“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.

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“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

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“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

“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.

“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!

“All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai (2016)

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“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

I like the themes of alternate histories. Everything that has happened, had it happened another way, would probably have set the world off along a path unlike the one we currently have. Some of those would turn out better for us, some not. Interestingly though, we focus a lot on the what ifs of the past, not really considering that every single thing we do in the present is changing the future. This is all the past to someone, after all. But before we get too bogged down in the philosophical aspects of this, on with the review!

Tom Barren lives in 2016, but not the one we are familiar with. In his timeline, on July 11th 1965, the physicist Lionel Goettreider unveiled a machine that produced unlimited energy. Over the next fifty years, humanity had developed the future that our ancestors dreamt off, complete with moon bases, flying cars, food pills, teleportation, eternal peace and universal comfort. Tom’s father, the remote and rude Victor Barren, is now proposing the first experiment with time travel, sending a team back to the very moment that the Goettreider Engine was turned on, the most important moment of human history. But when Tom sleeps with the lead chrononaut, Penelope Weschler, the night before the mission and she is discovered to be pregnant, the plans are ruined and Penelope kills herself. Faced with heartbreak and access to a time machine, Tom does what anyone would do – something very stupid.

However, upon arriving in 1965, his visit does not go unnoticed by the universe, and he boomerangs back to 2016 to find that everything is changed. His father is much friendlier, he has a sister he never knew, and he’s now apparently a notable architect instead of a walking disappointment. Gone are the technological advancements – he’s landed in the universe we would recognise as our very own. He seeks out Penelope and finds her, although it’s not the same her, and now he has to make a difficult choice. Should Tom stay in this imperfect world where he can experience love and be a success, or go back to the perfect utopia where the world was at peace, but he was miserable?

Uniquely among time travel fiction, to my knowledge at least, Elan Mastai deals with the real issue of the science. Travelling in time also requires travelling in space, as not only is the world rotating on an axis and orbiting the sun, it’s also tearing through the vast expanses of the universe so if you travel back to the same spot, the planet will be miles away. Hell, misjudging your landing by a few inches can render you embedded in a sofa or solid ground. Mastai could easily handwave this, but he has a solid bash at explaining the science on how to solve these issues. How accurate they are or how likely it is that they’d work, however, I don’t know for sure – I’m an arts student – but the science feels solid enough that I’m happy to accept it. The whole thing becomes a lot more believable, even more so because explanations are given in too much detail to make you lose interest. As Tom says, he doesn’t understand the mechanics behind the time machine or the Goettreider Engine anymore than most of us would be able to build a microwave or television from scratch.

Like pretty much all of my favourite writers, Mastai’s real skill lies in his ability to build a world. The alternate utopian 2016 is explored in vivid detail, with Tom explaining how he takes for granted that absolutely everything is recycled, there’s no need for war or even, really, to break any laws, and he’s never eaten an unripe avocado. When he arrives in our timeline, there are a few scenes of him struggling with the mundane, such as actually having to open doors with a handle, or having to remember how to write by hand. Mastai could easily have spent far too long exploring the specifics of our world and explaining why they’re shit, but we already know about our world, so he skips playfully over it and lets us imagine Tom’s views over the rest. Towards the end of the novel, we also see a third timeline and while it only appears for a brief chapter, it too is incredibly evocative.

While it’s fun to read about time travel and alternate dimensions, it is nice to come up against something that asks, “No, seriously, how would this work?” Despite being on the hard end of the science fiction scale, it still retains a sense of whimsy and it’s good for a chuckle, despite some of the events being really rather harrowing. It’s nice to have my faith in the genre bolstered every once in a while, and this has certainly done that.

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.

“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor (2013)

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“There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.”

Be honest, we all want a go in the TARDIS. Everyone has that one point in history they’d like to go back and experience first hand. For me, I’ve got several. I’d love to go and experience the London Frost Fair of 1814 (as seen in this week’s Doctor Who, incidentally), to hang out with the Ancient Greeks, and to have a picnic on a Jurassic hill, watching the sauropods pass by. We all know the rules though – look, don’t touch. This is the rule that has led to the creation of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where we will be spending the duration of this review.

Madeline “Max” Maxwell is a history doctorate, specialising in Ancient History. With a slightly mysterious background, she is an expert in her field, and one day called upon by an old teacher, Mrs De Winter, to join St Mary’s. She soon discovers that this is historical research with a difference – they can go back in time and observe contemporaneously. After rigorous training and an entire shake-up of her worldview, Max is soon a qualified Historian, finding herself being sent back in time to get the real answers about history.

Along the way she falls for techie Leon Farrell, befriends many of her fellow St Mary’s recruits, and becomes one of the first humans to ever see the dinosaurs alive. But all is not as it seems, and Farrell has a secret. He is from the future, sent back to prevent a rival organisation from meddling with the timeline to fit their own means. Suddenly dinosaurs are the least of her worries.

This is such a neat concept, and one that has been twisted and shaken by most science fiction writers over time. I enjoy the concept of these jaunts into the past merely being observational and, of course, being human, they can’t help but intervene, with History all the while pushing back against the new arrivals and trying to ensure the timeline is kept in tact. There are also some genuinely funny quips and one-liners. However, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, there’s something distinctly lacking about the whole thing.

The plot is disjointed and sprints around all over the place, with occasional scenes added simply for the sake of it. I wonder if the books saw much in the way of an editor, and I was surprised to learn that while this book was published in 2013, the eighth installment was released last month, implying not much proofreading is going on. There are a couple of sections where the use of pronouns and lack of dialogue tags completely flummoxed me and I couldn’t work out who exactly was speaking, or who they were speaking about. The time frame, ironically for a book about the importance of time, is also unclear. The novel races through Max’s training, giving the impression (unless I missed it) that it’s all being undertaken in a matter of months, or even weeks. It becomes clear later that the novel has covered at least five years of time. The list of main characters in the front contains several of their ages, but it’s not clear at which point in the story they are the age noted.

Several times people seem to come to conclusions, make decisions or have knowledge of things that it seems they otherwise shouldn’t. Characters often go by two different names, depending on who’s speaking. There’s an unexpected fantastical addition towards the end of the novel, and at one point there’s suddenly an incredibly graphic sex scene out of the blue in an otherwise fairly chaste novel. Max’s own history is absent, with just a few mentions that lead us to surmise she had a terrible childhood and apparently doesn’t speak to any family, but it’s never made clear what the situation is. On the last few pages, something else entirely otherwise unmentioned happens and is supposedly important, but at the moment it’s hard to tell how.

I don’t want to put the whole series down, as there’s a good chance I’ll return here and see what happens next, but I think I expected better.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

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