“The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams (1979)

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Don’t Panic.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

I always try to start the year with something I’m going to enjoy, be that something optimistic, magical, or heartwarming. Given the mess that 2017 had left me – and most of us, to be honest – in, I was taking no chances. It was time to dip back into the works of one of the greatest writers ever.

This is the story of Arthur Dent, an Englishman who has woken up on a Thursday morning with a terrible hangover to find a series of bulldozers in his garden, filled with workmen who want to demolish his house. Arthur does his best to halt them by laying down in the mud, but his plans are foiled by the arrival of his best friend Ford Prefect, who demands they go to the pub. Once there, Ford reveals that he’s not from Guildford, but actually from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and the world is going to end in about twelve minutes. Making sure Arthur knows where his towel is, Ford hitchhikes off the planet and onto one of the Vogon ships now orbiting the Earth, seconds before the whole planet is wiped from existence.

Now entirely homeless, Arthur is given a crash course in interplanetary travel as he finds himself in some very odd company: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the psychopathic and two-headed President of the Galaxy; Marvin, the manically depressed robot; Trillian, a fellow human who he once met at a party and entirely failed to get off with; and Slartibartfast, whose name doesn’t actually matter. Zaphod drags the team along on the hunt of the legendary planet of Magrathea, in search of the answer to the Ultimate Question – the answer to life, the universe, and everything…

Douglas Adams had that perfectly magical skill of making brilliantly complicated concepts and plots seem easy. He was infamous for his inability to meet deadlines (he always said he enjoyed the whooshing sound they made as they passed by) but thank god he buckled down for long enough to give us this book, and the rest of the series. The writing is superbly tight, funny on every page, and yet also somehow all a little bit terrifying. The technology may be bizarre, and the aliens may be unusual, but broadly speaking the themes are very familiar. Above them all, though, sits the question, “What is it all about?” Much of the second half of the book focuses on answering the meaning of life, and the answer we get, now famous throughout our world, is pleasingly mental, and yet tantalisingly indecipherable. I think I agree with Slartibartfast’s assessment of the whole thing: “I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remove that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.”

Adams is also legitimately one of the funniest writers we were ever lucky enough to have. From his excellent, surrealist metaphors (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), and his comments about the nature of beauty and wonder (“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”), to his attempts to explain the universe in simple terms (“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”), there’s not a single joke that falls flat here, nor any wording that seems out of place. His creations too, such as the Babel fish and the Infinite Improbability Drive, beautifully and simply solve typical narrative problems of the genre with pure madness, and yet they’re so good you don’t pause to question them. Never stop to think too hard about an Adams’ novel. They make sense, but only if you’re totally on board.

I already can’t wait to get back into the remaining four books in the wildly misnamed trilogy.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“How To Talk To Girls At Parties” by Neil Gaiman (2016)

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“‘Come on,’ said Vic. ‘It’ll be great.'”

This is just a quick one here for a very short book. I’d read the short story of this in Neil Gaiman’s 2006 collection Fragile Things already, but it was oddly memorable and I was intrigued by this visual retelling.

It’s the 1970s, and two teenagers, Enn and Vic, are on their way to a party. Enn doesn’t want to go because he’s crap with girls, and Vic does because he’s a natural when it comes to pulling. When they arrive, Enn is swiftly abandoned because Vic has gone off with Stella. Deciding to follow his friend’s lead, however, he begins talking to a few of the girls. Unfortunately, they’re not quite the girls that the boys were expecting…

Short but incredibly engaging, the plot is snappy and Enn a likeable protagonist. On a personal note, I have a bit of a thing for women who look like they know when the universe is going to end (i.e. Natalie Dormer), or could kick my arse (i.e. Natalie Dormer), and the book is full of them. As is often the case with Gaiman, you can’t ever be really sure what’s real and what isn’t, and no proper explanations are given related to what happened at the party.

Similarly, it is in keeping with his themes of magic realism, the unknown, and normal people getting caught up in really weird scenarios. Plus the illustrations are utterly charming and beautiful, penned by twin artists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. I’m unfamiliar with their work, but they have a beautiful style and the characters jump off the page and beckon you to join them. A really joyous, if creepy, read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Of Men And Monsters” by William Tenn (1968)

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“Mankind consisted of 128 people.”

Earth has been invaded by aliens so many times in fiction. On most of those occasions, whether first contact is friendly or not, we are equals of a sort, in size, shape and intelligence at least. But what if aliens were to come to Earth that were so enormous, they didn’t even notice humans were here, and just dominated the planet thanks to sheer size alone. What would happen to humanity then? Of Men and Monsters explores this idea.

Eric the Only is a boy in his society of Mankind, but today is the day of his Theft, and if he’s successful, he will come back to be declared Eric the Eye, meaning he’s a full man and able to mate. Under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas the Trap-Smasher, he pledges to steal not food or an item usable by Mankind, but a Monster souvenir. He flees the burrows for the first time ever and makes his way across the treacherous landscape inhabited by the giant Monsters to complete his task.

But when he gets back home to safety, he finds that a rebellion occurred, led by his uncle, as those who want to use Alien-Science tried to rise up against the traditional methods of Ancestor-Science. Now an outlaw, Eric the Eye goes on the run, stumbling across another tribe in another burrow. He joins their number and soon he begins to learn the truth about who he is, where he lives, and what the Monsters are.

You can’t help but think about The Borrowers with this novel. The difference is, of course, that humans haven’t actually changed their size, it’s just that the aliens that invaded were so huge that, to them, humans are merely vermin, living in the walls of their houses like cockroaches or mice, stealing food and potentially spreading disease. The use of scale is impressive, but it’s difficult to imagine something like this. I kept imagining the Monsters to be our size and the humans to be small, but then you get a reminder that if the humans were to go outside, rain or trees would also look tiny compared to the invaders.

It’s clever in it’s use of detail, or rather lack of it. Because the humans can only see on a different scale, they cannot adequately describe the Monsters – we know they are grey, with six legs, tentacles around their necks and small heads – and their technology seems bizarre. Human technology is now quite primitive, with people using spears, but there is evidence of higher technology. For example, when Eric’s name “the Eye” is chosen, it is done so via a mystical Record Machine, which seems to be a television displaying old infomercials.

The human societies that have built up are the most interesting aspect of the novel, even if the individual characters are quite flat. Eric’s tribe, Mankind, call themselves that because they believe they are the most superior of all the tribes. The men are all warriors and thieves, the women have knowledge of healing and history. Days and nights are measured simply by when the tribe’s chief goes to sleep and wakes up, and there is a strict hierarchy. We meet other societies living in the same wall (that’s how huge these buildings are) who have different ways of doing things, and at one point we see humans who have come from the building next door, and they may as well be a whole new species.

It feels like it should be a quick read, but I got bogged down in it trying to work out what some of the technology was, before realising that the Alien-Science is a lot like Gary Larson’s “Cow Tools” – there is no human equivalent. Or maybe there is but it’s being described in such an unusual way that we don’t notice? There’s a satisfying ending, at least, with the realisation that of all the species of vermin on our planet, humans may just be the most successful of them all…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet an entirely different race of aliens as Dexter, who sees himself has the last single person on Earth, flees his home, along with his friends, to escape the invasion. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“A Planet For Rent” by Yoss (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lagoon” by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)

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“She slices through the water, imagining herself as a deadly beam of black light.”

It’s always seemed odd to me, when I choose to not play along with the suspension of disbelief that films require of us, that whenever an alien invasion occurs on Earth, it seems to centre around New York or London, as if the aliens seem to know that those places are important somehow. When you think how big the planet is about how there are great swathes of land in, say, Siberia or Patagonia that are entirely devoid of life, it seems remarkable that aliens always somehow hit on a capital city anyway. Therefore, if nothing else, it’s refreshing to see it happen somewhere else.

What appears to be a meteorite slams into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, and water begins to encroach the beach. Caught in the ensuing tsunami are marine biologist Adaora, famous Ghanaian rapper, Anthony, and a solider, Agu, three strangers who all possess strange and unusual abilities.  Once the water has returned them to the sand, they meet the first of the aliens, who looks human and Adaora names Ayodele. She insists that her people have not come to cause harm, but merely to cause change.

Adaora rushes Ayodele and the men back to her house where the sets about studying the extraterrestrial with her scientific equipment. It seems she’s not even made of cells and is capable of taking on whatever form she chooses, and apparently reading the thoughts of people in close proximity. When Adaora’s husband appears with the local bishop, word begins to spread about the nature of the visitor, and soon Lagos is plunged into chaos as Ayodele and her people are greeted with hostility by the general population. Our heroes set about on a mission to hunt down the missing President and bring him to meet Ayodele’s people, at which time, perhaps, a new era will dawn.

It might just be me, but I found the whole book somewhat disjointed. There are a lot of characters here and most of them get at least one chapter from their point of view. Aside from the three primary characters of Adaora, Anthony and Agu, we also have Adaora’s husband, their nanny, the nanny’s boyfriend and his friends, two witnesses of the rising tide that stole the heroes temporarily, the bishop, the President and occasionally a nearby animal, such as a bat or a spider. Among this are bits from a character that appears to be some kind of spider-god (it mentions Anansi as being a relative) which feels particularly weird given the rest of the novel seems to be science fiction.

One of the more interesting groups of characters are the Black Nexus, an LGBT group who begin to show themselves for who they really are just as the chaos really breaks into the streets of Lagos. Nigeria is not a country that deals well with homosexuality, so the inclusion of these characters is rather fascinating, but they disappear about halfway through and we never really find out what became of them.

I’m not writing the book off as bad, not at all. The prose is delicately beautiful at times, although the lapses into Pidgin English are distracting and if I had to flip to the provided glossary for every other word when they’re used then I would’ve never properly engaged with the text. You can get the gist of what’s going on, anyway. Some of the characters are too immediately accepting of the alien presence, which feels unrealistic, and the primary reason for reading this book, probably, comes down to the setting. I know very little of Nigeria, and even less of Lagos, so whatever else, it was fascinating to explore part of it and its culture.

It ends on a note that suggests a cliffhanger, but for a novel that’s very different to the one you just read. It’s one of those novels that is middle ground in the extreme for me – I enjoyed it enough, but I won’t remember anything about it in a year’s time.

“Armada” by Ernest Cline (2015)

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armada“I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.”

Like many people on the planet, my last couple of weeks have mostly been taken up with Pokemon Go. Suddenly we’re all out and about at all times hunting down an elusive Pikachu or prized Scyther. Video games, be they on our phones, computers or any number of consoles, are a fun distraction and most of us have played a game at some point, even if just Candy Crush. In Ernest Cline’s second novel, Armada, he does what he did in his first – takes our love of these games and turns it up to eleven.

Zack Lightman is staring out of the window during high school when he sees a spaceship fly past. As if this wasn’t strange enough, he recognises it as one of the enemy spaceships from his favourite video game, Armada. No one else in the class seems to have noticed, and concerned he’s about to do something insane, he leaves the school and goes home. He seeks peace among the possessions of his father, who died when Zack was just a baby. His father was just as much of a video game nerd as Zack is, but this strange sighting today has reminded him of one of the notebooks in his father’s boxes that he’s tried to forget about.

Xavier Lightman, it turns out, was convinced that there was more to these films and games about alien invasions than met the eye. Were they preparing humanity for something that was coming? That night, Zack joins the world in the latest Armada mission and the following day it seems that his dad may have been onto something after all. Aliens are coming, but thanks to video games, humanity has been preparing for a very long time.

Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, takes place almost entirely inside an AU that has dominated the globe in the near future. Here, we’re only a couple of years ahead of real time, but again, video games have taken control. The conceit of having video games actually be training simulators for a future interplanetary war is a really fun one, and the book makes use of a huge number of aspects of conspiracy theory to fuel the plot. Such things as the missing Nixon tapes, the arcade game of legend Polybius, and the Star Trek reboot and Star Wars sequels are all shown to be part of this conspiracy. Plus, we also get some amazing cameos from some of the most famous scientists alive today.

Cline is also not one to hide the fact that his knowledge of video games, seventies music, and science fiction pop culture is beyond that of anyone else. The book is peppered with film titles, song lyrics, famous quotations, TV series, and ancient arcade games with more references than I could ever hope to get. The book is playing with tropes, however, and there’s a certain amount of a tongue-in-cheek feeling about much of it. It’s a slightly ridiculous premise, but it’s such a fun one that you can’t help but go along with it.

It takes quite a while to get going, but once the second act hits, it goes for it full force. Aside from the epilogue, the whole story takes place over two days, and the pace is fast enough that you believe it (even if it’s only later you realise that no one has been to the toilet for several hours). Irritatingly, I felt the pay-off at the end lacked something and the book ends a little abruptly, but all in all it’s an exciting, thrilling and incredibly nerdy tour de force that anyone who has ever looked out a window and wished for adventure should read.

That’s all of us.

“The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers (2015)

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the long way“As she woke up in the pod, she remembered three things.”

The publishing industry seems unwilling to take a chance on science fiction novels. Only a short time ago, The Martian was self-published by Andy Weir and when it started selling well, publishing companies started taking note, having had no interest in it before he’d taken matters into his own hands. The situation is the same with The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. Once it had been self-published and developed something of a cult following, the people with the money showed up. But why was no one willing to take a chance on these novels? Clearly they are well-written and they sell very well, but it seems that the people who are meant to know about these things simply don’t understand it.

The Long Way opens with Rosemary Harper, a Human, on her way to a long haul spaceship, the Wayfarer, which is a tunnelling ship responsible for constructing hyperspace tunnels between distant areas of space, allowing for easy travel for all the species in the Galactic Commons (GC) and their allies. The ship is old but the crew are welcoming. There are four other humans on board – captain Ashby; algaeist Corbin; and the technicians, fun-loving Kizzy and the more sensitive Jenks – as well as a few other crew members of alien species. Without going into too much detail and bogging down the review…

  • Sissix; an Aandrisk; a reptilian species who are one of the most powerful races in the GC and thrive on physical contact
  • Dr Chef; a Grum; one of the last of his species of a race that is never able to be silent and has multiple sets of vocal chords
  • Ohan; a Sianat Pair; from a blue-furred race that is in a symbiotic relationship of sorts with a virus that controls their minds
  • Lovelace; the sentient AI that controls the ship and has vague desires of being able to live in a physical body

The crew are given the opportunity to build a new hyperspace tunnel in a dangerous, untapped area of the galaxy which is home to a species that is always at war with itself. Despite the risks, the money they’d earn would be astronomical, so Ashby decides that this is the job for them. The Wayfarer sets off in the direction, but there are complications along the way. Humans, it turns out, are just about the only species in the universe who hide their true feelings and have the capacity to have secrets. As the journey goes on, Rosemary, Ashby, Corbin, Kizzy and Jenks must all face what they’ve kept hidden, and try not to let it interfere with the mission.

I didn’t know anything about this book before I started it, but I liked the description on the back and was curious. With some science fiction, it can be tedious to plow through the made up words and languages and species for another story about an errant robot or some warmongering species that won’t sit still. This book is nothing like that. It’s special. Yes, there are a myriad of species present, but they all feel real enough, as do their relationships with each other and the compromises they’re willing to make as regards to everyone’s cultures, languages and belief systems. Humans are present, and one of the main members of the GC, but they’re perhaps the least influential. It seems, more than anything, that humans are simply there because there are so damn many of them. The idea of them being the universe’s great explorers or conquerors is laughed off – they’re just fleshy tubes with fairly average abilities at whatever they turn their hands to. If anything, their defining trait is their adaptability.

But for all the AI and wormholes, this book is surprisingly about family. It actually deals with the whole gamut of relationships – enemies, friends, lovers – but, yes, predominantly, it’s about family. We get a lot of exposition via Rosemary’s eyes, as she’s never been off Mars before heading out on this mission, so we can find out in a natural manner exactly how these other species work. Sissix, for example, comes from a species where children are looked after by unrelated elders, and everyone is generally naked and promiscuous (by Human standards). The Sianat are symbiotes; Ashby has a physical relationship with a woman from another species; Rosemary is trying to process the events that led her to leave her family; and Jenks has fallen in love with the AI system. As the story progresses, it seems we encounter each of these species, their stories, and every possible configuration of family that could exist. It’s a reminder that the universe is a vast place, and when we get out there, anyone we meet shouldn’t be judged by our cultural norms.

Frankly, as science fiction goes, this is up there with the greats. It somehow seems irrelevant that they’re in space, visiting moons and planets and dealing with technology that is currently impossible. It’s not really highlighting that “we’re all the same” because, as I said, we’re not and we won’t be once we’re out there. But it teaches us how we can respect those who are different from ourselves, and maybe how the only universal need might be a need to feel like you belong.

It’s beautiful and heart-breaking, but also funny, sharp and hugely readable. Yes, Chambers plays with language and science, but it all feels incredibly thought out and none of it is excess, frivolous fluff. This is some seriously good literature and I look forward to the sequel immensely. In the meantime, you should really get on this – you won’t be sorry.

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