Sarah also asked me which actress I thought should play a female Doctor – but you’ll have to look at her blog to see the three I suggested. In the pictures she’s chosen they all look eerily similar – which they didn’t at all in my mind’s eye; I was thinking more of their personalities or acting styles than their appearances. But it seems that I subconsciously see the Doctor with a blonde bob…
Thanks to everyone who has re-tweeted and re-posted my bit of Doctor Who news on twitter and elsewhere!
The Roots of Evil is one of the things I’ll be talking about at Phonicon, the Sci-Fi extranaganza which is set to take over Exeter’s Phoenix Arts Centre this coming Sunday (7th April). Doors open at 10.30 a.m., and I’ll be on stage at 11.00, so if you want to see me being interviewed you’ll need to be there good an early. (I’ll probably be hanging around for much of the rest of the day, though, so feel free to come and say hello).
There’s no official bookseller at Phonicon, and I’m not really geared up to sell heaps of my own books. I’ll be bringing a small selection with me, but if you want to get books signed it would probably be best to buy them in advance, or nip over to WHSmiths or one of Exeter’s two branches of Waterstones (all of which are fairly close to the Phoenix). The Waterstones nearest the cathedral should also have a few copies of The Exeter Riddles, the short book I wrote for the recent Animated Exeter festival.
Reading this recent interview with Tim Maughan on the Sense of Wonder blog reminded me that I’ve been meaning to repost my Solitary Bee review of his short story collection Paintwork here. As you’ll see if you read the interview, Tim and I are very different sorts of writer: he despises nostalgia and escapism, which are my stock in trade. But while I’m rummaging happily through the toy box of discarded Sci-Fi tropes, it’s great to find someone writing science fiction that’s inspired by the real world. If you haven’t read Paintwork yet it’s very good value and highly recommended – and I hope it marks the beginning of a very important and successful career.
If you’d asked me before I read Tim Maughan’s debut collection Paintwork, I’d probably have said that ‘Hip, cutting-edge cyberpunk with a techno-rave attitude’ wasn’t really my cup of tea. The observation, familiar from William Gibson and other cyberpunk writers, that the street finds its own uses for cutting edge technology, is indisputably true, but I’ve never really sought out books and stories based upon it – my own imagination is stuck too firmly in the pre-digital age.
But luckily I happened to sit on a reading by Tim Maughan at last year’s Bristolcon, and I was immediately struck by both the crisply imagined near-future setting and the energy of the language. “...it wasn’t the gait-trackers, face-clockers or even the UAVs that got 4Clover in the end. The word on the timelines had said it was a Serbian zombie-swarm hired by an irate art critic that had tracked him down and smeared his co-ordinates all across the Crime and ASB wikis.“
There are three stories in this short collection, and each is is set in the same very near and very credible future. In the title story a graffiti artist called 3Cube stalks the mean streets of Bristol, hacking into the QR codes on virtual reality advertising hoardings to overwrite their corporate messages with his own artwork. In Paparazzi, which again takes place in Bristol, a documentary maker is hired by powerful players of a MMORPG to infiltrate the game and and secure incriminating footage of a rival faction. In the third story, Havana Augmented, two young Cubans hack illegally downloaded VR games into new and startling forms. Each story is short (the whole book runs to 102 pages), but they have a power that is missing from many much longer works, and they linger in the memory.
Personally, I liked Paparazzi the least, but that’s because I’ve never really played a computer game, and find it hard to visualise immersive VR environments or understand their appeal; it’s still a perfectly good story. I preferred 3Cube, busy replacing the advertisements of tomorrow with his own haunting artworks, and the young heroes of Havana Augmented, who hack and soup up their Virtual Reality robo-warriors as skillfully as the previous generation of Cubans augmented their 1950s American automobiles. There are some exhilarating moments as their massive, digital ‘mechs’ do battle in the streets of Havana. Indeed, all the stories capture the excitement of the technology that is coming our way. But, while they are far too subtle to be called ‘Dystopian’, these are not upbeat visions of the future. Dystopian stories are basically escapism, smashing up the real world with all its complex problems and replacing it with one which is ostensibly worse, but usually far simpler. The stories in Paintwork build on the far scarier notion that the future will be just like the present only more so. Each is about a talented young person who is trapped or tricked by the corporate interests which control their world – interests which have little use for them, or for their skills. The technology of tomorrow is, all-too believably, used purely in the service of selling us stuff , like the ‘spex’ which everyone in the world of Paintwork wears, allowing them to see the virtual reality adverts and logos plastered all over it. When the hero of Paparazzi is asked to meet someone at Starbucks he he just blinks at the Google Earth logo at the bottom of her virtual invitation and his spex show him a trail of football-sized coffee beans hanging in the air, leading up Bristol’s Park Street to where, “High in the sunny Bristol sky he could see a ten metre high latte hanging like a hot air balloon, the huge green arrow suspended from its underside pointing down at the store’s location.“
Of course, Google are actually testing VR specs as I write this. Paintwork is built around technological developments so imminent that in a few more years I suspect we’ll all have them: we’ll all be following trails of virtual coffee beans into the future. Tim Maughan’s achievement is to take these dawning possibilities and spin them into pacy, cynical, neo-noir short stories. I hope he’s got a novel in the works.*
(I notice on the Smashwords site it says that ‘This book contains content considered unsuitable for young readers 17 and under,’ so You Have Been Warned… but I’m not sure what the unsuitable content is. There are some four-letter words among the dialogue, but nothing you couldn’t overhear in the average primary school playground. It strikes me as a book that a lot of teenagers would enjoy.)
The ‘Hip, cutting-edge cyberpunk with a techno-rave attitude’ quote comes from Gareth L. Powell
For the last few years I’ve been keeping my occasional book and film reviews separate from my personal stuff and news about my own books, by publishing them on my other blog, The Solitary Bee. But this blog gets so many more hits than the Bee that it’s a bit unfair to the authors I review to hide them away there, so in future I’ll be posting reviews here as well. If you haven’t read my reviews of recent books by Tim Maughan, Gareth L Powell, Kim Lakin-Smith, Deadly Knitshade, and Dave Shelton, you can find them all here.
Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard
I’ve sometimes been heard to say that science fiction will be the Next Big Thing in YA fiction, or at least that it ought to be. There have certainly been an awful lot of more-or-less SF-ish ‘dystopian’ novels recently, but most of them don’t seem very interested in actual science, so it’s nice to welcome one which is:
The first volume of a projected trilogy, Jonathan L Howard’sKatya’s World is set on a distant planet called Russalka which has been inhabited by colonists of mostly Russian ancestry. Since Russalka has no land, only an endless, storm-swept ocean, the inhabitants mostly live in pressurised environments beneath the sea. The prologue explains how and why this came to happen, and how the colony came to be first abandoned by, and then involved in a war with, its one-time masters on Earth.
The prologue is, unfortunately, the book’s major weak point. Oh, how the heart sinks when a SF novel kicks off with a whole chapter-length chunk of exposition! And it’s largely unnecessary in this case, because all the information it contains could easily have been revealed as and when we need to know it, in the course of the action. In fact, I’d be ready to bet that that’s how it was originally intended to be revealed: the prologue reads like something tacked on at the behest of an editor who thought young readers might be confused if everything wasn’t neatly explained up front. But don’t worry: as soon as it’s out of the way and the actual story gets going, Katya’s World exerts a grip which won’t let up till the final page.
Russalka is a greasy, grimy, ‘used future’, reminiscent in some ways of films like Alien, in which mankind has somehow developed interstellar travel and anti-gravity devices but continues to build claustrophobic submarines with technology pretty close to our own, and to indulge in familiar forms of inhumanity and political oppression. It’s full of shadowy cabins, dank corridors and the dim glow of computer screens, and although Jonathan L Howard doesn’t waste many words describing his settings it’s all very atmospheric.
The wider backdrop is interesting too: an uneasy political situation in the aftermath of war, with growing tensions between the submarine cities and the surface-dwelling Yagizban Enclaves. Into this mix come swimming a mysterious and hugely powerful war machine, the Leviathan, left over from the conflict with Earth and connected in some sinister way with Kane, the political prisoner whom young Katya Kuriakova and her uncle are ordered to transport aboard their civilian cargo submarine.
Needless to say, their apparently simple voyage goes quickly and desperately wrong, and before long Katya is involved with traitors, pirates, and terrifying artificial intelligences. There are quite a few chases, firefights and escapes, and several well-described submarine battles. There is plenty of awesome technology both under and above the sea, presumably all based on plausible science (I confess I can’t imagine how the anti-gravity machines are supposed to work, but what do I know?) and a lot of the action is built neatly out of the way submarines actually operate. There’s even a floating city called FP1, for people who like really obscure movie references.
Most importantly, the characters are engaging. All these submarines would quickly grow dull if we didn’t care about the people they contain, but Katya is a strong and likeable heroine, convincingly frightened for much of the time, but quick-thinking and intelligent enough to come up with sound solutions to most of the problems which the plot hurls at her. Kane is an intriguing figure, too – is he a villain or not? – and the rest of the cast (mostly pirates, submariners and gruff military types) are nicely rounded out, so that the good ones have their bad points and the bad ones are never wholly bad: even the charmless Officer Sukhalev gets a chance to shine.
And at the end there is an actual ending, which is always a worry when you start the first book of a trilogy. Plenty of loose ends remain a-dangling, ready to be gathered up in the next book, but this story concludes with a proper, spectacular climax rather than a cliff-hanger. It’s a highly effective, thought-provoking YA novel, and it left me looking forward to the next volume.