“The Future Of Another Timeline” by Annalee Newitz (2019)

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“Drums beat in the distance like an amplified pulse.”

The global conversation is seemingly in unison right now. Everyone is either arguing that they should all have the same rights in whatever country they live in, or they’re somehow holding on to outdated, nasty and horrible views that suggest people should be treated differently based on something like race or gender. It staggers me that we still have men’s rights activists who apparently believe that treating women the same as them is somehow making their life worse. Or white people who complain they’re being maligned by the phrase “Black Lives Matter”, missing the point that black people simply want to share the safety that they experience, rather than being gunned down by murdering cops for doing something innocuous like walking down the street. In fiction, these problems can be solved with a time machine, but here in the outstanding The Future of Another Timeline, we see how the technology could also exacerbate the problem.

Tess is a time traveller currently living in 2022 but devoted to rewriting the timeline to give women equal rights to men. She doesn’t quite live in our world – here, abortion is illegal in the USA, and Harriet Tubman was elected to the Senate – but things are not looking good, because every time she and her fellow Daughters of Harriet attempt to change the timeline to improve the lot of women, a group of men’s rights activists are also pouring down the timeline to make everything worse. Tess realises that things need to get a lot better quickly when she meets Morehshin, a woman from the distant future where women have it even worse, with men having taken control of their genetic make up, turning them into nothing more than a glorified queen bee. Tess makes her way downstream to 1893 at a turning point of history where she can bring about the end of the tyranny of men.

Elsewhere, in 1992, Beth is struggling with her teenage years. Her father is intensely changeable and she never knows what she’ll be in trouble for next or why, and her mother doesn’t stand up for her. All that keeps her sane is her best friend Lizzy and her love of punk rock bands, including the overtly feminist Grape Ape. After one concert, however, they witness their friend Heather getting raped, and the girls pile on, killing the rapist. Horrified by what they’ve done, Beth retreats into herself a little and vows it can never happen again. Lizzy, however, seems to have developed a taste for blood, and is prepared to kill any man who wrongs them or any woman. Beth isn’t sure that murder is the best course of action, and must tear herself away from her oldest friend.

And what does any of that have to do with Tess?

I found the time travel here really interesting. It only works from five specific locations in the world – Canada, Indonesia, India, Mali and Jordan – and appears to be something entirely natural, a certain glitch in geology that allows for wormholes to be opened. You can only travel back to previous times and while not everyone is able to access the Machines, time travel is a known technology and is taught in schools. Scientists and philosophers in this universe discuss the nature of time travel, free will, paradoxes and multiverses and are yet to reach a consensus on how history changes – is it down to one individual, or must there be a mass change?

The characters, too, are interesting and good fun. We mostly alternate between Tess and Beth, with occasional interruptions from other characters, who are each female or non-binary. Indeed, if it’s diversity you want, then it’s here and metered out perfectly. One character, C.L., uses gender neutral pronouns, and another of the Daughters of Harriet is a transgender woman. They’re fun characters who are not defined by these traits, and it’s always refreshing to see a queer person whose story does not revolve around the fact they are queer.

One wonders if perhaps the constant shifting in the timeline from the travellers is what is causing Beth’s father to be so changeable. Beth’s transgressions of the rules are often small, such as one day her father insisting that shoes are to be worn in the house at all times, and other days shouting at her that she must never wear shoes inside. Her father is certainly mentally ill, but one wonders if the ever-changing timeline has an effect too. Other things do change, as we see. After loving Grape Ape for years, they are later erased from the timeline, and when Beth undergoes an abortion after unprotected sex with her boyfriend, the story is told to us twice, once in a world where abortion is illegal, and once where it isn’t. Both times she tells the story as if that is what really happened, when we know that it’s just what happened in that timeline. Messing about in time produces a ripple effect, and we can never be sure what will change.

A beautiful, fascinating read about a world so close to ours but wildly different in many ways. One can only hope we are moving towards a better future in reality, too.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Accidental Time Machine” by Joe Haldeman (2007)

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“The story would have been a lot different if Matt’s supervisor had been watching him when the machine first went away.”

The way things are right now, I wouldn’t mind a time machine. Forwards or backwards, I’m not really fussy, just somewhere other than here. If we ever do get around to inventing time travel, I would imagine 2020 will be a no-go area. But let’s not get bogged down in reality – we’re here for the fiction.

It’s the 2050s, and Matt Fuller is working with little to gain in the physics department at MIT. That is, he thinks he has nothing to gain until the calibrator he is using to measure quantum relationships between gravity and light disappears, only to reappear a second later. Indeed, every time Matt presses the button, the machine vanishes for twelve times longer. Matt, it seems, has become the world’s only owner of a functioning time machine. Deciding to test it further, he borrows a car from a friend and catapults himself into the following year, only to find that he’s wanted for the murder of his friend, who died of a heart attack upon seeing the car disappear.

With the police after him, Matt has little choice but to keep leaping forward into an unknown future, each time getting further and further away from the world he is comfortable with. He is desperate to find somewhere he can be safe, but as he leaps through a deeply conservative Christian future, another where everyone is rich from birth, and on to even stranger worlds, he wonders if there is in fact anywhere he will ever be safe again.

Although the pacing is somewhat uneven and some of the later events don’t feel like they’re explained enough, it’s an enjoyable romp anyway and that’s about all you can hope for from a time travel story. The first leaps don’t take him far into the future, so the world is recognisable, but then once he begins leaping hundreds or thousands of years at a time, some changes become more pronounced. I say “some” because even 4000 years into the future, language seems to have changed little. The people of that time say that that’s because they still watch 21st century films, but let’s be honest, if we leapt back 4000 years, language would be entirely different. This is pointed out by some of the characters but we never get a fully satisfactory answer.

Nonetheless, the characters are fun and some of the future technologies and scenarios are interesting, although sometimes feeling like alternate Earths rather than future ones. Two hundred years into the future, Matt meets Martha in a USA that has seen the Second Coming of Jesus, eradicated most science and now operates on mostly medieval technologies and belief systems. For a while, we may even be dragged along in believing that Jesus did return, but we soon see the truth. I also like the idea that wherever he goes, he ends up in trouble with the police, because some things never change. The final chapter, too, is more satisfying than I thought it might be, and brings the story to a decent conclusion. Not everything is tied up, but it works perfectly well enough for me.

A fun exploration of some potential futures for us, and a very pleasing escape.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Island Of Doctor Moreau” by H. G. Wells (1896)

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“I do not propose to add anything to what has already been written concerning the loss of the Lady Vain.”

Some classics really enter the cultural conversation. Most people could probably give a rough summary of what happens in Lord of the Flies or 1984. Others, however, sink a little lower. We know the names, we might be able to pluck out a single detail or two, but the whole plot is only accessible to someone who has gone to the source. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those for me. Not as famous as some of H. G. Wells’s other works, the closest I’d got to it before now was a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons. Time to set sail to Noble’s Isle.

Edward Prendick has survived the shipwreck of the Lady Vain, and against all odds is rescued by a ship carrying various wild animals and their keeper, Montgomery. The animal keeper nurses Prendick back to health, but after a dispute with the ship’s captain, Prendick is put ashore with Montgomery and all the animals on an island that he’s never heard of.

Here he meets the enigmatic and sinister Doctor Moreau. This name he knows – Moreau was cast out of London society for his controversial experiments and studies in the field of vivisection. Prendick is not welcome on the island and kept as far away from Moreau and Montgomery as possible, but he soon discovers that this island is not all it appears. It holds a dark and terrifying secret – Doctor Moreau has been playing God.

In the 1890s, it seems that Wells had an obsession with beasts and where humans stood in relation to all over animals. Part of this was probably down to the fact he studied under T. H. Huxley, a disciple of Charles Darwin. In several of his books of the time, he explores the differences between man and beast. In The Time Machine, we see humanity evolve into hideous creatures. In The War of the Worlds, he sees humanity destroyed by alien beasts. Here, two become one, as – and I think the statue of spoilers will cover me on a book that was published over 120 years ago – man and animal have been spliced together to create hideous monsters, neither quite one thing or the other.

All told, I was fairly disappointed with the story. I appreciate it’s “of it’s time” and all that, but there was so much more that could’ve been done with it, I felt, and it all ends on a bit of an anticlimax. Moreau is creepy, but I didn’t feel he got enough page time for us to really come to fear or loathe him, and Prendick is a classically blank Victorian hero, his abstinence from alcohol being one of his few notable traits. The Beast Men are creepy, however, with just enough information given for us to conjure up our own images but not so much that we fully understand what we’re seeing. Special mention to the sloth creature, who is unnerving in a whole other way, if not specifically scary.

An interesting tip into Victorian literature, but there is a reason it doesn’t sit at the top table of the classical canon.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Doctor Who: 11 Doctors, 11 Stories” by Various (2013)

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“The Doctor was not happy with his new bio-hybrid hand.”

Admit it. Even if you’re not a big Doctor Who fan, and even if you’ve never seen an episode, you know at least that it’s about an alien who has a box that can travel anywhere in space and time, and every now and then he picks up some lucky human to go and have adventures with him (or her). Right now, we all need a little escapism, and I wouldn’t mind if any of them crashed into my bedroom to carry me off to far flung times and places.

In 2013, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the show, eleven of the world’s finest authors got together and each penned one new story for each Doctor. Of course, since then we’ve had another two, so you can see how long this has been sitting on my shelf. Nevertheless, here we go. Eleven new stories…

  • “A Big Hand for the Doctor”: The First Doctor and Susan are in 1900, dealing with space pirates who have stolen the Doctor’s hand, meaning he has to not only send them back home, but also find a fitting replacement.
  • “The Nameless City”: The Second Doctor and Jamie find themselves in possession of the Necronomicon and are transported to the edge of the universe to deal with the consequences.
  • “The Spear of Destiny”: The Third Doctor and Jo are on the hunt of the Spear of Destiny, in a journey that takes them to the Viking lands of ancient Sweden to deal with an old foe who is up to his old tricks.
  • “The Roots of Evil”: The Fourth Doctor and Leela climb aboard a moon-sized tree orbiting a barren planet, and while the Doctor is keen as ever to help those on board who are in need, none of the tree’s residents are a fan of his for reasons he can’t understand.
  • “Tip of the Tongue”: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa are tracking down some nastiness in mid-century America where a new toy is seeding discomfort and trouble in an already divided nation.
  • “Something Borrowed”: The Sixth Doctor and Peri are drawn to a planet that looks like Las Vegas dialled up to eleven, where marriage is the most important institute in their society. Someone else has arrived early though, and intends to use this obsession for their own dastardly ends.
  • “The Ripple Effect”: Caught in a Temporal Plexus, the Seventh Doctor and Ace emerge to find themselves in an alternate universe where Daleks are peaceful scholars and no one can imagine them as doing anything evil.
  • “Spore”: The Eighth Doctor travels alone to Roswell in 1947 where a deadly virus is intent on wiping out every living thing on Earth, unless the natives can answer a question that will ensure their society’s survival.
  • “The Beast of Babylon”: Brushed off by Rose, the Ninth Doctor travels alone to deal with a race of horrific monsters in ancient Babylon, and along the way gives a test drive to another potential companion.
  • “The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage”: The Tenth Doctor and Martha find themselves inside a literal storybook, and it transpires that this is a tale that might not end happily ever after, unless they can work out who put them there and how they can escape.
  • “Nothing O’Clock”: And finally, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy stumble into a plot of the Kin, a population made up of one member, to buy Earth in a financial takeover so they can live there in peace. The Doctor is, funnily enough, not so keen on the idea and sets about making things right.

It’s at this point in reviewing a short story collection that one is entitled to say, “They’re a bit hit and miss”. But actually, they aren’t. Each author combines their unique voice with the particular style of each Doctor, seeming to understand perfectly well how their eras used them. Even the titles feel like episode titles that each one would have appeared in. Eoin Colfer kicks it off with the First Doctor and knows how to make him perfectly pompous, and even includes a typically Whovian nod to how the Doctor inspired a writer to pen a story. Malorie Blackman takes on prejudice in her Seventh Doctor story, with a tale that shows an alternate world her Noughts and Crosses series, where people take on different roles to the ones in the history we are more familiar with.

Neil Gaiman gives the Eleventh Doctor an outing with plenty of complicated time travel as we’ve got used to in the later series, and Richelle Mead does a grand job with the Sixth Doctor, widely regarded as the least favourite, but giving him a fun story with a unique world. Charlie Higson tackles the Ninth Doctor, giving us the story of what happened at the end of his first televised episode and one of the most surprising twists in the whole book. The worlds they all build are fun and huge, simply because the Doctor Who toybox is, quite literally, infinite. It’s infinite nature is therefore one of the key reasons I’m so annoyed they all spend so much time in twenty-first century London on the show, but on the page you aren’t limited by the budgets of location and costume, so the more alien stories can occur there.

An excellent romp through the Doctor’s many lives and a chance to get one more adventure from each of them.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Before The Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2019)

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“Oh gosh, is that the time?”

I think we all sometimes want to have access to a time machine. We’d like to go back and explore older times, or have one more day with those we’ve lost, or maybe skip ahead a few years and see if things really do get better. It’s a bleak time at the moment on planet Earth, so escapism is key to staying sane during the next couple of months, whether we’re quarantined or not. (Note to readers from the future: This post is being written during the rise of the coronavirus crisis, with Italy and Spain already entirely locked down.) When looking for something charming to read, there are worse places to escape to than Japan.

The small cafe of Funiculi Funicula in Japan has been beset by rumours for years. The urban legend goes that it is possible to travel in time in the cafe, although people say that you can’t change anything in the present by doing so, meaning that the legend eventually recedes as no one can see what the point of going back in time is if things will only stay the same. Nevertheless, Kei, Nagare and Kazu continue to run the cafe for the clientele who want to visit. Once in a blue moon, someone decides to see if the rumours are true, and will often be surprised when they are.

The story follows four people who use the cafe to travel in time. There’s the woman who wants to confront her ex-boyfriend, the woman who wants to get a letter her husband never sent, someone trying to connect with her sister one final time, and the fourth who just wants to spend some time with her daughter. Each gets their wish, but they are held to account by the rules. You can only travel by using one particular chair in the cafe. You may not leave this chair while in the past. And the most important rule of all: the time limit. You only have until your coffee gets cold…

I’m still a relative newcomer to Japanese literature, but from what I’ve learnt so far, they have an impressive skill of creating stories that are equal parts beautiful and weird. The writing is charming and somewhat melodic in places, heavily reliant on repetition which builds up a sense of tradition and protocol that whatever is happening is somehow sacred. Everything is done in a very specific way, and while the owners of the cafe take no responsibility regarding what happens when you’re travelling, sometimes they do have a contingency plan in place to make sure you don’t get stuck in the past.

It’s a small cast of characters and just a single, beautifully described location, but everyone feels real and struggling with their own tragedies and anxieties. Like other magic realism from Japan, such as If Cats Disappeared From The World, you don’t question the oddness and instead just accept that, of course, this is part of the reality. None of it feels frivolous or silly and you become emotionally invested in the stories of these people. The key theme, though, is that we shouldn’t be living in the past and moving on is healthy. Don’t forget the times and people who came before, but do not dwell on things you cannot change or always wondering “What if?”

Well worth the hype. Forgo your lattes for a few days and buy this instead.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Long War” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (2013)

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“On an alternate world, two million steps from Earth: The troll female was called Mary by her handlers, Monica Jansson read on the rolling caption on the video clip.”

It’s another one of those posts that’s about a sequel. Go and read The Long Earth and then come back here. Done that? Great. Welcome! On we go…

It’s been twenty-five years since Step Day, the fabled day that people learned they could step to parallel Earths where they have access to all the space and resources they could wish for with minimal interference from the governments of home. The Long Earth is flourishing, with people setting up new colonies over a million steps away from home. As people begin to shape the new Earths, the new Earths fight back.

Because it turns out that events are taking their toll on everyone. New societies resent answering to the politicians at home and have no interest in paying taxes when the government give them nothing in return. Humans have also begun to turn on the trolls, a peaceful and musical race of humanoids with a curious hive mind, and the more trolls learn about humans, the fewer of them there seem to be around, which is a problem as they had been serving as a cheap and willing addition to the workforce. It also turns out that trolls aren’t the only other sapient species out there, and soon humans find themselves crossing paths with the sly kobolds and the dog-like beagles.

Joshua Valienté, famous for exploring further than anyone else, has settled down with his wife and son and has no desire to be as famous as he is. However, when news of a war is brewing, he gets summoned to assist, reunited with omnipotent intelligence Lobsang and survivalist Sally Linsay. Elsewhere, Sally has her own mission in mind, the American military is sending out troops to reunite the various Americas, and the Chinese have just launched a mission to get twenty million worlds east from the homeland. As things come to a head, it seems that it’s not just people that are going to change, as a good number of the alternate Yellowstone Parks have begun to show unusual activity…

The concept remains strong, but there are so many threads here that sometimes you have to run to keep up. Each of the individual stories, while they do eventually all sync up right at the end, would work in a book of its own, and while you’re jumping around them all, none of them maintain their momentum. That’s not to say it’s a bad book. The combined imagination of Baxter and Pratchett leads to pure magic, and the worlds we get to see are remarkable. Many of them are pretty much the same as Earth, just with no people and a slightly different evolutionary path for everything else, but some of the more unusual ones are fun. One Earth contains enormous swarms of huge locusts, their existence theorised to be because pterosaurs never evolved here to start eating them. In another, intelligent tortoises rule the planet. One very odd one is as smooth as a cue ball and no one can explain why or how. The sandpit that the authors have unleashed has infinite games to play in it, and I hope that the future books explore more of these. Yes, the people are interesting, but there’s a universe of concepts here, and boy do I love a good concept.

It’s also amazing to see the other sapient species and learn how their culture works. They have entirely different sets of honour systems or languages. The beagles, a race of wolf-like bipeds, communicate mostly by smell and believe that death is a high honour because life is cheap among them. All this really adds to the story, and takes you away from wondering quite how all of the more minor stuff is happening. I’m not complaining about it, but I don’t want to spend too long wondering how new cities are built in the alternate Earths. Just let it be.

A little bit of a slog, but I’ll be stepping on to the next book soon enough.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Trouble On Titan” by Alan. E Nourse (1954)

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“Telegram! Telegram for Tucker Benedict!”

I picked up this book in one of my favourite London bookshops, Skoob. A paradise of second-hand books, the place is heaving with titles you’d never know about otherwise, and this was one of them. I’ve read very little science fiction of this sort, where it’s all rockets and moon colonies and the like, so adopting their spirit of adventure, I went for this one because of its slightly silly title and decided to expand my horizons.

The novel begins around the year 2200, and Tuck Benedict has been asked to accompany his father to Titan to deal with a reported case of smuggling that is causing problems in the moon’s mining colony. There have always been rumours on Earth about those who work in the mines of Titan, digging up ruthenium that is required to make life on Earth so easy and energy so plentiful. Originally a penal colony, Earthsiders believe that everyone there is an untrustworthy monster. When they arrive, however, things don’t seem to be that simple.

The current leader, Anson Torm, is dealing with the rebel faction led by John Cortell, who is sick of being treated badly by people on Earth and now threatens to blow up the whole colony and stop ruthenium production unless they get what they want. Smuggling is now the least of their worries, and with something going on that is only referred to as “The Big Secret”, whatever Colonel Benedict and Tuck do now could have huge repercussions for everyone back home…

OK, so first, I have to talk about what a product of the time this is. It’s set two hundred years from now but it was written seventy years ago, so a lot of Nourse’s view of the future is hilarious. There’s no Internet (there never is in future-based science fiction written before the late nineties), no mobile phones, no gender equality, and people still seem to use telegrams and letters to communicate. The weirdest moment of this future is when one of the characters is smoking a pipe in a restaurant. This already feels so archaic. None of this is Nourse’s fault, however. He can’t predict what’s going to happen – and actually his guess that humanity first landed on the moon in 1976 isn’t far off – but he’s so tied to his own time and place that he can’t envision these everyday things changing. There is, I think, only one female character with any dialogue, and all the women mentioned are described in terms of how they’re related to the men.

All in all, the story is a bit thin. Granted, there are no real subplots, so we’re just focusing on the main issue, but it really reads like a punchy adventure tale from a boys’ magazine of the time. The plot leaps about, people refuse to talk but others intuit what’s going on immediately. People spend a lot of time with their faces going white with fear, shock or panic. There are some nice touches, such as the reveal that Titan is home to a species of silicon-based “half-living things” called “clordelkus”. They make a couple of appearances and are described as harmless, but it’s more of a throwaway comment and no one seems that impressed at having encountered alien life. Nourse was at least thoughtful enough to make them truly bizarre.

I can’t say I was hugely captivated by the story, but it was interesting enough and a good reminder that sometimes it’s fun to dip into a genre you don’t normally deal with. And since I’ve got a science fiction project on the back burner, I should get learning how to construct them.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Skin” by Liam Brown (2019)

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“It’s hard to think of you as anything other than an egg.”

I’m quite a tactile person. There’s something pleasant about being close to the people you love, and while these days many of my communications with my friends take place via screens, I’m always keen to be able to see them in the flesh again. There is often talk that people are retreating behind their devices, hiding themselves away privately and not wanting to interact with one another in “the real world”. This is nonsense. People, as a general rule, like being with other people. But what if we couldn’t be with other people anymore? What if it was illegal?

Skin opens five years after a pandemic that saw a curious virus sweep the globe and take out most of the population. While the causes were confused at first, it turns out that the virus rendered humans allergic to one another. Standing next to another person could be fatal, a “kiss of death” no longer a metaphorical term. The survivors have now retreated to their homes and apartments, and even families no longer see one another, instead spending their days in individual rooms, only communicating via phones and computers. In some ways, nothing at all has changed.

Angela Allen is struggling with the new world. Distanced from her husband and two children, all of whom become more and more like strangers every day, her sole distraction is her fortnightly jaunts out into the abandoned streets as part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. As long as she keeps to the path and wears her hazmat suit at all times, nothing can go wrong. That is, until on one of her trips she sees a strange man walking through town. She doesn’t know him, but she does know that the fact he’s not wearing so much as a face mask is strange. Is he immune, or insane? Driven on by curiosity, Angela tries to communicate with him and in doing so threatens whatever stability remained in her life as everything she knew is fundamentally rewritten.

Like all the most chilling dystopian visions in fiction, this one is centred around something that humanity can’t control. It’s not a climate disaster, or a political situation, but rather a disease for which there’s no cure. While the cynicism abounds that the future of sitting at home in front of a screen is what humanity has made for themselves anyway, Angela’s frustration and longing to leave is well displayed. If anything, she still seems too calm. After being in this situation for five years, perhaps everyone has just got used to it now and takes it in their stride. Had we joined the story after a year, things might have been very different.

The main plot is interspersed with what happened to Angela and her family in the immediate aftermath, showing them escaping the city and trying to survive. Here, the family learn who they really are when the chips are down, and they don’t necessarily like what they see. I’m always a bit fascinated by how quickly people lose their humanity in situations like this, and I hope that we never have to find out for real as I don’t think the results would be particularly pretty.

Unfortunately, as the book draws to a conclusion, it leaves us with too many unanswered questions to be entirely satisfying. I’m someone who enjoys an open-ended book, as endings are often a bit too artificial, but here we’re left with no resolution on much of anything. Sure, this is fitting in some ways, as Angela isn’t going to be told what’s happened to the other characters given the nature of her world, but as a reader it feels a bit disappointing. The final reveal as well, which we realise was seeded a long time ago and quite cleverly too, is somewhat depressing as well and a little contrived, and you get the impression that whatever happens next, it won’t be good for anyone involved.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (2013)

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“In a forest glade: Private Percy woke up to birdsong.”

The multiverse theory has always been an interesting one. It suggests that our universe is not the only one in existence, but that there are other options out there, perhaps an infinite number. It is popularly assumed that they also represent alternate timelines and possibilities for the Earth and its occupants, and if only we could tap into them, we could see how things might have turned out. Because of this, alternate history stories are commonplace and often rich in imagination. However, when the greatest minds of science fiction and fantasy come together, it produces something special.

Step Day changed everything. When a reclusive scientist goes missing, leaving behind only instructions for the creation of a Stepper, the world will never be the same again. Anyone can make a Stepper, and with it pass from this world into alternate Earths, soon discovering that they go on and on. Some people use it to flee from responsibility. Others want to explore. Some still can see this as an opportunity to access resources and riches that they can’t get on what is now called Datum Earth.

Joshua Valienté is, however, one of a rare breed of people called natural steppers. Without the use of a device, he can cross through to the other Earths without any of the side effects of illness that most other people experience. He is hired by the transEarth Institute to travel through the Earths up to the “High Meggers” – the distant Earths – and learn more about these worlds. Accompanied by Lobsang who is either the soul of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman caught in software or a genuinely sentient AI, Joshua begins a journey through thousands of worlds, but with eighty per cent of people on Earth now able to access these worlds and evolution having produced different results elsewhere, he’s soon going to find there are far more questions than answers out there. Where have the worlds come from? Who are the trolls and what are they running from? And why can’t you move iron across a boundary?

I’ve not read much Stephen Baxter, but what I have is always phenomenal. He is truly one of the greatest science fiction writers in history, and the only reason I haven’t read more is that they’re usually very long and hefty tomes. Everything he writes, no matter how impossible it seems at first, comes across as realistic and perfectly probable. Pratchett, I am always more wary of and still can’t fully embrace the Discworld novels. However, as with Good Omens, it seems that, for me at least, Pratchett is best when tempered by someone else, but his imagination and humour come through here for sure, and a lot of the jokes and pop culture references are certainly his doing.

Between them, they have produced a scenario that is fascinating. True consideration has gone in to what would happen in a world like this. Religious factions spring up, crime becomes complicated on Datum Earth but rarely seen anywhere else due to the abundance of resources, and there is a lot of rearranging of economics and philosophy required. I also like the reaction of various nations to the change. The USA, for example, attempts to claim all versions of American soil as their own. Australia’s indigenous people disappear through the worlds in record numbers. The UK is one of the few countries that tries to ban stepping, but most of the population can’t be bothered with it, given Britain is routinely so densely forested it’s hard to get very far.

We meet a lot of characters, all going through different things and showing the different ways people reacted to the aftermath of Step Day, and the timeline jumps back and forth with reckless abandon. The stars of the book for me, however, are the Earths themselves. They are mostly uniform, and generally the further you get from Datum Earth, the warmer they become. Evolution seems to be fairly universal too. Homo sapiens are unique, although hardly the only hominid, but evolution will pretty much always throw up things that (broadly speaking) can be called fish, elephants, pigs, deer and dogs. The truly remarkable worlds are the ones where something very odd has happened, such as being entirely covered in water, lacking a moon, or showing evidence of an intelligent species descended from the dinosaurs. The book passes through well over two million new Earths, and I’d (probably) happily read a guidebook to each and every one of them.

There is so much going on here, and I’m already intrigued to continue the journey with the rest of the series.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Thunderhead” by Neal Shusterman (2018)

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“Peach velvet with embroidered baby-blue trim.”

Last year, fiction conquered death. I’m now back with the sequel. As ever when reviewing a sequel, spoilers are abound so if you haven’t read Scythe or don’t want to know what happens next, look away now. We’re about to dive in. For those who need a refresher, however, recall that this series is set several centuries into the future where natural death has been eradicated, everyone only dies when chosen by a scythe, and the otherwise fairly utopian world is governed by the Thunderhead, a sentient AI that remains neutral and neither can or will interfere.

A year has passed since the events at the end of the last book. Rowan has been off-grid all this time, and has managed to turn himself into an urban legend, using the skills he learnt in his apprenticeship to hunt down corrupt scythes and glean them for good. No one has ever caught him, and for now it seems that no one ever will. Elsewhere, Scythe Anastasia – formerly Citra Terranova – is getting into the swing of her role, and has developed her own way of gleaning. She gives people a month’s notice to get their affairs in order and then lets them choose their own method of death.

Things in government, however, are not so rosy. A schism is forming in the Scythedom, with some believing the old ways are best and others looking for total reform. Worse still, it seems that someone is trying to glean Scythe Anastasia and Scythe Curie, and no one is quite sure who. The Thunderhead might know, but it is forbidden from speaking to the scythes. Instead, it nudges Greyson Tolliver, a neglected young man who was all but raised by Thunderhead into acting on its behalf, but the consequences are severe.

With confusion reigning across the Scythedom, and with High Blade Xenocrates standing down as the leader of the MidMerica region, there is a time for change ahead. But when an old face that everyone thought they’d seen the last of reappears and another lost figure has solved a centuries old puzzle which could save the world, nothing is certain anymore.

The first book in the series very much dealt with the nature of being a scythe, explaining how their government works, how they are trained, and what rules surround their jobs. This time, the focus shifts slightly and we get to learn a lot more about the Thunderhead. As sentient AI systems go, it seems one of the most benevolent. It provides for people and can control most aspects of the world including the weather and unemployment levels, but never interferes with anyone specifically. The Thunderhead and the Scythedom also cannot speak to one another, which feels like a massive oversight in the system, and this comes into play here.

As before, it’s a fascinatingly complex world that Shusterman has designed here. Set far enough into the future for everything to be slightly too weird, it is a world unlike ours in many ways, but humans will always be humans, so their failings continue even if their deaths have ended. The viewpoint jumps around considerably, but that just makes the world richer, as if we were following the action from just one or two places, the story wouldn’t have nearly as much depth. Like Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, it feels like one of those worlds where morality is not tied to the “black and white” philosophy, and where you can see points on both sides. One can imagine how the series will end, but I’m not sure quite how we’re going to get there, as the book ends on a superb cliffhanger, and with several of the characters we’ve grown to know and love, well, if not dead then deadish.

The Toll, the third and final book in the series is out next week, and I will be getting to it sooner rather than later.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

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