Space Opera by Ian J Simpson

Derek the Despot roared with laughter in brutal triumph.

I’d always wanted to fall in love with someone in a bookshop.

The strings bled pain in sympathetic appreciation.

I figured the odds were good, as I hung around them whenever I could.

Derek now had everything he ever wanted. The universe was his.

So it comes to this moment, this perfect moment.

He sat back on his command chair and surveyed the scene around him.

Cos I always figured that she’d been hanging around the science fiction section, looking too.

The planet was blackened beneath him. His enemies crushed; defeated.

After all, if I’m looking, here, she might be too.

Fire defied physics as the fleet of heroes burned.

What else is there to do on a Sunday afternoon?

Brad Fantastic, Derek’s nemesis, lay dead at his feet. Humanity’s last hope gone.

Read a book?

Since Derek first came to power, to rule the Company, his mission had been clear.


To take away the freedoms of mankind and machine-kind.

And so I stood browsing the classics, looking for new reprints.

To halt the spread of humanity and their toys across the galaxy.

I suddenly felt her, at my shoulder.

To stem the infection.

And the world went dark.

To end the beautiful melody with a discordant hell.

Because she said hello and I felt the blood run to my feet.

So there had been huge, dreadful battles in space.

I couldn’t even turn around.

Derek had made sure that planets had been destroyed and billions had suffered and died.

So she said hello again.

The good women and men had risen against him.

I continued to fail to turn around. I was becoming panicky.

Brad Fantastic and the Fearsome Five.

Breathing heavily, I plucked a book from the shelf. Ringworld.

About as fearsome as a wet fart in a swimming pool.

About a second more passed.

They’d built intelligent, living, weaponised ships and huge, scary robots.

Another second.

But Derek crushed them all in his relentless pursuit of his ambition. His goal.

Sounds suddenly drown me, sounds never meant to be heard.

Derek the Despot reflected on why the good guys were all dead.

Certainly not in a bookshop, anyway.

In between bouts of hysterical laughter.

For a moment, I thought she would walk away.

You see, Derek thought, while watching the planet beneath his space ship catch fire.

I was being too slow, too scared.

It was never about the power.

But she reached past my shoulder and touched to book.

He boomed out another enormous guffaw.

And then gently, tenderly, she touched my hand with her thumb.

It was never about control.

I let go of the book which mind-numbingly, painfully, slowly fell to the floor.

When Brad was at his feet, his body charred from the energy pistol, with a moment’s breath left.

And I turned to face her.

He looked at Derek the Despot with pleading eyes, trying to understand.

And she was beautiful.

Searching for comprehension.

I think she said something, maybe about seeing me here before.

For a reason.

But all I heard were the angels singing her name.

Derek, like the good and proper villain he was, of course explained all to the dying hero.

Eventually, I managed to say ‘Hi’.

Derek, you see, didn’t want to be the ultimate ruler.

And when she laughed, the hearts of all the gods and demons broke with joy.

Didn’t want to be the tyrant with all kneeling down before him on a hundred or a thousand planets.

And she said ‘Hi’ right back at me.

It wasn’t about the power. It’s not even about you or me, Derek had said to Brad.

The orchestra of perfection played for me.

As Derek slowed his hysterical laughing he typed some commands into his control panel.

But then the sound cracked. Inharmonious.

Derek the Despot looked down at his final command.

As she tentatively reached out to touch me her eyes glazed over.

To destroy. For your own good.

She fell away.

He thought about the look on Brad Fantastic’s face. He laughed one more time.

Out of reach.

He’d told Brad that his one mission, his one true purpose, was the end of everything.


Including me, Derek had said to Brad.

I tried calling out, but the sound was drowning me; killing me.

He looked at the screen which said: ‘to destroy the universe, hit enter’.

And the world went black.

A short note on why Ancillary Justice really annoyed me.

Ancillary Justice won just about every award going: Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, BSFA, Locus and Kitchie. Almost a clean sweep. It was criticallyAncillary Justice acclaimed pretty much everywhere.

Firstly, after reading this, I can confirm that I’m not a huge fan of far future space opera. I never got on with the Culture Novels, for example, although my favourite books include Jem, Hyperion, and The Sparrow. Maybe I should just stop reading this kind of book? Secondly, I thought Ann Leckie’s debut was original, imaginative and very well written. I thought the characters were interesting and I enjoyed getting to know them. I thought the gender politics were excellent. I thought the attention to detail and the deft writing were pretty much spot on. I thought the science was plausible enough. I never once thought ‘no way’. The universe Leckie created was one I bought almost completely, in terms of civilisation and politics, although the tea thing was a bit twee (and I couldn’t stop thinking about the Firefly episode Shindig for some reason).

I totally get why it was so critically acclaimed, up to a point. However, I think it was intrinsically flawed and therefore probably shouldn’t have won anything. The story is told in two strands early on, from the first person perspective of Breq (the ancillary) and from the Radch starship, the Justice of Toren One Esk. Necessarily, there is a lot of world building in the early chapters. This is where the novel falls down. The first person narration is wrong. The conceit is wrong. First person narration usually has some acknowledgement of its intended audience. The reader knows why the story is being told to them. As the end of Ancillary Justice approached I had increasingly hoped that the conceit would reveal itself, but it didn’t. So who was Breq narrating too? If it was us, the 21st Century reader, then how or why isn’t made evident. If Breq was narrating to someone in her own time, why all the description of politics, society and science. Why the narrated world building? Surely they wouldn’t need it?

Simply by putting Ancillary Justice into first person ruined it for me. It was never going to match the hype, and everything else about it was pretty much spot on, but Leckie’s choice not to write Ancillary Justice in the third person really, really annoyed me.

The Drawing of the Three - listening, not reading

On reading without reading: The Dark Tower series

The Dark Tower 7 - Listening not readingI’ve spent most of 2014 in the company of Roland Deschain of Gilead, his quest and his loves and his enemies. Eddie Dean. Susannah Dean. Jake Chambers. Oy. Cuthbert, Alain, Jamie, Susan. Sheemie. Poor Sheemie. Pere, Ted, Dinkie, Patrick. Flagg, Rhea, Mia, Mordred. Blaine. Dandelo. The Crimson King. And Stephen King.

Seven books. Thousands of pages. Almost 4,000 (edition dependent of course). But I spent the time with George Guidall and Frank Muller. Hours and hours and hours. I started in January 2014 with 1982’s The Gunslinger. I listened most days on my way to and from work (about 30 minutes each way). In the summer I listened at my allotment and in the park. I didn’t listen every day and I went about a week in between each book. I finished 2004’s The Dark Tower in late October. I’d only ever read the first two in the series previously, so had no idea how the story progressed.

  • The Gunslinger (1982)
  • The Drawing of the Three (1987)
  • The Waste Lands (1991)
  • Wizard and Glass (1997)
  • Wolves of the Calla (2003)
  • Song of Susannah (2004)
  • The Dark Tower (2004)

This is not a review and this does contain spoilers.

I’d never really listened to audio books properly before. I’d listened to cast dramatisations and radio adaptations (Hitchhikers…, Neverwhere, Midwich Cuckoos and others). I didn’t know if it was a worthwhile pursuit. When Jake, Eddie and even Oy died, I felt like weeping. When Susan was murdered, I was horrified. When Benny died, I knew it was a proper story. There was good and evil, success and failure. Anyone (with the probable exception of Roland) could die.

When you’re listening to audio books whilst driving and walking to and from work, you cannot take in every word. There are times when you’re necessarily distracted. I don’t think that matters. You don’t need to hear everything to understand the story in an audio-book. I appreciate that I spent many hours getting to know the characters in the series but if listening to the books was all surface, why did I get emotional when Oy sacrificed first his love of Susannah and then his life for Roland’s? Why when I got to the end did I feel empty? Oddly, I don’t want to listen to (or read) The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012) just yet. I want to leave Jake and Eddie and Oy dead (although not in the world Susannah found herself in) and I don’t want to revisit Roland knowing as I do now that Ka’s wheel has turned again.

The Dark Tower series is without doubt a wonderful story with plenty to say about love and death and friendship. About what is good and what is destiny and what is choice. I also enjoyed the whole meta-ness of it. One of the most explicit examples I’ve come across recently (see my post on Hodderscape for more on metafiction) I don’t think I would have every given it the time if I had to read it. The process of listening, even when doing other things (driving, sitting in a park, being distracted by binmen, crossing roads), is beyond rewarding. It isn’t subliminal, but you get the bits Gunslinger - Well, listening to it, anywayyou need to get. Story isn’t about individual words and clever complex sentences. Story shouldn’t need a thesaurus or attention to every single mark on a page. With no disrespect to the author who crafted and laboured over each word, a story is not about reading sentences on a page. A story is about the ride with characters who grow and change and learn and get to where they need to go to. If I didn’t care about Roland and his ka-tet I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Dark Tower and more importantly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the audiobooks.

However, that all being said, if not for George Guidall and Frank Muller, who narrated the stories with passion and depth, again I might not have cared. An audiobook is about a story, characters and the choice of narrator. Not about the sentences or the words or the grammar. I don’t remember every detail about the story from Roland appearing in the desert in pursuit of Marten to his ascent of the tower, but I know how I felt when he loved and lost. And if that’s not the point of a story, someone tell me what is.

“All this happened, more or less.” #bannedbooksweek

My contribution to #bannedbooksweek 2014 is a simple list of my favourite quotes from 9 band books which I’ve read.


“In life you’ll meet a lot of jerks. If they hurt you, tell yourself that it’s because they’re stupid. That will help keep you from reacting to their cruelty. Because there is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance… Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

Clockwork Orange

“When a man cannot chose, he ceases to be a man.”

Fahrenheit 451

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

Lord of the Flies

“The thing is – fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream.”

Handmaid's Tale

“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”

American Pyscho

“We buy balloons, we let them go.”

Slaughterhouse 5

“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”


“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”

Naked Lunch

“You see, control can never be a means to any practical end…It can never be a means to anything but more control…like junk..”

And so, if you want to read some of these , for free, check out: 

“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

On reading YA fiction: Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

ShadowboxerTricia Sullivan is best known for her uncompromising visions of the future. She’s tackled far-future genetics, brain implants, AIs, consumerism and designer violence amongst many other tough topics. So it was a raised eyebrow that I picked up her latest, Shadowboxer, which seems at first glance to be set very much in the present, if not maybe tomorrow, and is demonstrably not science fiction. It is also very much of the genre currently labelled as YA (Young Adult).

YA is very topical at the moment. I’ve seen arguments (mostly on Twitter) both for and against adults reading YA books – in other words not the target market. Personally, I’m indifferent about it. I won’t chose what I want to read on whether something is labelled YA or not, or is currently following a trend. I read what I read because of recommendations, previous experience of an author, or if something looks interesting.

I’m a fan of Sullivan, and have read all her books, and so I wanted to read Shadowboxer for that reason alone, although the subject matter rather than the target market was more of a concern. I have no interest in mixed marshal arts. However, I’ve read several books from the point of view of a young woman and enjoyed some. Interestingly, a recent read, Terra by Mitch Benn, is from the POV of a 12-year-old girl, but that wasn’t targeted at the YA market.

However, the few YA books I’ve read in the past have led to a struggle. I haven’t enjoyed them for a number of reasons, although not because I couldn’t relate to the protagonists. SHadowboxer  is an odd beast for me to pick up.

We meet Jade, the first person narrator. We quickly learn that she’s a hot-headed young mixed martial arts fighter. The main personality trait appears to be that of a typical teen – she can’t control her life, despite an assuredness and control when in the ring. She’s confident, no, arrogant, as any young person on top of their game would be (“I’m really fast”) and while Sullivan has an immediate handle on writing her as a teenager, using what feels like the correct language, she doesn’t over-egg it. Jade appears to be fairly normal. Not a cliché. And so thanks to Sullivan’s writing, within a few pages, I’d dismissed my trepidation and soon became engrossed in Jade’s character. She’s very believable. But then, we’re suddenly in a forest with characters called Mya and Mr Richard. What’s going on? There’s still no real hints of anything science fiction or fantasy. Has Sullivan written a contemporary novel? Now, however, it appears that we’re in Thailand and there the clichés appear (Mr Richard especially talks in corny phrases). After a few chapters of What the hell is going on? we’re back with Jade and some exposition. In the first few chapters (up to about the Smart Phone chapter) it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere much. This is just the story of a tough young fighter who must learn a lesson. Nothing particularly exciting. Soon after, however, things start to make sense. Now we have a plot coming together and the two strands of fiction begin to make sense.

So Jade is sent to Thailand to train and as a punishment, but before long she’s back in the US gearing up for the fight of her life. The cat she made friends with in Thailand is with her. A mysterious young journalist, Shea, comes into her life. It seems that her trainer, Mr B, might be into more than just fighting. Food is going missing from her flat. People are after a phone that keeps turning up. Some other people are found dead, apparently mauled by some large animal. And then there’s Mya. The little girl who can disappear into a house plant. This is a thick and complex plot, but it is always engaging, and you constantly want to know what’s happening and who is this and why are they behaving like that.

Sullivan weaves modern culture into the novel, with references to Instagram, Jennifer Lawrence and clothes brands, amongst others. This is a double-edged sword. The story is of the moment and therefore gives it a solid grounding, but will it date? If people read it in 30 years’ time, will they laugh at the tech? Maybe, but then isn’t that always the danger? Sullivan also uses emails sporadically as narrative devices. Not sure they work. There is a lot of ‘of the moment’ bits and pieces – the subtext if you will – in the story, and not just the tech stuff. There is a lot about racial and female inclusion. There’s movie and celebrity culture in general. Family abuse gets a mention. But when intersectionality pops up, I wondered if Sullivan had included a topical issue too many. Not that there’s any reason why these topics shouldn’t be discussed, however, it sometimes reads almost like a checklist of teen issues. Of course, many teens experience many and varied complex issues, so this may be exactly what the YA market wants to read about.

Jade is very much aware of who she is and her personality is the main strength of Shadowboxer. Despite her flaws and failings, she’s very much someone you enjoy getting to know and spending time with. When she loses a fight early on, she takes it in such good grace. I liked the fact that Sullivan didn’t feel the need to describe all of Jade’s training and fights in detail – that would have become boring fast. A book doesn’t need a training montage video. Once the fantasy elements kick in, with Jade in first person and Mya in third, the narrative reminded me of the juxtaposition in Sullivan’s Maul. Which is a good thing. The plot picks up and becomes more interesting. Clues come and go, and not all are as obvious as you might think. Not everyone or everything is who they seem. Once the fantasy elements is established, the story all comes together like a delicious and very satisfying pizza.

There’s a sentence Sullivan writes just before the final scenes which deserves a special mention. I laughed out loud. It mentions a superhero and an animal. Any more would be a spoiler, but when you get to it you’ll know. It just about sums up what this book is about. Enjoyable characters with depth, interesting and unexpected plotting, terrific and knowing writing. This novel features a 17 year old girl as its main protagonist, and the younger Mya as the second lead. Once I was into the story, which I was, it never crossed my mind that I was reading something specifically YA. I was reading a decent story with decent characters. So while it’s as far removed from Sullivan’s past science fiction novels, I didn’t disappoint. I’m clearly not the target audience, and although it’s far from perfect, it is a very enjoyable and original take on modern fantasy.

The original review parts of this post were first post here: 

The Time Machine

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

The Time MachineThere is deserved regard for H.G. Wells, and it is he more than anyone else who turned scientific romances or fantastic voyages of the 19th Century into what is called science fiction today. Incredibly, The Time Machine was Wells’ debut novel, built upon his earlier short story The Chronic Argonauts (1888). The Time Machine was written at the request of the publisher of the Pall Mall Gazette and published in serial form in The New Review. It was first published in book form in May 1895.[i]

I’ve read The Time Machine at least three times before this reading, but probably not for at least 15 years. The edition I read was the gorgeous yellow hardback Gollancz 50 edition, published in 2011. There is an introduction by Stephen Baxter, which I didn’t read, and there are no notes or explanations in this edition.

Time travel is a concept that’d been around for some time before Wells tackled the subject. Of course, we all travel forward in time (one second at a time, etc.). Others before him had written about going back into the past (Paris avant les homes by Pierre Boitard) or waking in the future (News from Nowhere by William Morris and of course, Rip Van Winkle). However, none had tackled the mechanics of time travel, and like Morris and others before him, this concept allowed Wells to explore his political views in a non-controversial, non-threatening forum.

The story begins with The Traveller explaining to the narrator and others, the concept of time. It has a similar tonal feel to Flatland – explaining time in terms of geometry. Very factual. Lures the reader in to what must be a serious treatise on the topic. Interestingly, this is not a tale narrated by its main protagonist, but is told in its (almost) entirety as a second-hand re-telling; a reportage, if you will. The other significant thing in the first couple of chapters is the naming of the characters. We have the Provincial Mayor, Medical Man, Psychologist, Editor, even the Silent Man. All except Filby. Which is odd.

It is difficult to read a classic and a novel that you’ve read and enjoyed previously without prejudice, but after only a dozen or so pages (in a relatively short book – this edition has 125 pages) Wells storytelling and imagination is already giant leaps ahead of his genre predecessors.

The Traveller arranges to meet with the narrator and others, but returns ‘late’ with them waiting for his news. Most of the bulk of the rest of the book is our narrator quoting The Traveller’s strange story. This is when Wells turns the previous genres of the utopian fantastic voyages and makes them science fiction. He takes the classic trope but adds elements of science. While the actual workings and mechanics of the time machine itself aren’t explained, the concepts of time travel are; while there is experimentation, observation and hypotheses (imaging that he may stop in something solid for example). The Traveller describes his journey into the future until he slows and is literally thrown into the future. It is 802,701 AD. Blimey. Take that William Morris (2003 indeed)! That leap of imagination is extraordinary for the time Wells wrote in.

Thus he meets the child-like Eloi and in particular Weena. He learns a little of their life-style and their language. It appears, on face value, to be a wonderful utopia in which they live, with no pain and an easy life. It is a communist life with no ownership. There is a dig, perhaps at specific works such as those by Morris, Swift, More, or a more general note to previous fictions, which in my eyes highlights the genius of Wells. He knows this is a fiction, so when The Traveller lands in utopia, he doesn’t find out everything. He only knows what he sees and experiences. “In some of these visions of Utopias and coming times which I have read, there is a vast amount of detail about buildings and social arrangements and so forth. But while such details are easy enough to obtain when the whole world is contained in one’s imagination, they are altogether inaccessible to a real traveller amid such realities as I found here”. Very clever writing.

File:The Time Machine (1st edition).djvu

Full scan of the 1st (1895) edition of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (public domain)

What is different here to previous fictions, however, is that everyone is weak. There is no need for strength. No-one works. No-one fights. There is no illness. So in a society where everyone is weak, but the same, strength isn’t required. However, as The Traveller soon discovers, paradise is far from perfect. We meet the Morlocks and here I think Wells rushed everything. It is a short (albeit serial in first production) story, but the speed of intuition from the protagonist based on little evidence is hard to relate to. Fine, so he’s a genius inventor who has made a working time machine, but the leaps of reasoning concerning the Morlocks’ origins could have done with a little more fleshing out. There is the proper social commentary which is Wells’ satire on the class divide of England at that time. But too quickly it’s over and narrative obstacles are soon overcome.

The coda, however, is completely unexpected and something no other writer had dared to consider. The end of the solar system, if not the universe (not just England, or Europe or the world). The Traveller goes so far into the future, what he sees is almost beyond the realms of imagination.

Of course, females (well, the one female character– Weena – which says everything) gets very short thrift. Without spoiling the plot, Weena’s fate is shockingly sad. Of the times for sure, but Wells was a meant to be a political socialist and generally inclusive. He could have done better.

It’s not just the ideas and styles which make The Time Machine a revolutionary story. The writing itself is brilliant, almost poetic (“You know that great pause that comes to things just before dusk?”). It’s very readable with interesting narrative and proper character development based on events, rather than storyline contrivances, and features the understanding of one’s place in the cosmos. This isn’t a narrow-minded viewpoint of one man’s vision of life at the time, but a holistic viewpoint of the universe we live in. It has an almost nihilistic quality that this is all going downward towards nothingness. I suspect Wells understood the second law of thermodynamics.

In the end, The Traveller informs our narrator that he is going back into time but three years later, he hasn’t returned. Perhaps, half a century before the Many Worlds theory of quantum physics, Wells understood what time travel could mean.

A brilliant piece of genuine science fiction with a couple of caveats, which would have taken it to the very top of the literature tree. Better treatment of Weena (and more women generally), and more observation, evidence and experimentation when The Traveller works out how the Eloi and Morlocks came to be. Still, so much more a proper science fiction story than almost anything that came between it and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


[i] Hammond, John R. (2004) H. G. Wells’s The time machine: a reference guide. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Why does Science Fiction have to be about predicting the future?

Originally published on Guerrilla Geek on 22 June 2011.

If you look out the window, you won’t see many flying cars...”

So starts the article by Tom Colls representing BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. Hands up who can name any novel that was actually about flying cars? No? Me neither. And I’ve read hundreds of Science Fiction novels. I’m actually quite angry about this. Who is Tom Colls and what is his credentials? I have no experience in the comings and goings in crime novels, so I wouldn’t dream of writing a piece complaining there aren’t enough unsolved murders for clever detectives out my window.

"Blade Runner Spinners". Via Wikipedia -

“Blade Runner Spinners”. Via Wikipedia –

I feel I need to examine article and comment on its premise.

“The future, it turned out, is a lot more normal than any writer pictured it”. It is hard to be balanced when you think about how staggeringly unintelligent that statement is. If you think about it logically, you wouldn’t be interested in any set in our normal future. Imagine if Jules Verne, George Orwell or HG Wells wrote a dull kitchen sink drama set in 1987. Think about Olaf Stapleton, Arthur C Clarke or Robert Heinlein speculating on the transport situation in Birmingham. I feel slightly ill at the thought of Aldous Huxley or William Burroughs focusing their talents on a Friday night fight in Newcastle.  is speculative fiction, yes, speculating on what may happen if, but that doesn’t mean that all the plot devices employed are what it takes to make the future. When Gully Folye uses teleportation, it is not a story about transportation between destinations. If there wasn’t any, then what the book is actually about, which is morality and revenge, wouldn’t have the impact if it took him years to get around his universe. How boring would Star Trek be if every mission to a new planet took weeks of preparation and months of travel while the crew did experiments on tissue samples and any colonies?

Big sigh.

“”No-one’s got a good track record at predicting the future – throwing darts would get you better results,” says  writer, and editor of the blog Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow.”. Now I’ve tried to write a few short stories in my time. That, however, is no real authority on successful writing. I would like to guess that authors who sit down to tell a good story don’t sit there thinking about successfully predict the future. That idea is simply absurd, although that point is noted later in the piece. Whether it is or literary fiction or crime fiction, authors want to tell a good story with interesting characters. We write to explain ourselves and to explain the world around us. If anyone wrote a piece of fiction just as a predictive device, you would expect the plots and protagonists to be secondary. If you are interested in predicting the future, you would be better off reading non-fiction works by futurologists. Read something by Martin Rees!

“Cybernetics scientist Professor Kevin Warwick disagrees. The sheer number of ideas that appear first in sci fi, only later to be figured out by scientists – space flight and robotics for example – demonstrate that the genre has been very good at predicting the future, he contends.” I think the Professor is misguided. He is defending something that doesn’t need defending. What is the reality is that many scientists and inventors probably grew up reading and were inspired to replicate those items. Martin Cooper, who is a former Motorola VP and who led the team who developed the handheld mobile phone, has claimed to have been inspired by the handheld communicator found on the original series of Star Trek. Wah Chang, who designed the communicators, wasn’t predicting the future, but fulfilling a need for communication between the crew on the Enterprise and the Away Team.

If people believe that the role of science fiction is to predict the future, a. they are missing the point, and b. they are in a position to do the experiment: Let me make a proposal to Mr Colls and anyone else misguided enough to think there should be flying cars out site the window. Read a bunch of books. Ask the authors to confirm or deny whether any of the science fiction devices in their fiction are meant to be predictions. Make notes. Lock them away, and revisit them in 50 years. Or maybe they should simply shut up about things of which they nothing about.

“The genre’s writers have to face the fact that the world hasn’t worked out quite as their predecessors imagined.” In the piece, China Mieville points out the obvious flaws in Colls’ argument and it appears that he is ignored. Otherwise, the article would not have been conceived. The genre’s authors, as a rule, are commenting on the present, not predicting the future. They are telling a story, as Mieville states, which is the point of any literature.

Favourite re-reads: Only Forward (1994) by Michael Marshall Smith

Only ForwardThere was a recent article in SFX magazine about Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith. It made me determined to re-read it when I got the chance. And so the chance presented itself, because I’ll read what I want when I want, thank you very much for asking. I first came across Smith with Spares (1994) which I’d loved. I’d missed Only Forward on release but soon caught up, loving it at the time. I eagerly read and enjoyed One of Us too in 1998. Then nothing. No more science fiction from Smith. Seems he’d re-invented himself as a thriller writer, returning to speculative with the supernatural The Servants in 2007, again which I enjoyed, but it wasn’t what I remembered that I loved about his writing.

I picked up my battered old copy of Only Forward and headed off for a train journey, looking forward to an hour in its company. Sadly, my carriage (and pretty much the whole train) was full of loud and in some cases drunken lads – not bad for a Saturday morning – so my enjoyment was tempered. Sticking some Brian Eno on my ipod, I persevered.

Page 1. The Beginning. Once… I love stories that start at the beginning and with the world ‘once’. I feel like I’m going on an adventure and that there is a depth to it. And despite the distractions I was soon lost in Smith’s world of Stark, a kind of anti-hero noir-ish fixer, living in the far future with cool gadgets and cooler friends. Soon, the noir-ish quality is forgotten (although it’s narrated as if Stark is a detective and it has that black and violent quality to it) and it’s a proper science fiction adventure. There’s an element of exposition in the world-building, tell rather than show (but then I guess the novel would have been twice the size and subsequently less punchy) and bit of Checkhov’s gun rule early on as both Shelby and Brian are mentioned for no real reason (at the time).

Plot? Oh, of course. Someone has gone missing from a place that no-one usually wants to leave. Stark is tasked to find that someone, cos no-one else can. Stark’s future is one where a giant, sprawling city is divided into Neighbourhoods with distinct characteristics. He lives in Colour. His cat, Spangle (coolest name for a cat ever) lives in Cat. His friend (?) Zenda is from Idyll. So Stark goes off to find the missing someone and encounters old friends, adversaries and the truth about himself.

The style Smith writes in is a very dark version of Douglas Adams brought up on hard-boiled noir. Stark’s narration is written in such a way you feel he’s in the room talking to you and no-one else. He feels like your friend. There are even passages when it is like a conversation with the reader and Stark answers your questions or reacts to your facial expressions. Early on, you pick up on the humour “The elevator I took was clearly very annoyed about the whole thing…” which permeates throughout the novel, tempering the darkness and the brutality of the violence. I love the line about coffee kicking the shit out of alcohol molecules. Brilliant. Then the reaction when Stark is being shot at. His incredulity. Priceless.

And the plot moves on. Stark finds the missing someone but not all is as it seems. About half way through, it feels like this science fiction story is coming to an end. There is a niggle, by this point, however. This city, this City is meant to huge. Yet it doesn’t seem to take Stark long to cross Neighbourhoods. Maybe the scaling is a bit off, or maybe we’re not meant to think too about things like that. After all, the science fictional elements, such as the gadgets and technology are all described with an element of humour (the anti-bug device with a grudge against its owner, for example). Then, out of what seems like nowhere, the story takes an abrupt turn and becomes something else altogether. It doesn’t feel wrong, either. All part of Stark’s journey. Around this point, Stark admits he’s been lying to the reader too. Not everything is as it seems. I’d forgotten about this element to the storytelling. I began to wonder if it was a conceit Smith was using because he’d run out of ideas or he’d got the plotting a tad wrong. I started to wonder…

As the finale arrived everything seemed wrong. The set up and the reason why Stark came to find Jeamland was all wrong. It didn’t make sense. The clues – a stereo and mention of New York in particular – really jarred. This was a far future science fiction story with a side-step into another reality. Stark couldn’t exist in all three places. Could he? It made me think that Smith had perhaps couldn’t write an ending to his story. Was I right about the nature of the City feeling wrong? Had my doubts a solid ground? No. I was wrong. Me.

Should have trusted him, should’ve trusted the book – but I’m glad I hadn’t remembered the ending because when the reveal came, it made me think just how clever Smith is. I miss the science fiction of MMS. I miss the concepts and the characters he fills his world with and his vision of the future (interesting – and I positively hate the idea of science fiction as a predictive tool for the future – Smith almost nails it describing Google Maps on a Smartphone with a piece of tech Stark uses). I miss this kind of book. No-one else writes anything quite like Michael Marshall Smith and he is massively under-appreciated in the genre.

There are plenty of ideas and themes in Only Forward but I guess some of that depends on what the reader is bringing with them. I get a strong anti-capitalist, ant-corporate, almost anarchistic view of the world. It is about our own personal demons and how we carry them through our life and sometimes they make us a better person and sometimes a worse one. Monsters. Always about the monsters. Smith makes this as clear as you’d like “Monsters are always the most significant thing” I guess they are. However they’re defined, fiction wouldn’t work without monsters. It is about friendships and lost love. Flames that burn brightly and die too quickly. It is a love story to the past staying the past and the potential of the future. It’s also about books to some extent and the power of a story, although that only becomes clear towards the climax. I’ve written a few short stories in my time. Annoyingly, both in terms of style, world-building, message and characters, this is exactly the book I wished I’d written.

In the end, however, with the way the coda finishes (the final sentiment, closing the loop in the style it begun), it’s clear what this is. A fairy-tale. And a pretty darned good one at that.

I’m thrilled to had re-read Only Forward and while I didn’t recall the detail, I do remember the thrill I had from reading it the first time, and that thrill returned, especially when the plot all wove together in the conclusion. I’m going to keep my copy safe and pick it up in another couple of decade’s time and relish in it all over again.

Terra by Mitch Benn

TerraAs it’s a debut science fiction novel by a comedian and musician with cover praise from Neil Gaiman and a certain amount of internet buzz, I opened Terra with a mixture of anticipation and fear. Could it be that good? Is it folly for an artist to switch styles? Is Benn the heir apparent to the late great Douglas Adams? After an enjoyable 250-ish pages, the answer to all of the above is probably still open to debate.

Terra is the story of aliens being all alien on an alien planet. Not an easy concept to play with. So Benn drags the reader along by introducing a human character in order to relate to. It all starts very Adamesque. The humour is there, the characterisation is witty and the logic behind the scenario all works. Great I thought, this will be fun. Mr and Mrs Bradbury are the characters in question, but when they come across an alien craft they flee their car, leaving their as yet unnamed newborn baby girl strapped in. The alien – a scientist here to study ‘Rrth’ as they call Earth – decides to take the girl back to his planet with him.

Cut to 12 years later. We’re on the planet Fnrrn. Our scientist, Lbbp, has brought the girl up as his own daughter, naming her Terra. Terra is about to go to her next level of education, called the Lyceum. So the reader learns about the history and politics of this old civilisation as Terra studies along with her friends and classmates. We also learn what Benn thinks of our society as Ymn’s (humans) are almost vilified by the Fnrrn aliens. There is also, however, tribalism and conflict on this alien world. Throw in an even older alien race and the ingredients are all there for an interesting book. Proper science fiction as Terra learns her inherent humanness on the alien world, while Benn explores and satirises human nature both from its reflection in the aliens and its study from outsiders.

After part one, with the Adams like humour, the main section is almost devoid of that humour and style. Benn writes it as just about straight science fiction. About half way through the book, it occurred to me that the humour had gone (with the exception of the ancient alien race only visiting to leave a recipe for soup). Indeed, it’s a fairly short novel and becomes quite dark quite quickly. There is jealously, war, destruction and betrayal. Terra is always aware of who she is and where she came from. Lbbp never hides that. However, when she discovers what he did hide, the betrayal becomes brutal and Benn executes it brilliantly. It is heartbreaking. However, the reconciliation is too easy. The darkness Terra feels is lifted with almost no residual consequence, which I just didn’t believe – because the hurt was so painful. In fact, all the darkness and subsequent trust he builds with the reader evaporates too quickly. We’re suddenly all friends again (albeit in the face of adversary), the conflicts are all over, and even the mean character has redeemed himself. Of course, the coda is fairly predictable, but oddly, it returns back to the humorous style.

Terra is an odd sandwich of a book. Humour, light, dark, light, humour. It reads like science fiction 101 for beginners (although not dummies, as there are many smart ideas floating through the book, such as the way the alien invasion is spotted by Terra but not the Fnnrn natives – can you only see in others what you see yourself?). Benn has cleverly invented a familiar alien species with an interesting enough culture. The names and other nouns are (as you may have gathered) are all vowel free and some aren’t so easy to pronounce, with may put some readers off. Terra is a great character, although whether a well-rounded female I’ll leave others to judge. She learns and (Benn) explains ideas in a clear if simplistic manner. Hardened science fiction fans may not get anything new from Benn’s debut. If you’ve never read science fiction (and don’t mind the vowel-free language) or are interested in a fun space adventure with a young girl as protagonist, you’d do a lot worse that Terra.

First published at:

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890)

News from NowhereThe full title of artist and designer William Morris’ socialist opus is News from Nowhere: An Epoch of Rest being some chapters from a Utopian Romance. Quite a mouthful. Before coming across this work, I had no idea Morris wrote fiction and only a vague notion that he had something to do with the socialist movement. The full title alone gives this book away to its place in science fiction and even literary history. However, the question is, as always, is this science fiction and if not, what is it?

My edition is a free copy of the 1908 tenth impression from Longmans, Green and Co, and although there are very few, I did ignore the notes, reading it as intended. It was first published in serial form in the Commonweal journal beginning on 11 January 1890.

The opening passages pretty much answer the question of whether or not this is science fiction. The narrator, who turns out to be called William Guest – Morris in another guide? – falls asleep after returning from a meeting of the socialist league. He ‘awakes’ in a future (2003) where he learns about the society of the future and the people who live in it. So, it is clear from the outset that although it is a clear, linear and realist narrative, that Guest is dreaming.

But what of the story. Well, there isn’t one, really. Guest wanders around London and then the home counties up to Oxford, usually by canal, where he meets various characters. Essentially, he is looking to understand the society while looking for friendship and maybe even love. So with each new character he meets, he asks a series of questions, or the journey takes him to a part of the country where something just happens to be occurring, so that his guides can explain things further to him. So for example, he meets Dick and Clara, who are is main guides and ideal ‘comrades’. Old Hammond is the main communist educator. Ellen, the object of his desire, is the unreachable goal. Finally, just as Guest reaches what he thinks is his destiny and happiness with Ellen, he wakes.

So, not a narrative or a story in the traditional sense, although it has clear beginning, middle and end, and a range of characters. However, there is no character development, no conflict as such (certainly none for the protagonist to deal with), no discernable plot and once finished reading, no sense of a journey been accomplished (which is odd, as this is akin to early fantastic voyages such as Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels). Instead, what we have is a fictionalised question and answer text where Morris poses a number of scenarios and questions to do with socialism and communism and invites the reader to assess whether they work or not. There is a short section about the history of the country, or how the civil war and revolution came and went (1952), and what is now left.

What, then, are Morris’ ideas and ideals? News from Nowhere was apparently written as a Libertarian socialist response to an earlier book called Looking Backward, a book that epitomised a kind of state socialism that Morris loathed. So. `In this future, there are no poor people. There is common ownership and everyone works hard because that is a good thing to do (‘the reward of labour is life, is that not enough’). There are no factories but banded-workshops where people join together out of choice. When Guest asks about poor people, Dick thinks he means sick people as he doesn’t understand the concept of poor. There is no formal education. Skills are learned as they are needed. There is a small amount of ‘book learning’ but only in such places as Oxford. There is no commercialism or capitalism. There is no right to property. Wealth has been destroyed. There are no criminals (as everyone has all they need), and therefore no law enforcement (Morris calls the police of history – his time – the ‘civic bourgeois guard). Everything that Morris dislikes is gone (big cities, authority, divorce, courts, class).

Victorian values on women wasn’t great. Morris address this directly. The folk in the future laugh when Guest enquires and state that they know of the Emancipation of Women. Old Hammond explains that women do what they do best and what they like best without the tyranny of men. Yet women still tend to follow stereotypes of the time, such as Ellen, the object of desire. While explaining horticulture, Hammond (a communist, remember and who has just been embarrasses to explain the roles of women in society) refers to ‘our sons and sons’ sons’, but no mention of daughters. Later, the women can’t cross the water as there is ‘nobody of the male kind to go with them’. So the inherent sexism still comes through, even from Morris.

There is a little heavy handed satire. There is no government, and Guest is told that decisions are made by consensus. The Houses of Parliament still exist, but they are now a storage place for manure. Some might say that they are just that in the 21st Century. Morris obviously thought so in the late 1800s. There are also digs and Oxbridge (‘the breeding places of a peculiar class of parasites’) which still might hold true. Nice to know some things never change.

What this is, compared with all of the earlier works of utopian fiction, is a proper utopia. There seems to be no downside to the world Morris creates. Indeed, there is a chapter called The Obstinate Refusers. I was expecting this to the ‘hang-on, it’s not all great’ section, but no. These were just a few radicals who wanted to build a house instead of haymaking as they were expected to do. I quite like this idea of a real utopia in fiction, without any negatives.

There is an odd passage towards the end when one of Dick’s friends is waiting for them, but the journey isn’t described as timed or telegraphed. So how does this friend know to be waiting. Communication is carried out, but never described.

William Morris by Frederick Hollyer, 1887 CC-PD-Mark

William Morris by Frederick Hollyer, 1887 CC-PD-Mark

While not science fiction in any sense (there is no scientific or technological progress, even before the revolution in 1952, and even in this future, the entertainment is pure Victorian – dinner and singing from a woman called Annie), this is an important work in the future worlds idea. There is a detailed chapter which explains why capitalism fails and communism works. This could be the first example of fiction where are future utopia is created not as a result of disease or disaster or isolation, but through a choice made by humanity (albeit after a civil war). It might also be the first work of speculative fiction to use the word communist. Although I’m not sure. There are hints of meta in the work, as if Morris knew this book wouldn’t be viewed as fiction but as treatise. In Chapter XIX, a character suggests that Guest will go back to the people he came from and report on all he has heard, ‘and take a message from us which may bear fruit for them, and consequently for us’.

So Morris invents a believable socialist utopia, with answers to most questions. Everyone seems happy. Yet there is still rare violence and negative human emotion. Some things can’t be changed. News from Nowhere is a very frustrating read. Of course it is all exposition and no story. It is an enjoyable read for a lecture but it is no work of narrative fiction. Not science fiction in the truest sense, but an important work within the canon of speculative fiction.