The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Cities in Flight by James Blish (1950+)

Cities in flightCities in Flight is a four volume collection of innovative science fiction spanning 1950 to 1962 from James Blish. The first of the so-called Okie stories was published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1950. Earthman, Come Home was the first published book in 1955, collecting stories published since 1950. It actually appears as the 3rd book in the collected Cities in Flight. The 1st book They Shall Have Stars was published in 1956. The collection was first brought together under the main title in 1970. The version I read was the SF Masterworks edition from 1999.

Rather than the order of publication, I’ve taken this story as it is in this book, assuming nothing other than a story originally conceived and published in 1950.

The 1st book is really the explanation of how cities took flight. Starting in 2013, the cold war between the US and the USSR still rages on. Western civil liberties are turning into the Soviet model. Senator Bliss Wagoner wants to fight back. In space. A huge experimental project is being carried around Jupiter, resulting in gravitational manipulation. The machines are known as spindizzies. Meanwhile, another fringe experiment produces “anti-agathic” drugs, which stop aging. Expeditions into deep space begin.

Book 2 is called A Life for the Stars. We’re now well into the future. Earth is a Soviet planet. Spindizzie tech allows discontents to fly entire cities into space to escape the tyranny. Chris deFord is caught up in the escape of Scranton, Pennsylvania. A series of fairly routine adventures ensure leading Chris ending up in the flying New York, where he meets the rather figurehead-like Mayor John Amalfi – the main protagonist of the rest of the collection.

Earthman, Come Home is very episodic, as expected, being made up of several short stories. Amalfi and New York journey around the galaxy looking for work and dealing with conflicts. There is a galactic economic collapse. There is a mythical race of aliens that pre-date humanity. There is a return to Earth and destruction of many of the cities by Earth cops. Amalphi takes a planet to be a new home from a renegade city. All this takes place over centuries, as the characters all take the anti-aging drugs.

The final book – The Triumph of Time – sees a natural conclusion. John Amalfi is bored. However, not only can cities navigate using the gravity tech, but now entire planets can break free and wander the universe. Meanwhile, it is discovered that the universe will end in a few years. Ever the optimist, Amalphi takes his planet to the centre of the universe where, as time ends, he fights off an alien civilisation and creates a new universe where he is, perhaps, god.

The volume, Cities in Flight, is much more complex and detailed than the above summary of course. The amount of detail in my 600 page book and across millennia would take pages to describe. What is important, to me at least, is the progression of the science fiction. The characters are interesting to a point, but not hugely engaging or developed. Not much changes in their personalities over the centuries. By the time I’d reached the end, I could barely recall the characters in story 1.

And this is my biggest issue with this type of high concept science fiction. While the science and philosophy are generally interesting and imaginative, the characters and their traits are always little more than unimaginative cyphers. Written over the course of a decade, Blish’s characters do not evolve in anything like the way they should. Even when introduced – be it in 2013 or 3000+ – they are pretty much 1950s characters – both in terms of language and attitude. Science fiction authors only need to look into the recent past to see the differences in culture, language, philosophies and such-like. They apply evolution to science but not to society, despite clear and obvious evidence that it will change. Do we really believe that people are called John and Chris and Mark and refer to cops and bosses and brindles or even ultraphones in the year 3900? There’s even a damsel-in-distress character in the shape of Dee, from a planet called Utopia that forgot about space flight until New York turned up.

The ideas that Bliss had about science are the only things that make this volume interesting. This, above pretty much all other science fiction published before 1950, is science fiction about science. There isn’t the allegory of Wells or the adventure of Burroughs or the critique of Orwell, Huxley or even Lewis. There are pages of explanations of how this might work or that should operate. Solutions to obstacles often come from physics or chemistry. Blish talks about fundamental particles and quantum mechanics as plot drivers. There are nods to AI – the City Fathers – who in book 2, Chris essentially shows the machines passing the Turing Test.

Blish doesn’t mess around with the science. Of course, it is vital to the plot. The first book takes place around the orbit of Jupiter, and contains scientific experiments. The craft is known as the Bridge, and while on it, characters describe the science as Blish shows it; text contains chemical equations showing atoms and bonds. It is science that eventually causes the economic crash. Blish often describes the characters as engineers, not scientists (applied rather than pure) – maybe a way of reader engagement? There is plenty on interesting tech that is described, such as a way to poison a space craft. Blish uses proper terminology throughout – tau-time and t-time, the p-n boundary, etc. – that gives heft to his ideas. He must understand this stuff!

There are a few other themes addressed through the books, including faith and religion. Believers on Earth and Jorn the Apostle on New Earth, for example. War, obviously. There is a little romance between a few characters. Amalfi is the object of desire for Dee, but he can’t have children as space travel has damaged his genetic makeup. Another idea regularly examined is what it means to be a citizen. But so many of the ideas get lost in the less than impressive cast of characters and the very impressive science. Way too much exposition (when the machines are educating Chris for example) and world-building (much of the final book) to have an enjoyable story.

I struggled through the 600 pages of Cities in Flight and I wouldn’t say that it was worth the time or the effort. However, the evidence within the pages that this is one of the first high-concept proper science fiction books is fairly clear. Full on science geeks should get a lot from this volume, but those who like character-driven stories…not so much. From Star Trek to Banks’ Culture novels to the likes of Anne Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee , Blish begins it all.


Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

WalkawayThere’s a saying that he who dies with the most toys, still dies. In Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, he/she/they who dies with no toys, gets to live forever. What is a walkaway? In this story, someone who abandons normal, or default, society and literally walks away. With nothing. And subsists not in a sharing economy, but within a gifting economy – everything freely given and nothing required in return. A communist utopia where you expect nothing in return for your efforts.

We’re in a climate-change ravaged near future and the rich are richer and more powerful than ever. Hubert, Etc and his friend Seth meet Natalie at a Communist party – where the disaffected young party all night and pour scorn on society’s sheep they see on the morning commute. Except Natalie is the daughter of the very powerful ultra-rich and over-protective Jacob. They decide to walk away, and they meet Limpopo; a natural leader but one who rejects hierarchy. In this extrapolated future, everything (food, clothes, tools, even medicine) can be 3D printed and society is tolerating these walkaway communities. Just about. Life can exist because everyone acts altruistically. Which is anathema to the ultra-rich elite. And Jacob wants his daughter back. Meanwhile, at a walkaway university, researchers and mathematicians have been able to download the consciousness of a dead colleague into a computer. Is this immortality in a utopian society?

Cory Doctorow knows what his subject is and who is readership are. The writing is excellent, if occasionally incomprehensible. This is because he writes in techno-hacker counter-culture lingo. Which is fine if you’re aware of the rules of the game. You need to understand who infowar researchers are and what it means when an infotech goon pwns everything! I imagine that someone less aware wouldn’t have much inkling of what he is talking about. There is plenty of wit and comic satire if you can dig beneath the jargon. It is pretty much on the button too, with even the term ‘snowflake’ included. There is plenty of darkness explored, especially in the relationship between Natalie and her father, but there is always hope that everything will work out, despite the repetition of attacks on our heroes, especially once the post-humans have been stabilised.

The story itself is fine, although is a tad repetitive: sitting around talking about political and ethical philosophy (from what is ownership and property to the intricacies of neurobiology and what life is) followed by a violent attack, someone dies and is put in the computer, move on; and repeat. About half a dozen times. The characters are all interesting with multiple motivations. The good guys are all about love and tenderness and equality – there is gender and sexuality fluidity and every leftist and liberal ideology discussed. And there is an awful lot of discussion. Pages and pages; sometimes in the storytelling, sometimes in character discussions. There is so much detail it almost blows the mind. Doctorow demonstrates what appears to be an immense intellect. Meanwhile, the bad guys are shades of grey. Jacob is motivated by both greed for his power and some misguided emotion for his daughter. Another non-walkaway turns out to be not all she seems. And now those with nothing have created immortality, and the rich aren’t happy.

Proper science fiction this, from Doctorow. A warning of our times. An investigation of what it means to be a human today and where the future might take us. What immortality might look like and how it affects the psyche. A look at the science of today and of tomorrow. And in the vein of many a classic science fiction novel, can a utopia ever work? A few tweaks with the plot would have made me happier. Slightly less discussion and more of the tender human moments such as when Tam listens to Seth putting his slippers on. Those who follow Doctorow’s sharing/hacking/fluid cultural ideologies will get a great deal from this book. Those not familiar, I imagine, will struggle. Not for everyone, but spot on for the few.

I received an ARC from the publisher. Quotation was not allowed.

Bête By Adam Roberts

BeteThe knowledge and techniques Adam Roberts displays in his 15th novel, Bête, are as admirable as they are varied. At first glance, Bête is straight forward near future science fiction story. Look beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find a darkly comic satire of such wit and charm, and a very British dystopia with the best anti-hero for many a year.

For he is Graham Penhaligon and he is a farmer and he kills a cow. Not so much of a big deal, except Animal Rights activists have developed AI chips to install in animals. The cow pleads for its life but Graham has a farm to run and no sympathy. He believes that it is the chip that is pleading and not the animal. A video of the event is released and Graham becomes infamous. As British society crumbles and the animals begin to take control first of their own lives and destinies, and then tracts of countryside, Graham finds himself increasingly unwanted by society and unloved by his family. Anathema to the animals, he seeks solace in Anne, a guest house owner and fellow loner. She has a loquacious cat who ‘badgers’ Graham into an act against his better nature, in order to save the one thing left in his life that has meaning.

This is no animal farm. Fine, so the animals can talk, and may have sentience, but this is Graham’s story. He is a grumpy old man living on his wits and just wanting to survive in a world he no longer understands or believes in. True, the world has little time for him either, but he is pivotal to humankind and animal kind whether he likes it or not.

Roberts’ satire has more bite (there, I said it) than almost any other satirical science fiction writer currently plying a trade. His observations around the www of world wide web and religion are most amusing.  And he has the ability to play with language in way that brings a smile to the reader and yet isn’t clichéd or predictable. Roberts even finds time to write passages where he openly questions common phrases and clichés. My favourite trope is the way he strings ideas together, just like they do in your own head, exemplified by the reference to Norman Bates in the final third. There’s some proper darkness too, as humanity and animals come to have different kinds of relationships – just ask the dog in Newcastle. Bête reflects significant chunks of British, or maybe even just English, culture too. There are plenty of nods to popular culture familiar to us today. The towns and other locations (boarded up Costa in Wokingham, a militarised dystopian Reading, living rough in woods, a dubious pub clinging on to the past, for example) suggest a particular mind-frame for the reader. This is dirt-under-the-finger-nails science fiction; flabby flesh, greying beards and desperation.

There is very little mention of the world outside England, so we’re not sure about how the spread of the sentient animals is affecting the elsewhere. I don’t think it’s an issue within the narrative because this isn’t a story about that. As the UK economy is in trouble, and money is ‘cents’ on chips, it would follow that Europe at least has problems too.

There are as many light gags as there are dark but Bête is ultimately a clever story of an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. Graham is quite simply an awesome and refreshing creation in a brilliant book. It has some serious things to say about how we treat animals and how we treat ourselves. Of course, it has comment on technology’s role in our future and some inventive religious ridicule. It has some decent things to say about family and relationships too. Bête is as unsettling as all the best science fiction should be. And how many fantastic science fiction novels can get away with that INXS gag? A triumph from a terrific science fiction author at the top of his considerable game.

Originally published on Book Geek:

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut.

Player PianoKurt Vonnegut had his debut novel, Player Piano, published in 1952. Much of western civilisation was still in a period of recovery following the devastation of World War II. Vonnegut was an active serviceman and was captured in Europe. Post war, he became a technical writer and worked in PR for General Electric before becoming a journalist. The post-war period directly informs what is a brilliantly written if flawed novel.

Upmost in Vonnegut’s mind could have been the result of the war. Was the life of the average American worth the fighting? Where do we go from here? And the classic staple of science fiction, where is man’s place now surrounded by machines that can do a job better than him? I say man, because Player Piano is set very much in the man’s world of the time. Men are managers and engineers – the ones who run America – and women are wives and secretaries. Our hero is high-flying Dr. Paul Proteus who is head of industry in New York. His wife, Anita, is a social climber who detests her roots. His secretary is Dr. Katharine Finch. Yep, the females need a doctorate to serve their masters.

The novel is set after a third world war with most Americans fighting abroad. In order to keep the country running, the managers and engineers made machines to replace the men in the factories. Unlike the reality of the WWII, in this fiction, women cannot even do the work of the missing men. Now, with the war over, most men have no work and those live in segregation away from the managers and engineers. As well as following Paul’s story – the main thread of the text – Vonnegut also presents the perspective of the visiting Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation. Via his translator, he struggles to understand the American life-style, even to the point of believing that a super-computer might be a deity, as it can answer any and all questions (although it cannot talk).

Paul begins the novel understanding his place in the world but soon, thanks to a few unrelated events, finds himself dissatisfied, despite his lofty position. He comes across an old friend, Ed Finnerty who has quit his own lofty position. Ed and Paul visit the Homestead, where the disenfranchised live. They go to a bar where some truths are spelled out to Paul. The Homesteaders have meaningless lives and a minister, Lasher, helps solidify Paul’s doubts in the system he manages. There is a rebellion on the cards and Ed joins up. Paul wants to but doesn’t have the courage. Initially. Paul’s superiors ask him to betray his old friend which spurs on his discontent. He buys a run-down farm hoping to persuade Anita into a simpler life but she rejects him.

As Paul has been groomed for a superior position it becomes clear that he wants to reject it, but he is still wary of the competition for it, and for his wife’s affections. It comes to a head in a corporate away-day scenario where Paul must chose the comfortable life or battle against the system where men are rendered pointless by machinery.

In the denouement, Vonnegut shows the reader that even after given a choice and a chance at a simpler life-style, mankind will condemn itself in the name of technological progress.

Remember that this was written and published pretty much before the computer age and you might think that Player Piano is remarkably prescient. The gadget of the title being a piano that plays itself it perhaps symptomatic of reliance we now have with technology. All our stuff no-longer relies on us users – other to change the occasional battery. I remember growing up in the 1970s and 1980s when car engines were tinkered with every Sunday morning, garages and sheds were a hive of activity with repairs and improvements, garments were sowed and jumpers knitted. Today, everything works or is replaced if it doesn’t. We throw things away rather than repairing. We have the society (albeit not as divided) that Vonnegut feared.

The fiction itself is almost excellent, let down only by a slightly weakened ending to the middle third that could have been a bit tighter in execution – my mind wandered a bit during the Meadows section as points were hammered home repeatedly. However the final act and coda more than made up for it. The last few pages are genius. I found the fluidity of narrative and writing style remarkable for a debut novel; but in reality of course, Vonnegut was a seasoned writer confident in his subject matter. The characterisation was interesting, watching Paul make choices that would seem to turn his world upside down – and not for the better in the world he lived in. His motivations were realistic and sympathetic. The plot never felt forced or unbelievable. The placement of both the female characters and the machines mean that the novel is a sharp satire even today. Women might do better in education but are still paid less and are massively under-represented in senior management (although I personally suspect this is because they aren’t as psychopathically egotistical as most high-achieving men – and probably through choice). Anita’s character is sadly a one-dimensional caricature but makes a valid point about position of the trophy wife, while Katharine shows to have some depth. Meanwhile, the Shah appears to have some black comic purpose, basically shouting at America that ‘you’re all stupid, can’t you see what you’re doing!’ Which I like.

As with all the best dystopian science fiction, Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia – a one that western nations are even now apparently striving for; the worship of technology – and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction. I’m surprised Player Piano isn’t regarded higher than it is, and should be spoken about in the same context as Brave New World and the like.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Orrin Lindsay’s Plan Of Aerial Navigation Edited by J. L. RIDDELL, M.D. (1847)

I can’t recall how I came across this little known oddity of science fiction. Probably at the British Library a few years ago. What I do know is that having read a few books and short stories ranging from 1516 to 1826, and declaring that science fiction had become an established genre by now, that this short story, published in 1847, could be the first science fiction story that puts the science first.

Gibbous_MoonI read a converted e-text of the originally published pamphlet, which was transcribed from the British Library’s original copy. It has a grand declaration on the cover, stating that it is ORRIN LINDSAY’S PLAN OF AERIAL NAVIGATION, WITH A NARRATIVE OF HIS EXPLORATIONS IN THE HIGHER REGIONS OF THE ATMOSPHERE, AND HIS WONDERFUL VOYAGE ROUND THE MOON! Edited by J. L. RIDDELL, M.D. NEW ORLEANS; REA’S POWER PRESS OFFICE, 58 Magazine street 1847. No hiding from the intent of this pamphlet then. It turns out, that Riddell is actually John Leonard Riddell (1807 -1865) who was a scientist and doctor who also lecturer in various US universities.

The story is formatted in the way of letters. The first is a request for a lecture given by Riddell. The second is a response from the author, accepting that request. There is then the ‘attached’ transcript of the lecture which outlines the letter Riddell received from a former student Mr. Orrin Lindsay, ‘announcing some new and astonishing discoveries in aerial navigation’. The immediate point of interest is that just this transcript of the lecture, there is a scientific notation, describing the nature of gravitation, which contains equations and citations – Memoir on the Constitution of Matter and Laws of Motion, by J. L. Riddell, N. 0. Medical Journal, March, 1846, volume II, page 602. A little digging suggests that this is a real publication (see Worldcat entry). Riddell’s lecture transcript then refers to letters between himself and Lindsay, and then there is Lindsay’s account of his experiments, which is a narrative provided to Riddell, which he has read out. This short narrative falls under four parts:


In which Lindsay discusses various powers available to man [sic] such as wind, steam and electro-magnetism. He talks about science and gravitation. He claims an invention which provides ‘an impervious screen to the influence of gravitation’. OK, so we’re firmly now in the realms of science fiction. Of that there is no doubt. He then talks about experimentation, and how he used science to create a magnetic balloon.


In which Lindsay describes his first successful attempt at flying the balloon. He notes dates and times, describing both data and sensations. He reaches five miles and experiences drowsiness. On his return to Earth, he reports that his balloon had been observed by ‘sundry persons’. Again, this section contains scientific footnotes.


In which, this shortest of sections, Lindsay describes how he plans to overcome the difficulties of his first experimental voyage. He lays out mathematical logic which he uses to design his voyage.


In which Lindsay and his companion, Josslin, visit the moon in his gravity-defying balloon. Again, this passage is about observation and process; how they got there and what they saw. Refreshingly, there are no aliens on the moon (unlike, say Godwin’s The Man in the Moone). He describes the lightness of the moon’s atmosphere, mountains and depressions, unfortunately, volcanoes. Of course, at the time, it was unknown that the moon was geologically inactive, so Riddell, in writing Lindsay’s fictional account, assumed it would be just as active as Earth. I think that can be forgiven, within this context. The travellers then return to Earth, observing much of the planet during their descent, landing safely at their original point of departure. Again, there are footnotes containing equations and facts, assisting the reader in understanding the science behind Lindsay’s journey.

The story concludes with a letter again from Lindsay to Riddell suggesting a voyage to Mars.

What I find fascinating is that Riddell is real and uses reality within the story. Is this, therefore, not only the first science fiction story that puts real science at the forefront, but is it also the first example of science metafiction. Riddell uses his science background – and remember, this was 1847 when science (as named as such, with experimentation and reporting of results) was still in its infancy – to create a fiction that he is complicit in.

So let’s break this down into the components of science fiction story. It is well written in the sense that it reads like is should; a scientific account of the Riddellage. Of course, Riddell was a trained scientist and published author, which means he should have been practiced at getting his point across. There are no ‘real’ characters in the story. Riddell is merely a reporter. Lindsay is an experimenter, albeit with a grand vision. I suspect he is Riddell in a poor disguise. And I do think that justifies the metafiction idea too. Josslin has no character to speak of. Is it, then a story at all? Or just a fake scientific account? Tricky. Probably not. There is no traditional elements of growth and discovery. There is no warning or political comment, as much of science fiction does have. There is a beginning, middle and end, which counts, I suppose. So, this short work is strong science-based science fiction. Of that there is no doubt. It is a work well ahead of its time in almost every sense: use of evidence-based science and experimentation to drive the (small piece of) plot; clearly written and explained with the use of footnotes; and using current theories of science (lunar volcanoes) excepted to justify its existence. It deserves to be much more widely known about. While it is stretching it to call this piece a short story, it is nonetheless, a short fiction. It is not a flight of fancy and an excuse to put weird aliens on the moon, but a valid look into the future of technology and discovery. Despite its dryness, I kinda liked it.


The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin (1638)

The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage thither by Domingo Gonsales is the full title of a story written by the bishop Francis Godwin in the late 1620s. It wasn’t published until 1638, 5 years after he’d died. I’ve read the 2009 Broadview Press edition edited by William Poole. As with my review of Utopia, and my intention with as many of the titles in my challenge as possible, I have ignored outer layers of the published text. In this case, the introduction, the section on Godwin and his contemporaries, note on the text, textural notes and appendices. I have read the story as was originally intended. However, this version has not had its language modernised so I did need to refer to footnotes on occasion for clarity. For example, he calls the birds pivotal to the plot Gansas, which I needed an explanation for. So, in a book of 176 pages, The Man in the Moone can be found on 56 pages, most of which have footnotes. This is a short story, not even a novella. You might be fussy and call it a novelette. I don’t know. I haven’t counted the words.

Many commentators have called it the first piece of true science fiction. That calls into question the very definition of the term, which is debate for someone or somewhere else. My opinion will follow, but what all good stories need regardless of genre is a plot. This is what let Utopia down, in my opinion. Also, the term science wasn’t widely used until the eighteenth century (natural philosophy being used previously), so any label is retrogressive.

The story starts with a prologue comparing his voyage to the moon with earlier journeys to the Americas. It is simply stating that it is an inevitable consequence of progress. The main body of the story begins with the narrator, who appears to be a man of some means, kills and robs in order to find favour with a Duke in Spain, when a time of adventure and discovery were the fashion. Once he has increased his wealth he returns home to his parents and takes a wife. He hears of riches and adventure in the West Indies, so he sets off in search of a bigger fortune. He falls sick and is abandoned on an island. He comes across aforementioned gansas, which appear to have been bred specifically to counter the earth’s magnetic pull. Thus he designs a flying machine with he intends to take him back to Spain. However, he is picked up by his former fleet and they head back to Spain with his new flying machine, but come under attack from and English fleet. He escapes using the bird-driven machine, but eventually finds himself heading to the moon, as it turns out that is the gansas’ season to migrate. En route, he describes the continents and the movements of celestial bodies. Once he arrives on the moon he discovers that the dark areas are seas and that the inhabitants are giants. What follows is a description of the culture he sees around him. However, unlike  Utopia, it is narrated to the reader through a series of events and journeys. For example, he visits royalty to impress them with his jewels. The utopia he describes shows these giants are long lived and disease free, that they have food without labour and free housing, amongst other benefits.

Finally, he misses his wife and child, and with great reluctance on his part and pleading from his new friends, he heads back to Earth, only to find himself in China.

Godwin has mixed success with his use of science (remember, not-so-called at the time) and description of an alien world. He revels in explain the journey and methodology he applied to his machine. In a world only just waking up to Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, I think this is a brave attempt at applying these ideas. There are a few glaring failures, however, such as the dark side of the moon being lit by distant planets. I did particularly enjoy his description of a new colour, suggesting that to describe it would be like describing the difference between blue and green to a blind man. The narrator is a little annoying but generally convincing as someone caught up in the exploration fever of the day, and out to make himself rich. The descriptions of the utopia have the desired criticism of society of the day – the lunar giants have superior moral attitudes and have solved most of society’s ills. I found the actual prose hard to deal with, which is a combination of my own ignorance surrounding medieval language, but also due to the constant numbering  for footnotes and textural notes. It was hard to get to grips with the actual characters and journeys.

Some might call The Man in the Moone utopian fantasy or imaginary voyage. It is in my opinion, science fiction. By that, I argue that it uses general principles which science applies, such as theory and observation. It uses machines and mechanics to tell a story and in doing so, posts a warning on the path of human technological advancement. It is the earliest example that I know that is a deliberate fiction which sets out to explore the contemporary landscape and comment on a possible future. It is also the forerunner of all the novels that explore the moon, Mars, other planets and galaxies. It was the first true step.

Makers by Cory Doctorow

It’s odd. I read Makers towards the end of 2010, and I’ve read 10 novels (including another of Doctorow’s) and half a dozen non-fiction since, and yet Makers is still on my mind. This is a novel of imagination and depth, and it stays with you. It is quite extraordinary.

Having recently read the novel before Makers, called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, I felt compelled to record my thoughts. And yet, I’m not sure what they are, or where that compulsion comes from. Makers is far from the best book I’ve ever read. At the time, I enjoyed it, although I do recall drifting at times, perhaps due to its complexity. At the time I thought that, as this was the first Doctorow novel I’d read, that this was an author I could really get into. Turns out he’s published another one since, but since the library didn’t have a copy, I’d failed to realise. And his new one is released in May this year. It appears that I’m under some kind of Doctorow inspired dizziness.

Which I can only describe as a good thing. Exhilarating, even.

So, just what is this Makers about? Collaboration and freedom. Simple. Ah, the plot? Ok, I see. Here we go:

The main protagonists are Perry and Lester. They invent things. They are the makers. But what they make is a little bit different. Seashell robots that make toast, Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls that drive cars. They also make an entirely new economic and social housing system based on the ideas of collaboration, sharing and non-profit enterprise. They co-opt the homeless, fanboys and like-minded workers. Journalist Suzanne starts to document this new way of working and living, just as the US economy turns sour. But things don’t work out, so they return to an earlier version of themselves, just making stuff. Until they develop a 3D printer and a cure for obesity. At this point a rogue Disney exec gets involved in a very dark plot against them.

This is a story of brilliant hackers who must fight to remain the people they were that led them to success in the first place, while being seduced by the very organisations and philosophies they originally railed against. It is the story of ideas. Of Big Ideas. Of we are stronger working with each other than against each other. Of platonic and romantic love.

The characters are all very well realised, and despite all the social commentary, the political ideas, the corporation bashing and technophilia, it is the interactions between the characters that are the heart of this novel. It is the relationship between Perry and Lester, their love for each other and the pain they go through that stays with me. It is how Suzanne goes from a curious journalist trying to carve a name for herself, to becoming part of collective and an integral part of the inventors’ lives. It is how the other characters live and breathe, love and suffer and hover over various shades of grey. There is good and bad in all of them. The motivations are genuine and when things go bad, you kind of forgive them, because you understand them. I think I would have done the same.

Doctorow’s writing is as vibrant as it is inventive. While the plot does drift on occasion, the prose is confident and full. Even when I think it could have been a bit tighter, I was eager to find out what more trials awaited our heroes.

On further investigation, I find all of Doctorow’s novels are available under a Creative Commons Licence. Makers is free to download at As are his others from The author has a strong and clear voice, and is obviously passionate about sharing, collaborating and the promotion of talent, and this philosophy shines through his novel.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

A friend – a non-geek friend (and yes, we’re allowed to have them) – recommended this title to me. I hadn’t come across it, even though I work in a library and I read review sections in newspapers and science fiction magazines, and I am very happy that he did.

Super Sad True Love Story is the best kind of science fiction, a social satire set just around the corner. A few duff choices by politicians, a new invention and the logical progression of current attitudes and we’re living in this self-obsessed dystopia.

I wouldn’t go as far as describing it as a May to December love story (May to August at best), but the plot revolves around the love affair between Lenny, a middle class son of immigrants coming to terms with impending middle-age, and Eunice, a young Korean-American trying to deal with traditional Asian family loyalties and getting ahead in the modern world. The generation gap is highlighted by the diary conceit of the fiction employed by Lenny, and Eunice’s email-like online correspondence with a messaging based account called ‘GlobalTeens’, which alternate the chapters. What makes this pure science fiction is the world Lenny and Eunice are living in. Everyone exists to rank and rate everyone else using their version of the iPhone or smartphone known as apperatii. Everything in culture is reliant on retail and media, and of course, sex. Everything is about image, superficiality perceptions. It is the logical conclusion of the theory of mind, where every thought and action is governed by how it is perceived by friends and strangers alike.

The US is now spiralling into chaos due to being indebted to China and is governed by a single bipartisan party (with overtones to 1984’s Big Brother). The economy is collapsing and there’s rioting and death in the streets. The politicians attempt to eliminate the politically disaffected while encouraging even more consumerism in a misguided attempt to kick-start the economy.

Now, let me address the diary conceit…I’ve never really liked the idea of a diary as fiction, although I understand it is clearly a tool of the author and not meant to represent real life. So, what’s my problem? Well, two things really…The first is the time it should take. These fictional diarists are living lives that are so involved and complex that they think we are interested in their lives, and yet they have time to sit around spending hours writing their diaries. This review is a few hundred words and took about 45 minutes in total (including editing, etc). Where do these characters get the time to write thousands of words? The second item on the agenda is the recall. I can barely recall conversation topics, especially if I’ve had an off glass of wine, yet we’re meant to accept that these people, while living these exciting lives have total event, and worse, conversation recall. So. I ignore all diary conceits, with the exception of the plot point highlighting the generation gap between Lenny and Eunice (note: I have no problem with the email/messenger idea as that is a. much shorter and b. appears to be lifted verbatim from the email records).

So, did I actually like the book? Loved it. Oh, is that not enough?

The version of tomorrow is entirely believable, extrapolating today’s world. China will soon become the biggest economy and dominant global power. Our obsession with image and celebrity will surely lead to disaster. Reliance on gadgets to achieve high social status is already with us. Politicians ignoring the people for their own power is easily demonstrable and the ensuing civil unrest is becoming commonplace.

Lenny and Eunice, along with their friends and family are well drawn characters who react to events and each other in authentic ways. They have well-round and distinctive personalities and struggle with both their relationships and the life events that affect them directly and indirectly. They are not simply set up with a series of barriers to over-come, but are simply doing the best they can as relationships, both grand and insignificant, crumble around them.

However, it is the writing and the imagination which really sell the book for me. It is why the characters and the setting work. Possibly because it is in dairy form, the writing flows and you are easily swept along with Lenny’s life. The satire is biting, especially as we watch loser Lenny’s sexual ratings increase thanks to people’s perception of him when he’s out with Eunice. I also enjoyed the comic touch of the Big Brother style government represented by a friendly otter in a cowboy hat. I am a fan of gadgets and social media, but have an intense dislike of celebrity culture and surface politics, so the tone and story of the novel speaks to me perfectly.

And once I finished I told my friend via Twitter that I loved the book and he DMed me back by saying “Its prescience is proven by the fact that we are discussing it on twitter via our apperatii no”. Yes.