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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.

Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts

rooftop-prince

This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.

This review now captures the rest of Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) rather than focusing on individual episodes and captures my frustration with how the story develops. To clear the decks, let’s confirm this has nothing to do with time travel as understood in the West. Rather it’s a morality tale building on the notion of a supernatural power bent on establishing a balance in the karma (or the lotus root, your choice). Imagine a world in which a group of people are tied together through time. They are continuously reincarnated in relationships which are substantially the same from one generation to the next. At a critical point in each cycle, one key character has a decision to make about the fate of another. If that decision is for “evil”, the same group are doomed to rerun the scenario when they are reborn, and so ad infinitum. But in our modern age, the supernatural being grows tired of this key character always making the wrong choice. Our interventionist God therefore decides to change one of the variables.

Micky Yoochun and the crew from Joseon

Micky Yoochun and the crew from Joseon

When one of the modern characters is “killed”, Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun), the Joseon version, is brought forward to take his place. Ah ha! So this new player knows how the scenario was unfolding three-hundred years ago. His first problem is to understand the new culture and try to work out who everyone is. Once he’s less gauche, he can more safely begin interacting with people. But when he tries to apply his understanding of past events, it causes a chaotic response from the modern players. It takes him a while to understand he had misunderstood what was happening around him in Joseon. Obviously the court politics of the past don’t fit the culture of private wealth and the phenomenon of the chaebol — a large corporation controlled by one or more family members. This element in the series actually proves interesting as one faction in the family led by Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) tries to manipulate the holders of a key block of shares to gain control. Had this been run as a straight contemporary drama, there was more than enough meat to make a highly effective thriller as one person dies and attempts are made on the lives of others. But this is not allowed for two reasons:

Han Ji-Min in modern style

Han Ji-Min in modern style

  • The initial set-up forces us into a “time travel” mode and prevents the police investigation from building up any tension. Instead, we have the Crown Price constantly trying to work out what has to happen to enable him to go back to his own time. Investigative punches are therefore pulled as our hero slowly pieces together who everyone is and how his return might be triggered. The script also leaves giant holes with no effort made to explain exactly what happens to the bad and not so bad characters in modern times. It’s a whole lot easier when the Crown Price does go back to Joseon because he can torture them, banish some, and execute the rest. Those were the days when a hero really could get things done properly.

  • Jung Yoo-Mi

    Jung Yoo-Mi

  • The series is a romance and the Crown Prince has to meet and fall in love with Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), the modern version of the woman he was supposed to marry in Joseon. This further dilutes any tension because our hero can’t do the hand-holding and gazing into her eyes bit if he’s behind bars or on the run from the police. So subject to the one major plot device, everything has to enable our couple to fall in love.

  • Ah yes, the plot device. Way back in Joseon times, the first episode shows us a view of what happened. Except it’s fundamentally dishonest! I’m not against scriptwriters allowing their characters to make mistakes. We’re all human and not immune from misunderstanding the events as they occur around us. Yet this “error” is so fundamental that it lacks all credibility! There’s no way this could have happened! Someone would have noticed and said something — unless we’re supposed to believe not only that the Crown Price had his eyes closed at the critical times, but that the bad guys had paid everyone around him not to draw his attention to this rather stunning fact. So why do the scriptwriters have to engage in this deception? Well, if they showed us the choice being made in Joseon times, it would rather give the game away as to what the choice would have to be in modern times. If the series were not being run as a romantic drama, this could have led to our watching Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the key character, continue to make the decision for evil. That would have been a high-powered tragedy, leaving the Crown Prince adrift in time and our supernatural being resigned to trying to get it right the next time round. As it is, there’s no tension because although we know this couple of star-crossed lovers are doomed to part, we know they must be together so tears can be shed when the Crown Price is whisked back to Joseon.

    Lee Tae-Sung

    Lee Tae-Sung

    The modern ending is frustratingly mushy. The mawkishness comes from the instant love-at-first-sight between Park Ha and Yong Tae-Yong. Yet more frustration comes from not seeing how that plays out with the families on both sides. The control of the chaebol could be consolidated in them if the appropriate share transfers were confirmed. Worse the time travel is proved real because the Crown Prince sends a love letter to Park Ha by burying it under the pavilion by the lake. Watch out the gift of the gold medallion — that’s a real tear-jerker. Historically speaking, it seems Park Ha and Boo-Yong are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect the man they love. So, as a time travel plot, this is a disaster (why does Park Ha end up in the juice shop and Boo-Yong write an expanatory note to the Crown Price?), but it works quite well as satire and a romantic fairy story.

    For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2.

    Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan

    April 14, 2014 4 comments

    Hollow-World by Michael J Sullivan

    Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan (Tachyon Press, 2014) is an interesting blend of the ideas in two classics: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Perelandra by C S Lewis. Both are books about threats to utopia: one as a form of political allegory, the other as a different version of events in the Garden of Eden. Huxley postulates a world in which material needs are provided to a genetically engineered population of controlled size. When John, the Savage, is introduced to this class-structured society, the superficialities become apparent and the book begins an argument with itself as to what might constitute an optimal form of society. Perelandra is the second book of a trilogy which, as an extended metaphor, examines the nature of Christian faith, and debates how society might develop if we lived according to spiritual rather than material values. Although this book in the trilogy is more didactic than the first, all three manage to transcend the limitations of the more cerebral approach to debate and hold interest because none of the books present answers with certainty. They are exploring the issues to see which answers might have the best fit to the questions posed.

    On the face of it, Hollow World is a time travel book, yet that’s to completely misunderstand it. In Perelandra, our protagonist, Ransom, is flown to Venus in a block of ice. That has to rank as being one of the more absurd methods of space flight ever put on paper. But the ice casket does what it’s supposed to do, i.e. transport us to the metaphorical planetary context for the action. So, here, Ellis Rogers, our extraordinary mathematician, failed husband and poor father, builds a time machine in his garage which is just an excuse to move us to the “future” where a form of utopia exists. It doesn’t matter whether the machine makes any sense in terms of mathematics or physics. It’s just a literary device.

    The world our protagonist finds has had to adjust to a cataclysm on the surface by moving the surviving population underground. At first, this sanctuary was ruled by capitalists who then, quite literally, had a captive market to gouge. This went well for the rich until one enterprising inventor distributed the plans for a Maker (the ultimate 3D printer). At a stroke, this liberation if not socialisation of knowledge produced what’s apparently an altruistic society in which everyone has what they need for material survival. Money has been rendered unnecessary. There’s also been a radical change in reproductive technology with gender abolished and everyone cloned to be physically the same. Medical advances have given such an extended lifespan, it might just as well be termed immortality.

    Michael J Sullivan

    Michael J Sullivan

    In cultural terms, this has interesting repercussions, particularly when there’s a possibility of producing a hive mentality where everyone would be linked telepathically. Theoretically, this would remove the possibility of misunderstandings between individuals, make the transmission of knowledge and experience from one “generation” to the next automatic, and so on. Of course, many fear change and prefer the limited practice of individualism. Even though all the bodies may physically be the same, people are free to decorate themselves with different forms of clothing, and to apply tattoos or other forms of signifier to accentuate their differences.

    Ellis Rogers is considered unique not because he’s travelled through time, but because he’s inhabiting a male body which has aged naturally and he considers himself perfectly normal. No-one else in this society could consider true physical difference a normal part of the everyday process of social interaction. Just think. A world in which there are no physical differentiations based on race, colour, gender, and so on. This is not to say there are no status discriminations based on intellectual abilities or psychological characteristics. But, as described, this society has outgrown many of the social problems that have afflicted humanity throughout the ages.

    It’s always going to be difficult for an outsider to make reliable assessments of those around him but, in this case, the normal indicators are missing. For better or worse, the first person he meets is the appropriately named Pax. This person is an arbitrator who has accepted the role of social troubleshooter, helping others to adjust to long lifespans, keeping depression at bay, and resolving the inevitable disputes. Sadly Pax comes too late to offer his services to the first murder victim this society has seen for a long time. Yes, our hero finds the body. Such are the burdens protagonists have to bear when landing in future societies. Pax proves to be a catalyst for a different view of this world to emerge. Once the antagonist steps into the light, we can get into the slightly more conventional plot, but it’s nicely rooted in the probabilities of what might have survived from earlier times.

    Summing up, it’s interesting to see how Michael J Sullivan has developed in the craft of writing. If you look back to the first fantasy, Theft of Swords, the style is rather elliptical and spiky, focused on delivering the narrative without worrying too much about the niceties of settings and characterisation. This book sees a much more assured craftsman at work with a nicely balanced piece of prose. The plot also moves us along and, allowing for the fact there’s an ongoing discussion about social issues and the role for God, if any, Hollow World delivers an interesting debate about social issues of contemporary relevance. It’s well worth picking up.

    For review of the first books in the fantasy series, see:
    The Emerald Storm
    Nyphron Rising
    Theft of Swords.

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

    Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2

    rooftop-prince

    This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.

    Well here we go with Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) episode 2, which has our time-travelling Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun) and his pack of three fugitives from Joseon, materialise in front of Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), our modern heroine, and when they go out on to the roof, they realise they are no longer in Kansas. Naturally they assume she’s a witch who has brought them into the netherworld. Eventually realising they want to “return to the palace”, she loads them into the back of her open truck, and drives them through the city. This is a disconcerting experience to people only used to horses. Dropping them off outside the palace (now only open to the public during daylight hours), they are completely lost when the police chase them away. Unable to relate to people and without money, they find themselves starving. Fortunately they get themselves properly arrested and this creates the possibility of food if only they can say who they are. Eventually, the clever one with a photographic memory is able to remember the licence plate of our heroine’s truck which lands them back at her house.

    All colour-coded and ready to earn a living

    All colour-coded and ready to earn a living

    Out of charity, she feeds them vegetable omelette but, when she leaves them alone, they reward her by being totally freaked out by all her gadgets which speak to them (including a teddy bear). They also accidentally set the place on fire. This is not an auspicious beginning to their relationship. So because they now owe her the cost of all the kitchen equipment, teddy bear and other items destroyed (boy is that swordsman good with his weapon), she has them working in her fruit and vegetable business to pay it off. Except, of course, the Crown Prince refuses to lift a finger and the eunuch has no strength. The most interesting cultural aspect to this is the inversion of expectation about how females are supposed to act. Even in modern Korea, there’s an expectation of deference when women relate to men. But she not only dresses them in colour-coded track suits, but then treats with with the same tender loving care as a drill sergeant major. Even the Crown Price finds himself momentarily cowed before his massive ego gets him back on Crown Price track. He does, however, fantasise about killing her and all the generations of her family he can find. Which is, when you think about it, the proper response in this situation.

    Meanwhile, it turns out that Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the elder sister-in-law, is seeing Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung), the evil cousin. Now isn’t that a surprise, bringing all the players together into the plot. Yes, the evil sister works for the rich granny who’s lost her beloved heir — almost like a fairy story instead of a time travel adventure. It gets worse when our heroine takes the four to the hospital. The Crown Price gets to see the evil stepsister who’s the “dead” Crown Princess, and Granny sees the Crown Prince but doubts her eyesight.

    The Men in Black from Joseon when allowed to lose their track suits

    The Men in Black from Joseon when allowed to lose their track suits

    So now the combined brain power of the four has worked out they have travelled three-hundred years into their future. Since they entered this time through the rooftop apartment, they feel they have to stay there and wait for the portal to open again. Soon our temporally mismatched couple are drinking on the roof and spraying each other with cream (it’s an erotic experience when you come from the morally hidebound Joseon period). The morning ritual of teeth brushing and gargling is endearing. Once she accepts they have slipped through time, the teaching of getting on a bus, etc. is fun. Their reaction to discovering the King, his father, is on a banknote, is a delight. Their confusion about escalators is understandable and their failure to realise the lift (that’s elevator for my American readers) is actually travelling between floors gives rise to an embarrassing consequence. The effort at the car wash is an unfortunate misunderstanding, and so on. We run a good race at very gently making fun of them. I had assumed they would be shown as far more intimidated for longer.

    Of course the Crown Prince must finally meet rich Granny and confront the evil cousin who thinks he’s a successful murderer. This precipitates the standard plot with the evil cousin taking action just in case this newcomer is actually the lost heir and the evil sister sticking the financial knife into her stepsister. What makes this all the more unbearable is that this is turning into the worst kind of fantasy where everything possible is done to drag out the running time. For example, Park Ha’s friend visits from America on her honeymoon and hands over a box. No matter how distressed she is, any sensible person opens the box. But this script has our heroine flirting with opening it. She has it here, she has it there. But there’s no opening. This is just annoying and tiresome as are the extended sequence of the Crown Prince dancing in a panda costume (and our heroine not recognising this is a male not a female, even when sitting next to him and holding his hand — we can pass over her not noticing the smell of the sweat), the evil cousin going through gyrations over the cellphone found in America, and so on.

    In other words, this series has one again insulted all the conventions of time travel, and devolved into an increasingly banal rerun of all the other romantic comedies that Korean television inflicts on the unsuspecting world. My patience is already at breaking point.

    For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts

    Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) — the set-up

    rooftop-prince

    This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this series, it may be better to delay reading this.

    Well here we go with Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012). With some trepidation, I’ve decided to start watching another Korean time-travel drama (not Queen In-hyun’s Man or Hyeon-wanghu-ui Namja (2012) which is more seriously romantic). After Dr Jin, we’re reversing the process and instead of some metaphorical Connecticut Yankee turning up at King Arthur’s court, we’ve got some Josean bright sparks brought forward to modern Korea with predictable opportunities for mocking their complete inability to understand what’s going on. The set-up requires us to establish two parallel situations, peopled by the same cast of characters three-hundred years apart. So first of all, we’re back in the past with Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun) stirring in his sleep. He knows in his bones something really bad in going to happen and, moments later, a flunky comes waddling down the corridor (he may be walking funny because he’s a eunuch) to announce the body of his wife has been found floating in a nearby pool. Yes, the Crown Princess Hwa-Yong (Jung Yoo-Mi) is a goner and now he’s all in a lather to find out whodunnit. This is all dramatic stuff. Now the flashback to show the process of marrying off the young Crown Prince which involves introducing the rivalry between two sisters. Their father prefers to submit the name of the younger Boo-Yong (Han Ji-Min) because she’s more age appropriate. Naturally, the older one finds a way to scar the face of the younger, so she gets to marry the prince. This leaves the disappointed sister masked and in the background, but the Crown Price does notice she’s more intelligent than the shallow sister he married.

    Boo Yong (Han Ji Mon)

    Boo Yong (Han Ji Mon)

    In modern Korea, we have two step sisters whose ages match the earlier versions. Se-Na (also played by Jung Yoo-Mi) the older deeply resents the arrival of the younger and goes out of her way to dispose of her “rival” for her mother’s affection. Now the clock winds forward and we have Yong Tae-Yong, a modern version of the Crown Prince (also played by Micky Yoochun) eyeing a version of his sister-in-law now called Park Ha (and also played by Han Ji-Min). This is “engineered” by the device of an embroidered butterfly leaving the work “she” did in Joean time, travelling forward and landing on her shoulder while she’s selling fruit at an open market in New York. We can skip over the embarrassing attempt to fit our heroine into the American setting. Anyway the plot is that Yong Tae-Yong is heir to a Korean fortune and inline to take over the running of the family business. Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) his cousin, was sent to America to persuade him to return, but they end up fighting while in the harbour. One swift and unexpected punch sends our hero into the water where he starts to sink, lost without a hope of rescue. The evil cousin wipes all his prints off the boat and swims to shore. When he returns to Korea, he reports a complete failure to find his cousin. That puts him inline to succeed to the fortune.

    Se-naa (Jung Yoo-Mi)

    Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi)

    When our heroine returns to Korea, expecting to find her long-lost father, she discovers he’s just died. Obviously a lot is happening between these flashbacks. For Park Ha it seems there was a traffic accident, long hospital stay, loss of memory, that type of thing. Which is a good thing when the stepsisters meet at the funeral — at least I assume she’s telling the truth and doesn’t know how she came to be lost. Meanwhile back in Josean times, the court officials cover up the murder as an accidental death. To get round the problem, the Crown Prince puts together a top undercover team to find out the truth. This is Song Man-Bo (Lee Min-Ho), Do Chi-San (Choi Woo-Sik), and Woo Yong-Sool (Jung Suk-Won) a bodyguard, a “savant” and a eunuch with hidden talents. They are making real progress, eliciting evidence of poisoning by arsenic, when they are called to a night meeting. It’s a trap. As they try to escape, there’s an eclipse powerful enough to send them into the future. They had strong eclipses back them! What makes this an appallingly lazy piece of writing is that the four have been separated in the fighting, but all four travel together and end up in the same place in the future. Three of those are on horseback, but no horses appear in the future. The probable explanation is that all four were killed, but have been reincarnated as their future selves.

    The four travellers

    The four travellers

    Before they arrive, two years more have passed in the future (I hope you’re following this). The good, younger daughter from America has fitted back in with the step mother and they are selling fruit and vegetables in the market, while the older one is into spending the family’s money on fashion to give herself the right appearance while swanning around with the evil cousin. When our modern heroine goes to her apartment, it’s on the top floor (not surprisingly, there’s a rooftop patio area with potted plants).

    Well I’m relieved we have this first episode out of the way. I can almost tell the series is not going to be worth watching because we have temporal slippage thanks to an eclipse with older characters having parallel lives in modern times, i.e. it’s a fantasy fairy story with none of the rigour that’s supposed to accompany time travel. All I can hope for is that the humour of our four characters acting like fish out of water will strike a rich seam of comedy to carry us through a few episodes.

    For a brief consideration of what happens next, see:
    Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2 and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts.

    The Homecoming by Carsten Stroud

    November 4, 2013 Leave a comment

    The Homecoming by Carsten Stroud

    The Homecoming by Carsten Stroud (Knopf, 2013) is the second in the Niceville Trilogy and, for once, this fact caught be completely unprepared as I came in without having read the first. The problem, you see, lies in the difference between three books which, in a general way, continue the plot, and a single story that just happens to be spread over three books. Put another way, I now know this book starts immediately after the first book ended. Under normal circumstances, you can open any book at the first page and either the author provides a convenient preface in which the previous novel is summarised, or there are explanatory elements written into the immediate book whenever an understanding of past events is relevant. In this case, it didn’t seem to matter. I was quickly into an immensely pleasing police procedural and galloping along at a rapid pace. There were odd moments when I wasn’t entirely sure what the significance of a sentence might be but, in the general run of things, I was enjoying myself.

    Then I got all confused.

    I was suddenly confronted by the undeniable fact this plot is profoundly supernatural and, later, may even have a time travel element.

    Carsten Stroud

    Carsten Stroud

    Wow! I didn’t see that coming. So it’s on to the internet to get some idea of what Niceville, the first in the series, was all about. In my opinion, this research effort should not have been necessary. An author should help out people like me by having greater exposition in the early phases of the book so we are not wrong-footed when the book pivots into an unexpected genre. With a better grasp of past events, I then read this book to the end.

    So where does this leave us? The prose in the police procedural elements is outstanding. There’s a real sense of the camaraderie between the officers in both the police and FBI, and fairly considerable wit in the way their work is described. As and when the supernatural rears its head, the prose grows more subdued and the humour darker. The set pieces involving a major police chase, an infiltration and confrontation to deal with a hostage situation, and the defence of a house in an exposed country position are classic examples of tight plotting and precisely executed thriller writing. Some of the supernatural elements are slightly more diffuse because it’s in the nature of the genre that “creatures” and “beings” able to interact with humans are less tangible. Descriptions must therefore be left more vague and events described with more circumspection.

    At a technical level, the plot is very well managed. All the major elements that can be resolved are clearly ended. Some are obviously carried into the concluding volume to come. And then there are the distinctly mystery/puzzle elements that may not be capable of explanation because of their supernatural or science fictional nature(s). We may just have to accept them as inexplicable. So I definitely rate the police procedural elements as among the best I’ve read this year. The primary characters are given the space to develop and, despite the increasingly incomprehensible events going on around them, their behaviour is plausible. Even the children who are important retain their credibility. As to the supernatural and horror elements, the major focus seems to be on some fairly well-established tropes involving possession and the use of mirrors with some fairly standard ghosts visible to some who live in Niceville itself and the surrounding townships. My uncertainty revolves around the apparent time travel. This is the fantasy and not the science fictional version, there being no characters called H G Wells with an appropriate machine to move people around. I’m always faintly uncomfortable when people or things appear able to bend time around themselves and skip from one moment to another (and back again) by an exercise of will or with help from an outside agency. This didn’t spoil the book for me. I’m just left with the need to read the third book which is called The Reckoning and due out in 2014, to see how this element will be resolved. This leaves me praising the book, but I have the sense I would be ranking it as one of the best books of the year if I had read Niceville. The moral of all this is not to read The Homecoming first.

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

    Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead

    October 18, 2013 1 comment

    US-Cover-LOTP-500x806

    For some inexplicable reason probably connected with the increasingly rapid death of brain cells, this book reminded me of several works from the 1950s. I start with Earth vs the Flying Saucers, one of the better alien invasion films I paid to see when it first came out in 1956. These pesky creatures land in their ships and so long as they stay inside their force fields, they are invulnerable to our primitive weapons, until. . . As a short story, I always liked William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), while Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke (1953) has a slightly more peaceful, but nevertheless disruptive, invasion. As to the alien’s motive for the assault on our green and pleasant lands, I offer The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch and Of Men and Monsters (1968) by WIlliam Tenn. I suppose these works have stuck in my memory as yardsticks against which to measure the level of intelligence in the vast number of alien invasion plots encountered since.

    All of which brings me to Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead (Solaris, 2013). This plot depends on several overlapping ideas. The aliens have invaded and the devastation produces a post-apocalyptic situation in which survivors struggle to survive in a devastated environment. In this thread, Kylie and her man (he’s impotent thanks to the residual poison in the environment, so he’s not her lover) live in what’s left of Oakland. In this thread, it’s 2013, and her nemesis is a mentally unstable religious fanatic who has plans for her which he claims will save Earth. There’s one anomaly in the devastated landscape. It’s called the Seattle Preservation Dome. As in Groundhog Day (1993), this is a city caught in a time loop — it’s always the fifth of October. The questions, of course, are how this anomaly came into being and what sustains it as Ian Palmer and his friend, Zack, iterate through marginally different versions of the same time period.

    Jack Skillingstead

    Jack Skillingstead

    The good news it that the post-apocalypse element works well as Kylie is forced to leave Oakland and ends up at a survivor-inspired project to bring down the dome. These humans have both a theory as to what the dome is and a fighter jet which they believe can fly inside. The less good news is that, despite the valiant attempts of Zack to remind Ian they are in a time loop, our hero in this narrative thread is stubborn. Admittedly, it does sound a little nutty to suggest everyone is stuck in time, destined to repeat the same day over and over again. But Ian does take a long time to admit the truth of his situation. This means we have to read through the same day quite a few times before things grow more exciting.

    As our example to compare, the short story by William Tenn is nearest in spirit, i.e. the cause of Earth’s destruction is similar. The essential difference lies in the introduction of the time loop which, in a Matrix kind of way, offers some degree of preservation for those inside the dome. As a plot, this is all rather elegant even though the first step for exiting the loop (the first time) is not completely voluntary. I would have been more impressed if the relevant individuals had come up with this idea and then had to trigger the major change. The uncertainty in whether it will work would have produced real tension. I was also slightly disconcerted that, as written, the plot has Kylie disappear from the action for quite a long time as we move through the final third of the book. Since their relationship has been set up as love-at-first-sight between two humans who share a certain characteristic, I’m not sure I approve of this way of finishing the book. I understand the author’s choice. He’s free to write the book he wants. But if the final answer is going to depend on the strength of their romance, the demonstration of their love is long time coming.

    So as written, Life on the Preservation starts off in a way confirming the strength of Jack Skillingstead’s craft. There’s real cleverness in the different ways in which the fifth of October are presented. Once the ultimate alien threat kicks in, the pace picks up and there’s considerable excitement. This just leaves us with the ending which is slightly muted. I suppose it’s appropriate for there to be an absence of triumphalism. That would be “unrealistic” in this context. The best we can hope for as an outcome is a marginal rebalancing of forces. If nothing else, it’s a triumph of persistence. As George R Stewart tells us, for now Earth Abides.

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

    Persistence of Memory by Winona Kent

    September 23, 2013 Leave a comment

    Persistence of Memory_CVR_LRG

    Long ago, when I ran a slush pile, there were unfortunate moments when I knew after the first page the book wasn’t going to be good enough to even think about saving. It’s sad to make such snap judgements but, when the command of English is tenuous, the plot is only possible savior and the lack of coherence in the language usually means the plot is not going to stand up. It’s therefore disconcerting to report that I almost didn’t bother to read beyond the first page of this book but eventually read it to the end. In this case, it’s not to much that the words are actually wrongly selected. It’s just that, in context, they don’t make quite the sense the author obviously intended. However, having decided the judgement of the small press should be trusted, I persisted. There are some distinct linguistic oddities in the pages that follow, but the meaning communicated becomes more clear as we progress.

     

    Persistence of Memory by Winona Kent (Fable Press, 2013) offers us a time travel story which, in a sense, parallels Lost in Austen. By one of these magical manipulations of physics, we have an exchange of two women across time. Both are widows and, to the casual observer, physically identical. One explanation of the phenomenon might therefore be that the minds of the two women are exchanged. This would bring the book more in line with classics like Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which deal with time travel as more a mental than a physical process. Naturally, the woman who comes forward is rather confused by the modern world but adapts remarkably quickly, while our doughty modern woman, armed with a little knowledge of what has gone before, finds it relatively easy to fit into the past (once she’s found the privy, of course). Even her mobile phone fits in, readjusting its local time to 1825 — that’s some smart phone, lady! And it also gets a signal from the local landmark tree which persists into the future. This gives her a mechanism for co-ordinating the effort to keep history on its designated path. Or, if you want to get technical about it, the knowledgeable woman from the future must avoid changing history and thus, courtesy of the grandfather paradox, prevent herself from returning. The only problem is to decide what history is to be preserved. As you can imagine, not that much day-to-day detailed has travelled the almost two-hundred years into the future. There’s just the broadest outline and even that’s a little fuzzy around the edges.

     

    We’re therefore invited to see the book as a form of mystery novel in which our sleuth from the future has to understand precisely what’s required in the past and then nudge events in the right direction to get the desired results. Unfortunately, a sequence of crimes is committed including murder, arson (both punishable by the death penalty), robbery, fraud and failing to invent a workable water closet. This range forces the plot to vary quite widely from the need to establish who’s who in the family tree to the alarming prospect that the future has been changed by the murder. At this point, I need to dispel any assumption you might have that the plot works in a strictly logical way. For it all to come out right, there has to be some major cheating (or if you want to be scientific about it, some major anomalies have to be introduced into the tachyon stream). Yes, there’s some cod science floating around which doesn’t particularly impress. The tree as a network broadcast tower is also a really bad idea. As an outsider, I can confidently say the book would have been immeasurably better if events were left as a near-death experience including a major hallucination about time travel. When the poisoned tree fell down, the key document could have turned up to resolve matters and leave everything ambiguous. Having actual time travel with real-time cellphone conversations across two-hundred years denies everything science fiction is supposed to be. It turns the book into a romance-tinged fantasy and denies it any chance of real success.

     

    Putting everything together, Persistence of Memory is a short novel, i.e. slightly more than 76,000 words* and although it’s obviously intended as an SFnal time travel piece, it’s really a fantasy with a romance element and written in rather wooden prose. In my opinion, there’s a good story waiting to be told but the editorial service from the small press let the author down. Anyone with any knowledge of science fiction would have understood the major problems with the plot. The prose should also have been rescued by proper editing.

     

    * I’m indebted to the author for giving me the actual word count. I had estimated this as novella length and have amended the text.

     

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

     

    Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis

    July 15, 2013 4 comments

    Necessary Evil Ian Tregillis

    To get any value out of this concluding volume in the Milkweed Triptych, you should have read the first two books in order. I can say without fear of contradiction you will not understand a lot of what happens without knowing what has gone before. Ironically, the same applies to this review. I’m not going to repeat the discussions set out in the first two reviews. I’m going to focus on this book.

    In Bitter Seeds, the first book by Ian Tregillis, the question is what the precog has foreseen. The Coldest War answers this question and tell us what she proposes to do about it. This leaves us with Necessary Evil (Tor, 2013) which allows us to watch how her grand design works out. From the outset, we’ve been considering whether any of these alternate timelines is deterministic. The presentation has suggested only one person has free will. Given the breadth and depth of her ability to foresee the future and pick which timeline to follow, the precog has been charting her path through the decades. In a multiverse, every decision point branches, casting off alternate realities but, up to this point, everything has worked out exactly as she has foreseen. Indeed, what she’s achieved is breathtaking. Given the scale of what she wanted to avoid, she’s had to work backwards from the one route to salvation and examine all the decision points to see how she can get there. In so doing, she’s been reviewing a potentially infinite number of alternate histories, seeking out the key moments and identifying the people she needs to influence into acting or not acting. Of course, I could invert this and say her fate was set when she was born. She was always going to arrive at the point representing the end of book two. She merely had the illusion of free will.

    This would suggest others might have free will or that no-one ever has free will. But if that were the case, the very idea of a multiverse would be a paradox. If no-one ever has free will, there can be no alternate timelines. There could only be the one timeline that everyone is predestined to follow. This leads me to major problems with the plot. If this book deals with an alternate history timeline, the two people who are sent to this 1940 are from outside this timeline’s cause and effect. What has happened to them in their own timeline remains because it has already happened. It cannot be undone when the cause does not occur in the new timeline. Yet Ian Tregillis wants to play fast and loose with this issue. In this book’s timeline, the man who should survive to send them back in 1963 dies in 1941, yet the older Marsh remains in this timeline. But when the younger Marsh does not suffer the leg injury, the travelling Marsh’s leg is cured. You think that’s bad? Well here comes the nail in the coffin. In this timeline, there are two versions of Marsh but only one precog. If we have an older and a younger Marsh, why do we only have one young precog? What happened to the older version of the precog when being transported back? It’s this lack of attention to the logic of the plot that completely spoils the effect.

    Ian Tregillis

    Ian Tregillis

    So putting that to one side, what are the consequences when the precog is to some extent able to reset the clock? In theory, this new timeline should unfold according to the master plan. The younger version will guide events to avoid the catastrophe she has foreseen in all the other timelines. This timeline will survive. Except, of course, there’s one small change. Up to this point, she’s been the only one with an overview of time. Now there’s a second person and he understands both the strengths and weaknesses of the precog. So he can share the precog’s desire to avoid the looming catastrophe, but not be prepared to pay the same price to achieve it. More importantly he can also work backwards and understand what would need to happen to ensure the safety of those he cares about. Ah, so now we come to the heart of the Triptych. From page one of Bitter Seeds, we’ve been watching how individuals have reacted when they learn the price to pay to get the results they want. At a national level, governments at war cannot be concerned about the individual. They are fighting for the majority of their citizens and if that means sacrificing the few, that’s a price worth paying. At the other end of the scale, the individual wants to survive but may be prepared to sacrifice him or herself if the price is right. So a loving father might sacrifice himself to save his child, a spy threatened with capture might commit suicide to avoid betraying his country.

    Of course, this is talking about sacrifice in physical terms but individuals may also sacrifice their principles if that’s necessary to save themselves or others. Hence, the title of the book. History shows us that some people have fought with honour, maintaining their personal integrity and protecting the reputation of their country for fair play. History also shows how often those who play fair are beaten by those who ignore the rules of chivalry and play to win regardless of the cost. It’s been a sad theme to see how often the honest are surprised by the extent of the dishonesty around them and how easily that dishonesty can strike them down. So an individual who recognises the full extent of all the risks may well be put to the choice. When there are dishonourable options, will the decider pick the least evil or do what’s necessary to win?

    You’ll have to read the book to see how it works out but, as you might expect, it’s not clear cut. When we all know exactly what price has to be paid for ultimate success, there’s a certain degree of irony in how the final element of the price is collected. Perhaps that’s how fate actually works. If there’s a sine qua non and several people are aware of it, it doesn’t matter who fulfills the condition so long as the precondition is met, i.e. the necessary evil occurs.

    This leaves me with an issue I referred to in the first review but it grows significantly worse in this book. Let’s start with the practicality of life described as Britain in 1940. Early on, our hero from the future needs some local cash so he gets on a bus with some future bank notes in his wallet. The idea that a bus conductor could change a five pound note is absurd. Ignoring the physical difference in the size and colour of the future note which would be spotted immediately, the average annual pay in the UK in 1940 was about £200. So even on the busiest routes, no conductor would collect and keep more than £5 in loose change. That’s 1,200 pennies except the average bus fare around that time was a hapenny (i.e. £5 = 2,800 coins). So the conductor would be weighed down with farthings and hapennies, perhaps some thrupenny bits and sixpences, and the occasional shilling. During quiet times, the conductors used to bag the excess loose coinage and either lock it in a cabinet in the stairwell or give it to the driver for safe keeping in the front cab. Even if this conductor had enough to give change for more than one’s weeks pay, consider how long it would take to count out more than one thousand coins and how much they would weigh. This is symptomatic of a cavalier attitude towards all things British, particularly its language. I know and appreciate that this is a book written by an American for the American market, but it’s aggravating that the vocabulary and vernacular attributed to British and German characters comes out as modern American English. Scattering one or two British colloquialisms does not make this book even remotely realistic. Oh but wait. This is fiction so it doesn’t have to be credible.

    I was really looking forward to reading Necessary Evil but the reality has proved a major letdown. Once you set out to write a time travel or multiverse story, there are rules to be followed. This happened in the construction of the first two books. It’s such a shame the rules were mostly thrown away in this concluding volume. If I’d known it was going to be this bad, I would never have paid for my own copy.

    For reviews of the first two in the series, see Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War. There’s also a free-standing Something More Than Night

    The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll

    The Shape Stealer

    There are times I wish I was an expert in everything. That way, when I come across something unexpected in a work of fiction, I would know just how fictional it is. In this case, I’m happily reading an uncomfortable blend of science fiction and fantasy, and come across a plan to destabilise the world’s economy by creating a bubble in the value of gold and then puncturing it. The book describes this as a pump and dump plan but, if my understanding is correct, it would be almost impossible to apply this to a commodity such as gold. In the real world, the early months of 2009 saw the price of gold at $800 per ounce, but once we came to the autumn of 2011, it had risen to more than $1,900. This was a bubble, i.e. the price did not reflect the economic law of supply and demand. Consequently, optimistic investors were saying there was no upward limit for the price. Trying to pump a commodity trending upward is never going to have a major effect. If there’s an unexpected spike, there will be a price correction and then the underlying trend will resume. Now we’re heading back down in value, i.e. the bubble is deflating and, so far, the world’s economy has not collapsed. So it seems to me that the plan to wreck the world being advocated by the forces of evil in this book is doomed to fail without any action being required from the forces of good. They could just sit back and laugh as evil’s plan failed.

    All of which brings me to this quite extraordinary collision between science fiction and fantasy. The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll (pseudonymous team of Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky) (Tor, 2013) is the third in the Black Swan Rising trilogy dealing with the “love” between Garet and Will. As in all books now posing under the urban fantasy label, this must be one of these agonising relationships. She’s one of these protector figures (save the Earth!) and he’s a vampire (save me from myself!). Obviously they are made for each other but, as is always the case, there are problems (no! really? well, do tell). This problem is certainly different.

    Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky

    Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky

    In the last book, our happy couple travelled back in time and met up with his younger self (two vampires to love are better than one). When two returned to our time, she came back with the “young” version and not the “old” one she loves (Holy cow, Batman, that’s some mistake coming back with the lusty “young” one rather than the jaded tired “old” one). This left the “old” one the chance to carry on “living” so, for the second time of asking, he exists through the four-hundred plus years to the present so the two versions of himself can be together again with the woman they love. Notice the potential for paradox here. If the “young” one travels forward in time and so doesn’t do everything he previously did as he lived through time, that rather changes the past in a big way. Indeed, when reliving the four-hundred years, the old vampire in love dedicates his existence to good, avoiding the feasting on humans as much as possible, and generally being a nice guy (Garet has really been working her mojo on this vampire). This means absolutely everything about the past gets messed up by all that good.

    Sitting in the middle of all this absurdity are different interested parties. There’s a group of temporal guardians whose job it is to keep the cause and effect sufficiently in check so that any changes to the past make only minor changes to the present (ignoring the butterfly effect for these purposes). To achieve this, they sit outside current time with exhaustive records of their “past”. Whenever anything changes, one of the ledgers drops off its shelf in the library and they can quickly see what’s changed and decide whether to fix it. This temporal limbo is also used by the fey as they pass through from Earth to their “home” land (and back which is why there’s a time loss when they take humans for a visit). There’s also a dissident group of time travellers who are called Malefactors (kinda mediaeval name for the bad guys) and generally make a nuisance of themselves by squeezing themselves through the dimensions into our time like toothpaste out of a tube. All these time guardians and warring Malefactors have some very nifty technology including some advanced weaponry (presumably brought back from the future). And, finally, there’s Dr John Dee and a shapeshifting “monster” from ancient Babylon who just want to take over the world and run it their way. So, summing this up, Dr Dee and the fairies (led by Oberon) travel through time by using magic. The chrononauts have time portals and can use clockwork devices built into watches (how original) to move through time and also space (TARDIS watches are cool).

    Now there are times when absurdity is a good thing, e.g. using reductio ad absurdum in a philosophical debate or as a form of mocking mirror to reality. In electing to write about time travel, authors should be applying the established rules so, through its failure, this book is what we must politely call a time fantasy where none of it makes any sense as mathematics, physics, philosophy or logic would require. This could have been a good mechanism for mocking the trope of time travel. Once you get into the question of paradox and then have to address the possibility of paraconsistency where a proposition may be simultaneously true and false, there’s great potential for humour. But this book is plodding and dull. It’s intended as a soppy romance where our heroine gets to love two versions of her imperfect man in a world dominated by magic, i.e. a world where events are completely arbitrary and fairies can teach the vampire how to rearrange his molecules in real time to avoid being injured when bullets pass through him (sorry, I mean the vampire can rearrange his molecules so that the bullets pass through him without injuring him). Instant self-repair would be absurd, right? Particularly if he was shot in the head and had to stop thinking for a moment.

    So if you’re heavily into urban fantasy and have absolutely no interest in anything that makes any sense, The Shape Stealer is for you. But if, like me, you prefer there to be an underlying logic and order to a plot, you should wave your wand in a way that will send all the copies of this book back in time so it was never written and cannot now be purchased from secondhand book dealers around the world (paradoxes rule!).

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

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