Book Review

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The Hollow Ones, by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

When I saw the name of “the visionary director of The Shape of Water” [with which I was already familiar, but I suppose not every potential reader is] on the cover, in a prominent position at the top, my attention was drawn to it immediately; I wasn’t aware hitherto that he was also an author, although it is not uncommon for film directors to have authorial input to their films, but his bio at the back only mentions his very successful films*. However, I was prepared to take a risk with this book; I am guessing that Chuck Hogan [whose name suggests he should be a wrestler or stuntman] is the primary writer, given that he is [the usual publishing hyperbole notwithstanding] “a New York Times bestselling novelist”, with GdT supplying the fantasy element of this story. I am normally somewhat selective with my fantasy fiction, but the cover promises, courtesy of The Guardian, that this story is “Like a Jack Reacher crime thriller [of which I have read enough to know what to expect] … with a Van Helsing-style demon hunter”, so to reiterate, I thought it would be worth a risk.

Indeed it was, in my humble estimation anyway. It starts off, to set the scene, with a prelude, describing a mysterious cast iron Edwardian mailbox, situated in the financial district of Manhattan, New York; “a sliver of a property that officially stands as 13½ Stone Street.” Some history is given, and the prelude ends by saying that “Every letter that arrives at The Box is a letter of urgent need—a desperate call for help—and every single envelope carries the same name:

Hugo Blackwood, Esq.

This name is “a tribute to one of our most admired authors and the originator of the occult detective subgenre, Algernon Blackwood”, and the tribute ends with a macabre observation “that grave robbing in New Jersey, for occult purposes, is not at all fiction or a thing of the past. It’s happening. Right now.” So far, so portentous.

The story then gets going in more conventional thriller mode, introducing two FBI agents, the female of whom is a relative newcomer, Odessa Hardwicke, whilst the other is the more experienced Walt Leppo. It was a normal working night, but very quickly, it morphed into X-Files territory, when the first of a series of ‘rampage’ killings occurred, which proves fatal for one of the agents. Two other time periods are included in parallel: 1962, when a black FBI agent named Earl Solomon is sent to the Mississippi Delta to investigate the lynching of a white man, for obviously political reasons; and England in 1582, when the young barrister, Hugo Blackwood, encounters “Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, spymaster, and scientist”, John Dee, and Edward Talbot, aka Edward Kelley, one of “various mystics who claimed to be in contact with higher realms”, in Mortlake [but not “Greater London”, as the book states, which is a ceremonial county not established until April 1, 1965!], a village that then was part of the county of Surrey. Both Solomon & Blackwood figure in the present-day action, but of the two, Blackwood is the more helpful, albeit initially grudgingly [and almost psychopathically dispassionately], because Solomon is recovering from a recent age-related stroke; Odessa is not immediately aware of Blackwood’s unusual condition, and understandably, it takes her a while to accommodate it.

Overall, this is a quite well structured narrative, and there is a conclusion of sorts when the culprit of the killings is neutralised, but an element of doubt must remain, because the subtitle at the beginning of the book is “The Blackwood Tapes, vol. 1”, which refers to the audio tapes Solomon made during the course of his career, and would suggest that a sequel is to be expected: this paperback version, ISBN 978-1-529100-96-9, was published in 2021 by Del Rey, London. A search using the ISBN doesn’t show any reference to a sequel, so I can only presume that it is either still in preparation, or the idea has been abandoned, pro tem.

*According to the list at the very front of the book, GdT has in fact written ten books on his own account, both fiction & non-fiction; he has also collaborated with Hogan on three other books; Hogan has written five, all fiction presumably; so they are a web-established and productive team.

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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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

Book Review

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I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is possibly the best known of Asimov’s stories, but the book with this title is, in fact, a series of nine short stories, published individually between 1940 & 1950, plus a fictitious introduction, in a connected thread, and it is also one of five ‘robot’ books written by Asimov; the epithet ‘seminal’ can surely and safely be ascribed to it, in the science fiction genre. Younger readers might initially associate the title with a 2004 film of the same name, directed by Alex Proyas, and starring Will Smith; given that it is a few years since I watched this film, from what I can remember, it bears little resemblance to Asimov’s original: the Wikipedia ‘blurb’ tells us that the original screenplay, Hardwired, was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection of the same name.” The underlying message of the film might not be too far removed from the original, however, because Asimov’s portmanteau essentially uses the technology of robotics as a vehicle for psychology, philosophy and, possibly, even morality: how much autonomy can we, should we, give to what are machines or, perhaps, cyborgs; if they have organic content in the form of a positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov, and now very well known in science fiction); and if we do, how far would we be able to trust them, in view of their likely superiority, both mental & physical?

Of course, AI (Artificial Intelligence: “founded as an academic discipline in 1955”, according to Wikipedia, so very much springing out of, if not necessarily inspired by, Asimov’s thinking) is now a very widely known, if not necessarily understood, concept, and it is used in a plethora of applications, from internet search engines to what are now referred to as ‘smart’ devices; the worry, which some technologists are probably quite happy to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theory’, is that much of the work that AI does goes on unseen, in the background, so it is virtually impossible to monitor its activity and the repercussions for society, especially where privacy & human rights are concerned: perhaps these wider implications weren’t obvious to Asimov when he was writing the stories in the American post-war, white heat of technological development, although it is pretty clear that he was aware of the dangers that intelligent, autonomous robots could present.

These creations, initially of mankind but, before very long, self-reproducing, can be made to be beneficent (probably the best-known example of which is the android Data, from the Star Trek Next Generation series) just as easily as they can be made bellicose, as they would be when (rather than if) the military were allowed to dominate their development: the difference would be governed by the primary programming of the neural net (another name for the positronic brain), and it must be assumed that the military’s killing machines would not be given the fundamental & inescapable guidance of Asimov’s wonderfully precise & concise Three Laws of Robotics, “designed to protect humans from their robotic creations”, hence the clear & present danger which would be obvious to all, including (but expediently ignored by) the military.

The protagonists of these stories are three main characters, the primary one being, to Asimov’s credit, a female ‘robopsychologist’, Dr. Susan Calvin, the other two being engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who have to deal ‘on the ground’ with different situations involving robots, in the chronological course of the narrative. It is structured in the form of a memoir of a series of interviews with Calvin by an unnamed future version of a journalist (he is only ever referred to by Calvin as “young man”: he is thirty-two), who is acquiring background information on her for his “feature articles for Interplanetary Press”: he already “had her professional ‘vita’ in full detail.” The year is 2062, and over the course of the interviews, Calvin gives the journo her thoughts on both her life, to that point, and sketches in the scenarios involving the main & supporting characters, which are described in the third person, including Calvin herself.

There are many interesting aspects to this series; the first is the obviously, and occasionally, in our terms comically, antiquated manifestation of the future technology as it could be conceived in the late 1940s; another is the way that everybody, across this future society, is quite comfortable with anthropomorphism of robots, primarily derived from their nomenclature: “Dave”, from DV-5; “Cutie”, for the QT series; but the first robot mentioned only has a human name, Robbie, rather prosaically, although ‘he’ cannot vocalise, being “made and sold in 1996. Those were the days before extreme specialization [sic], so he was sold as a nursemaid…” Also, and somewhat depressingly for me, it is taken for granted that capitalism will still be operating in this technological future, but it doesn’t have to be so: there is at least one highly developed ‘alternative’ system, Resource Based Economy, embodied in the work of Jacque Fresco and his collaborators in The Venus Project — it is difficult to pin down exactly when his work would have first achieved some prominence, but he was born in 1916 (died 2018!) and, according to the website, “Fresco’s lifelong project stems from his firsthand experience of the Great Depression, which instilled in him the urge to reevaluate how many of the world’s systems work.”, so it is possible that Asimov was aware of this concept, but whether he chose to ignore it is a moot point.

The impression given by Dr. Calvin’s reminiscences, for all her obvious genius professionally, is that she is distinctly ambivalent about the advisability of humanity’s inexorable & irrevocable reliance upon robots and AI, and her empathy, for all she could come across as occasionally cold & arrogant, is presumably the vehicle by which Asimov conveys his own reservations: any tool, or weapon, has no impetus other than the autonomy which is bestowed upon it, so an inert tool is subject to the use to which a human being might put it, but it appears that Asimov was wanting to warn us of the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box. Thankfully, those concerns are being addressed to some extent, but inevitably, secrecy associated with humanity’s protectionism embodied by global military forces means that it is possible that wider society will have no inkling of how far development of autonomous AI has progressed before it passes the point of no return: perhaps the best we can do is hope and work for peace wherever possible. The paperback edition of the book I read was published by HarperVoyager, London, in 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-827955-4.

Book Review

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White Silence, by Jodi Taylor

This book is described on the back cover as “a twisty supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.”; I’m not in the habit of reading fiction about the supernatural. I have a compendium of Edgar Allen Poe stories, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, though I don’t know if I would ever be in the mood to read one but, that said, this book is actually a very good read and, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was literally on the edge of my seat (mostly recumbent, either in bed or on a settee), I did find the early part quite engaging, given that I was genuinely concerned for the main character, Elizabeth Cage. She grew up knowing that she was different: despite being able to look at someone and know things about them they don’t even know themselves, she says “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I am.” She sees people’s auras which, because she’d never heard the term as a child, she called their colour; we are not told anything about her real parents, but she was adopted as a child, and her adoptive father is very patient with her, telling her with the benefit of age & experience that restraint is always better than just blurting out what she knows about people: “knowing things is all very well and good, but keeping them to yourself is better.” This is also brought home to her when she realises that people who might seem normal to everyone else can appear very threatening to her by the way their colour manifests itself.

After some awkward experiences at school, hence the paternal advice, she learns to become deliberately average, mediocre, so that she doesn’t attract attention. By her early twenties, when she is working for the local council in the records office, a repetitive job she relishes, she has lost both parents, but still lives in their house; after an incident with a public park ‘flasher’, who uses a cute puppy as a distraction for his targets (and she doesn’t initially see him as a threat which, apart from his aberrant behaviour, he isn’t: more of an annoyance), she meets her future husband, Ted, who is then a detective with the local police: he came to tell her that the flasher had been arrested. Ted seems very enamoured of Elizabeth, and seven months later, they marry, and move into Ted’s own house. Before too long in this new idyll, Ted surprises Elizabeth by telling her that he has been offered a job “in the private sector”: head of security at a private clinic “with a high security clearance”, run by a Doctor Sorensen, where “some pretty important people” sometimes stay.

Although Elizabeth is somewhat unsettled by this, she accepts Ted’s assertion that it will be a step up for him, so she doesn’t offer any opposition. Soon she meets the doctor at a summer open day at the clinic, but she is immediately on her guard: “his colour, a weak and weedy thing of insipid blue-white, suddenly flared up – like one of those geysers in a national park – and roared out towards me. Like a tidal wave of dirty milk.” During this first occasion, she also meets a character called Michael Jones, described by Ted as a colleague, but Elizabeth could see that he was “damaged … I suspected he’d suffered a loss, and very recently, too.”

She survives this first encounter, despite hearing a disembodied voice warning her to leave immediately and not come back, but five months later, she is unable to avoid being figuratively dragged by Ted to the clinic’s Christmas party. Despite the effect of Sorensen’s laugh being “rather like broken glass hitting a metal surface”, he behaves “impeccably”. Michael Jones is there again, this time claiming to be a patient, and he is evidently very drunk; so drunk, in fact, that with Elizabeth’s help, Ted decides to sneak him into an upstairs empty room in an area monitored by an employed nurse; this is achieved successfully. Other than that, no incidents occur to worry Elizabeth. Her domestic happiness thereafter was unfortunately short-lived, because soon an incident occurs that changes her world irrevocably. I don’t want to spoil the reader’s enjoyment by revealing any other details, other than that Michael Jones would play a large part in the rest of Elizabeth’s life as described in the book. This book is one of quite a few by this author, several of which appear to deal with the subject of time (always an incentive for me), and they are included in a series called The Chronicles of St Mary’s; some of these are short stories. This one is published in paperback by Accent Press Ltd, Cardiff, 2017, ISBN 978-1-78615-565-8, and if you like books with a supernatural element, I heartily recommend it.