Book Review

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The Andromeda Evolution, by Daniel H. Wilson

Aside from the merit of the story itself, it might possibly be a tad cynical of me to feel slightly misled by the cover of the paperback version of this story which I read, but I think I can claim some justification: the story on which this one is based, The Andromeda Strain, must be quite well known by many people, especially those aficionados of fantasy fiction, and the name of the original author, Michael Crichton, is prominent in large capitals occupying the upper half of the front cover, so at a quick glance, one could be forgiven for thinking that this book was also written by this estimable author; not so, because a line of much smaller capitals at the bottom of the cover reveals the name of the actual author of this story.

There are two very obvious reasons for this device: the first being that Michael Crichton died in 2008, and the second that it would have been impossible to produce any sort of sequel that drew on the background of the first, but not with reference to the original author, without the inevitable risk of litigation. As it is, Crichton’s widow, Sherri (but not, interestingly, Wilson) mentions in the acknowledgments that the book is a collaboration with Wilson: “a celebration of Michael’s universe and a way to introduce him to those discovering his worlds for the first time.” As it is, Daniel H. Wilson, “a Cherokee citizen”, is an established author, with a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as master’s degrees in Artificial Intelligence & Robotics, so he knows well of what he writes. It is a sobering thought that The Andromeda Strain was written over fifty years ago, but one of the fundamental principles on which this story is based is that the intelligence, such as it is, at the root of the infection which has developed from the original, which was extraterrestrial in origin, has no concern for time, on the scale with which humanity is familiar, but is content to wait as long as necessary for the appropriate circumstances, conducive to its apparently sinister plan, to occur.

Given that I can’t remember if I have ever read the original story, I can’t say if it conforms to the same artifice by which this one is written: it is written partly as a real-time narrative, and partly as a post-event report, drawing on visual, audio & written evidence (some of which is reproduced graphically to accompany the text), so at the outset, it is safe to assume, at the very least, that the world was not destroyed, which is apparently a very real possibility as the story unfolds. A structural anomaly has appeared in the impenetrable Amazon jungle of Brasil, on an exactly equatorial position. The ultra-secret team which was set up, in the aftermath of the first close shave for humanity, to monitor the globe for possible repetitions, and which has been operating covertly in comfortable, if unexciting regularity ever since, swings into action. A team of highly qualified experts is assembled from a pre-approved shortlist by the commanding officer, Major Rand Stern, who works at an American Air Force base, running Project Eternal Vigilance; there is also an operative aboard the International Space Station (ISS). This is Dr Sophie Kline, for whom space is actually a conducive environment, notwithstanding that her legs are permanently bound together, because from the time she was a toddler, she has suffered from a degenerative muscle disease. To assist her earlier studies, and current duties, she has a “unique” brain-computer interface which links her “mentally to the ISS computer systems – an almost telepathic connection.”

The other members of the team are Dr Nidhi Vedala, 42, team leader; Harold Odhiambo, 68, lead field scientist; Peng Wu, 37, Major in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Air Force, field scientist; and a late replacement, James Stone, 58, a roboticist. The last member was a substitute for a field medic, and he was the choice of Major Stern; he also happens to be the son of the scientist who stopped the spread of the Andromeda Strain 50 years earlier, so the team leader suspects favouritism, reason unknown. The team sets out to find the anomaly, but they are entering virgin jungle populated by previously uncontacted tribes, so to protect them from the potential danger, they are accompanied by a tough Brasilian American United States Army Special Forces Sergeant and a dozen indigenous frontiersmen. Naturally, not everything goes to plan, but to tell you any more would spoil the plot, so I will have to draw a veil over the story at this point! The paperback version was published in 2020 by HarperCollinsPublishers ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-00817299-2, and I found it a very engaging read, with a satisfying, if only slightly incredible, ending.

Book Review

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World Engines – Destroyer, by Stephen Baxter

I am very happy to state ‘upfront’ that, except for the ending, I have enjoyed reading this book more than any other I have read, of any genre, for a long time; that might seem like a contradiction, but my enjoyment of the main body of the narrative was not diminished unduly by the short final section, which was something of a disappointment. I can’t reveal any details of the final section, naturally wanting to avoid spoilers, but I felt that, after such a comprehensive narrative, in which Baxter has allowed time for the folds in the story to be revealed & explored, the ending could have been longer and more detailed: it was as if he knew a sequel would have been a better way to wrap the story up, or even develop it some more, but in the end, he couldn’t be bothered, or he ran out of steam, so it was just a question of tying up all the loose ends as cleanly as possible. Enough of that for now, though, because you need to know what the story is about! Ahead of the characters & the plot, what I enjoyed about the story was the elements of alternate universes and time periods, rather than time travel per se, but also the fact that the fantasy was very much rooted in the real world that we know, instead of a fictitious universe full of alien races & technology that is unknown to us and, given our current level of knowledge, impossible.

The story starts hundreds of years into earth’s future, the year 2469, precisely, when earth has suffered the climate catastrophe that is now widely predicted. A man is woken from a cryogenic sleep, and it appears that he is a space shuttle pilot from the early days of the 21st century; so, our own time now, but subtly different in the state of space technology (and the political history that has allowed this to be created). He is conversing with a form of artificial intelligence (AI), and he has been woken earlier than he might otherwise have been, given that he suffered a devastating accident which left him very badly injured, because a message has been received from Phobos, one of the satellites of Mars. The main problem, apart from some significant differences in the sequence of events that led up to the sender’s distress call is that it is impossible, because the sender couldn’t be there in the first place, because she is Emma Stoney, the wife of the pilot, Colonel Reid Malenfant, and her ship was lost when it reached Phobos. In this timeline, Mars was already colonised by 2005, and there was “some kind of puzzle with Phobos”, but it was easier to send a dedicated mission from Earth than to have the Mars base colonists do it from the ground. Unfortunately, the problem with Phobos is inextricably connected with an event known by everybody by the name The Destroyer, which is predicted with some accuracy it would seem, by the AIs, to occur in the year 3397, resulting in the destruction of Earth and very possibly also much of our solar system.

Malenfant is sent back to Earth from the moon, where he had been kept in cold storage, and he is assigned a humanoid AI with medical specialities, to monitor & supervise his recovery, and he befriends a young woman who is also assigned to him as a sort of cultural advisor. The Earth of the twenty-fifth century has a well-established resource based economy (the long-term result of a very surprising innovation by one of the best-known 20th century American politicians: and not who you might think!), as money is no longer necessary, apart from occasional exceptional circumstances; the population doesn’t have to work for a living, because all necessities for a comfortable life are freely available: the fact that the population is much reduced as a result of the foregoing upheavals is a positive contributory factor here. Malenfant is curious as to why the populace seems to accept unquestioningly the impending fate of Earth, albeit in the relatively far distant future, but when he speaks to the Earthbound AI, he discovers that it is distinctly worried (displaying a surprising level of human empathy), so he sets out to find out more about the problem with Phobos, which seems to be the root of the danger. Using by then outdated space technology, but with which he is familiar from his own experience, he manages to get to Phobos, which is where the story becomes distinctly strange……

This is about as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but if you enjoy space fantasy fiction and, especially, if you have read any of Stephen Baxter’s other books, either solo or with Terry Pratchett, I am as sure as I can be that you will enjoy this one. The paperback version I read was published in 2020 by Gollancz, London, ISBN 978-1-473-22319-6. This is a book to really luxuriate in, and revel in the way the plot develops quickly enough to retain your interest, but not so quickly as to leave you gasping for breath. As I said, the ending seemed tantalisingly short, but I don’t think it leaves the way open for a sequel: should that be the case and I am wrong, however, I would be eager to read it!

Book Review


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Coffin Road, by Peter May

The scenario of a protagonist waking up, in a state of some jeopardy, either current or recent, with no knowledge of his or her identity or the chain of events which has precipitated the current situation, cannot be unique to this book, but it is a refreshing change; and, of course, the misdirection can be laid out right at the beginning, a fog (both literal & figurative) which the protagonist and, implicitly, the reader, has to penetrate to unravel the mystery of why he; in this case, a man; came to be washed up on a beach somewhere with total amnesia. The Coffin Road of the title is an ancient way which was taken across the Isle of Harris for burial rites, because the east side of the island was too rocky for burials, so the body had to be carried across to the western side, where the natural soil was more accommodating. The reason for this road being used as the name of the book is not immediately clear, but suffice to say that the road is significant to the story.

The man doesn’t discover his true name until well into the story so, up until that point, he only has the information he has gleaned from the people in his immediate vicinity to go on and, although they seem plausible enough on the surface, it takes a while to discover that some of them might be deceiving him, but why? Ostensibly, the man is writing a book about the mystery of the missing lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mòr (Gaelic for big island), who went missing without trace in December 1900, almost exactly one year after the light was first lit on the largest of the seven Flannan Isles; at the outset, he has no knowledge of how he came to be doing this, but when he reads a booklet about it in the cottage he is renting for the duration, he is instantly gripped by the story. He is aided & abetted, to some extent, by an attractive (of course!) young woman, apparently the wife of an academic taking a year out with her in this beautiful, but rugged, location; the unnamed man is also having an illicit liaison with this woman, and he sees no reason initially to question this, for a variety of reasons!

Unfortunately for the man, who is apparently a sailor of some expertise, there is a dead body at the location he is given to understand was the last place he visited before his accident, so to add to his current confusion, he also has the terrible foreboding that he might have been responsible for this murder. Into this mix, but separately at first, is thrown a teenage girl in Edinburgh, who is trying to discover the truth about her father’s suicide because, although all the information available to her points to this being the case, she can’t accept that he would abandon her, given that she knows how much he lover her; unfortunately, she is riven with guilt, because the last time they parted, she told him that she hated him.

Although this might seem like a pretty conventional thriller, before long the real message of the story becomes apparent: there is an environmental catastrophe on the horizon; getting closer by the day, in fact; and this book is the vehicle for this message, so I am very happy to share it. Of course, most of the educated world is aware of the issue, but the problem that needs to be addressed is the cavalier, money-driven attitude of the agrochemical industry, especially given the vast potential profits that can be made from the products of this industry: so how can this real threat be alleviated, if not removed completely? I know nothing about this author, but he has produced at least seventeen books, one of which is non-fiction, so he is clearly a well-established writer, and I will certainly keep a look out for his work in future. Coffin Road was published in 2016 by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., London, in paperback, ISBN 978-1-78429-313-0.