“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!

“Time Travel: A History” by James Gleick (2016)

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“A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods…”

Time travel feels like it’s been a mainstay in popular culture since the dawn of time, but the concept didn’t really get going until the publication of H. G. Wells’ world-changing novel The Time Machine. I’ve covered my favourite books regarding time travel already, but I thought it was high time I did a little more research into the whole thing, which led me to Time Travel: A History.

In this fascinating and fairly comprehensive tome, Jame Gleick pulls back the curtain on time travel and explores it from every angle, studying the stories that have used it and changed the way we think about it, as well as then looking at the philosophy and physics of the concept and how humans have attempted to travel in time already. Gleick attempts to define time and get to grips with what it actually is, as well as taking a look at the problem of paradox (and why you shouldn’t try to kill your grandfather), what happens when you meet yourself, whether or not travelling to the past or future would be better, and what exactly we mean when we say “now”.

The implications of time travel are enormous. While physics still hasn’t been developed enough to allow it, many scientists believe that technically there is nothing in the laws of the universe that forbid it. Philosophers, however, have now spent many years wondering what time travel can tell us about free will – is the future already written and waiting for us to explore, or are we making it up as we go along? From Rip Van Winkle to Doctor Who, Gleick checks in with everyone who had something to say about time, including H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Aristotle and Ursula K. Le Guin.

While the whole book is a cavalcade of trivia and theory, some of it more interesting than others but all of it still mesmerising, the more interesting chapters actually arrive when he discusses things that seem a little unrelated, but are actually spot on. One chapter tries to understand the metaphors we use for time. Is it like money (we do save, waste and spend it, after all) or more like a river (it flows). And if it is a river, what are the banks? Can we get out? Elsewhere, he explores how language simply doesn’t have enough tenses to deal with time travel, or why not every language assumes the future is ahead of us and the past is behind. A particularly intriguing chapter takes a look at time capsules and how humanity has been trying to communicate with an uncertain future for decades.

A must-read for anyone with a science fiction bent, or just anyone who has longed for a TARDIS of their very own.

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 check it out!

“The Penultimate Truth” by Philip K. Dick (1964)

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“A fog can drift in from outside and get you; it can invade.”

It’s been a very hot week and I really should have picked up something light and easy to read instead of a dystopian novel from the 1960s with a heavy political bent, but here we are. I’ve enjoyed books by Philip K. Dick in the past, so I hoped I’d get on with this one too, as it had an engaging premise. The reality, however, wasn’t quite like that.

In the future, people are crammed into underground tanks, living beneath the surface while World War III rages on the land above them. For fifteen years, the world’s population has lived like this, with daily broadcasts from government officials telling them what is happening and how the war is progressing, showing them footage of destruction and catastrophe. However, all is not as it seems.

In truth, the war finished a long time ago, and the world is at peace. Those in charge choose to deceive everyone else so they can live with great wealth and prosperity on the planet’s surface, with those who aren’t part of the conspiracy tucked away doing the dirty work and not messing everything up. Is it for the greater good, or just pure selfishness? Things begin to unravel, however, when one of the most prominent tank engineers is dying and desperately needs a new liver. President Nicholas St. James sets out on a mission to the surface in search of truth to the stories of artificial organs being used by the military. When he gets there, however, he learns that his life has been a carefully preserved lie, and he needs to work out who he can trust and fast.

Normally, I get on quite well with Philip K Dick’s work. It’s weird, sure, but there’s something engaging about it nonetheless and he sucks you in to his bizarre worlds easily. This one, however, was nigh on impenetrable. You’re thrown into the world, which isn’t always a bad thing, but the immediate submerging in a text full of neologisms that refer to technology we don’t have, means you’re already on the back foot. Yes, there is a lot in here about the state of politics and how the government will just out-and-out lie to give themselves better lives, talking about sacrifice like it’s something they have to deal with as well as the working classes, but because I’m one of the “little people”, I find absolutely nothing redeeming about these figures and found myself entirely uninterested in what they were doing or what they had to say. Fiction has always been an escape – lying, self-serving politicians is a bit too real in 2019.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because of the oppressive humidity of the last week and having argued with technology all morning and I’m taking it out on the book. But I think that overall it’s just not one of the best books available from the great man. If they taught Dick’s work in schools, they’d probably make you read this one because it’s all political and not very funny. There are much better examples of his fiction available. I don’t think this one has aged all that well, and would be better forgotten.

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 check it out!

“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

Kurt was not the only famous Vonnegut sibling. His brother, Bernard, was a successful atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodine could be used in cloud seeding to produce rain and snow. Weather manipulation feels like something that belongs to the realm of superhero tales, or science fiction, but it’s genuinely happening now, with clouds seeded to produce rain for crops, or even to disperse fog and hail around airports. I mention this not because I’ve suddenly become a science blog, but simply because this technology almost certainly influenced Kurt Vonnegut in the writing of Cat’s Cradle.

Our narrator, Jonah (or John, depending which name you want to give him) begins the novel by telling us he was writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He becomes fascinated by Dr Felix Hoenikker, the now-deceased scientist who was one of the founding fathers of the weapon and visits the man’s hometown to learn more. He discovers that Hoenikker had potentially been working on something called ice-nine, a chemical that would freeze any moisture it touched. Little to his former associates know, he was successful, and the chemical has found its way into the hands of his three eccentric children.

Drawn to the sun-drenched island of San Lorenzo in search of answers, the narrator meets these children, now grown, as well as getting to grips with San Lorenzo itself, a place where the religion of Bokononism is both forbidden on pain of death and practiced by the entire population. The narrator finds his original goal vanishing as now he has to deal with the very real threats of being declared President of San Lorenzo, and ice-nine being released into the world, bringing about the apocalypse.

Like everything Vonnegut wrote, the book is written with the driest humour imaginable, but relies heavily on truths of the human condition that we try not to think about in too much detail. Here, he tackles environmental collapse, the nature of pure research, free will, nuclear destruction, and humanity’s reliance on technology, dealing with them all with his trademark balancing act of humour and horror. The greatest contribution to society from this book, however, comes from the religion of Bokononism, which has the central tenet that everything is a lie, so one must live by the lies that make one “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. We get many interesting words and concepts from the religion, including karass (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner), wampeter (the central theme or purpose of a karass), zah-mah-ki-bo (inevitable destiny) and of course boko-maru (the supreme act of worship which involves pressing the soles of your feet to those of another).

I’ve read Vonnegut a few times now, and every time I find him more and more bizarre. That’s not really a complaint. No one else writes like him and is unlikely to ever do so, and he has a way, much like Douglas Coupland, of making us look at ourselves and the world we’ve created and start asking questions about why things are the way they are. As J. G. Ballard said, “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched.” As with all the truly great books about science fiction concepts, the characters humanity still shines through, and they feel real, despite the insanity and fantasy going on around them. They fully exist in their world, and you believe in the story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.

A great little read, and one that still burns with relevance.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

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