“The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe” by Douglas Adams (1980)

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“In the beginning the Universe was created.”

Way back in my early teenage years (which feel now like a hazy memory as a milestone birthday approaches with alarming speed), I discovered Douglas Adams, quite by accident. I had borrowed one of the book’s from the school library, and it happened to be The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Yep – I didn’t even start at the beginning. I didn’t even know there was a beginning to start at. Ergo, I came to the series in the wrong order, which somehow feels apt and irrelevant. There are spoilers below, but they too don’t feel particularly relevant.

Restaurant picks up about two hours after the ending of Hitchhiker’s, with Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android being pursued by a Vogon spaceship that has orders to kill Zaphod. With the ship’s computer using all of its power to work out quite how to make tea at Arthur’s request, there seems to be little they can do to escape, until Zaphod suggests a seance and calls on the help of his great-grandfather. The irritated and irritable relative performs some jiggery-pokery and now Ford, Arthur and Trillian are left on the ship, while Zaphod and Marvin have vanished.

They have, it turns out, been transported to the publishing headquarters of the titular guide. Zaphod has received instructions from himself to meet with a man called Zarniwoop, who in turn has a quest to seek out the Ruler of the Universe. The plot zigzags through the universe taking in deserted planets, angry robot tanks, delayed shuttle flights, a Total Perspective Vortex, a colony of telephone sanitisers and hairdressers, but all culminating in one of the most amazing experiences of all time – dinner at Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Like the first book, there’s a lot of philosophy in here. The biggest debate of all comes during dinner when they encounter the animal they’re about to eat, and it happily suggests which parts of it are the tastiest. Arthur has massive problems with this, while the others all seem to be OK with it. Arthur thinks its barbaric to eat an animal that wants to be eaten, but when it’s pointed out to him that surely this is better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten, he is somewhat forced to backtrack.

The universe is once again packed with bizarre races, species and characters, many of whom exist solely for a throwaway joke, such as the Jatravartids who have over fifty arms each and “are therefore unique in being the only race in history to have invented the aerosol deodorant before the wheel”. Adams is again funny, sharp and surreal, but I’ve come away with one thought that I’m sure I’ve never properly dwelt on before – the universe seems to be entirely inhabited by men. Trillian is the only female character that I think I can name at the moment (and we don’t really get another until Fenchurch turns up in either book three or four, I forget which), and while she appears in quite a lot of scenes, she has about five lines in two hundred pages. Most of the other aliens that appear that have certain genders are all male. I am a feminist, of course, but I don’t think I’d ever noticed quite how unbalanced this whole thing was until now. It feels like Trillian is there more because she’s mentioned a lot, and has a bigger role in the 2005 Hitchhiker’s film, but really, she’s not given the page time she deserves.

It is a great novel, nonetheless, but looking back now I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first one, although exceptions can be made for the scenes at Milliways, the character and concept of Hotblack Desiato, and any time Marvin pops up to share in his misery. I also realise that it’s at this point my memory in what happens with the rest of the series fails me. I’ve got a few notions, but from here on in, I’ll be going in pretty much blind. Wish me luck!

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, 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.

“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.

“The Left Hand Of Darkness” by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)


left hand“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

So many books I read take place on Earth. In fact, I think most books take place on Earth, or at least the ones written on this planet do. As such, it’s nice to occasionally make a beeline for somewhere entirely different; a whole new world. Ursula K. LeGuin is often billed as one of the greatest science fiction writers ever, so why not take to the stars with her and visit her famous planet of Gethen.

Gethen, known as Winter by explorers because of its permanently freezing temperatures, is a planet in a remote corner of the universe that has no knowledge of anything living beyond its atmosphere until an envoy comes down to meet them and welcome them to the Ekumen, a league of planets that is trying to work together in harmony and to share information and technology between them all. The envoy is Genly Ai, who has been on Gethen for two years now, trying to convince the people of Karhide, a Gethen kingdom, to join with the other humans on other planets.

Shortly before his meeting with the king is finally arranged, Genly finds that the Prime Minister, Estraven, is a traitor and has been accused of treason. He is banished from Karhide, and Genly must meet with the insane king alone, only to discover that he is not trusted. Frustrated, Genly meets with the Foretellers, a group of people who can see the future, to ask if Gethen will ever be part of the Ekumen. When he is informed that it will, he moves to another country, Orgoreyn, to try his luck there. But soon his luck will run out, as the people of this planet are highly suspicious and before he knows what’s happening, Genly has been imprisoned and carted off to work against his will. When things start to seem completely hopeless, help might just come from the place he would least expect it.

Notably, I’ve managed to summarise the plot without mentioning one of the key things about this novel, and one of the things that is most well known about it. That is, that the Gethen people are neuter, having no gender or sex or most of the year, and then once a month entering a state called “kemmer”, in which they turn into either a male or female – which isn’t constant in an individual – and breed. After this passes, they return to a neuter state again. This way of living has shaped their entire culture, and so they find Genly strange, since they view him as permanently being in kemmer, which is perverse to them.

Estraven and Genly Ai (Copyright: Evan Dahm 2013)

There’s a lot going on in this book but despite the fact it’s set in a different world with a different calendar, you find yourself very quickly invested in Genly Ai, his mission and the world of Gethen. Exposition is delivered via the use of notes taken from the first investigators, or from old stories told by the Gethen people about their history. The themes are manyfold, but none detract from the story. Clearly, it is primarily a story about gender and sex. Genly has difficulty at first in understanding a society where there is no division of the genders, so there are no dominant/subservient or protector/protectee relationships based on different parts of the population. Genly attributes “he” and “she” almost randomly, based on whether someone seems masculine or feminine in his eyes, but he trips up. The King has been both a mother and a father, and his “landlady” has only ever fathered children.

Communication and the struggle of communicating with different cultures is also a key topic. The people of Gethen have something called shifgrethor, which appears untranslatable to non-Gethen ears, but refers basically to a set of social rules to do with pride, honour and respect. The people of Karhide and those of Orgoreyn treat it differently, and Genly is slow to realise that he’s often been misunderstanding people because of it.

It also appears that in this story there was an original race of humans who spread to different planets and then, when their civilisation collapsed, each planet lost contact with the other. This explains why people look basically the same across the galaxy, as they try to re-establish these connections thousands of years later. Genly is explicitly stated to be from Earth, known here as Terra, which was simply one of the planets populated by the Hainish millennia before. A whole series of books is built up around this by LeGuin, but this is the most famous.

Nonetheless, the story is keenly interesting and mostly about a political situation brewing thanks to the arrival of Genly Ai. The use of many words that are native to the planet or can’t be translated can be a bit overwhelming at times – some of the Karhide people have very long names that, when used in full, can dominate a paragraph – but there’s something about it that makes everything seem believable. At the back of the book, or my edition at least, is a guide to the calendar of Gethen and the names of all the days, months and seasons. This is a great resource to check back on, but not essential to one’s enjoyment.

There are some incredible ideas going on in this book, not least the idea of a population that doesn’t understand gender, and it should be compulsory reading for absolutely everyone. And it’s not often I say that about a book.

“Sick Building” by Paul Magrs (2007)


This is more than a tickly throat.

This is more than a tickly throat.

“She was running through the winter woods because death was at her heels.”

In my eyes, books are superior to films and TV in many ways, but one way in which their superiority is undeniable is the fact that books are not limited by budgets or special effects. While I love Doctor Who, you can’t deny that a huge number of episodes are set in early 21st century Britain, despite the fact that the entire premise of the show is that the Doctor has a machine that allows him to travel anywhere in time and space. This is why the Doctor Who novels are a great boon, as you can tell the stories that take place on other worlds and with very strange events without spending an extra penny on costumes or location scouting. However, unlike the show, the books are far more hit and miss with how well they’re executed.

In this novel, the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones have arrived on Tiermann’s World, a planet in the distant future that is owned by one man who lives there with his wife and son surrounded by robot servants to do everything for them. They are, however, in trouble, as the planet is being consumed by a huge alien beast called a Voracious Craw, a tapeworm-like creature that is more mouth than anything else. It circles the planet and sucks up anything and everything into its maw. The Doctor and Martha intend to save the Tiermann family.

However, Ernest Tiermann is something of a madman, having build his perfect house, the Dreamhome, and encased it in force shields to protect him from the outside world. This won’t stop the Craw though, and they all know it. While trying to save the TARDIS, the Doctor is accused of damaging the force shields and consigned to Level Minus Thirty-Nine of the Dreamhome, where he becomes friends with a vending machine and a sunbed. (Yes, that’s right.) When it becomes clear that Tiermann is going to leave all his robots behind however, they and the sentient computer that runs the Dreamhome, the Domovoi, begin to plot their revenge.

So what did I like about this book? I liked the set up and the concept of a man being vain and rich enough to buy a whole planet and name it after himself. I liked the sheer strangeness of a vending machine and sunbed becoming central characters. I even quite liked some of the really dark stuff that’s going on here. But the list of things that disappointed me is far longer.

Martha had barely any page time at all and, aside from administering a little bit of medical assitance, she does next to nothing. The Doctor is at his most arrogant and adventurous, and with a new writer penning his story, the characterisation seemed a little off. Magrs appears to be trying to out-Doctor the Doctor. I mean, can you really imagine him stopping everything to sing the entire of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to a machine to calm it down? Problems are solved too quickly, there’s mention of all technology going haywire, and yet the TARDIS somehow remains completely unaffected, and distinctly Earth-like saber-toothed cats roam the wintry forests of the planet. And the method of saving themselves from the Vorarcious Craw, which is otherwise quite an interesting beast and concept, is downright stupid.

There are good Doctor Who books, just as there are bad episodes on the TV, but this one felt a touch forced. I’ll soldier on through the novels because sometimes I find a gem, but this wasn’t one. It had so much potential, but failed to completely live up to it.