Monday, April 24, 2017

Review - The Silent Invasion - James Bradley

The Silent Invasion (The Change #1)The Silent Invasion by James Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are books you just fall in love with when you read them as a young person. For me they included Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Susan Cooper’s Under Sea, Over Stone and Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Others come to mind that I enjoyed as an adult because they gave me that same kind of feeling: John Christopher’s Tripod books, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and so on, all of them treasured by one generation or another.

James Bradley’s The Silent Invasion delivers just that feeling. A brave young person standing up against the injustices of the world they live in, taking risks to save those they love, being confronted with terrible trials and overcoming them. The story is timeless, but Bradley makes it relevant to now: the idea of a planetary environment that is hostile is – sadly – a very contemporary idea that children growing up now will have to confront as a reality in the not too distant future. The book also riffs on very familiar SF tropes like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids as well as more modern films like Gareth Edwards’s 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters. But it’s all the more compelling for that because the story telling feels so fresh. The plot flies by effortlessly and the writing is clean and compelling – which means Bradley has put a hell of a lot of effort into it – and the ending just makes you want to devour book 2.


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Monday, April 17, 2017

Review - Lotus Blue - Cat Sparks

Lotus BlueLotus Blue by Cat Sparks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

World building is the real star of Lotus Blue, the debut science fiction novel for Australian author Cat Sparks.

Very quickly in this novel Sparks creates a vision of a future Australia – an already ancient land – that’s further weighed down by centuries of environmental disaster, turmoil and wars so that the ‘present’ of the novel feels old and tired indeed.

Caravans wend their way across the land between scattered outposts as the red desert encroaches more and more on what semi-fertile land is left; towns ruled by bandits or merchants squat in the heat, their dirt walls studded with old and broken tech; deep beneath the ground others rich enough to be able to turn their back on the wars live in hermetically sealed arcologies reliant on failing machinery to keep them alive. Out in the desert battle machines called Tankers, running on corrupted programs, patrol the slagged remnants of the past, hunted by modern-day whalers crossing the wastes on jerry-rigged sandships. And then there are the cyborg Templars, genetically and mechanically enhanced human troops, the last of whom have all but lost touch with their humanity. It’s a monumental feat of imagination and the details build through the early chapters until you can see the ruin around you and understand the misery that created it.

Memory intruded as she stood there in the sun, eyes closed, soft winds teasing the hem of her skirts, sand skinks dodging around her shadow. Visions of great reliquaries of old tapping the deep, hot rocks beneath the ground. Blasting fissures in the brittle crust, sucking up their heat and oil and ore.

Clandestine bases swarming with quicksilver drones, zipping overhead to missions in far-off territories. Emblazoned with the insignia of nameless foreign corporations. Swarms of human misery moving from county to county, stripping and consuming greenery like locusts.
Big reds bred mean to patrol the razor wire perimeters. Replaced in time with barriers of lantana raze, a particularly virulent form of weaponised weed, coded feral when the government defaulted on suppliers. Genes programmed with a killer switch, once initiated, fated to grow forever, consuming everything in its path. The land became exhausted, eventually stopped giving and started taking back. So the white-coats panicked, manufacturing strange new plants and animals tailored specifically to suit the harsh terrain. New soldiers too. Stronger, tougher. Better. TEMPLARS, they called them—she couldn’t remember why, even though she knows she is one of them herself.

The story of Lotus Blue is far more straightforward. Star is bored with life as an itinerant traveller on one of the many perpetual caravans and pushes against the constraints imposed by her elder sister Nene, who holds the important position of medic. Star dreams of running away to the settlement of Fallow Heel and reacquainting herself with Allegra, a rich merchant’s daughter she’d met last time their caravan passed through. But ancient forces are awakening beneath the desert and when a storm destroys the caravan, and those left alive have to walk to safety, she learns a secret about herself that changes her life forever. In Fallow Heel, she falls foul of a Templar called Quarrel and is forced into taking a sandship journey where she will confront what she is becoming and face the terrible truth of Lotus Blue.

She had never set foot upon a ship before this day, either sand- or the ocean-going type, although she had once stood upon the cliffs of Usha and watched three ocean vessels bound for foreign lands.

Glorious and mighty, their sails had puffed out like chests, moving headstrong into the breeze, as if with a will and purpose of their own.

There was nothing glorious about this ship. The deck was made of ancient timbers meshed and mashed with other salvage. Old world metals, wire, and plastics. Broken doorways, window frames, and doors. Unsettlingly uneven. Construction that creaked and squealed with every slamming gust of wind. The railing rattled wildly beneath her grip, threatening to snap and send her hurtling over the side at any moment.

No part of the ship matched any other. The same could be said for the crew. The sailors were not uniformly large, nor uniformly male, as she had initially supposed. At first they had seemed alike as brothers, exposed flesh patterned with inkings that told her these men and women had crewed a lot of ships. They had hunted tankers and survived the experience.

Lotus Blue has a number of point-of-view characters through which the story unfolds. Star, of course, and Allegra, the proud daughter of Mohandas, Fallow Heel’s pre-eminent merchant; Quarrel and Marianthe, both Templars, and petty thief Tully Grieve. All of them help to build up a strong picture of the world and there’s a nice manipulation of their timelines, which may not all be synchronised with the main story arc. Some of these characters appear very infrequently, which made me question why the reader was asked to invest in them. But that’s a minor quibble.

Jack Dann has often said that novels and stories are conversations between authors working in the same genre. We read the work and it has an effect on what we in turn produce. Certainly there’s a strong sense of that in Lotus Blue, and in her afterword Sparks acknowledges the influence of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Terry Dowling’s Tom Rynosseros stories – influenced in part by JG Ballard’s Vermillion Sands collection, and featuring a more romantic view of sandships – and the ruined machine-punk world of Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong, reviewed in NRB a couple of years ago. It’s a gracious statement but Lotus Blue also stands on its own as an impressive piece of imaginative writing, and one you’ll enjoy from start to finish.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Free copy of Horizon

Get a free copy of Horizon when you sign up to Beyond, my bi-monthly Mailchimp newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction.

Get your free copy from BookFunnel.

You can see past issues of Beyond here and learn more about the book on the Horizon page.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ultraviolet - Blast from the Past

I’m not talking about Ultraviolet, the decidedly B-grade movie with Milla Jovovich, which is currently sitting at 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the rather excellent UK TV series from 1998. Here’s the teaser:

CJD. AIDS. Global warming. For the first time in history, mankind has the ability to destroy itself. So now vampires need to take control of their food source. Against this enemy, religion is no defence but folklore has some truth. Not wooden stakes but carbon bullets. Not garlic but the chemical allicin. Not simply daylight. Ultraviolet ...

So why was it so good? Well, it had an amazing cast …

Jack Davenport, Susannah Harker, Idris Elba, Philip Quast
… and an intelligent, modern take on the vampire legend. The vampires in Ultraviolet are ‘electronically invisible’. As Idris Elba’s character Vaughan explains: ‘Look, the only machine that can see or hear a leech is us. You can only see them face to face. No mirrors, no photos, no videos. Audio’s the same. He can make a call, but his voice won’t go down the line. Surveillance is a bitch.’

Over six episodes, a secret organisation of vampire hunters funded by the British Government and the Vatican try to find out what the vampires are planning for mankind who are, after all, their food source. Why are they bankrolling research into leukemia; what about synthetic blood; and why are they so interested in climate change? Even though the show is about the undead, it features strong SF concepts right down to the guns fitted with video screens to confirm potential vampire targets.

The writing is also a perfect lesson in showing not telling. From episode one, we’re thrown right into the action. Nothing is explained and the word ‘vampire’ is never used, but we discover the world and its threats through the evolving action. The characters are also really well-drawn (and acted). Jack Davenport’s Detective Mike Colefield is ambivalent about the organisation’s tactics; Idris Elba’s Vaughan is driven by revenge after what the vampire did to his army unit; Harker’s Angie Marsh lost her husband to the vampires; and Quast’s Father Harman is worried about his own mortality. Through the series, all the characters reveal strong arcs; they all want something, which is ultimately denied them.

Even with such a short run, the show finishes on a satisfying conclusion, although there is a possibility the story could continue. That never happened. The show’s creator Joe Ahearne ended up writing and directing all six episodes (not the original plan), which meant he was too busy with season one production to plot out where the story might go next. In an interview a couple of years later, he said that he’d fought hard to bring the story to a final conclusion because they had no guarantee of being renewed. You have to admire his integrity for doing that.

In 2000, an American reimagining by Fox Network, described as a  ‘sexy vampire soap opera’, made it to only one unaired pilot. So you can still enjoy Ultraviolet in all its self-contained and unspoiled glory. Order the DVD 
here. You won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

You can't plan to be creative

Back in 2003, I wrote ‘Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?’, an editorial for Aurealis #31, where I interviewed a number of Australian speculative fiction authors about the well-spring of their creativity. The answers, which you can read here were diverse but also shared a common thread -- the ability to be open to the world around us and to recognise the potential of what we find.

A recent article by Christine Aschwanden on Writer Unboxed reveals how studies in Artificial Intelligence, are developing an emergent idea of creativity. The Picbreeder site uses an algorithm called NeuroEvolution of Augmenting Topologies (NEAT) developed by AI researcher Kenneth Stanley. NEAT presents a matrix of random shapes; viewers select one, which then generates a new matrix of ‘child shapes’, and the process is repeated. Through this continuing interaction it’s quite common that recognisable images are created, but it’s only in hindsight that the emergence of the image is obvious. There’s an interplay here between the random shape generation of NEAT and the choices made by the viewer. No human action is entirely random; there is, at the very least, an unconscious aesthetic guiding the viewer’s picture selection. But it’s not as if the viewer can set out to create a specific image of, say, a butterfly, because NEAT makes it impossible for that degree of planning to manifest in the end result

Psychologists are now theorising that the Picbreeder results provide a good roadmap for how creativity works. The artist is presented with a given ‒ maybe a piece of wood, maybe the view out their window, maybe a story setting, character or situation. The choices they make incrementally create new options, which they react to in an intrinsic way, perhaps guided by their sense of shape or colour, or what feels right in the context of the story they are creating. That reaction then impresses itself on the work, which gives rise to another reaction, and on and on in a feedback loop of discovery.

It’s a common theme in discussions with writers that the book they think they are writing at the outset is not what it ultimately becomes. The book finds its true meaning along the way. In my own writing, I’m constantly amazed by how flexible story structure is. How it can bend and flex to allow for unintentional detours. And just how vital and exciting the changes that emerge from this process can be. That’s not to say a detailed plot outline isn’t helpful to some writers. But if we can at the same time be open to our instinctual feel for the potential of the new and different, perhaps that’s where true creativity emerges.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Last minute Christmas reading suggestions

It’s almost the non-denominational gift-giving season. Here’s a roundup of this year’s biggest Australian speculative fiction titles. Get shopping!

Dreaming in the Dark (edited by Jack Dann)
A celebration of Australia’s current golden age of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and magical realism. Jack Dann ‒ multi-award-winning author and co-editor of the classic Dreaming Down-Under, the first Australian book to win a World Fantasy Award ‒ has collected a wonderfully eclectic range of short fiction that showcases what our best fantasists are doing right now in these genre-bending times.

Vigil by Angela Slatter
Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength and the ability to walk between us and the other as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.

The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren
There are many grief holes. There’s the grief hole you fall into when a loved one dies. There’s another grief hole in all of us; small or large, it determines how much we want to live. And there are the places, the physical grief holes, that attract suicides to their centre.

Sol Evictus, a powerful charismatic singer, sends a young artist into The Grief Hole to capture the faces of the teenagers dying there. When the artist inevitably dies herself, her cousin Theresa resolves to stop this man so many love.

Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins
Battle-scarred warrior princess Bluebell, heir to her father’s throne, is rumoured to be unkillable. So when she learns of a sword wrought specifically to slay her by the fearsome raven king, Hakon, she sets out on a journey to find it before it finds her. The sword is rumoured to be in the possession of one of her four younger sisters. But which one?

Aurora: Decima by Amanda Bridgeman
The tenth year war is coming. Carrie Welles has survived more attacks than she can count, but each one has made her stronger. She refuses to be a victim any more. While her nemesis, Sharley, continues to be a threat, she works with Harris and the Aurora team to protect the future, vowing to raise her children and fight as the soldier-mother she was destined to be.

Crow Shine by Alan Baxter
This dark fantasy collection features nineteen stories, including the Australian Shadows Award-winning ‘Shadows of the Lonely Dead’, and two stories never before published.

‘Alan Baxter is an accomplished storyteller who ably evokes magic and menace. Whether it’s stories of ghost-liquor and soul-draining blues, night club magicians, sinister western pastoral landscapes, or a suburban suicide – Crow Shine has a mean bite.’—Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase

Crow Shine, by Alan Baxter, is a sweeping collection of horror and dark fantasy stories, packed with misfits and devils, repentant fathers and clockwork miracles. Throughout it all, Baxter keeps his focus on the universal problems of the human experience: the search for understanding, for justice, and for love. It’s an outstanding book."—Nathan Ballingrud, author of North American Lake Monsters

[compiled with thanks to Alexandra Pierce’s ‘Aurora Australis’ column on]

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Rise of Anti-Science

One of the most inspirational scenes in the movie The Martian was where Matt Damon’s astronaut, marooned on the red planet and facing certain death, decided to ‘science the shit’ out of his problem. It encapsulated the strong belief that used to dominate our world: that science can solve our problems.

Right now, we’re seeing the rise of a new breed of populist politicians who ignore the facts and look on science with disdain because it doesn’t fit the narrative they’re peddling. Science is no longer the solution, scientists are viewed with suspicion, and meanwhile the planet is going to hell.

It’s hard for normal people to fathom the self-serving cynical depths to which pollies like One Nation Senator Malcom Roberts sink, rejecting the mountain of evidence on climate change as some kind of ‘scientific con game’; or the pronouncement last year by one-time Environment Minister Greg Hunt that the Great Barrier Reef had been taken off the World Heritage Endangered List when the latest reports from the Marine Park Authority Director show it’s in more danger of destruction than ever before. As for president-elect Donald Trump’s promise to walk away from the Paris Climate Change Treaty, and his chief of staff’s statement that climate denial will be the ‘default position’ of the Trump administration, words fail me. We are in deep shit.

Our new Environment (in name only) and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg recently welcomed Trump’s announcement that he would lift restrictions on fossil fuel exploration, commenting that it would be ‘good for consumers’. We’ve already breached 400 parts per million concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere, which means we’re headed for environmental disaster. All the carbon we have in the ground needs to stay there. Scientists have proved it time and again. But after the recent power outage in South Australia ‒ which had nothing to do with that state’s reliance on renewable energy and everything to do with the extreme weather events predicted by climate scientists ‒ Frydenberg is talking up ‘energy security’. This is code for turning your back on scientific development and increasing the mining and use of fossil fuels. It gets worse. Just last week the government pledged $1 billion to fund a railway to the new Carmichael coal mine, and shelved plans for an emissions credit scheme in the face of criticism from the far right. It seems our government is ignoring science and backing nineteenth-century technology.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Ireland, which generates a little under 25% of its energy needs from wind power, is trialling a new technology to bridge the gap between renewable energy and storage batteries. When renewable supply drops, the grid needs to be able to quickly compensate for the energy gap to give batteries enough time to come up to speed. The answer is not to augment supply with coal power but to use ultracapacitors. Standard capacitors in your phone supply a quick burst of energy to power the camera flash. The first capacitors used carbon derived from coconut husks. But since then there’s been a huge amount of development in this field using new materials, and tests in the US show that grids with ultracapacitor backups are 10–15% more efficient than battery-only setups.

The scientific progress of our industrial civilisation has caused a lot of problems, but it has also improved our lives immeasurably. That continued progress is the only thing that will save us. Telling lies or repeating the mistakes of the past – like approving the Carmichael coal mine  – will get us nowhere. As Ayn Rand said, ‘We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.’

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -