“Darwin’s Soldiers” by Ste Sharp (2018)

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“Private John Greene of the Royal Fusiliers stumbled through the dim forest with the Lewis light machine gun held tight across his chest and his khaki bags strapped across both shoulders.”

War! Huh! What is it good for? Well, interesting fiction, for one thing. The fictional world seems to be at war almost continuously, but who can blame it when it’s been created by a species that has spent much of history perfecting the art of killing its own members. Darwin’s Soliders brings together an eclectic mix of history’s fighters to create a unique and compelling new novel.

John Greene is fighting in the Great War, missing his son Joe, and wishing he wasn’t sat in a trench, stinking of rat shit, as gunfire whistles overhead. And then suddenly, he isn’t. He finds himself on a strange hill, facing a white obelisk and all around him are hundreds of others, but they aren’t the rest of his regiment. He’s here with members of every major army in human history, from Aztec to Zulu, via Viking, Spartan, Babylonian, Mongol, Celt, Amazonian, and even wars that haven’t yet happened in his timeline.

The carving on the obelisk gives them a message – this new army has fourteen days to reach the silver gates, where they will apparently achieve victory. But first they need to solve the problem of working together, as each of them has a particular set of skills. And things get more complicated as they begin their trek through this strange new world and they begin to develop unusual abilities, be they extra limbs, sonar, or telepathy. As they get deeper into this strange situation, they discover that they aren’t the first beings to have been brought here, and it isn’t just the environment that wants to kill them…

Ste Sharp, like me and my second novel, crowdfunded this book via Unbound, but it’s publication was an inevitability, as someone would’ve picked it up eventually. The concept alone is amazing and while I’m not generally someone who reads much about war, I was curious as to how this would play out. It’s like one of those idle Internet questions – “Who would win in a fight between a Viking and a Roman?” – but played out for real. The literal evolution of the characters to gain new abilities that help them in warfare is also useful, and Sharp clearly enjoyed giving everyone superpowers. They are also explained away quite nicely, such as one character’s new ability to see sonar being due to a growth in his sinus cavity.

The amount of research in this book is absolutely staggering. While Sharp includes some of his own creations, such as soldiers from the future, mushrooms that allow for communication between races, and a Celtic tribe that didn’t exist, and, of course, all the aliens, much of the information is factually correct as he has studied the methods and weaponry of everyone from the Japanese samurai to the explosives experts of World War Two. This all brings the novel to life and drags you deeper inside it. The other races he’s created too are all superbly rich in their description, and none of them are just humanoid rip-offs of our species, but instead run the gauntlet from cat-people and robots to indescribable lobster-like beasts with too many eyes and claws and not enough empathy.

The pacing is unstoppable and even from the opening, there’s no farting about and we’re immediately on that hill, surrounded by soldiers, sharing in their confusion. Much of the rest of the novel centres around combat and there are few books more action-packed than this. It’s a hefty tome, but entertaining, never particularly dragging. It ends on a neat note that sets up the promised sequel – and I for one already can’t wait to get my hands on it.

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“Galapagos” by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)

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“The thing was: One million years ago, back in A.D. 1986, Guayaquil was the chief seaport of the little South American democracy of Ecuador, whose capital was Quito, high in the Andes Mountains.”

Earlier this year, I made my way via book to the remote Falkland Islands. This time, I’ve schlepped across South America and disembarked on the Galapagos islands the other side. With Kurt Vonnegut as my guide, I should’ve realised that this was going to be odd, but it’s been a while since I’ve read him, and I’d forgotten just quite how strange he is.

Narrated by a ghost (who happens to be the son of Vonnegut’s recurring science fiction author Kilgore Trout), Galapagos spans the eons, taking in both the year 1986 when the economy crumbled and the world as we know it ended, and a million years later – the book’s present – where the only surviving humans live on the Galapagos Islands and have evolved to suit their new habitat. The new humans are descended from the tourists aboard the “Nature Cruise of the Century”, a planned tour to the islands that Darwin made famous that never quite lived up to expectations.

While the ship was originally planning to have such illustrious passengers as Jackie Onassis and Rudolf Nureyev, in the end there were just eleven people on board, including the captain, a retired schoolteacher, a con artist, a pregnant Japanese woman, a blind woman reliant on her father, and the last six members of the Ecuadorian Kanka-Bono tribe. The only other thing that survived the end of the world was Mandarax, a tiny marvel of electronics that can translate almost any language, recite thousands of literary quotes, and diagnose over a thousand diseases. As the humans evolve and adapt to their new way of life, the old ways of humanity with their society of big brains quickly fades into history, and the question is raised – are things better for it?

Vonnegut is of course one of the most wonderful writers of the last century, but as mad as a box of mushrooms. He’s on good form here, with a slightly daft premise that manages to bring up all the big topics regarding humanity and our dangerous brains. The non-linear structure works well and with the narrator existing a million years beyond most of the action, it allows him to give us the salient facts in the order he sees fit. When a character is due to die soon, they gain an asterisk before their name. At first this is sign-posted, but eventually it just happens without mention and you realise that another one is on their way out in the next few chapters.

Some of the activity is naturally far-fetched, such as the methods of artificial insemination used on the island, the speed of evolution (although arguably it is sped up thanks to nuclear fallout), the appearance of ghosts and the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife, and the sheer number of rare and unusual illnesses contained inside the few survivors, but because it’s Vonnegut it still works. While he’s somewhat vague about what exactly happens to humanity in its isolation – aside from revealing that our descendants have small brains, flippers and fur – he spends a lot of time pointing out the insanity of our modern world and the damage our big brains have done to the planet and to one another. Vonnegut goes to far to state that all the problems of humanity were caused by “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain”. When natural selection decides that a slim, streamlined head is more use than an oversized cranium, the brain begins to shrink and humanity returns to the water.

Vonnegut also makes a big deal about the inter-connectivity of things. The smallest things have the biggest impacts on the future, with the narrator pointing out that had something trivial not happened, then the fate of the human race would have probably been entirely different. These can be anything from someone have a specific gene, or a mentally unstable soldier breaking into a particular shop. Everything is linked – so it goes.

An interesting and somewhat creepy look at an unlikely – but nevertheless potential – future of the planet.

“Mostly Harmless” by Douglas Adams (1992)

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“The history of the Galaxy has got a little muddled, for a number of reasons: partly because those who are tyring to keep track of it have got a little muddled, but also because some very muddling things have been happening anyway.”

Every year I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve tried to have a specific series to be re-reading. In 2013, it was A Series of Unfortunate Events, and then in 2014, all of Douglas Coupland. 2015 was Harry Potter, 2016 went to Jasper Fforde, and 2017 didn’t actually have a theme and was just a few old favourites I wanted to rediscover. This year, I set myself the task of rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and since it’s only a trilogy of five, I’ve already done it. Fittingly, the 42nd book I read this year was Mostly Harmless, which feels just about perfect. Don’t panic – my waffling introduction ends now. The next paragraph gets to the point.

Mostly Harmless picks up at an unspecified point beyond the end of the last book. Arthur Dent is scouring the multiverse (or rather, the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, as multiverse doesn’t quite explain what’s going on) for any sign of Earth, but is routinely upset to find that it doesn’t exist, or does but in an entirely unfamiliar way. Ford Prefect has returned to the headquarters of the Guide and breaks in as to avoid the expenses department who would like a word. He finds things have changed rather a lot since he was last here. And elsewhere, Tricia McMillan is starting to wonder if her career as a television presenter is a satisfying compromise to the opportunity she didn’t take to join Zaphod Beeblebrox on his spaceship.

Except, as we know, she did. Only not in this universe. On this version of Earth – where the primary difference appears to be that clover here usually has four leaves and a three-leaf clover is lucky – she went back for her bag and Zaphod left her behind with nothing but frustration and a sense that she was meant to be so much more. She gets a second chance, though, when aliens land and take her to the planet Rupert, just beyond Pluto, to ask how astrology works. Meanwhile, Ford is fiddling his accounts in ways previously unseen by the galaxy, and Arthur appears to have finally found somewhere that he isn’t entirely miserable. That is, until our Trillian turns up and informs him that he’s a father, which is awkward as they never even got around to sleeping together. As everyone gathers together for one final time, Arthur realises that this really is the end – for now at least.

While still funny, surreal and one of the cleverest books in the known universe, there’s definitely a bleak streak throughout this one. Everything feels a little more futile, and ending cannot be described as happy, however you slice it. Adams admitted later that he was having a difficult time personally when writing this book, and it shows. He had, apparently, always planned to restore whatever passes for order in the series at some time later, but his untimely death in 2001 put paid to that. Although a sixth book has been published, I won’t be reading it for now. I sense that no matter how good the imitation, it won’t be quite right.

The book is also the most uneven of the series. Zaphod and Fenchurch are both missing – the former’s absence is not explained, and there is a throwaway line regarding the latter – and the plot threads don’t necessarily all tie up quite as well as we’re used to. It ends rather abruptly and we never properly get a chance to savour the final events. There are, however, more female characters than ever, some interesting philosophy, and an underlying message about the importance of home and trying to find one’s place in the universe.

I’m sure that Adams would’ve given us a lighter sixth book, but it is what it is. All in all, it’s still a great book, better than I remembered, and I love some of the concepts. Arthur is still an angel, and I would love to take him out for tea, just to give him a bit of normality. Whatever happened next though, including the real reason that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything, are buried along with Adams in Highgate Cemetery. I’ve been to see his grave, and I advise any fan to do the same. There’s a beautiful tradition, though. In life, Adams claimed he could never find a pen when he wanted one, so it’s now the done thing to take one with you and leave it for him at his grave.

And if that touch of madness doesn’t sum up the wonderful man and his incredible books, then I don’t know what does.

“So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” by Douglas Adams (1984)

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“That evening it was dark early, which was normal for the time of year.”

Continuing the oddest trilogy in history, I’ve hitchhiked on a Vogon spaceship, eaten out at the end of the universe, and discovered the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Only one thing left to do – thank everyone for the seafood. Ready? On we go.

By his count, Arthur Dent has lived the last eight years of his life travelling around the galaxy, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a group of insane aliens. It’s a surprise to him, therefore, when he arrives back on Earth about six months after the planet and everything on it was destroyed. He’s not sure whether he’s imagining it or not, but there are pubs and cups of tea, so he’s not complaining. He might, however, not be the only person on the planet who thinks something is wrong. He meets (and instantly falls in love with) Fenchurch – a girl so named because she was conceived in a queue at Fenchurch train station – who is considered mad by her family because she’s convinced that the hallucinations of yellow spaceships everyone endured six months ago weren’t fake.

Elsewhere, Ford Prefect is haring through the galaxy trying to find his old friends, Marvin the Paranoid Android is on his way to find God’s Final Message to His Creation, Wonko the Sane continues his attempts to live outside the Asylum, and lorry driver Rob McKenna is becoming increasingly irritated that it never stops raining – on him at least. As Arthur tries to get back to normality and begin a relationship with Fenchurch, it’s surely only a matter of time before the universe comes knocking again. Besides, where did all the dolphins go?

After three books spent haring around the universe, it’s almost comforting to final return to Earth. Zaphod and Trillian are both entirely absent, and Marvin only turns up towards the end, meaning the focus is entirely on Arthur and his very human quest for companionship. Adams mocks his previous methods of avoiding the topic of whether Arthur has a sex life by giving us a full insight into what he gets up to, although still described in his brilliant use of extremely surreal metaphors. There is something much more accessible here though. While all the books, really, are about humanity and the struggle every living thing must go through just to make it to the next day, here the problems are more grounded in reality. Arthur is a simple man. He never wanted to be a galactic hitchhiker, so he’s thrilled to be back at home.

While all good – it was much better than I remember it being – the best scenes are when Arthur teaches Fenchurch how to fly (a skill he picked up in the last book) and the journey to see God’s Final Message to His Creation, which they actually manage to find and it’s exactly what it should be.

Blissful, joyous stuff. Which is just as well, as next up is Mostly Harmless and from what I remember, it’s not exactly the cheeriest book…

“Life, The Universe And Everything” by Douglas Adams (1982)

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“The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.”

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let the recap begin.

Since we left everyone at the end of the last book, they’ve all very much gone their own ways. Arthur has been living in a cave on prehistoric Earth for five years, occasionally chatting to trees. Marvin has spent a million and a half years turning in a slow circle on a marshy planet with only a mattress called Zem for company. Zaphod has been moping around since completing the mission he’d been trying to put off, and Trillian got so sick of him she teleported off the Heart of Gold without even bothering to set any destination coordinates. And Ford has spent some very productive time going mad.

However, there are eddies in the space-time continuum and once Arthur and Ford have chased a sofa across a field, they find themselves transported to Lord’s Cricket Ground, two days before the destruction of the planet. Inexplicably, things become even weirder when Slartibartfast arrives in an Italian bistro to whisk them off on a mission to save the universe. The people of the planet Krikkit, once the most violent and destructive race in the galaxy, are gathering the materials required to escape from the slow-time envelope that encases their planet, and if they succeed in getting out it will spell certain doom to life itself. Along the way, Marvin loses a leg, Arthur learns to fly, Agrajag fails to exact his revenge, and the English are proved to be about the least sensitive race ever to exist.

And if any of that made any sense to you, I advise you seek medical help immediately, if not sooner.

It’s completely bonkers and despite the fact the main premise is that of seeking a solution to save the universe from certain destruction, it actually feels like not a lot happens. That is, there are many events, but most of them don’t feel pertinent to the main event. That doesn’t stop them being hilarious, insane and altogether welcome. The scenes where Arthur learns how to fly – the trick being to throw yourself at the ground and miss – are rather sweet among everything else, and he remains a character I have a lot of affection for. He didn’t ask for any of this to happen, but he’s handling himself terribly well. There are some great references to the first two books as well, and we also get to meet Agrajag, perhaps the most tragic figure out there. Every time he is reincarnated, it is Arthur Dent who causes his demise, and as such, he is very, very annoyed.

Whereas the last book seemed to focus more on Zaphod, here Arthur is back at centre stage. Last time I said that Trillian barely got anything to do, and here, while she is only in a handful of scenes, she’s a much more interesting, pivotal and engaging character, easily the sanest of them all. Adams is, of course, on great form with the universe he has created, with its many ridiculous and improbable events. If you stop to question any of it, you’ll just give yourself a hernia. His use of language is, as ever, beautifully precise, unique and incredibly creative, my favourite line probably being, “He got a large and extremely disreputable cocktail party in the small of the back.” What a wonderful image. The book also manages to handle the idea of immortality by showing us a character who, with the entirety of time to work with, has decided to personally insult everyone in the universe. It’s just the right side of funny and it’s a good enough use of immortality as any.

Utterly bananas. And yet still so brilliant.

“Electric Dreams” by Philip K. Dick (2017)

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“Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.”

I’ve always quite enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work, but I tend to find it quite dense and not the sort of thing you can dip into. His mind was capable of creating some truly excellent, prescient creations, and they linger on your mental palate for a long time after you’re done. In an attempt to delve deeper into his work without having to lose myself in an entire novel, I picked up Electric Dreams, ten of his short stories that were recently adapted for TV. Although I didn’t see the series, in reading about it, there seem to have been a lot of changes made to the stories, with a number of them only having a central theme as the connecting link.

In typical Philip K. Dick fashion the stories explore ideas of technology, consumerism, capitalism, fear and a future that feels aeons away and yet also right around the corner. Here’s a quick summary of all the stories present.

In “Exhibit Piece”, a historian from the 22nd century enters into his exhibition of 20th century life, only to find that his wife and children are there waiting for him, and he begins to be unable to tell which version of reality is true – is he dreaming of the past or the future? In “The Commuter”, a man working for the trains is flummoxed when a customer asks for his regular ticket to Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. Confused, he sets off on his own journey to find the impossible town, and perhaps stumbles into a whole new world.

In “The Impossible Planet”, an old woman’s dying wish is to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth, the legendary home of humanity. The only snag is that no one can be sure where it is or even if it ever existed, but some people will promise anything for money. In “The Hanging Stranger”, a man becomes disturbed when he sees a figure hung from a lamppost, and even more disturbed when he seems to be the only person in town who finds this odd. Realising that his town has been taken over, he flees, but he may just be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. In “Sales Pitch”, a domestic robot has an ingenious way of selling itself – it turns up in your house and doesn’t leave until you’ve bought it. This is all too much for one man, however, who has had enough of this world’s constant bombardment of advertisements.

“The Father-Thing” is easily the creepiest story in the collection, featuring a boy who discovers his father has been taken over by something very un-human, giving him a new personality. He rounds up an unlikely group of friends to help kill the impostor. In “The Hood Maker”, there has been a ban on privacy and a new race of mind readers have begun to control society. In “Foster, You’re Dead”, the fear of the Cold War is turned up to eleven, as a father refuses to cave to peer pressure to buy an underground bunker, and his son is desperate for his family to conform before it’s too late. In “Human Is”, a toxicologist journeys to a distant planet for work, only to return with an entirely new personality, leading to governmental involvement when it’s theorised his body has been taken over by an alien refugee. Finally, “Autofac” features humans in a post-apocalyptic America trying to break the new technology so they can return to a simpler time and take over their own lives.

It wouldn’t be a review of a short story collection if I didn’t say that this is an uneven collection of hits and misses. Some of them, such as “The Commuter” are gripping and fascinating, but others, “Autofac”, for example, are quite dull. The best story to my mind is “The Impossible Planet”, as the ending gave me a proper chill up my spine. It’s one of those stories where not much happens, but it’s all the more compelling for that. “Foster, You’re Dead” is also really good, as it plays on consumer culture using extremes. It posits that now everyone has got a car and a television, capitalism still needs to function, so it does so through fear, and every time the population buys the latest bomb shelter, the media will almost immediately announce a new threat that will require the purchase of an upgrade, or even a whole new machine that’s twice as powerful as the last one. It’s pretty much exactly what we see with smartphones.

The main characters are pretty much all men, with women relegated to the role of housewife for the most part, but these stories were all written in the fifties when times were different and gender roles were drawn clearly. The stories, while prescient, do have that feeling of a future devised by the people from the past. We’re all familiar with what people used to think the future would look like – an occasional term for this is zeerust – and many of these tropes are played out here, with personal robots, constant advertising, and efficient interplanetary travel.

It’s not often I read the same genre twice in a row, but that’s two dystopian futures down in quick succession. I’m sure it won’t harm me to much to go for a third…

“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)

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“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology is becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.

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