“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!

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“Four-Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple (1949)

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“The idea was too big for the mind to grasp in all its implications at the first attempt.”

Throughout history there have been numerous discoveries and inventions that have shaped and altered the path of human development in unimaginable ways. Penicillin, mechanical clocks, the wheel, x-rays, telescopes … the list is long and remarkable. There remain a good deal of things still out of the grasp of reality that belong firmly in the world of science fiction still. Interstellar space travel, time machines, universal translators, perpetual motion machines – we aren’t likely to get a grip on any of these for some time yet. Authors, however, aren’t limited by real technology, so if they want to invent a duplication machine, they can. And William F. Temple has.

Narrated by Doctor Harvey, medic to the English village of Howdean, this is the story of how the doctor’s young charge Bill and his wealthy, conservative friend Rob manage to create a Reproducer. This amazing device will revolutionise the world, giving them the ability to duplicate works of art, rare medical cures, food and anything else they choose. Every museum can have a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in its galleries, and every hospital can now have huge amounts of cancer drugs at its disposal. Things become complicated, however, by the arrival of Lena.

Harvey has saved her from her suicide attempt and now, upon meeting Bill and Rob and learning of their amazing invention, she has found a reason to live. That reason, it becomes rapidly clear, is Rob and she wishes to marry him. And while Rob is indeed smitten with this girl, unfortunately so is Bill. After the wedding, Bill finds himself caught up in the madness of jealousy and begins tinkering with the Reproducer. Surely it wouldn’t take much more to make it clone living things. And then Bill and Rob could both have a Lena of their own, if she consented to be cloned. It’s only when she does that the problems really begin…

You may already be noting from the plot that aspects of the book have dated, not least the notion of Bill and Rob being able to share the same woman by cloning her. Fortunately, creepy though this is, it could be worse, and Lena (and, indeed, her duplicate Dot) is an early example of the manic pixie dream girl. She does, however, have to consent to being duplicated, but even here, it is her husband that has the final say. The science is also patchy, and Temple gets away with it by having Harvey explain that he doesn’t want to give away all the science, partly because he doesn’t understand it, and partly so that no one else can build a Reproducer. The book discusses the ethics of this and how in the wrong hands, someone could produce a whole army of workers or soldiers who all think and act the same way.

Much as this is a science fiction novel, most of the time the more fantastical elements are incidental. At its core, this is a story of a love triangle and how unrequited love is so painful. It’s also about memory, identity and individuality, and what right we have to reproduce not just unique items, but entire people. Temple is free to play around with the theoretical here, as it’s highly unlikely this sort of technology will ever be possible, but that’s often the joy in these kinds of stories – give people the impossible and see what they do with it. Or, rather, as is the way of humanity, see how they manage to cock it all up.

It’s a clever and interesting book, in places predictable, but also occasionally stepping away from the safety net and surprising you. It does, however, have one of the most accidentally hilarious final paragraphs I’ve ever encountered simply because it caught me off-guard, (it smacks a little of the loathed and hurried ending of Lord of the Flies) which does take the edge off somewhat. Nonetheless, it belongs in the canon and is well worth checking out if you’re a hardcore science fiction fan.

“Darwin’s Soldiers” by Ste Sharp (2018)

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“Private John Greene of the Royal Fusiliers stumbled through the dim forest with the Lewis light machine gun held tight across his chest and his khaki bags strapped across both shoulders.”

War! Huh! What is it good for? Well, interesting fiction, for one thing. The fictional world seems to be at war almost continuously, but who can blame it when it’s been created by a species that has spent much of history perfecting the art of killing its own members. Darwin’s Soliders brings together an eclectic mix of history’s fighters to create a unique and compelling new novel.

John Greene is fighting in the Great War, missing his son Joe, and wishing he wasn’t sat in a trench, stinking of rat shit, as gunfire whistles overhead. And then suddenly, he isn’t. He finds himself on a strange hill, facing a white obelisk and all around him are hundreds of others, but they aren’t the rest of his regiment. He’s here with members of every major army in human history, from Aztec to Zulu, via Viking, Spartan, Babylonian, Mongol, Celt, Amazonian, and even wars that haven’t yet happened in his timeline.

The carving on the obelisk gives them a message – this new army has fourteen days to reach the silver gates, where they will apparently achieve victory. But first they need to solve the problem of working together, as each of them has a particular set of skills. And things get more complicated as they begin their trek through this strange new world and they begin to develop unusual abilities, be they extra limbs, sonar, or telepathy. As they get deeper into this strange situation, they discover that they aren’t the first beings to have been brought here, and it isn’t just the environment that wants to kill them…

Ste Sharp, like me and my second novel, crowdfunded this book via Unbound, but it’s publication was an inevitability, as someone would’ve picked it up eventually. The concept alone is amazing and while I’m not generally someone who reads much about war, I was curious as to how this would play out. It’s like one of those idle Internet questions – “Who would win in a fight between a Viking and a Roman?” – but played out for real. The literal evolution of the characters to gain new abilities that help them in warfare is also useful, and Sharp clearly enjoyed giving everyone superpowers. They are also explained away quite nicely, such as one character’s new ability to see sonar being due to a growth in his sinus cavity.

The amount of research in this book is absolutely staggering. While Sharp includes some of his own creations, such as soldiers from the future, mushrooms that allow for communication between races, and a Celtic tribe that didn’t exist, and, of course, all the aliens, much of the information is factually correct as he has studied the methods and weaponry of everyone from the Japanese samurai to the explosives experts of World War Two. This all brings the novel to life and drags you deeper inside it. The other races he’s created too are all superbly rich in their description, and none of them are just humanoid rip-offs of our species, but instead run the gauntlet from cat-people and robots to indescribable lobster-like beasts with too many eyes and claws and not enough empathy.

The pacing is unstoppable and even from the opening, there’s no farting about and we’re immediately on that hill, surrounded by soldiers, sharing in their confusion. Much of the rest of the novel centres around combat and there are few books more action-packed than this. It’s a hefty tome, but entertaining, never particularly dragging. It ends on a neat note that sets up the promised sequel – and I for one already can’t wait to get my hands on it.

“Mostly Harmless” by Douglas Adams (1992)

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“The history of the Galaxy has got a little muddled, for a number of reasons: partly because those who are tyring to keep track of it have got a little muddled, but also because some very muddling things have been happening anyway.”

Every year I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve tried to have a specific series to be re-reading. In 2013, it was A Series of Unfortunate Events, and then in 2014, all of Douglas Coupland. 2015 was Harry Potter, 2016 went to Jasper Fforde, and 2017 didn’t actually have a theme and was just a few old favourites I wanted to rediscover. This year, I set myself the task of rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and since it’s only a trilogy of five, I’ve already done it. Fittingly, the 42nd book I read this year was Mostly Harmless, which feels just about perfect. Don’t panic – my waffling introduction ends now. The next paragraph gets to the point.

Mostly Harmless picks up at an unspecified point beyond the end of the last book. Arthur Dent is scouring the multiverse (or rather, the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, as multiverse doesn’t quite explain what’s going on) for any sign of Earth, but is routinely upset to find that it doesn’t exist, or does but in an entirely unfamiliar way. Ford Prefect has returned to the headquarters of the Guide and breaks in as to avoid the expenses department who would like a word. He finds things have changed rather a lot since he was last here. And elsewhere, Tricia McMillan is starting to wonder if her career as a television presenter is a satisfying compromise to the opportunity she didn’t take to join Zaphod Beeblebrox on his spaceship.

Except, as we know, she did. Only not in this universe. On this version of Earth – where the primary difference appears to be that clover here usually has four leaves and a three-leaf clover is lucky – she went back for her bag and Zaphod left her behind with nothing but frustration and a sense that she was meant to be so much more. She gets a second chance, though, when aliens land and take her to the planet Rupert, just beyond Pluto, to ask how astrology works. Meanwhile, Ford is fiddling his accounts in ways previously unseen by the galaxy, and Arthur appears to have finally found somewhere that he isn’t entirely miserable. That is, until our Trillian turns up and informs him that he’s a father, which is awkward as they never even got around to sleeping together. As everyone gathers together for one final time, Arthur realises that this really is the end – for now at least.

While still funny, surreal and one of the cleverest books in the known universe, there’s definitely a bleak streak throughout this one. Everything feels a little more futile, and ending cannot be described as happy, however you slice it. Adams admitted later that he was having a difficult time personally when writing this book, and it shows. He had, apparently, always planned to restore whatever passes for order in the series at some time later, but his untimely death in 2001 put paid to that. Although a sixth book has been published, I won’t be reading it for now. I sense that no matter how good the imitation, it won’t be quite right.

The book is also the most uneven of the series. Zaphod and Fenchurch are both missing – the former’s absence is not explained, and there is a throwaway line regarding the latter – and the plot threads don’t necessarily all tie up quite as well as we’re used to. It ends rather abruptly and we never properly get a chance to savour the final events. There are, however, more female characters than ever, some interesting philosophy, and an underlying message about the importance of home and trying to find one’s place in the universe.

I’m sure that Adams would’ve given us a lighter sixth book, but it is what it is. All in all, it’s still a great book, better than I remembered, and I love some of the concepts. Arthur is still an angel, and I would love to take him out for tea, just to give him a bit of normality. Whatever happened next though, including the real reason that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything, are buried along with Adams in Highgate Cemetery. I’ve been to see his grave, and I advise any fan to do the same. There’s a beautiful tradition, though. In life, Adams claimed he could never find a pen when he wanted one, so it’s now the done thing to take one with you and leave it for him at his grave.

And if that touch of madness doesn’t sum up the wonderful man and his incredible books, then I don’t know what does.

“So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” by Douglas Adams (1984)

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“That evening it was dark early, which was normal for the time of year.”

Continuing the oddest trilogy in history, I’ve hitchhiked on a Vogon spaceship, eaten out at the end of the universe, and discovered the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Only one thing left to do – thank everyone for the seafood. Ready? On we go.

By his count, Arthur Dent has lived the last eight years of his life travelling around the galaxy, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a group of insane aliens. It’s a surprise to him, therefore, when he arrives back on Earth about six months after the planet and everything on it was destroyed. He’s not sure whether he’s imagining it or not, but there are pubs and cups of tea, so he’s not complaining. He might, however, not be the only person on the planet who thinks something is wrong. He meets (and instantly falls in love with) Fenchurch – a girl so named because she was conceived in a queue at Fenchurch train station – who is considered mad by her family because she’s convinced that the hallucinations of yellow spaceships everyone endured six months ago weren’t fake.

Elsewhere, Ford Prefect is haring through the galaxy trying to find his old friends, Marvin the Paranoid Android is on his way to find God’s Final Message to His Creation, Wonko the Sane continues his attempts to live outside the Asylum, and lorry driver Rob McKenna is becoming increasingly irritated that it never stops raining – on him at least. As Arthur tries to get back to normality and begin a relationship with Fenchurch, it’s surely only a matter of time before the universe comes knocking again. Besides, where did all the dolphins go?

After three books spent haring around the universe, it’s almost comforting to final return to Earth. Zaphod and Trillian are both entirely absent, and Marvin only turns up towards the end, meaning the focus is entirely on Arthur and his very human quest for companionship. Adams mocks his previous methods of avoiding the topic of whether Arthur has a sex life by giving us a full insight into what he gets up to, although still described in his brilliant use of extremely surreal metaphors. There is something much more accessible here though. While all the books, really, are about humanity and the struggle every living thing must go through just to make it to the next day, here the problems are more grounded in reality. Arthur is a simple man. He never wanted to be a galactic hitchhiker, so he’s thrilled to be back at home.

While all good – it was much better than I remember it being – the best scenes are when Arthur teaches Fenchurch how to fly (a skill he picked up in the last book) and the journey to see God’s Final Message to His Creation, which they actually manage to find and it’s exactly what it should be.

Blissful, joyous stuff. Which is just as well, as next up is Mostly Harmless and from what I remember, it’s not exactly the cheeriest book…

“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)

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“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology is becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.

“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!

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