“A Planet For Rent” by Yoss (2001)

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“Step on up, ladies and gents, right this way!”

As we sit and watch the world slide further and further into an irreparable state of being (the only thing 2017 has on 2016 so far is the lack of deaths of icons, but possibly only because there aren’t any left), perhaps we’re all just wondering if something is going to come along and save us. The premise of Yoss’s science fiction novel is that Earth was on the brink of ecological and economic collapse, and the watching aliens (“xenoids”) who had been biding their time until it was right to make contact, instead made themselves known earlier than planned to save humanity from its own destruction. When humans did what they always seem to do and fought instead of accepting help, the xenoids nuked Africa off the face of the planet and enslaved everyone that was left. This is the state we find our home in at the start of A Planet For Rent.

Divided into seven main parts with smaller chapters of exposition in between, we now follow along behind some of the humans trying to eke out a living on the Earth without pissing off too many aliens. There aren’t many roles left for humanity now; you can become a social worker (i.e. prostitute) for the xenoid tourists, an artist, black marketeer, security worker, or if you’re talented, become an artist or athlete and have the xenoids admire you for that, if they have the capacity to do so.

The stories are loosely interconnected, with characters and events from each one being referenced throughout, and sometimes turning up in more than one. We meet basically one of each of the categories I mentioned above. Moy is a performer who kills himself nightly for the sake of art, only to be cloned back to life after each performance. Buca is a social worker who will be used as a vessel for a grodo to lay its eggs in. Friga, Jowe and Adam are trying to escape the Earth, which turns out to be an almost impossible feat. And Daniel is one of the greatest Voxl players in the galaxy, headhunted for his skills in the fast-paced sport.

As usual with books that have been translated (this one by David Frye from the original Spanish), it’s hard to know what gets lost in the transfer, but it’s a hell of a task, especially in a book containing numerous invented words for future technologies and alien races. A few mistranslations and spelling errors slipped through, but that hardly impacts the plot.

The book was very unstable in its ability to keep my interest. Some of the chapters were engaging and interesting, but others did nothing for me at all. The idea of a world where humanity has been enslaved by far richer aliens and the planet is now basically an amusement park for tourists is great, but I don’t feel enough was done with it. It’s also a good analogy for how humans have just colonised each other over the years, enslaving people from “newly discovered” countries, and supplanting the natives ways of life with their own. That is why we fear aliens or xenoids so much, because every civilisation is eventually crushed by one more powerful, and we’re just waiting for the next threat to come from outer space.

The thing that really intrigued me about this book, though, was the author himself, Yoss. Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in Cuba, Yoss is not only a science fiction author, but also the lead singer in the heavy metal band Tenaz. Of the two, he looks so much like a stereotypical rocker that it feels somewhat disparate to also equate him with this book. It’s smart, and there are some great ideas in here, but I wasn’t gripped enough by it and feel that so much more could have been done with the concept.

“Ape And Essence” by Aldous Huxley (1948)

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ape“It was the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance of the, after all, rather commonplace event they had turned out to witness.”

Aldous Huxley is almost certainly best remembered for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he churned out several books on his lifetime. I confess though that until recently I couldn’t have named another one. I stumbled upon Ape and Essence a few weeks ago, received it for my birthday yesterday, and finished it today. It’s a short one, but interesting and engaging. It all begins with a man called William Tallis.

Tallis is a scriptwriter, and when two Hollywood writers find a copy of his film script, the titular Ape and Essence, in a pile of scripts ready to be destroyed, they are intrigued and decide to seek him out, only to find that they are too late – Tallis is dead. This is all we know of these characters, as they merely serve as a framing device for the rest of the novel which is actually the film’s script, presented without annotations, footnotes or edits.

Tallis’s story takes place in 2108, a century after the planet was destroyed by nuclear weapons in the Third World War. Our heroes are the crew of the Canterbury, a ship carrying the New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition. New Zealand, it turns out, was just about the only country to survive the war as, due to their remote location, no one ever thought them worth nuking. The ship arrives on the coast of what was once California. Botanist and mother’s boy, Dr Alfred Poole, encounters some of the natives, a tribe of humans who believe that the destruction was the fault of the Devil, whom they call Belial. They now live in a society where sex it outlawed, except on one day a year for breeding purposes, women are seen only as vessels for children, and any baby born with deformities (which is desperately common thanks to all the radiation in the atmosphere) is killed in a religious ceremony. Poole is soon caught up in their activities, but when he falls for one of the tribes women, he begins to hatch a plan.

The title of the novel comes from the vignettes that crop up in Tallis’s script. The film would apparently have featured several surreal moments where baboons are pictured as the dominant race, with scientists like Einstein and Pasteur kept on chains as mascots and pets. At first I thought that Huxley was introducing us to a Planet of the Apes scenario, and perhaps inspiration was taken from here for that film, but the scenes exist simply to show us that we humans are just as primitive and violent as the animals we claim to be beneath us. All societies will, after reaching a certain level of power and arrogance, destroy themselves. There are even suggestions that this new civilization that has built up will go on to do the same again to itself.

It’s primarily a satire of the way that humans continue to conduct war and kill off our own kind for, often, superficial reasons. Huxley had of course lived through both World Wars, so knew from experience how violent and evil our species can be. While not one of his more famous works, and containing a definite thread of pessimism throughout, it’s an interesting look at a world that, like all good dystopian novels, feels impossible and yet all too real.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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1984-orwell

This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.

“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu (2015)

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time-salvager“A sliver of light cut through the void, shooting toward the center of the battle display.”

An ongoing theme of 2016 has been a fear for the future. Humans have always worried, but this year, with the terror of Brexit, several very high profile tragedies involving people from all walks of life, and a xenophobic madman just a few steps away from taking the most powerful office in the world, it makes anyone stop and think long and hard about what we might be stumbling into. I’ve been trying to give dystopian fiction because it feels too much like fact these days, but old habits die hard and that’s how I ended up in the horrendous future depicted in Time Salvager.

It’s 2511 and we meet James Griffin-Mars, a chronman who is one of an elite band of highly trained individuals who is employed to leap back in time and collect equipment that will help humanity in this future. The species is spread across the solar system, from Mercury to Eris, but it’s rapidly dying out. Heading back in time to collect energy sources and more mundane resources from spots in history that won’t alter the chronostream is the only way humanity is continuing to cling on. The Earth itself is poisoned and almost destroyed, with just a few cities left populated by scavengers and primitive tribes. The land, sea and air of our former home are all brown and grey, polluted and overrun with a plague that destroys everything it comes into contact with.

James is assigned a new task to rescue a power source from an oceanic rig in 2097, the year before World War Three started. If he succeeds in this job, he and his handler Smitt can retire to Europa and never have to work again. However, while there, he forms an attachment quickly to biologist Elise Kim, and when the rig begins to fall into the sea as history dictates, he breaks the first law of time travel and brings Elise with him back into the future to a world far grimmer than she could ever have imagined.

Now considered a fugitive, James must hide on the toxic wasteland that is Earth, in a city that once may have been Boston, and make sure that neither he or Elise are found by the ChronoCom, or worse, the megacorporation Valta. James may have some of the most advanced technology in history at his disposal, but it’ll take more than machinery to stay hidden and survive on that Earth.

Wesley Chu manages to neatly sidestep the question of how time travel actually works in this book, by having James explain that just because he uses it, it doesn’t mean he understands it. This is fair, really, because while I’m typing this on a laptop, I’d never be able to explain to a stranger exactly how it works. The vision of a brown, desecrated Earth is a terribly sad one, and the book suggests that life out among the planets isn’t much better. Humans have continued doing what they’ve always done – fought wars over resources – but we learn through neat exposition that the stakes always got bigger, whether humans were fighting for the rocky minerals of the asteroid belt, or mining the gas of Saturn and Neptune. Our knowledge of what happened between our time and 2511 comes piecemeal, explained to Elise by James. Humanity seemed to go through various phases, including one where the planet turned into something Orwellian for a while. Specific explanations of what the technology used by the characters are also fleeting, but you get the general idea.

James Griffin-Mars isn’t outstandingly interesting as a character. He’s plagued by guilt with all the people he’s left to die (chronmen must take resources from a point where it won’t affect the timeline, so it’s usually just before some major disaster was going to destroy the equipment anyway) and sees visions of some of these people. He’s also something of a cliched alcoholic who doesn’t like authority. He’s not entirely without redeeming features though. He’s brave and he certainly cares about (some) people, just often has a funny way of showing it. He also has the most character development throughout the novel, but it’s not much we haven’t seen before. The best characters are the two leading ladies, Elise Kim and Grace Priestly, the latter being the scientist who first drew up the rules of time travel and is almost worshipped by the chronmen and their organisation. They each lend James a touch of humanity, but in different ways, and allow us often to get a better grasp on what’s happening in this future.

Like most books set in dystopian futures, there is a note of hope in the text, especially towards the end, and a sense that while humans will almost always do the wrong thing first, they will eventually see the error of their ways and try to do the right thing, in their own slapdash, do-it-yourself style. Humans are the great survivors, and once more you get the impression that they’ll make it through this in one form or another.

A nice addition to the time travel canon, and definitely one for those who can’t get enough of this kind of stuff, but full to the brim with science fiction tropes. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

“Nod” by Adrian Barnes (2015)

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Sweet dreams aren't made of this...

Sweet dreams aren’t made of this…

“It’s getting harder and harder to tell the living from the dead.”

I like sleep. I don’t nap, something that many people find odd, but come the night time, I rather like drifting off and emerging seven or eight hours later (theoretically) refreshed. On the occasions that I don’t get enough sleep, I become incredibly grouchy, which isn’t unusual among us humans. Because while science still can’t tell us exactly why we sleep, there’s no doubt that we absolutely need to. After all, terrible things happen to those who don’t sleep, as Adrian Barnes discovers in his novel, Nod.

Paul is an etymologist who shuns most of society and sits at home writing his books, his primary source of social contact being his girlfriend Tanya. One morning, after Paul has had a wonderful dream, Tanya says that she didn’t sleep at all – didn’t even feel tired. Paul spends the day working, and it’s only when Tanya returns home that it turns out that pretty much no one slept at all. Maybe one in ten thousand people the world over managed to sleep that previous night. The pair watch the news into the evening where theories are spouted and a second sleepless night for the population passes.

On the third day, society begins to crumble.

Paul is one of the rare Sleepers, and with a lack of sleep, most of the population have begun to enter a state of psychosis and within a matter of weeks, they will all be dead. Paul must survive while watching Tanya fall to pieces in front of him, and soon the old world is replaced with a new one, with Paul as an unwilling prophet at the helm. Welcome to the Land of Nod.

The book spans a mere twenty-four days – that is how quickly this end of the world scenario takes place. It’s incredibly terrifying, seeing people very quickly lose their humanity and go mad. This is the apocalypse on steroids; a faux-zombie tale on fast forward. While Paul isn’t painted as a particularly nice man, somewhat self-absorbed at first, and used to his way of doing things – he is not a man who much likes change it seems – he appears to gain humanity while everyone around him loses it. The thought of having to live as the only sane man in a world gone crazy is torture that no one deserves, and it quickly becomes unclear whether it would be better to be a Sleeper or one of the Awakened.

Despite the horror and creepiness of the story, it is absolutely beautiful. Barnes writes like his words are being woven into a patchwork quilt, and there isn’t a dropped stitch or lose thread in it. There are many reflections on what it is to be human, an emphasis on our physical bodies and how there isn’t much more to us than that, and of course what happens to a world where everything is upside down and one of the fundamentals we’ve always taken for granted has been taken away. The images are vivid and the tension and terror are palpably real.

The author’s note at the back says that Adrian Barnes was diagnosed with brain cancer six months before its release, with a 1% chance of survival. I can’t find anything online to confirm it, but it would appear to be that he has departed this world by now, unless he has been phenomenally lucky. I hope he has. He draws some parallels at the end between living with that tumour that robbed him of some of his favourite things, and living in a world without sleep. It adds another layer of unbearable sadness to the novel.

A very poignant, terrifying look at humans at their least humane.

“Acceptance” by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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acceptance“Just out of reach, just beyond you: the rush and froth of the surf, the sharp smell of the sea, the crisscrossing shape of the gulls, their sudden, jarring cries.”

Sometimes reading a book feels like a duty, especially when it’s not a terribly good book. (Oh, have I revealed where I’m going with this one already? Whoops.) Acceptance is the third in the Southern Reach trilogy after Annihilation and Authority, so I was indeed only reading it to complete the series. As one may expect, this post will therefore be laced with spoilers, and since I don’t do “Read More” tags on here, they are about to begin.

The third book in the series follows three separate stories. The first is dealing with the lighthouse keeper, Saul Evans, from before the forgotten coast had become Area X had he was working to keep the lighthouse operative and tend the grounds. He has started a secret relationship with another villager, Charlie, and it is this and the visits from precocious pre-teen Gloria that keep him going. He is less impressed by the continual visits of Henry and Suzanne of the “Science & Seance Brigade” who seem to be conducting experiments inside his lighthouse, but he’s not sure of their nature.

The second story follows Control and Ghost Bird, the main characters of the second book. Ghost Bird is the clone of the biologist, one of the expedition members of the first book, and Control is the former head of Southern Reach, the organisation responsible for working out the secrets of Area X. They have crossed back over into mysterious area, and are now heading for Failure Island, across the bay, where a second lighthouse stands broken and unused, but they think there may be the answers they’re looking for over there, but the closer they get to answers, the closer they get to danger, too.

The third story is that of the Director, also of Southern Reach. Her story is that of her life, spanning her childhood and her enrollment into Southern Reach, and the issues with her colleagues there. She grew up in what is now Area X and is determined to go back again. Her story, like Saul’s, mostly takes place before the events of the first book, as she plots with her assistant director Grace to get in.

With a gap of seven and a half months between the second and third book in the trilogy, and fifty-odd books in between, it’s fair to assume that some of the details have been lost in my mind, and even after reading a synopsis of the last book, I found it difficult to connect the two again. It’s a complicated tapestry of stories and lies and characters who both are and are not who they say they are. It feels open-ended, with many questions still left unanswered. Maybe it does answer them but my brain had switched off and I didn’t notice. Who knows? But I know some definitely remain unclear.

It’s not the fault of the book – it’s entirely on me. The writing is atmospheric, creepy and oftentimes beautiful, but I find myself uninterested in most of the characters, and the plot gets away from me too fast, mostly because I’ve failed to remember where we were. But I think even if I had known with crystal clear precision, it wouldn’t have helped. Books need to grab you, and while this one does, it feels more like a hostage situation than being dragged off on a friendly fictional adventure. There’s much about loneliness in the book, and an appreciation for the natural world and things we can’t understand. Humans are shown as curious again, perhaps our most valuable trait, but the novel as a whole lacked something.

I’m not altogether sorry to be leaving Area X. Something magical happened here, I’m sure, but I can’t for the life of me express what it was.

“The Man In The High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (1962)

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A chilling alternate world

A chilling alternate world

“For a week Mr R Childan had been anxiously watching the mail.”

It’s been a busy week so it’s taken me longer than usual to plow through a relatively small book. What with the Olympics, the wedding of one of my best friends, the necessary post-wedding day of recovery, illness and the fact I’ve been getting through two books at the same time (the second to come soon), it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to make my way through this modern classic. Have these distractions affected my view of the book? Almost certainly. But first, on with the plot.

This book is set in an alternate 1963, in a divided USA ruled half by Germany and half by Japan, because this is a world where the Allies lost World War Two, and the Nazis and Japanese ended up all but taking over the planet. In this nightmarish vision of what-might-have-been, we follow several characters as they find their way through the world. Mr Childan is a shopkeeper specialising in Americana antiques, who comes to believe his reputation is tarnished after discovering he has been tricked into selling forgeries. Mr Tagomi is a Japanese businessman seeking the perfect gift for a client, and is struggling to do business with another man, Baynes, who keeps putting off any transactions.

Frank Frink is a Jew who has begun making homemade jewellery with the hopes of selling it off and making his money from it. His ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor who has begun a sexual relationship with an Italian truck driver called Joe, who introduces her to a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is banned in many parts of the world because it depicts an alternate universe – one in which the Allies won the war.

Their stories interweave and overlap as they navigate a life that we can only gaze at in horror. Here, the surviving Jews have mostly had to undergo facial restructuring and name changes to avoid detection in society. Slavery is legal, Africa has been all but wiped out thanks to further genocide, the Japanese influence on the world means that everyone makes decisions based on their readings of the I Ching, and Hitler is still alive, although very ill. The main point of divergence seems to come when FDR is assassinated, and thus the USA don’t have the leadership to perform well in battle, and are still undergoing a Depression when the war starts. Here, the Allies surrender in 1947.

The idea of the “story within a story” of what would happen had the Allies won is a really interesting concept, and the version of events in that story play out somewhat differently to what really happened too, giving us three versions of reality by the time we’re done. It’s a nice meta touch. In true Philip K. Dick form, however, many things are left unanswered, character arcs seem to go unfinished, and there’s not a real sense of conclusion about any of it. At least, I never felt there was. It’s a really interesting idea, and one that literature has explored frequently (in alternate history writing, I’m sure “What if Hitler had won the war?” must be the most common starting point), but I’ve seen it done better.

The jewellery-making subplot I find boring, and I never really clicked with Mr Tagomi. I find Mr Childan’s clumsy attempts to not offend his new Japanese friends quite endearing, and Juliana Frink is an incredible character and the most interesting by far. I understand why it’s a modern classic, and I think it’s an important, intelligent novel, and while it may be one of the first novels to properly explore a world where the Axis powers won, it isn’t the best one. Even Stephen Fry’s Making History is a more engaging example. It’s a novel worth reading for some really inventive ideas, but it’s never going to be a favourite of mine.

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