“The Real-Town Murders” by Adam Roberts (2017)

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“Where we are, and where we aren’t.”

Last time I met Adam Roberts’ writing, we were sinking fast towards to an ocean floor that never seemed to arrive. I didn’t even register this was the same author until about halfway through. I should’ve cottoned on sooner, as once again he’s created a strangely unsettling world where everything is just a bit off and you’re never going to get everything explained.

In the near future, private detective Alma has been called upon to solve an impossible murder. In a car-making factory where everything is automated and human contact is minimal, a body has turned up in the boot of one of the new cars, stone dead with his lungs and heart mashed up. Watching the security footage, it seems there is no way a body can have been inserted into the car at any point of its construction, and yet there it is. Alma promises to take the case, but is chased off it by a mysterious figure called Michelangela. Much as it would have been nice to have the money, Alma has more pressing things to worry about, such as her partner Marguerite whose genes have been hacked with a disease, and only Alma can administer the cure, once every four hours.

But while most of the world remains oblivious to this murder, trapped as they are in the fully immersive Shine – the Internet’s entirely virtual successor – some people are keeping an eye on the Real, and Alma soon finds that she’s involved in something much more sinister than she first realised. Before she can really register what’s going on, she finds herself shunted from police custody, hospital and back home again, with her only goal being to keep Marguerite alive. She’s entirely off the grid now, as if she onswitches back into the feed for even a second, the authorities will be able to track her down. Then again, they know where she has to be every four hours. The hunt is on…

So, trying to explain a future world and all the technology that encapsulates is sometimes part of the fun of writing, although it’s possible to get bogged down in specifics. Here, I don’t think we often get specific enough. Granted, to have the characters stop and explain to one another what the Shine is, or how people stuck in it for months at a time used mesh suits to exercise their muscles would break the reality. We never get to enter the Shine, though, so we don’t know exactly what it is, although I got the impression it’s a full VR world that the user can build themselves and live in their own private paradise. Similarly, all the people we do see have constant feeds surrounding them, and it’s not exactly clear how these work. I ended up assuming it was a Google Glasses kind of technology, but it could just as easily be some kind of brain implant, or even a product of the environment.

Some aspects are a little far fetched, but then I suppose all good science fiction has something that makes you think that this really is the future. Drones, self-driving cars, VR, these are all fine, but it’s actually the more mundane parts I disliked. The story takes place in R!-town, which was once known as Reading, but had rebranded for tourism. Apparently so had other towns nearby – sWINdon and Basingstoked!, for example – and even the country is now known as UK!-OK! It’s stuff like this that takes me out of it, as it seems too silly. The one aspect I did really like though was the the White Cliffs of Dover have been carved like Rushmore with the faces of famous Brits, leading to a bizarre and surreal scene in which the characters scale Shakespeare’s face and take refuge in his nostril.

Honestly, I found the concepts of the future more interesting than the actual murder case. The solution, while ingenious in its own way, actually felt a bit like a cop-out. The text also gets a bit repetitive at times, with characters repeat conversations with one another, or drop in exposition we already know. Something else I must praise though was the way that people speak when they meet in the real world. Alma and most of the others have normal speech patterns, but people who live mostly in the Shine and have only dropped out for a while tend to mix up words, repeat themselves, stumble over syntax and are prone to spoonerisms. It’s a neat little touch.

An intriguing and distressing future where privacy is a thing of the past and people never have to go outside. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

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!

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“Bit Rot” by Douglas Coupland (2016)

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“I am Private Donald R. Garland from Bakersfield, California, as nice a place to grow up in as you can imagine – good folk, and California was booming.”

It’s been years since I read through all Douglas Coupland’s novels again, so I was overdue some time with him. Thankfully, there’s Bit Rot, a collection of short stories, essays and musings all done in the familiar Coupland style where he manages to pinpoint specifics about modern society in a way you couldn’t possibly have done.

Some of the short stories here were already used in his novel Generation A, but much of the content is new to me. All written since 2005, Coupland shines a light on every aspect of twenty-first century living and the associated technology. He covers such disparate topics as the Greek economy, how boredom has changed, why trivia nights don’t work anymore, duty-free shopping, frugality, malls, the future of the selfie, art, George Washington, the middle class, and smoking pot.

An eclectic journey to be sure, it is laced throughout with Coupland’s traditional wit and insight. Able to see the world in ways that we can’t quite, he always feels five days ahead of everyone else, like he can see what’s coming but can’t stop it and doesn’t necessarily want to, either. Whether he’s talking about the time he checked the top of a newspaper to see the time before realising it wasn’t a toolbar on a screen, or about the grape-sized something he sneezed up one time that ever since affected his hearing, he’s oddly captivating and slightly chilling. There is definitely an overlap here with Black Mirror, although his fiction is slightly more inexplicable and the non-fiction doesn’t require any lies to make it weird.

One of the most curious aspects of the book comes in the middle, when he discusses a world in which we can bring historical figures into the present and make them “hot”, sorting out their teeth, removing the lice, and curing them of disease. Perhaps a critique of how we airbrush history to believe that it wasn’t all quite as smelly as it probably was. What follows is then a screenplay for a film in which George Washington is brought forward for an attractiveness boost, which is funny, daft, and plays up to many movie and science fiction tropes.

An interesting and compelling collection of musings from the master of the zeitgeist.

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!

“Scythe” by Neal Shusterman (2016)

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“The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.”

Death is the ultimate certainty. While some scientists believe that the first person who will live to be over 150 is already alive right now, the time will come eventually. Many books, especially novels, have been written on the subject and I think despite many of us having a primal fear of death, we also have a curious fascination with it. But what if there was no more death? What would happen to the world? In this novel, Neal Shusterman explores the concept.

Once upon a time on Earth, people got sick or injured and died. But that hasn’t happened for hundreds of years, now. When the Cloud evolved into the hyper-intelligent Thunderhead, it learnt what was best for humanity and took over the running of the planet, dismantling governments and corporations and leaving people with equality, health, happiness and eternal life. For once in fiction, its motives were genuine. But there were a group of humans who decided that there still needed to be a small measure of population control in place, thus the scythes were born.

Selected at a young age for training, you can only become an apprentice scythe if you have absolutely no desire to kill, or “glean” as it’s now known. When Citra and Rowan both independently stand up to Scythe Faraday and question his methods, they are both employed as his assistants and begin to learn the art of killcraft, as well as the ins and outs of the Scythedom, the one group of people that the Thunderhead has no jurisdiction over as they act above the law. Bound to their studies, the two of them begin to learn the ways of the scythe, despite their own protests. Choosing who to glean is just the start.

But then, at a conclave of all the MidMerican scythes, attention is thrust upon them and there is some debate as to whether a scythe can take on two assistants. The choice is made – Faraday can have two assistants, but only one will gain the robe and ring of a scythe … and their first task will be to glean the other…

I was obviously curious enough about this book to make the purchase, but as someone who is somewhat wary of Young Adult fiction, I wasn’t sure whether it would turn out well or be disappointing. On the sliding scale, however, I’d pop this higher than The Hunger Games (to which is appears to be frequently compared) but maybe not quite as good as the Chaos Walking trilogy. The world is richly developed and the lore and history behind it is explained to us by the use of diary entries from various scythes, it being one of their rules that they must keep a journal. This is a world where death still happens regularly from accidents, but unless you’ve been gleaned officially by a scythe, you are taken to a reanimation centre and brought back to life. Death here is merely a hassle, not an ending, but people still fear it and crave the blessing of the scythes for immunity. The Thunderhead may have done away with politicians and crime, but corruption still exists here, as it seems to wherever there are humans. The scythes are treated as above the law, and the Thunderhead cannot interfere with them.

The concepts here are great fun, despite the darkness at the heart of the novel, and I enjoy a future where no one knows what murder is as death isn’t seen as a crime, and that because people are broadly speaking on an equal footing, there’s no need for theft and so on. Even religion has faded away in a world not obsessed with the afterlife, and instead been replaced by tonal cults, who worship sounds and smells.

The characters that inhabit this story are intriguing too, and while it’s quite obvious from the outset which way it’s going to go, there are a number of surprises along the way that kept me hooked. As I said, one of the first rules of becoming a scythe is that you must have absolutely no desire to do it, as anyone who enjoys killing would be wrong for the role. Scythes are respected and admired, as well as feared, and each has their own methods by which they glean. Interestingly, gleanings are not always bloodless and kind – you are just as likely to be beheaded, stabbed or shot than you are poisoned or drowned. Scythes must work to a quota that vaguely relates to the death rates in the Age of Mortality.

Really, I’m a sucker for great worldbuilding and Shusterman has that here in spades. The ending sets up for the rest of the series, and I’ve already put the sequel in my basket on Amazon. I look forward to returning to these characters.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and failed relationships, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“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.

“The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047” by Lionel Shriver (2016)

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“Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”

Many people have long lived by the notion that money makes the world go round. I’m not sure that’s true, but there’s no denying that if you have money it makes for a more comfortable ride. During the credit crunch last decade, the general population wised up a little to economics and realised that things weren’t necessarily always going to be so rosy. Indeed, with Brexit looming here in the UK, the cost of it and how that money will be raised seems to be a constant topic. Economic destruction is just one of the many negative options for the future of the planet, and Lionel Shriver explores that notion here.

The year is 2029 and things in the USA are bad. The dollar has imploded and is barely worth anything. The national debt will never be repaid. An international currency war is wiping out bank accounts with great speed. The Mandible family are just one of many that are struggling to survive in this world where cabbage costs $38 a head (and rising) and homeless shelters are bursting at the seams. When the family patriarch, Douglas Mandible, sees the inheritance he was set to leave his large family disappear, the whole clan now must deal with disappointment, frustration, and a lack of anything approaching luxury.

Florence works at one of the homeless shelters and is tired of having to turn away people every day because they’ve got a distant uncle with a spare bedroom. Her teenage son, Willing, is precocious and seems to have an innate understanding of economics and the way the world is going. Avery and Lowell are struggling to give up their expensive wines and quality clothes, and their children – Savannah, Goog and Bing – aren’t at all used to going without. In fact, the only one who seems to be doing OK for himself is Jarred, who has disappeared upstate to run a farm, now that agriculture is the only way to make any money.

As prices rise and everyone’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, the family find themselves making one compromise too many as they do whatever they can to survive through to a better future that may or may not be coming.

I’m not an economist by any means, but even I can see that the culture of spending money we don’t have is surely going to cause problems eventually. Shriver uses her characters (in particular Willing and Lowell) to explain the fundamentals of interest, taxation and inflation to us, and while these are the clunkier parts of the novel, they’re very useful to have. The first two thirds of the book are set between 2029 and 2032, when the country is falling apart and the final third takes us to 2047 with the surviving characters in a country that has begun to rebuild itself in a new way to aid its survival for longer. During the gap, a number of characters we’d grown to be interested in are wiped out, which is a shame and a bit of a cop out, but I also understand why it’s done.

One of my favourite aspects of dystopian futures, or anything set in the future really, is simply how the author envisions that world. I don’t mean the major details, more the little ones. In this one, for example, most of the technology brands we know have vanished and been replaced by superior models, which is by now a common idea. I do really love glimpses at future politics, too. While the story is set entirely in the USA, it’s mentioned that North and South Korea have undergone reunification, Ed Balls is the current British Prime Minister, the USA has its first Latin American President, and at some point before the story begins, Putin declared himself President for Life, and the USA went to war with New Zealand for some reason.

It’s an intelligent book, and actually quite funny as well, although the reality of what’s happening is perhaps a little daunting. I’m not sure society will ever get to these extremes, but odder things have happened. While the end careens towards a slightly more positive future, the very final paragraphs suggest that humanity, once again, has never learned from its mistakes. If humanity has a fatal flaw, it’s that, and I think it’s important to show it. Maybe one day we’ll pay attention.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986)

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“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Three dystopian books in a row are enough for anyone, it seems, especially when I was meant to be cutting back on the genre. Nonetheless, some books just have to be read. This one has been bouncing around my consciousness for the best part of a decade, dating back to when I was working at a bookshop and my colleague was a huge fan of it. Somehow in the interim I only managed to read one other Margaret Atwood book – Oryx & Crake – but have long had an affection for her and her ability. Anyway, I got here in the end.

In a not-too-distant future a deeply religious sect took over the running of the American government and thus was born the country of Gilead. Following on from a declining birthrate, and massive environmental damage, the population is in crisis and so people turn to religion to find the right way to repopulate. Fertile women are sent to live with married couples who cannot have their own children and must live a life of servitude with no freedoms or rights. Their only purpose is to have a baby.

Offred is one of these Handmaids, retrained and condemned to a life of purely functional sex with a man she hardly knows, her only chance at any sort of better life would be to get pregnant and help continue humanity. But Offred has not fully adjusted to this new world and still has hopes and dreams of an earlier time. No matter what the governments of the world do, you cannot suppress desire, and Offred soon finds her whole future resting in the hands of two men who could destroy her in a heartbeat, or provide some kind of salvation.

This is another of those novels that I thought I knew all about because of cultural osmosis. As it turned out, all that had really penetrated was the the vague setting, the repression and the outfits. I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and it was nothing quite like I had expected, although that’s not a complaint. I think the biggest shock was how far into this new world the novel was set. I had assumed that this was deep into a dystopia and focused on its dismantling when actually it turns out this new world order has only been in place for a matter of years, maybe seven at most, it’s not quite clear. This makes the whole thing much, much more terrifying, as the Handmaids – and indeed everyone else – all remember what life was like before and what freedoms they had. Freedom plays a huge part of the story’s themes, as any story about slavery does. The women, it is said, used to have “freedom to” and now they have “freedom from”. It’s such a small change, but an incredibly notable one. Consider the difference between women being free to date openly and with whomever they choose and being free from having to go on dates with unpleasant men and risk abuse or assault.

Many people may read the book and have thoughts along the lines of “Well, this couldn’t happen here”, yet the core of the book is based on the true events that befell Iran in the 1970s. Until then, it had been quite a modern, Westernised country, but then a very religious party got into power and women lost many of their rights and were told how to behave, right down to what clothes they should wear. I can’t profess to know very much about Iran, so I assume that Atwood is dialling everything up to extreme levels to make a point.

While the world and the unseen governmental body are scary, the real fear comes from those characters who have totally bought into the new setting. Like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, true terror comes from those who are doing their job without questioning whether it is right or wrong to do it. Here, many of the women seem to have settled into the new regime and appear happy. I can’t understand these women, just as I can’t understand women who claim not to be feminists. Or any person of colour or homosexual that votes Conservative. There’s an irony present when Atwood discusses radical feminism and the women in her timeline who previously wanted a world for women – be careful what you wish for, indeed.

Surprisingly, the book also features a fascinating epilogue that takes the form of a lecture at some future point of the timeline in which Offred’s account has been discovered and studied as a historical text, which adds a whole new layer to the story and, in fact, can change how you view a few of the events. This is an excellent and unique take, but I won’t say anything else about its contents so as not to ruin some of the things it reveals.

Overall, I think the story is summed up by the line that Offred uses occasionally while narrating: “I don’t want to be telling this story”. In the current climate of #metoo and Weinstein culture, there are many stories that people don’t want to tell, and yet there are many that need to be told. There’s a firm difference between a want and a need, but one trumps the other – sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s important to share our experiences and help other people going through the same things. This story is one that needed to be told, and as Atwood herself says, perhaps a world that can be described thoroughly like this can never come to fruition. I, like her, trust that it will not.

It’s a chilling but fascinating look at a world gone mad, showing that humans will always be our own worst enemy, and that it’s far easier to launch a despotic regime than it is to maintain it.

“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…

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