“Railsea” by China Miéville (2012)

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“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.”

It’s almost a shame that I used up my introduction spiel about trains for a film last year, when it would’ve served me well here. Never mind. Most books that give a prominent role to trains feature just the one. Something magical and impressive that captures the imagination. China Miéville, however, goes a little further than that, and envisions a world entirely populated by trains. Welcome to the Railsea.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an assistant doctor aboard the Medes, a moletrain. He is new to the Railsea, but is now sure to spend the rest of his life touring the rails, hunting for giant moles, in particular the great southern modlywarpe, and getting to know the other riders of the rails. In this world, there are no oceans, just endless plains laced with endless tracks. Every kind of train patrols them, from huge iron wartrains to wooden trains with sails. There are those made of salvage, those running on steam, and even one-man traincycles that people use to get around the islands.

While on a hunt, Sham and his crew stumble across a wrecked train and set about searching it for salvage. Inside, Sham instead finds a camera. The flatographs it shows, however, reveal something far more interesting than holiday snaps. There are images of children from a distant country, rare salvage, and most bizarrely of all, potential evidence that the Railsea does indeed end. Captivated by the image of a single rail leading out to darkness, Sham convinces Captian Naphi to put aside her hunt for Mocker-Jack, the great white mole, and seek out the people in the flatographs, and then, perhaps, find the edge of the world.

But rumour travels quickly on the rails, and soon Sham is in peril, as salvagers, pirates, monsters and molers all seek him out. What he and his crew discover may change not only his own fate, but that of the entire Railsea.

I’ve read Miéville a few times before, and he’s continually proved himself to have an imagination beyond anything one could reasonable expect from a writer. Aiming to write a novel in every genre, here he turns his attention to the great adventure tales. Indeed, the whole novel can be seen as a parody of, or homage to, Moby-Dick, particularly with the Captain’s obsession with hunting down the ivory-coloured mole that took her arm. This is expanded to be part of the lore, as most captains have what they call their “philosophy” – a particular creature that stole a limb from them, and they commit their lives to finding and killing the beast. Indeed, the creatures of this world are perhaps the most fascinating aspect. With no oceans, lakes or rivers, the ground itself takes up the reins for producing enormous and terrifying beasts. Most everything that we know on Earth to live in the ground lives here, although often far larger and more bloodthirsty than we would remember. Moles grow huge, but so do badgers, naked mole rats, rabbits, earthworms, termites, antlions, burrowing owls and earwigs. These animals have never been so scary.

Miéville also works magic with the setting itself. A world where ships are replaced by trains might seem quite simple, but the level of detail included is wonderful. Trains are limited in their travelling patterns by rails, unlike ships which can steer any which way, but there are still plenty of parallels. Trains are besieged by railgulls, and many of them still have crows nests aboard. The moletrains work mostly like whaling ships, and there are pirates here too, just like in adventure tales set on the open waves. Some job titles change – there is a trainswain rather than a coxswain – and they still sing shanties, although with slightly different lyrics, such as the classic, “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Brakesman?” The world is full and while we still see nothing like all of it, you know that it’s all there.

The book also keeps a level of uncertainty as to when and where the book is set. At first it seems like it might be another world distinct from our own, but there are mentions of the society having been going for a very long time – there is an awful lot of salvage, some of which looks like contemporary technology – and there are obscure references to things that appear to have been passed down through folklore, such as a brief mention of the god Railhater Beeching. It also seems that the planet has been visited by beings from other worlds before now, so if it is Earth, it’s a very distant future one with little water.

Although the book at times chugs along slower than the London to Brighton train on Southern rail, by the end it’s a Japanese bullet train and the ending itself contains a laugh-out-loud moment that makes it all worthwhile. It ends on a note of promise, and I almost wish I could have kept on following Sham on his adventures. It’s not my favourite Miéville story, but it’s still a pretty remarkable read.

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“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…

“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.

“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.

“We Will Destroy Your Planet” by David McIntee (2013)

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Planning an invasion?

Planning an invasion?

“Thank you for choosing the planet Earth as your conquest target of choice.”

Throughout history, many races have attempted to take over the planet, be they Martians, Daleks or Deros. However, thanks to humanity’s propensity to show itself as the hero in any given situation, they have been vanquished (almost) every time. However, now the odds of our destruction have increased thanks to this book which provides a handy guide to any species in the universe planning to attack Earth.

With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, David McIntee provides a brief overview of the planet that we call home, detailing its physical appearance, location in space, varying environs and the nature of the dominant species, us humans. It doesn’t appeal specifically to a certain alien species, but rather takes broad strokes and suggests they could be from anywhere. It also deals with how to invade the planet if you’re a human coming from a different time or dimension.

It opens with details of physics and chemistry, giving the basic make up of the planet, and quickly moves into discussing how to invade, with much talk of the use of asteroid bombardment. It covers every possible eventuality, depending on what purpose you need the Earth for (mining, farming, sanctuary, military strategy) and whether or not you need or want to keep humans alive, although it does generally say that unless you’re using them for slavery or food, it’s best to wipe them out because they’re a tenacious, violent species who will fight back, although they can usually be calmed with the use of bribery or religion.

The book is also loaded with references to previous attempts to attack the planet shown in the propaganda transmissions that humans have been beaming into space for the last few decades, with things like Doctor Who, The War of the Worlds, Stargate and Star Trek. Some of these references are pointed out and explained openly, but others are much more subtle and require you to have a little knowledge about the subjects at hand (for example, see if you can spot the singular reference to Torchwood or American Dad).

It’s not a difficult read, but in truth it is a textbook about Earth and humanity wrapped up in a new binding and with extra chapters thrown in about extraterrestrial warfare. Some parts are hugely interesting and funny, but others – especially the chapters going into great detail on military tactics – are rather dry, but that’s a personal preference. It also seems to assume that any invaders will be arriving in the early 21st century, or perhaps this is the latest update to a universally famous book…

All in all, it’s a clever concept and leaves you in no doubt at all that we are being foolish by not setting up planetary defences immediately. Should this book find its way into alien hands, we’re all in trouble.

“10 Billion” by Stephen Emmott (2013)

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10 billion“This is a book about us.”

Last year, Earth’s population hit seven billion humans. In 1800, it was just one billion. Think about that a moment. It means that our population has grown seven times bigger in just two hundred short years, one billion of those turning up in just the last dozen years. The increase in cities and city size has given over room to most people, but the population is not showing signs of slowing down and now we’re facing a crisis. The population will soon be at ten billion people, and we simply don’t have the capacity to house them, support them or feed them. And given the speed at which we’re destroying the climate, we’re actually giving ourselves even less time.

The book is laid out with bitesize information, sometimes just a sentence or two on a page, and peppered throughout with graphs, charts and stunning (if terrifying) photographs. This makes it easier for the layman to be able to pick up and understand. It explains how much energy goes into producing the things we use now, and how much more we need to keep the future running smoothly.

There’s debates on how coal and gas actually aren’t running out, but they’re not a viable option anymore as we heat up the planet (the ten warmest years on record all happened after 1998) so we need to find an alternative. There’s mentions of how much rainforest we’re destroying, how many species we’re killing and what our cars are doing to the environment.

If this doesn’t sound very positive, it’s because it isn’t. Personally, I can’t say that humans are having no effect on the climate, because we must be doing something at this point,  but I also know that Earth goes through warm periods and cold periods and the whole thing is unstable, so I won’t lay the blame entirely at the feet of humans. Perhaps we’re just entering a warm period at the same time as causing havoc. Emmott, however, seems quite content to point the finger at humanity and tell us that everything we’re doing is killing our children and grandchildren.

I thought the book might be providing suggestions as to what humanity needs to do to make sure the dystopian image of an over-populated underfed planet doesn’t happen, but Emmott doesn’t even begin to consider options until three-quarters of the way in, and then manages to talk himself (and us) out of every possible option. He admits that governments and scientists need to be doing something about it now, and putting projects into effect already, but they aren’t, and no one is really ready. Everyone seems to be pretending it’s not happening, waiting for more results, or just hoping that someone else sorts it out.

I’m not a scientist by any means, so I’m taking the statistics and information in this book at face value, but a lot of it comes across like scaremongering, and I know enough to know that you can make anyone believe anything by using leading questions and statistics.

Do I believe everything in this book? No.

Do I believe that humanity is in pretty serious trouble? Yes.

Do I believe that you should read this book? Yes.

The science might be sloppy (who am I to say?) but there might be something in here that strikes a chord.