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The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder

July 9, 2014 6 comments

TheReturn Of The Discontinued Man-large

The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2014) is the fifth in the Burton and Swinburne series and it amply demonstrates the problem in having to deal with multiple parallel universes when, as an author, you have taken the strategic decision to limit yourself to a single protagonist. As an aside, the alternative approach is in the completely wonderful, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, where one man begets a multitude of himself (and, surprisingly, herself which is good for the perpetuation of themselves). Because we have a single point of view, we therefore face a slightly obscure first few chapters to this novel. In theory, each separate reality in the multiverse is a closed channel but, for our purposes, there’s a coincidence overload, i.e. because so many people in different universes do exactly the same thing at the same time, there’s an overload that breaks down some of the barriers. We first get to see the results of this at precisely 9 pm on the 15th February, 1860, as Babbage performs a critical experiment on the damaged time-travelling suit worn by Edward Oxford. Almost simultaneously in multiple time tracks, the damaged suits disappear. As the time bubble forms around them, there’s damage to Babbage. In part, this is physical with the precise removal of a limb. But it also induces a non-responsive (fugue) state. There’s no sign of life but, in an entirely mechanical being, it’s hard to tell what might have happened to the person stored inside.

In different parts of London, we also get the sudden appearance of Spring Heeled Jacks, all of whom prove to be disoriented but determined to find Burton. As a form of running joke, Burton is then serially barred from restaurants, clubs and organisations such as the Royal Geographical Society because he’s held responsible for all these Jacks turning up and disrupting normal business activities. Thanks in part to his ingestion of Saltzman’s tincture, Burton’s mind is also moving between universes and times. During these episodes, we pick up clues and pointers as to how the parallel worlds are faring and, perhaps more importantly, what happened in the future to persuade Edward Oxford to research time travel. We also have some unusual weather phenomena and, with the deposit of seeds, what seems to be a homage to H.G. Wells’ Martian red weed (the great man does show up again later in the book). However, once this excitement abates, the book becomes a slightly more conventional linear time travel exercise as our motley crew of chrononauts sets off into the future.

Mark Hodder

Mark Hodder

This has the supreme advantage that they may well be the catalyst for rewriting what happens in their future but, whenever they arrive when they are going, there should be a single timeline between their Victorian stating point and their finishing point (whatever the name of this era proves to be). In order to avoid overtaxing themselves and their machine, they plan to make the journey in a series of short hops. To pave the way, members of the Cannibal Club are told to go forth and multiply so there will be children and grandchildren waiting to greet them at each stopping point. Financial arrangements are also put in hand to ensure there will be enough money, if necessary, to rebuild their machine as they move forward in time. This gives us a series of snapshots of how the world could change. This is rather more successful than the first section of the book. It also shows us how Edward Oxford is emerging as the villain of the piece, and prepares the ground for the final battle when our heroic team arrives in the year when Edward Oxford first set off to travel to Victorian times. Needless to say, the time they find is nothing like the time Edward Oxford left. The bow wave of change has preceded them and the first version of Edward Oxford’s time has been completely overwritten.

In tone, most of the humour of the early books has disappeared to be replaced by a slightly more grim feeling as we survey the wreckage of the world as Edward Oxford and Burton’s movement through time, bends the future out of shape. Some of the ideas are interesting and we do have unintended consequences to genetic engineering albeit slightly more heavy-handed this time around to make a political point. But I have the sense this series is reaching the point it should stop. The freshness has gone out of it and there’s a slight air of repetitiveness about some of the elements we encounter. This is not to say another book would not be interesting. The inventiveness to bring this to fruition is outstanding. Indeed, I stand to applaud the sheer ingenuity to weave the preceding four books together to produce this plot. But any more than one to follow The Return of the Discontinued Man would probably kill the golden goose. Needless to say, you should not read this unless you have read the others. You will not have a clue what’s happening.

Once again, the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.

For reviews of the first four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

June 28, 2014 4 comments

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

Back when I was young and still somewhat naive, I was rather taken by the idea of history following a cyclical pattern. I think I first encountered the idea in The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A E van Vogt. At the time, I was studying the classical languages at school and had read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which was a somewhat ironic book for a European historian to be writing as the then major European powers were full of optimism and engaged in creating their own Empires. But the idea of a man writing about the fall of one empire as all the other emergent empires were doomed to fall seemed eerily prescient. Anyway, my understanding of history did seem to register Golden Ages followed by Dark Ages as different civilisations rose, prospered, and then fell. It also seemed attractive to believe that, after each Dark Age, the next civilisation would be better than the last. Young people always want to believe the later generations learn from the mistakes of the earlier. Sadly, that’s rarely the case. As each society reaches the point where agriculture and raw material resources can no longer support the local population, there tend to be wars and social collapse (if climate change wrecks enough of the world’s agriculture, the next collapse may not be very far away).

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell (pseudonym of John G Hemry) (Ace, 2014) is rather elegantly playing with this idea as John “Black Jack” Geary begins the book doing a tour of Earth (as the cradle of the now interstellar civilisation). Appropriately, he’s visiting Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England close to where I was born (not, you understand, that I was there when Black Jack visited). There’s much for him to chew on as he considers how the wall came to be built and, more importantly, why it was later abandoned and largely allowed to collapse over the centuries that followed. He also views other sites where the damage caused by the collapse of an empire remains as a reminder of past failure. He sees this alongside his own experience of helping the Alliance beat the Syndicate and then fight off aliens who might have done considerable damage. The state of the two human combatants remains fragile with the Alliance caught in a difficult economic situation as their worlds try to shift from a war to a peace footing. The Syndicate has fragmented with many planetary systems going through local rebellions against the old regimes who continue to holdout. No-one is doing well in this situation.

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

The book is full of discussions and insights into the collapse of order on both sides of the political divide. Before the war, there were political tensions but, along the border between the two sides, there was considerable trade and movement of people. Now that the war is technically over, there are the usual problems of recovering prisoners of war and dealing with refugees and economic migrants whose arrival from Syndicate space is stressing the resource-poor economies on the Alliance side. This leaves Black Jack with two major issues to address. The first is the enigmatic presence of six ship from the alien race called the Dancers. Their command of standard English is no doubt good, but they choose to communicate in a very odd way. Indeed, the retired general who’s been given the job of liaison officer finds trying to get anything approximating a straight answer out of them a challenge. Nevertheless, there does seem to be some method to their alien strangeness as they suddenly take off on an apparently random tour of human space with the general in tow. Fortunately, it becomes clear towards the end of the book that they have been able to see signs all is not well in human space.

The second issue relates to the extraordinary secrecy surrounding some of the activities of the Alliance. It seems factions have been taking long-term decisions without any public disclosure let alone discussion. Until the end of this book, it’s not entirely clear exactly what’s been done. Now we have a better view of the outcome, it’s obviously a disaster that’s waiting to rampage out of control. As a warning sign of the capacity for decision-makers to believe they are doing the right thing, we get an early visit to the moon of Europa where a secret lab was trying to create the perfect bio weapon. Unfortunately, it escaped the lab and everyone of the moon died. A permanent exclusion zone has been established and no-one is allowed to visit. This latest discovery may well be characterised as an infection of sorts. It will be interesting to see how Black Jack deals both with the politics of how such a thing came to be created and, more importantly, what’s to be done about it now. Putting the problem shortly, the Alliance and the Syndicates had some degree of stability through maintaining the status quo of the conflict. When Black Jack broke the impasse, the Alliance feared for its own stability as victor. Those who had been leaders on a wartime footing might not maintain their hold over power if there was a return to peacetime democracy. For some this would be unendurable. Such is the way in which leaders sow the seeds of their empire’s fall. Putting all this together, The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast is rather a thoughtful book with quite a lot of fighting for those who like military SF.

For review of other books by “Jack Campbell”, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

April 18, 2014 4 comments

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe (http://us.macmillan.com/tor.aspx, 2013) is both literally and metaphorically a weird book. As to the title, a moment’s thought should tell all those of you burdened by a classical education that the Latin for “across” is trans. This book is set in an Eastern European state. The first reference to this particular piece of the map was ultra silvam, i.e. beyond the forest. Following the success of Bram Stoker’s novel, everyone now knows the home of Dracula. From this you will understand this novel is an unpredictable mixture of supernatural thriller, political allegory in a somewhat Kafkaesque mode, mystery, and espionage/secret police adventure. It all begins with our potentially unreliable narrator, an American who writes travel books, seeking entry to a country that’s proving elusive. When he tries to book a flight, he fails to get a seat or the flight is cancelled. He therefore decides to make a more direct approach and takes the train. It seems he crosses the border while he’s asleep for the first he knows of his arrival is his arbitrary arrest for entering without a visa. Removed from the train under arrest, his passport confiscated, this leaves him stranded in one of this country’s slightly unusual cities. He’s commanded to stay in the house of a local couple. If he leaves, the secret police will execute them.

So, at a stroke, our seasoned traveller is ripped untimely from the familiar and dumped in a country where he does not speak the language and does not know the local customs. Even at the best of times, it would be difficult to negotiate a route to escape but when he’s not entirely sure who has his passport nor how to open a dialogue about its return, he’s forced to explore his immediate surroundings to see what comes to light. During this early time, it’s possible he meets a vampire and the wolves he commands. He also discovers an empty house which is associated with a long-missing treasure. Then he’s kidnapped and literally shipped off to the capital city. This brings him into William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) territory in which he makes radio broadcasts as an American. The state in which he’s being held prisoner is a dictatorship and, if an American is critical of the leader, this gives the underground opposition party greater credibility. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter what he says. Not many in this country speak English. Nor do they have access to any of the technology we take for granted. Even access to telephones is tightly controlled. Think of this as being a country in a kind of time warp. It’s not unlike East Germany but without any of its more obvious virtues. The secret police has almost complete power and is remarkably unaccountable for whatever its operatives do.

Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe

In allegorical terms, we’re supposed to be questioning how a country could regress into such a state. It’s a variation on the Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Put another way, the only thing standing between a working democracy and a dictatorship is the quality of those who step forward to represent the people in the elections. If you get too many of the “wrong” type, they vote themselves into a more permanent position of power. Fortunately, our hero and forced radio personality is first arrested (again) and then released on condition he helps one of the senior operatives investigate some of the events that have been happening around him. In political terms, this means probing the “opposition” except they may actually be literally “evil”, i.e. able to use dark forces (or, if the dictator is on the dark side, the opposition may be on the side of the light). When it comes to naming and shaming the scapegoats, the dictator has control of the media and can say whatever he likes about those who oppose him. Indeed, when individually and collectively the Church may also be investigating whether society has been possessed and should therefore go through a process of exorcism, the battle-lines take on more significance. It’s at this point the book begins more seriously to conflate a police procedural investigation with a formal supernatural thriller as a hand of glory is discovered.

Although this has moments of obscurity and some of the political subtext is slightly naive, this proves to be one of Wolfe’s more accessible novels as we slowly discover more about this country and its political system. There are some quite pleasing aspects to the investigation itself and the process of deduction is moderately rigorous. I suppose one more cynical responses to this narrative might be to see it as a dream. Our hero falls asleep as the train approaches the border and what happens after that is just the product of his subconscious. This would help explain the sometimes quite arbitrary way in which our narrator skips over events and sometimes refuses to elaborate on the bare bones of description offered. Since no country this backward exists in Europe (North Korea might approximate this level of poverty both in political and material terms) and no-one today seriously believes in vampires or supernatural devices such as a hand of glory, we could safely treat this as an allegory. Yet, there always comes a moment when our narrators wake. This could be when the border guards invade his compartment on the train, or it might be as the last page turns. You should read the book to find out. The Land Across really does hold interest and arrives at an intriguing ending.

For a review of another book by Gene Wolfe see Home Fires.

This book was sent to me for review.

I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus

December 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Transform_You-1d_SK

I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus (Apex Publications, 2013) Apex Voices: Book 2 gives me pause for a slightly nonstandard reason. Some years ago, I ran my own small press. For reasons which need not concern us here, it was not a great success but, rightly or wrongly, I believed in the authors and their books. It would not have occurred to me to publish something that I thought poor or second-rate. I note with some degree of derision, the emergence of a new breed of small press publisher who sees crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo as removing the risk from their decision-making. Instead of backing their own judgement with their own money, they raise the necessary cash from future customers. This does not apply to Apex Publications. They have the confidence to put their own capital at risk. My apologies. I’m diverting from my theme. This collection of two stories from Maurice Broaddus contains a somewhat ironic pair of effusive panegyrics as to the author’s worth. Why ironic? Because the shorter piece is titled, “Pimp My Airship” and these two prefatory pages are implicitly titled, “Pimp My Author”.

Anyway, this excess takes nothing away from the actual quality of the two stories, the first of which is the longer “I Can Transform You”. We’re immediately pitched into a noir science fiction police procedural in which Mac Peterson, an on/off police detective is called in when his ex-partner has taken a dive off one of the tallest buildings in the neighbourhood. Like Icarus, she did not make a soft landing. Sadly, she’s one of a growing number of people who have taken their leave of the world by this extravagant swan-diving and no-one has been able to come up with a convincing explanation for this aberrant suicidal gesture. His boss, Hollander, introduces our hero to Detective Ade Walter who’s to take lead on this case. On top of the building, there are signs of a struggle and she has trace amounts of DNA under her nails suggesting defensive action on her part. This sets the plot in motion.

Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus

Mac is, of course, a man with a past. He was ousted from his role as a full-time detective because he busted a ring of paedophiles with connections to the rich and powerful. He’s retreated into the demimonde as a problem-solver or PI if you want to dignify what he does for cash to fuel his increasing dependence on the drug called Stim. Just about holding himself together, he sets off to ask questions of the “gang” of desperate homeless people who had connections to this latest “suicide”. As a piece of noir science fiction, it’s similar to Michael Shean’s Shadow of a Dead Star and the rather better Bone Wires. In this type of story, our hero finds himself forced to work outside the formalised law enforcement structure in a world suffering environmental damage to investigate the activities of a shadowy “organisation”. He may or may not be augmented or, as in Guy Haley’s Omega Point, he may have a cyborg as a friend. As a basic plot, it’s not very original. What saves this version to some extent is the quality of the characterisation. There’s some heft to the protagonist but, in comparison to Clean by Alex Hughes which also deals with a consultant to the police (he’s a telepath) struggling with addiction in a future noir dystopia, Broaddus is a little thin.

The shorter “Pimp My Airship” is a political steampunk allegory in which the American revolution failed and Britain retained control. The colony prospered by exploiting the free labour force and building on the backs of the slaves. The status quo of corruption and racism would have continued, filling the coffers of the British masters, but for the arrival of automation. Since machines, once deployed, are easier to manage than slaves, the newly redundant were ghettoised and left to their own devices (sic). Pacification through opium was the norm, with imprisonment for any who chose to speak out against the racial oppression. This story sees a very public blow being struck for the practical emancipation of the ex-slaves. It initially requires a group to be freed from imprisonment rather along the lines of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille. For this purpose, an airship is required. The Afronauts fly to their destiny and the appropriately named “Sleepy” must decide where his loyalties lie.

In the confines of a short story, it’s a challenge to develop beyond broad brush strokes. The problem with this particular vehicle for mirroring modern racial discrimination is the lack of an economic context. In contemporary America, the racially oppressed groups are maintained in a state of dependence with just enough earning capacity to sustain life, doing the work the racially advantaged consider beneath their dignity. In time, this will change as the better paid jobs dry up and the bare subsistence jobs are all that are left. But for now, the potential for revolution is lacking. The oppressed have been brainwashed into apathy, convinced they are powerless to effect change. In this story, there are no low paid jobs for the poor to fight over. They have been condemned to slum wastelands. So who feeds them and provides shelter from the elements? If automation replaces all the low-pay, no-pay jobs, the elite should be thinking in terms of eugenics and a final solution, rather than picking up a bill for charitable works and free opium for all (cf “This Peaceable Land” by Robert Charles Wilson).

I might have thought these two stories published as I Can Transform You rather better if the book had begun without the broadside of unrelenting praise. Having raised expectations with a concerted sales puff of epic proportions, the actual stories were almost bound to disappoint. In American terms, the politics underpinning both stories is probably quite edgy. In European terms, it’s superficial and unchallenging. Though the writing style is above average, the substance is lacking for a European reader like me. Perhaps American readers will find more grist.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla

November 30, 2013 Leave a comment

Baghdad Central Elliott Colla

Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is another of these deeply political novels which deals with controversial recent history. In one sense, it’s easier for an author to be more dispassionate about the book’s theme if the genre is switched to near-future science fiction or alternate history or an allegorical fantasy. That way, potentially unpalatable “truths” or inferences can be swept away by readers as fiction or willful mischaracterisation to create irony or satire. But the problems immediately pile up if the author is claiming realism. In part this explains why so few American authors have felt comfortable to write about 9/11. The emotional wounds are still raw. But here we have a book about the American occupation of Baghdad although the British and other allies do put in an appearance towards the end.

We begin in April 2003 with the reality of American coalition troops rolling almost unopposed into Baghdad and the decision of Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji to keep his head down until he can see how the conquest will turn out. He hopes he will be passed over in any process of de-Ba’athification. He was only a mid-level follower in the police force. But life is never simple or straightforward. It seems there is another Muhsin al-Khafaji who was quite senior in the party and, as is required when November arrives, our hero is picked up through the natural misidentification. He endures the pain and humiliation as best he can but, when the Americans finally admit their error, they compound his problems by recruiting him as a figurehead senior police officer in the newly reconstituted force. When he prefers not to be seen as a collaborator, his daughter Mrouj is offered treatment at a hospital inside the Green Zone. This earns his reluctant co-operation with the Coalition Provisional Authority created by L. Paul Bremer. Against this background, the book follows the Inspector’s attempts to rescue his brother’s family, investigate the murders of interpreters, and avoid being killed by Iraqi patriots as a collaborator or by the Americans for being an infiltrator.

Elliott Colla

Elliott Colla

By starting with the physical conquest of Baghdad and ending with the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the author avoids the need to discuss any of the controversy surrounding the legality of the invasion or the subsequent occupation. It simply confronts the hero with the need to survive the arrival of the Americans. The selection of the capture of Saddam is also a convenient place to stop. This is dealt with in a stoic fashion with the relevant Iraqis already resigned to the shift in political power, and the Americans convincing themselves this will see the end of their immediate problems in controlling the population. This does not in any way mean the book is defanged as a critique of the occupation itself. But it does carefully narrow the focus of the criticism and leaves the tone inferential rather than overt in its denunciation of less than appropriate behaviour both by the occupying forces and those opposing them. Insofar as such a stance is possible, this is an author determined to appear even-handed. In the protagonist, he has an older man who’s experienced in navigating difficult political waters. On one side, he must appease the Iraqi militant factions which are determined to harry and strike both at the foreign invaders and those who collaborate with them. But given his daughter’s health is now dependent on treatment by the Americans, he must seem to be actively assisting the CPA. This gives us a chance to view both sides through the eyes of a man to whom poetry and his family are everything. In the end, we see the emergence of greater stability in his life. It’s not, you understand, that either side thinks him indispensable to their needs, but there’s hope he will not be killed for being who he is.

In a way, the book is fairly damning of the CPA, its personnel and the corruption it encourages. It’s equally scathing of the Red Zone occupation managed by the British who are great at the theory of how the whole process of occupation should be managed, but less than effective when it comes to implementing it in the face of local opposition. In genre terms, this makes Baghdad Central partly a political thriller as our hero navigates the minefield, partly a police procedural as he investigates the murder of the interpreters, and partly historical fiction. Books which deal with such controversial source material are not intended to make the reader comfortable. But they must also have sufficient entertainment value to persuade the readers to go through to the end. I think Elliott Colla has struck the right balance here. There’s enough of a mystery to resolve while our protagonist is put in situations where his life is very much at risk for the thrillerish moments. For all those with an interest in what life was like in Baghdad under the CPA, this should be required reading. It comes over as credible and authoritative, making Baghdad Central a book I recommend.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong

November 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Enigma of China

As is often the case when starting off these reviews, here’s a question for you to chew over. Is it possible to write an apolitical piece of fiction? One view of the political process is that it’s the discourse used by those who seek to achieve power. Although some would no doubt wish to reserve the meaning to the electoral mechanisms for appointing people to government, the practical reality is that the way people communicate with each other can be used to influence decisions at a personal or small group level. I might get very political in discussing possible projects with friends and colleagues. This might be trading on the nature of existing relationships or offering outcomes which might be mutually beneficial. Hopefully, these exchanges will be benevolent but, inevitably, there are times when threats of unpleasantness are made. The process of negotiation is always about sticks and carrots.

When authors write about their own cultures for the readership of those who are a part of that society, much of the mechanisms of political interaction can be left unspoken. Among those who have been socialised in the culture from birth, there’s no need to state the obvious. Hence the moment an insider offers a commentary or critique, it’s always classified as humour or, more dangerously, as satire to warn people the content is not to be taken seriously. I cut my early teeth on Stephen Potter’s books defining and exploring gamesmanship among the English. The art of cheating without getting caught has always been close to my heart. If outsiders write similar books, the English are patronising or faintly contemptuous as if outsiders can never be trusted to see through to the truth about Englishness (whatever that is). In the end, it’s all about controlling the salience and importance attached to the book. If a book is saying something unpalatable, it has to be marginalised so it will not disturb the smooth flow of the discourse. Assuming its release can’t be prevented, of course.

Writing about China is always political. This is a nation whose culture depends on the concept of face. It’s not considered socially appropriate to write or say anything that might cause others to lose face. Equally, at a higher level, it’s not politically acceptable to say anything that might divert public opinion against the current orthodoxy as defined by the Party apparatus. So here comes a book written by a Chinese born man who now makes his home in America. In these internet-connected days, what one writes in one country is often picked up and commented on in others. This means the author must be careful what he writes. If he wishes to return to his home city of Shanghai, he must tread carefully when deciding what picture of China to present to his American or other readers in the West. Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the eighth instalment of the Inspector Chen series (not to be confused with the Detective Inspector Wei Chen series by Liz Williams), which feature Chen Cao as Chief Inspector of the Shanghai Police Bureau, first deputy Party secretary of the bureau, member of the Shanghai Communist Party Committee and sometime poet.

Qiu Xiaolong

Qiu Xiaolong

So how is our politically aware police officer to interpret his appointment to oversee the apparent yet suspicious suicide of Zhou Keng, the director of the Shanghai Housing Development Committee? As a man with a reputation for honesty, is he supposed to rubberstamp the predetermined official finding of suicide, or is he to act as a kind of stalking horse to flush out prey? The “safe” line would simply be to assume endorsement of the party line is required. If there are doubts, they can be included in an appendix to the official report which his superiors in the party can forget to publish. But without being able to ask anyone for guidance, he must judge the factional landscape. For all the party might like to portray itself as monolithic, there are always political currents and eddies as different groups vie for influence and power. In this instance, there may be stresses in the relationship between Beijing and the local government in Shanghai. If this speculation is correct, Beijing might expect a very different report. So to whom does a police inspector who’s rising through the ranks owe his duty? Is it to his immediate political masters or to higher powers.

In answering this question, we should not forget the rise in the power of netizens as the internet enables challenges to the discourse published through state-controlled media. Indeed, it was a piece of crowd-sourced investigative journalism that triggered this particular crisis. Zhou Keng was exposed as probably corrupt through a photograph of him smoking a very expensive brand of cigarette. Other officials are also being photographed wearing expensive watches and driving luxury cars. Although action can be taken against individual bloggers after prejudicial information is published online, it’s very difficult for the party to deter future revelations. To appease the public, Zhou Keng had therefore been relieved of his post and placed in a form of extralegal detention. The Shanghai authorities naturally hope his suicide in custody will be interpreted as an admission of guilt and bring this particular matter to an end. Inspector Chen must decide whether to investigate and, if he does, what he must do with the results. It might suit Beijing to make an example of Shanghai if the corruption was widespread among the Shanghai government elite.

Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong is a rather pleasing meditation on the nature of duty and the role of a police officer. He might suggest it’s not his job to prejudge the facts or second-guess the judges (legal or political). All he need do is discover the “truth” and leave it to others to decide what to do with it. Except if he had a romantic view of justice, he might consider himself under a more universal imperative to act when it’s the right thing to do. The answers here are illuminating. China, as the title suggests, is an enigmatic culture so you should not expect easy, black-and-white assertions. In the final analysis, it’s somewhat melancholic to discover that this culture is not unlike our own. The decision to become a whistleblower is no less difficult in our society which is supposedly more open and accountable. Those in power never like to feel threatened by mere police officers.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Diamond Deep by Brenda Cooper

November 13, 2013 Leave a comment

The-Diamond-Deep-Ruby-s-Song--351119-ba45b5654228bb6a6a33

The Diamond Deep by Brenda Cooper (Pyr, 2013) is the second book in a duology called Ruby’s Song that began with Creative Fire, the story of revolution on a generation star ship on its way back home. Without FTL, travelling over interstellar distances takes several hundred years. This means some degree of degradation in the ship itself. No matter how robust the initial engineering, mechanical systems wear out and the hardware to run the ship’s control systems no longer works as efficiently. Similarly, the crew that left has long died off, to be replaced by subsequent generations. No matter how determined the crew may have been to maintain the knowledge and skills of the original crew, there’s inevitable loss in cognitive abilities. There was high competition to secure the places and, for the most part, only the very best of a large field of applicants was selected. Running a star ship rapidly becomes a boring routine of maintenance and repair. This allows time for the emergence of politics and the birth of conflict. The ship is now on it way back. Ruby Martin and Joel North have been doing their best to restore some degree of harmony following civil war.

With tensions still running high, the ship first encounters essentially silent attackers who send spider robots into one of the cargo bays. Ironically, at a time when all should be pulling together to defend the ship against external enemies, one faction seizes the opportunity to attack the bridge. That the current command survives is not, of itself, laudable. They control the atmosphere in the corridors approaching the control centre and suffocate the attackers. In due course, the ship arrives at the titular space station. If our heroes thought the return home was going to begin with a welcome, they are sorely disappointed. Imagine the problem of a major group who fought for George Washington landing in modern day America. They would find it rather difficult to understand the culture and the practicalities of everyday life.

If the first book is about the problem of a society in which a rigid hierarchical structure outstays its welcome, this book is about the unequal distribution of wealth and power in what is, to the returnees, akin to an alien world. Although the problems of social inequality between the two situations are broadly comparable, the space station has a different feel to it. In both halves of Ruby’s story, we’re dealing with space opera seen through the soft sciences lens. The trope of the generation star ship is well-established and the only difference between this book and other first contact stories is that this contact is with the home world displaced through time. To that extent, there’s nothing very original about the plot. If the book is going to be saved, the characterisation must be good and the social world building must be credible. Constructing a ship-based society is easier because the author begins with a command structure and very clearly defined roles for flight crew, engineering, defensive military forces, policing forces and the civilian crew. If status and entitlement to roles is passed down by inheritance rather than on merit, it’s inevitable there will be conflict as less competent children grow up in command or holding powerful roles. It’s significantly more difficult to create a future world that has comparable credibility when our innocent generation returns.

Brenda Cooper

Brenda Cooper

Brenda Cooper makes great play of asserting she based the character of Ruby on Eva Perón. Broadcasting such an explicit link is a considerable risk. The reputation of Peronism and of Eva’s role remains somewhat controversial. What’s clear is she was one of the first twentieth century political operatives to recognise the power of show-business celebrity to garner populist support and manipulate the electorate. In this book, Ruby comes from a “poor” background as a robot repair technician, but has a rare talent as a singer, a talent she uses to begin building a political consensus on the ship, and later to foster acceptance of the need to change when the ship reaches “home”. The problem is twofold. First, we all know how Eva Perón ended up so, if Brenda Cooper is basing her novel on the true story, we know how it has to end. Second, what’s wrong with allowing a book’s primary character to develop along original lines?

The whole point of fiction is the freedom to allow anything reasonably plausible to happen. Creativity can mirror real-world events, of course. There’s always great potential with allegories, parables and, if you’re in the mood, satires. But it worries me when some aspects of history are replayed as the plot of a science fiction duology. In a sense, I suppose I’m missing the red meat of real analysis or commentary. The best elements in allegories or satire arise from a critique of the society being explored. This is not to say the authors intend to educate readers. But everyone has a chance to reflect on the issues when they are presented as something more than mere space opera.

At this point, I’m forced to sound somewhat more patronising than usual. This is a very professional package. The prose smoothly presents the plot and the plot has plenty of stuff happening. But I found it all rather underwhelming. As written, the character of Ruby is worthy and well-intentioned, but rather uninvolving. The sociopolitical context for the action is also somewhat superficially presented. Hey, the folk from/of/with Creative Fire beat the stodgy power-brokers who want to rip them off. The best soft science fiction has more effort invested in the world building to explain the forces that produced this particular set of social structures. This is supposed to be a far future culture, yet it’s far from alien or difficult to understand. It’s just repeating the same mistakes humans have always made. The result is about average for this type of book, failing to match the greatness of books exploring political systems or the effects of the environment on the psychology of those who must live there. Rather The Diamond Deep is an adequate story with an emotional heart about a woman who wants to save her people from oppression. By way of an encore, Ruby will now sing “Kumbaya”.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Human Division by John Scalzi

October 22, 2013 Leave a comment

scalzi-human-division

Coming into the 1940s, some American authors developed a two-bites-of-the-cherry strategy. The market in magazines for short stories was strong. They therefore worked at that opportunity first, churning out as many stories as possible in the shortest possible time. In those days, the word-rates were low so authors were only self-financing through volume. However, instead of writing indiscriminately, the more cunning authors would actually be developing one or more novels in parallel. Whenever they had enough building blocks to fix-up into a novel, they would get paid a second time for the short stories edited to make a coherent story. The best at this was A E Van Vogt with The Weapon Shops of Isher and many others leading the way. These books are actually fun to read in a roller coaster style, i.e. it’s all highly episodic with regular exciting climaxes. I’m therefore experiencing an interesting flashback to see this approach recreated by Tor. It’s going one step further than publishers like Curiosity Quills Press which persuaded their authors to allow books to be published in whole or part as first-draft serials on their websites (the completely revised books being published later). Here John Scalzi wrote a series of “self-contained” short stories that were individually published. These were then fixed-up into The Human Division which is Book 5 in the Old Man’s War series.

The resulting whole demonstrates an important feature of the writer’s craft. Some authors feel most comfortable when they can allow the plot to develop organically. They write character sketches and create an initial situation. Once the set-up is complete, they set the characters “free” and see where they go. Obviously, there has to be some guiding intelligence, but this method can allow authors to achieve considerable credibility in the way their characters act or fail to act. The brief for John Scalzi obviously went as far in the opposite direction as it’s possible to go. Every last feature of the overall plot had to be nailed down before the author started the first story so that the individual parts could be fitted together to make the whole.

John Scalzi

John Scalzi

What makes this particular fix-up interesting is the discontinuity that would have been apparent to anyone reading the individual segments as they were published. In one or two instances, we jump to completely different points of view with little or no obvious connection to what has gone before. In retrospect, there’s complete continuity, but I can sense the sly sense of humour at work in the way readers are sometimes left hanging. For those of you who have not read any of Scalzi’s work, the humour is always likely to rear its head in all his work. While this book is not quite as amusing of some of the Retief stories by Keith Laumer, it’s better than the majority, many of which are rather laboured. More importantly, Scalzi is writing today so his brand of humour is more accessible than the now quite dated humour of Laumer. That said, there’s a clear overlap. In both, we have a group charged with a diplomatic mission to the stars. There’s a balance between “diplomats” and those who are not afraid to fight if it becomes necessary. This leads to the key difference. The career “diplomat” in this book is effective whereas Retief is continually called on to rescue his missions from the incompetence of those nominally in charge. To be clear, I’m not suggesting anything more than a coincidence in the basic plot idea. The executions are significantly different.

Taken as a whole, The Human Division is great fun with the title appropriately growing ever more relevant as the book unwinds. I can do no more than applaud John Scalzi for pulling off a difficult trick. As with many of the early fix-ups, you can see the joins between the different parts stitched together. John Scalzi makes a feature of those differences. Sadly, the pulp writers were less sophisticated and just bolted the bits together, not caring whether anyone noticed the losses in continuity. That means Scalzi’s technique prevails and anyone who enjoys the older style of space opera should read this!

For the review of a freestanding novella, see Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell (pseudonym of John G Hemry) (Ace, 2011) sees me going back in time to satisfy my curiosity. I was intrigued rather than impressed by the meticulous way in which The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight was put together. Although the political situation as described was rather laboured, the military SF element was pleasing. It therefore seemed a good idea to go back a couple of books to look at the story from the main protagonist’s point of view. Black Jack was part of the practical mythology that informed the activities of the ex-Syndic world. Why not see how and why he had made such a name for himself?

The basic premise is not in any sense original. It assumes an individual from one culture can have a massive impact when he or she is transplanted into a different culture. Simply the fact of difference is enough to raise the hackles in the new culture. There’s always been deep suspicion of strangers. If they are also “foreigners” this doubles the paranoia that their very presence will change the world, and not for the better. This particular variation has a military leader who was “frozen” when his exploits had made him famous. Politicians over the decades then found it convenient to refer back to this man as having been a leader in their culture’s “golden age”. They mused how tragic his “death” had been. If only. . . and then his body is discovered and he’s reanimated. This is, of course, deeply embarrassing to the generations of politicians who have lauded his name. It gets worse when he’s able to start winning battles again. I’m coming into the story just after Black Jack has beaten the Syndic fleet and brought peace to this part of the galaxy. The man’s status as a hero is now undeniable. So what are the politicians to do with him?

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

They could arrest him, but what would the charges be and would the people tolerate a trial for the man who has ended the civil war? They could quietly arrange for him to meet an accident. If he “died” before, he could do so again and save all the corrupt from having to account to this man of honour. Yes, he’s the epitome of everything good about the military. Willing to serve but scrupulous both when it comes to accounting for his own actions and holding others accountable when they fall short of his high standards. People in power would be lining up to pay for his assassination so they could weep crocodile tears at his funeral and berate fate that had snatched the hero away. . . his legacy would not be forgotten, it would become an inspiration to all. . . and so on.

So we open as Black Jack and his new wife are on their way to rejoining the fleet after their short honeymoon. They are not sure what they will find but are convinced it will be dangerous. Indeed, their arrival coincides with an attempt to break the unity of the fleet. This is political suicide, because if unified command ceased to function, ships returning to their own sets of home planets might produce a balkanisation of human space, each warlord claiming sovereignty by virtue of local military power. To avoid this, the fleet is to be sent off to investigate the strength of the aliens in the adjacent part of the galaxy. This plays to the old political ploy that, if you can’t frighten your people with the threat of humans on the other side of a civil war, you threaten them with aliens at the gates. Despite various attempts to sabotage the mission, a strong fleet does set off and is soon in what used to be Syndic space.

Of course, this is no more safe than alien-controlled space. The fact peace might have been imposed does not mean old resentments have been resolved. Thus begins a significantly more interesting journey through local politics. Here’s our hero, a man with the reputation for righteousness and honour, suddenly forced to begin dealing with people who have little or no interest in compromise or even considering what might, objectively, be the right thing to do. It’s back to the good old days of dog-eat-dog power-broking with selfishness uppermost. And this is not just in Syndic governments. It also affects the operation of the fleet itself, particularly when it liberates some prisoners whose view of how the world should operate is very “different”.

At some point, the fleet crosses over into alien space and there’s some fascinating world building on the nature of their culture. This is a very brave attempt to formulate something inexplicable by our standards and, to a considerable extent, this part of the book is a success. I can’t recall anything quite like this in any other media: books, television, cinema, anime, etc. In part, this reflects the essential paradox in what the humans “see” and a real part of the fun is in listening to their attempts to understand it. Indeed, the strength of the paradox lies in reasons for the “first contact” which suggests I have not gone back quite far enough in the series. Perhaps, I should have read the book earlier than this.

That said, the slightly convoluted title The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught delivers a thoughtful book on the politics of war and the management of the subsequent peace. What to do with standing armies has always been a headache. And I find myself recommending this to the broader SF community. This is not just military SF. Braces for strong reaction from ghetto fans. It’s better than that! Indeed, committed military SF fans may think the first half of the book has too much talk and not enough fighting.

For review of other books by “Jack Campbell”, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

New Taboos by John Shirley

August 28, 2013 1 comment

new taboos cover

When you’re born and bred in a country, you’re tuned into the social and political system and develop radar on meanings. For example, after only a few sentences, whether written or spoken, it’s often possible to tell which part of the country the person comes from, which class he or she belongs to, what political affiliation he or she has, and so on. But, as an outsider, it’s significantly more difficult to read the runes and decide how to interpret the available information. Of course, in fiction, it tends to be easier because although the characters will be showing off their beliefs, the plot is usually dominant. Except when you come to a chap book like this. When I buy an author’s work, I buy the next title without bothering to research what the publisher has to say about it. When this small offering arrived, I confess to being puzzled. So with great trepidation, I set off into the quagmire which is American politics. Anticipating the worst, I ask all American readers to have a little patience for this old man who knows nothing and understands even less. New Taboos by John Shirley (PM Press, 2013) Outspoken Authors is a collection of a novelette, two nonfiction pieces, an interview and an incomplete bibliography.

“A State of Imprisonment” is what, I suppose, I have to classify as political science fiction with horror overtones. Although, in the traditional sense, moderately horrific things happen in this near future scenario, the main thrust of the novelette is a discussion of the direction in which America’s policy towards the punishment of criminals may progress. It’s set in Arizona. The entire state has been taken over by a large corporation which has converted some 80% of the land into a single continuous prison with the occasional population enclave at strategic locations for prison personnel. By virtue of this specialisation, Arizona has become the lock-up capital of the world. Every state in the union and from around the world now outsources its prisoners to Arizona. Naturally, because this is a for-profit corporation, very few of said prisoners ever see the light of day again. Once you have your inmate population and begin receiving the per diem rate for keeping them, there’s no incentive to let them go unless the corporation can develop more profitable ways of exploiting those behind bars.

John Shirley with an interesting view of the world

John Shirley with an interesting view of the world

Of course, the selection of Arizona is inherently significant not only because of immigration and the somewhat notorious SB1070, but also because of the reputation of the Arizona Department of Corrections in the way it runs the Lewis complex in Buckeye and other max units. So when our heroine journalist is allowed through the gates at the border crossing and starts her guided tour of one unit, she gets invited to see what really goes on. The rest of the story flows naturally from her decision to accept the invitation. Although I find this type of fiction not uninteresting as a window into how opinion-shapers think about social issues like the use of prisons as punishment, this is rather clunky and, by my standards, incoherent. America already has some privatised prison units and there have been a couple of cases in which judges have been convicted of fraud for sentencing people to those units. Judges should not be allowed to hold shares in companies running local prisons. As a capitalist country, it should not be shocking that corporations are allowed to run prison facilities. It’s equally foreseeable that the system is open to manipulation and corruption with the maximisation of profits leading to the poor treatment of the prison population. Naturally, a private corporation would react aggressively if a journalist came into possession of embarrassing information. So, like Walter Mondale, I’m not quite sure where the beef is. Everything in this novelette is a reasonable extrapolation on what we have now. Although it’s unlikely a prison corporation could ever take over an entire state, it’s certainly not unreasonable to speculate that a major chain of prison service assets will be established around the world, offering a menu of everything the local state needs from standard cells to à la carte items like torture to match local customs and beliefs. It’s obvious this is a business opportunity no self-respecting capitalist corporation could resist.

Then the publisher takes me by the hand with “New Taboos” which is a political manifesto calling for the creation and enforcement of a system for social judgement and penalties for those found wanting. This clarifies and expands upon the subtext to the novelette. Intellectually, I empathise with the wish-list of practices to “abhor”. Unfortunately, no matter how desirable the implementation of the social system as proposed, the list is never going to gain sufficient acceptance to become a workable mechanism for modifying behaviour. It’s a shame but these features of human behaviour have become the accepted norms for achieving positions of dominance in our society and no matter how much we may resent the victimisation and oppression that follows, the average citizen remains powerless to make any difference. “Why We Need Forty Years of Hell” is a much more realistic discussion of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, recognising things will get a lot worse before they can begin get better, i.e. there will hopefully come a time when even the most dimwitted of superrich power-brokers admits the need for a little restraint. We finish off with “Pro Is For Professional” an interview between Terry Bisson and John Shirley which shows the lead author in a favorable light.

Taken as a whole, this is a pleasing exercise in political pamphleteering. As an outsider, I find myself saddened by the label attached to the series. The featured authors are considered “outspoken” as if that’s somehow a “bad thing” in the land protected by the First Amendment. While it may not be mainstream in American, the centrism on display in New Taboos would be considered very uncontroversial in Europe. Perhaps this a radical socialism according to the right in America which is why this independent small press feels to give such views a platform. I can’t say, but I understand the philosophy on display and, as a European, would defend John Shirley’s right to say it.

For a review of a new fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis. There are two standalone novels:
Bleak History
Doyle After Death
and two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.

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