“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.

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“Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Phillips (2007)

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“One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.”

It’s not been long since I last delved into Greek mythology, but I couldn’t resist another visit so soon, but this time in a very different world. I actually first read this book in 2008. I was at university, and for my screenwriting class had just begun working on a pitch for a sitcom involving the Greek gods living undercover in modern London. A week later, I found this novel in Waterstones – a story of Greek gods living undercover in modern London. I ensured I finished my work before reading this one so as to not accidentally just copy it even more, but naturally found that it was done much better than mine was.

It’s been centuries since the Greek gods were respected and revered, and they now find themselves squashed together in a small north London house which has seen better days. Apollo (god of the sun) has been caught turning a mortal into a tree like he always used to, so Artemis (goddess of the hunt) and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) make him swear to do more harm to a mortal for ten years – a blink of an eye in god’s terms. Aphrodite, however, decides to give him further punishment with the aid of her son, Eros (god of love). While recording the pilot for his TV psychic show, Apollo is struck by one of Eros’ arrows of love and falls in love with a demure, innocent mortal.

Things go from bad to worse when the mortal, Alice, begins working as a cleaner at the gods’ house, and Apollo is determined that she is the true love of his life. Alice, however, doesn’t reciprocate, as she’s too caught up on her would-be boyfriend Neil, a polite engineer who’s too scared to make a move. When Alice rejects Apollo’s advances, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead our heroes down into the Underworld in an effort to prevent the end of the world.

Phillips does an incredible job of blending the gods into the modern world. It’s established they’ve been living in London since the 1600s – arriving sometime between the drop in house prices from the plague and the increase again after the 1666 fire – and each of them has been given a role that suits them well. Dionysus, for example, here runs a nightclub and is a DJ. Apollo is a TV psychic, Aphrodite is a sex-line worker, and Artemis is a professional dog walker. How the mighty have fallen. Phillips also has done her research and makes use of the gods lesser-seen aspects. Hermes is, of course the messenger god and the one who guides people to the afterlife, but she gets good mileage out of the fact he’s also the god of coincidence and money. Artemis is a sexless prude, but simply because she’s the goddess of chastity.

As I’m sure I’ve said before, the reason I love the Greek gods is because they’re all so like us. They’re manipulative, angry, selfish, bitter and so very human for a race of non-humans. Seeing them struggle with modernity is particularly good fun, but Phillips adds in aspects I would never have thought of. Eros, for example, has become a Christian, and the idea of a god worshipping another god is especially funny. He seems to be using it to work through his guilt, but also laments that he never got a chance to meet Jesus at the time. The others are less keen on Christianity, as it’s Jesus that’s the main reason no one believes in them anymore. The moral characters, Alice and Neil, are also great creations, and both oddly remind me of people I know. They’re hugely reserved and are clearly both in love with one another but too fearful to make a move and admit this. They are, in essence, the polar opposites of the gods.

Despite the generally fluffy and light attitude of the novel, there are also some very dark moments to be had, putting it on par with some of the original myths. The gods have a very different set of moral codes to humanity. They’ve always been free and easy with incest (in the second chapter, we see Apollo having sex with Aphrodite and the text acknowledges they are aunt and nephew), but there’s also a scene where Apollo tells Alice he wants to rape her, and doesn’t seem to understand why that would be a problem. Apollo is hugely self-absorbed. I’d say that he thinks the sun revolves around him, but it pretty much does, as that’s his deistic domain.

Will I ever return to writing this sort of thing? Yes, probably. My set up is vastly different, with a focus on different characters in the pantheon. Plus, there are so many re-tellings of the Greek myths that it’s not like they can’t all exist together. Still, this is one of the funniest and smartest around, so I highly recommend it if you’re into this sort of thing.

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.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“The Knowledge” by Lewis Dartnell (2015)

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knowledge“The world as we know it has ended.”

Twenty sixteen. The year that keeps on giving. The Mayans said the world was going to end in 2012, and maybe it was meant to and we’ve been on borrowed time since. After all, it’s not like things have gone smoothly since 2013 started. In fact, one of the few constants has been this blog, and I doubt that’s holding together the fabric of the universe in the way David Bowie was. The planet seems to rarely have been in such turmoil, and so my eyes found themselves drawn to this book that has sat on my shelf for a few months. It is, after all, best to be prepared.

The premise of the book focuses around the idea of the end of the world, which is common enough in fiction but I’ve seen explored little in non-fiction. Lewis Dartnell has written this book for the pockets of survivors who have clung on through whatever destroyed civilisation, realising that most of us, indeed none of us, will be able to build society back up again. Humans have invented such complicated devices and evolved such deep theories and practices that we don’t know the basics that have got us to this point. Never mind being unable to use your iPhone, how does one go about building one? Would you know how to mine the metal for it? I very much doubt you would.

Taking humanity back to basics, Dartnell teaches us how to get farming and make fertiliser to reboot agriculture, develop basic medicines, extract metals from rocks, produce paper and ink, get electricity, tell the time and make clothing all using the first processes that led to the world we have today. While he says that at first we’ll be able to make use of what has been left behind, it won’t be long before we can no longer rely on the stocks of food and materials that humanity left behind.

While, I won’t lie, parts of the book are rather dry, especially those going into intricate chemical processes which make me realise just how long ago it was that I did my Chemistry GCSE, but it is absolutely full of amazing nuggets of information that I’ve been throwing at people all week while reading this. My three favourites are probably:

  1. Humans inherited the common cold from horses.
  2. Popcorn was invented by a South American culture 6000 years ago.
  3. A woman didn’t survive a C-section until the 1790s, despite the practice being as old as the Romans.

While it would naturally take more information than can be held in this book to restart civilisation properly, it’s a great thought experiment and full of some genuinely useful and interesting science. We have become so detached from the processes that govern our daily lives that it’s almost humbling to get a refresher course like this. Dartnell also stresses that just because society did it one way last time, there’s no reason that the world will come back the same way. Maybe, if we go so basic that we lose everything, we’ll develop different measurements, never invent telescopes to discover the planets, or invent buttons. But if we know a little, we may be able to leapfrog the dead ends that science had to struggle through last time. It’ll also naturally have to be an entirely different reboot, as this time we don’t have massive coal, oil and gas reserves to allow an Industrial Revolution like last time – the next civilisation will undoubtedly be a lot greener.

A fascinating, exciting look at the world we take for granted that, with things as they are right now, is never leaving my side again.

“Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (1990)

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good-omens“It was a nice day.”

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Now there’s a team and a half. Although I’ve devoured most of Gaiman’s work, I’ve only read a few Pratchett novels and never been especially taken by them. I’ve discussed this before. As such, embarking on this book that is continually held up as one of the best and funniest of the nineties was done with trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Here’s the situation…

Eleven years before the main story starts, Crowley, a angel-now-demon who “didn’t so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards” has an important job to do involving the Antichrist. It’s not a job he wants to be doing, mind, but you don’t argue with the big boys downstairs. Once the kid has grown up a bit, there are rumblings. Crowley and Aziraphale, an angel and part-time bookseller, realise that the end of the world is due this Saturday and neither of them particularly want it to happen. They’ve come to like Earth and it’s many trinkets. They decide to try and stop it.

Elsewhere, the four Bikers of the Apocalypse have received a message to gather. A young man called Newt Pulsifer gets gainful employment as a witchfinder, only to befriend one a short while later. She’s Anathema Device and has been for years studying the only book that means anything to her: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Anathema is the distant descendant of Agnes and has noticed that the prophecies go no further than this coming Saturday. Add to the mix a Satanic hellhound who discovers he’d rather roll in cow shit than do evil, a bogus medium who does extras on Thursdays, two other demons who are trying to make life worse for Crowley, and a former Satanist nun, and things are about to become more complicated than algebraic long division.

And everyone’s lost track of where the Antichrist even is…

That plot summary feels short for what’s actually going on in this book, but it’s one of those ones that is best read in full. So much happens and in such a short space of time that you find yourself tearing through the pages, desperate to find out how it’s all going to get sorted out. It’s immensely funny, and I really mean that. Some books start out funny but then tail off towards the middle and lose it by the end. This one is full of throwaway gags, stupid imagery, witty asides and the most beautiful surrealism. Frankly, I’m jealous. The concepts packed into here are amazing and I’m in awe of them, as well as being pissed off that I will never be this good and wish I’d come up with some of these ideas first.

The main characters arguably are Crowley and Arizaphale, and I adore them both. Crowley may be a demon, but there’s a hint of angel in him somewhere, and while Arizaphale may be an angel, there’s a sliver of darkness in him. Crowley in particular seems keen to cause havoc wherever he goes, simply because that’s what demons do. He drives a beautiful Bentley which only keeps running because he wills it to, and has much to say about the fact that all cassette tapes left in cars for more than two weeks turn into Best of Queen albums. (It’s that sort of insanity I love – it’s nonsense, and yet it feels like that it could be real.)

My favourite characters though are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. who are now the Four Bikers. War, Famine, and Pollution (who replaced Pestilence when he resigned after getting pissed off about the advent of penicillin) are fully fleshed out. Death remains Death, though speaks in the same manner and seems to share a similar appearance to the Death of the Discworld novels. Pollution is a young man who leaves mess in his wake; everything he touches breaks, leaks or becomes toxic. Famine is a food scientist and dietitian who has basically worked out how to produce food that has zero nutritional value (his fast food fries have never even seen a potato) and peddles diet plans that cause people to waste away. He’s incredibly famous among the celebrity world. War is a stunningly beautiful war correspondent who always seems to be in the right place just before the action kicks off. I am in love with War, continuing my obsession with redheads and women who look like they could kill me.

If you’re a fan of Pratchett or Gaiman, come and nestle among these pages. They are magicians, and putting them together creates something particularly wonderful. Indeed, this could be the book that turns me into a Pratchett fan. Perhaps I shall return to the Discworld after all. What an utterly charming, hilarious and at times deeply poignant novel.

“Nod” by Adrian Barnes (2015)

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Sweet dreams aren't made of this...

Sweet dreams aren’t made of this…

“It’s getting harder and harder to tell the living from the dead.”

I like sleep. I don’t nap, something that many people find odd, but come the night time, I rather like drifting off and emerging seven or eight hours later (theoretically) refreshed. On the occasions that I don’t get enough sleep, I become incredibly grouchy, which isn’t unusual among us humans. Because while science still can’t tell us exactly why we sleep, there’s no doubt that we absolutely need to. After all, terrible things happen to those who don’t sleep, as Adrian Barnes discovers in his novel, Nod.

Paul is an etymologist who shuns most of society and sits at home writing his books, his primary source of social contact being his girlfriend Tanya. One morning, after Paul has had a wonderful dream, Tanya says that she didn’t sleep at all – didn’t even feel tired. Paul spends the day working, and it’s only when Tanya returns home that it turns out that pretty much no one slept at all. Maybe one in ten thousand people the world over managed to sleep that previous night. The pair watch the news into the evening where theories are spouted and a second sleepless night for the population passes.

On the third day, society begins to crumble.

Paul is one of the rare Sleepers, and with a lack of sleep, most of the population have begun to enter a state of psychosis and within a matter of weeks, they will all be dead. Paul must survive while watching Tanya fall to pieces in front of him, and soon the old world is replaced with a new one, with Paul as an unwilling prophet at the helm. Welcome to the Land of Nod.

The book spans a mere twenty-four days – that is how quickly this end of the world scenario takes place. It’s incredibly terrifying, seeing people very quickly lose their humanity and go mad. This is the apocalypse on steroids; a faux-zombie tale on fast forward. While Paul isn’t painted as a particularly nice man, somewhat self-absorbed at first, and used to his way of doing things – he is not a man who much likes change it seems – he appears to gain humanity while everyone around him loses it. The thought of having to live as the only sane man in a world gone crazy is torture that no one deserves, and it quickly becomes unclear whether it would be better to be a Sleeper or one of the Awakened.

Despite the horror and creepiness of the story, it is absolutely beautiful. Barnes writes like his words are being woven into a patchwork quilt, and there isn’t a dropped stitch or lose thread in it. There are many reflections on what it is to be human, an emphasis on our physical bodies and how there isn’t much more to us than that, and of course what happens to a world where everything is upside down and one of the fundamentals we’ve always taken for granted has been taken away. The images are vivid and the tension and terror are palpably real.

The author’s note at the back says that Adrian Barnes was diagnosed with brain cancer six months before its release, with a 1% chance of survival. I can’t find anything online to confirm it, but it would appear to be that he has departed this world by now, unless he has been phenomenally lucky. I hope he has. He draws some parallels at the end between living with that tumour that robbed him of some of his favourite things, and living in a world without sleep. It adds another layer of unbearable sadness to the novel.

A very poignant, terrifying look at humans at their least humane.

“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.

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