Cain is and he has something important to tell him. There is a plot against the President’s life and Cain must leave no stone unturned to protect him. Seconds later a sniper’s bullet to the head kills the unknown man instantly. The President receives death threats every day but there is something chilling about this warning and it speaks to Cain personally, reminding him of his own loss, that of his beloved wife. The dead man had asked if Cain believes in God. Cain’s mind is filled with questions about the gap, so small, just an instant away, between death and life. The President has his own death on his mind. He dreams about his own death time after time. It always happens the same way. It feels completely real. Cain must wonder if the President’s dreams and the plot are connected, that they are linked by a new threat, one that can manipulate the human mind.

I love political thrillers and I also can’t get enough of speculative or techno thrillers and when the two combine, as with Nick Cook’s The Grid, I cannot resist. The opening chapter has quite a hook to it as Cain tries to save the life of someone he cannot understand but desperately wants to. We’re immediately plunged into a mystery that’s both intriguing and sinister. At the heart of it is Cain and the novel is told in his words as he endeavours to unravel a complicated plot against the President. As it becomes ever more apparent that the plot might be closer to the President that he might like, Cain also has to navigate the complex structure of security agencies that work in secret to keep the President and the country safe. It is a minefield. And the more he digs the more the personal danger for Cain, and his helper Special Agent Hetta Hart, culminating in one absolutely terrifying moment.

The thriller doesn’t just stick to Washington DC and Camp David, it also takes us to Jerusalem and Moscow. The Moscow chapters are among the most fascinating of the book as the leaders of America and Russia try to develop a relationship that might just save the world, or not. I loved the mood of this, the move between offices (including the Oval Office), cars and planes. It’s all so official and yet it’s absolutely deadly.

I did have some issues with the novel, mostly to do with its huge number of characters, each working for different agencies, in America and elsewhere, meaning there is also an awful lot of acronyms. If it weren’t for the dramatis personae at the end of the novel, I would have really struggled, not least because sometimes characters are called by their first name and then later by their surname and it isn’t easy at all to tie the two together. I did find the nature of The Grid itself a little baffling but I don’t mind that in a techno thriller, I find keeping track of a multitude of characters much harder. And there are so many agencies! Fortunately, though, the second half of the book was much clearer and so I’m glad that I decided to stick with it. Because the latter stages are utterly compelling and gripping. They’re also quite haunting and emotional as Cain faces his own past, just as the President must face his.

There are some messages here that I like, especially the importance of being kind. You never know when life will end and perhaps the final judgement will come not from God but from yourself. How would you wish to be judged? The most important thing is love. It might be a complicated thriller but its prime message is a simple one and it’s very effective.

Interference by Sue Burke

Tor | 2019 (22 October) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Interference by Sue BurkeInterference is the second novel in Sue Burke’s Semiosis Duology. Both novels stand well on their own – they’re set a considerable time apart – but I think you do need to read Semiosis first. This review assumes that you’ve had the pleasure.

Two centuries have passed since human colonists landed on the planet Pax, a world that humans had to share with sentient, intelligent animal life and plant life. A kind of utopia was established in which everyone and everything had to work together for the good of one and for the good of all. An animated world, filled with beauty and danger, watched over by Stevland, a bamboo plant who uses humans and indigenous animals as tools for the good of society. Earth seems a long way away and it is soon almost forgotten. Contact with the home world ceases. And that brings new humans to Pax, scientists who want to know why Pax went silent. Harmony is disrupted as the new humans introduce technology that the human colonists have lost. But perhaps more disturbing that that is the knowledge of Earth that these men and women have carried with them. Both Earth and Pax have shown themselves to be vulnerable.

I absolutely loved Semiosis and it’s a joy to return to the wonderful world of Pax. Life is lived in a small settlement. It’s a rural life, with humans working alongside the local population of Glassmakers (which look a little like praying mantises). There is a real sense of wonder about some of the animals and plant life of Pax. Communication, understanding and cooperation are such important themes. It’s all beautifully and lovingly described, although at times there is violence and sadness. The Glassmakers have customs which are hard for humans to accept. But they must do so. Humans and Glassmakers get along, despite the history of mistrust between them, something that is awoken when the new humans arrive with their racist descriptions of the Glassmakers as insects.

Each of the long chapters is told from the perspective of a different individual, whether an Earth human, a Pax human, a Glassmaker or the extraordinary plant, Stevland. Stevland is such a fascinating concept. My favourite characters, though, are the Glassmakers, who reveal their feelings through smell and are incredibly loyal.

The new humans are less appealing and I must admit that I enjoyed far less the sections spent in their company. Some of them are narrow-minded, ignorant (perhaps even stereotypically so) and embarrassing. They also reveal something about the apocalypse that has robbed Earth of almost all human life.

Interference didn’t grip me as much as Semiosis, possibly I think because of the introduction of these new, flawed humans. This all distracted from the wonder of Pax and the incredible way in which the human colonists have changed in two centuries, with the way, for example, that each generation of colonist distinguishes itself from the others. It was all so new and fascinating in Semiosis, all so positive. Interference is darker. It’s also slow in places – I don’t think that the structure helps. Nevertheless, this is beautiful writing and, with no doubt at all, this duology is extremely intelligent science fiction and Pax, gorgeous Pax, is an absolute joy to explore.

Other review

Salvation Lost by Peter F Hamilton

Macmillan | 2019 (31 October) | 468p | Review copy | Buy the books

Salvation Lost by Peter F HamiltonSalvation Lost is the middle novel of a trilogy that began last year with Salvation. I’d strongly urge you to read the earlier novel first because Salvation Lost follows on directly from its great reveal. You don’t want to lose that impact. The first novel also introduced us to the Olyix – that will make what happens here all the more shocking. This review assumes that you’re ready to learn what happens next.

In the early years of the 23rd century, mankind has had a great shock. The Olyix, the friendly aliens who have been generously sharing their technology, are intent on harvesting all human life, to serve everyone up to their god when they finally reach their destination countless thousands of years in the future. Nobody can believe it, until the wormhole opens and through it comes the apocalypse. But humanity is going to put up a fight. Forces from across the globe join together to come up with a plan to defeat the beast. It’s the beginning of a grand plan that will take generations to complete, if it’s successful, and the vision of its creators is vast. As chaos descends on the Earth, with cities fighting for their lives and alien saboteurs doing their worst, others use whatever help they can to work for a distant future in which a number of humans will be able to surve.

Ever since I finish Salvation I have been longing to read Salvation Lost. Peter F Hamilton is one of my very favourite authors – Pandora’s Star is my favourite science fiction novel while the Night’s Dawn is my favourite trilogy. So there’s a lot to live up to but I am really enjoying the way in which this new trilogy is coming together. It’s mostly centred on Earth a couple of centuries from now, but there is also a parallel story which is set millennia into the future on a distant world. But, in the near future, humans have travelled to the stars and have portal technology and this has led to one of the most wonderful ideas of these books – that you can fill one house with rooms that are actually located somewhere else on Earth or even on other planets. Portals play such an important role in the books and they’re treated in a novel and fascinating way. Nobody travels in a traditional manner and so now, with Earth under attack, the city defence shields are down and portals are shut, people have to deal with an isolation and confinement they aren’t used to. I loved all this.

And then there are the aliens. The aliens are intriguing. Some of them might not even be real. One species might have been created as a lure to the Olyix. But the Olyix overshadow the novel and fill it with foreboding. We spent time with them in Salvation. Now humans must face the consequences. Peter F Hamilton has the most vivid, glorious imagination and he comes up with a truly horrible fate for mankind here. It really did give me the shivers.

The novel moves between different characters, most of whom are involved in either trying to stay alive or in the fight to save mankind. Sometimes the two come together. We see some characters at their worst but others find an inner strength that surprises even themeld – I particularly enjoyed the time spent with Gwendoline, a powerful corporate financier who learns what really matters. Contrasting with that is a gang of drug addicts, who seem to view themselves as glamorous hustlers, which they’re not. Time spent with this bunch was less pleasing… This brings me on to the one element of this book that I really didn’t care for – the sordid and really unappealing sex scenes, which I found just revolting and gratuitous. These are a regular feature of Peter F Hamilton’s books, unfortunately, but they’re at their worst here. But, if you can skip them, as I do, then they don’t spoil the book.

Otherwise, I think that Salvation Lost is a fine novel. It can be quite difficult remembering what happened in a lengthy book you read over a year ago (I’d love it if these books had a synopsis at the back) but it soon came back to me and, actually, Salvation Lost is actually in several ways a fresh start, albeit with some characters back for more. Peter F Hamilton is a great storyteller. This is a very exciting and pacey adventure which also contains enough hard science fiction to keep me happy as well as some huge ideas. Moving between the near future and the distant future works well. There are also some questions that remain to be answered, paving the way for the final novel in the trilogy, The Saints of Salvation. I can’t wait to see how the two storylines come together and whether the great plan works. The first novel ends on a cliffhanger, Salvation Lost doesn’t really, I’m pleased to say. But it does set the stage very well indeed. Once again, I can’t wait!

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)
Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers 2)

The Institute by Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (10 September) | 496p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Institute by Stephen KingLuke Ellis is a remarkable child. Not only is he a genius to an extraordinary degree, he is also psychic. This ability has yet to emerge fully but it’s there, revealing itself in the occasional item that can move all by itself, and it’s waiting. Just at the moment when Luke and his family are making exciting plans for his next steps in a life that promises so much it is all snatched away. Luke is stolen in the night, his parents slain, and he wakes up hundreds of miles away in Maine in the Institute. There Luke discovers himself amongst other children with psychic abilities, some more advanced than Luke’s. They live under the control of Mrs Sigsby and her ruthless henchmen, whose mission it is to bring out the psychic powers of these children. The regime is brutal and the children are so in need of tender care and love. They receive the opposite. They are lab rats and their future is ended.

A new novel by Stephen King is always such an occasion. I always buy them and read them as soon as I can. I don’t get along with all of them, this is true, but there are a few that really stand out and The Institute is one of these. It isn’t really horror – although some of the things that happen in it are horrible – but a little bit more like science fiction, with a secret lab hidden away in Maine (how could it be anywhere else in King World?) full of abducted psychic children. For me, it had a similar feel to the time travelling 11.22.63. As that’s my favourite King novel this is a very good thing indeed. It did remind me a little of the X-Men stories but not enough to spoil its fantastic premise.

King is a master of creating characters, especially children, who are so easy for us to empathise with. They feel so real and natural, even though they exist in the strangest of places. Luke is a marvellous creation. He’s only twelve-years old, although mature for his age. He’s far too young to be dealing with all of this – the grief of losing his parents so horribly, his captivity, the torture, the loss of friends – but he still can act like a child. It’s hard for him not to behave among adults, even when they want to torture him. Watching Luke grow up before his time is truly disturbing and it’s very upsetting to read about what these children go through, especially 10-year-old Avery, who is so much younger than his years suggest. Avery broke my heart more than once.

The Institute, like so many Stephen King novels, starts brilliantly, and at a bit of a tangent. Before we meet Luke, we meet Tim, an ex-police officer, who appears to be wandering aimlessly until he takes on the job of ‘Door Knocker’ in a small railway town in South Carolina. This small community is superbly evoked by King. And then we leave it for Luke’s story and don’t return for a few hundred pages! Against all the odds, this really works.

The Institute itself is a place where terrible things happen and King goes to town describing the place, its rules, the people who work there, and the children who are confined there. The children are terrified, each dealing with it in their own way, but they’re also still children. They play and make friends, they care for each other and for the younger kids.

I did have a couple of issues with the book but they’re minor. I am really tired of King describing the size of the breasts of every female he creates (it’s totally unnecessary and gratuitous and once you’ve noticed it, it’s hugely irritating!). This annoyed me in The Outsider and it’s much more noticeable and irritating in The Institute. I also didn’t care for the mockery of someone with a speech impediment. It doesn’t matter that he’s a baddie, it just doesn’t feel right. Otherwise The Institute is nigh on perfect and classic King, with fantastic characters, a great story and some wonderful locations, in and out of the Institution. I adored the opening section and the novel builds and builds on it.

Other reviews
With Owen King – Sleeping Beauties