Archive for May, 2014

Redshirts_John_Scalzi1old man's warGhostBrigade


I recently re-read John Scalzi’s ‘Old Man’s War‘ and ‘The Ghost Brigades’ because, well, why not? They’re a great, fun, fast read. But, more importantly because I’d been thinking about his novel ‘The Redshirts’, a book that was equally liked and derided on a forum that I frequent (or lurk) when looking for good sci-fi suggestions. It made me wonder about Scalzi’s work and what I found so good about Redshirts. Fortunately enough, when the book came out I was lucky enough to ask the author a few email questions which may help in backing up my thoughts.

As I mentioned both Old Man’s War and TheGhost Brigadeare fast, action packed books. Set in the same universe, the books deal with some cool ideas all set within a rollicking adventure. These books aren’t new so, at the risk of covering old ground, I’ll keep the description short. In Old Man’s War (OMW), we are introduced to the idea of transferring consciousness from a human body ravaged by old age into a new, young, super engineered body. These new super soldiers are the OAPs of Earth who have signed a deal with the Colonial Defence Force as an exchange of military service in space for youth and the possibility of a new, and importantly, young life. The protagonist in OMW is one such pensioner who signed up with the Colonialists and we meet him as he considers the reasons for joining, amongst them the death of his wife. We follow the protagonist, John Perry, as he and other recruits are given their super, new bodies and embark on their military career. There are underlying ideas on identity, and what it is to be human as well as an interesting take on ‘foreign policy’ as the Colonial Force is tasked with combating aliens in an endless war for territory in a teeming universe.

But, there is another theme that, I feel, runs through Scalzi’s books. John Perry sees his dead wife. However, the soldier, Jane Sagan, he sees is not an OAP made new but a differently engineered soldier, made up using DNA from deceased recruits. It is his wife but not his wife. Perry is driven to find out who she is and the novel ends up seeing him go above and beyond to help this women who looks like his beloved.

In The Ghost Brigade, the novel centres around Jane Sagan, and the other special forces soldiers of the books title. These troopers are not transferred humans from Earth but are instead ‘born’ using a computerised consciousness called BrainPal. Tasked with tracking down a renegade scientist, the Ghost Brigade download a copy of his consciousness into a newly born soldier, Jared Dirac, in an attempt to see if they can recreate the scientist and discover his treacherous plans. It doesn’t totally work and Dirac is both a new self but also an incomplete version of the scientist, effectively becoming a new iteration of that mind as the novel progresses. But, the main driving force for Dirac is the memories from the consciousness of his other mind (that of the scientist) of a daughter. The lengths he goes to and the love he feels is extraordinary.

This leads me to Redshirts. Like the books discussed above, there are big concepts at play, such as the idea of being, what it is to be human, to exist. Though again, these ideas are underlying and the novel is fun, humorous and entertaining. As Scalzi admits Redshirts was written based on ” a curiosity of whether I could take what is essentially a five-minute comedy skit of a plot line and make something of it that was more than that five-minute comedy skit. The idea of the “redshirt” is of course not new — in that particular form it goes back 40 years, and literature was familiar with the concept of “cannon fodder” well before then — so the trick here was bringing a new perspective to the idea and sustaining it for the length of a novel. It seemed like an interesting challenge at the time.”

And this is where the book gets exciting. These Redshirts, these extras, realise they are fictional and the novel quickly becomes very meta- fictional. Rather than getting bogged down in philosophical concepts, Scalzi delivers a thoroughly entertaining story all told in his inimitable style. Yet, at the end of the book we are offered three Codas (three conclusions) which, to me, speak directly about this idea I have of Scalzi’s work: the notion of a love that drives, that consumes and completes, be it for a wife or child.

“The novel is about characters who are side characters in an even larger story; the codas have as their main characters side characters in the novel. It gives the book a crunchy, fractal feel. From a storytelling point of view, the codas allowed me to deal with some of the ramifications of the universe I created without warping the story taking place in the novel itself. And from a “I get bored easily” point of view I like the idea of putting in three codas because it’s not what usually gets done, and I like fiddling the formula.” When asked about a specific Coda, this is what Mr Scalzi had to say: “I think there are people who strongly believe only one person is their perfect partner. I believe that there are many people who could be a very good partner for one — and that as a consequence of being with that person one may change to better conform to the life that’s being built between the two. I think that’s how it’s worked with my own marriage: I can imagine that had I not met my wife, I could have married someone else and have been happy and had a good life… but I wouldn’t have this life, and knowing what I know now I wouldn’t to have any other life than this one. So my wife is my true partner, in no small part because we worked at the relationship and made it that way (good news for me: I think she feels the same).”

For me, all three books have this idea of love at their core. All three are great military adventure sci-fi but all can be read with, perhaps, a deeper meaning. As he wrote to me, he hoped the philosophising would happen off the page and that he’d written an entertaining book. Read either way, it’s little wonder John Scalzi wins awards for his fiction.

Books received

Posted: May 27, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

I’m lucky enough to get sent a book now and then, and last week I received two interesting parcels in the post.


Sphinx: The Second Coming by James Thornton comes with a big tag line, citing the author as ‘one of ten people who could change the world’. This is directed more at Thornton’s work as an environmental lawyer, but it speaks volumes about the man behind the book. I’m going to try to get a review up of this next week as the premise sounds intriguing.

The Sphinx presides over the desert while methane bubbles beneath the ocean’s beds. Catastrophe is coming. A team of westerners is set to unlock a code found deep in the fabric of the Great Pyramid. The puzzle goes beyond time – for secrets of Ancient Egypt are alive beneath modern Cairo. The puzzle stretches into the universe, where distant galaxies stay alert for the future of planet Earth. It’s enough to shake the Ancient Gods to action.

The second book I was sent is the Nebula Awards Showcase 2014 and is stacked with some big names in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. With the likes of Gene Wolfe, Kim Stanley Robinson and Neil Gaimen all featured, I’ll definitely be trying to find time to dip in to this book over the next week.


The Nebula Awards Showcase volumes have been published annually since 1966, reprinting the winning and nominated stories in the Nebula Awards, voted on by the members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America® . The editor selected by SFWA’s anthology committee (chaired by Mike Resnick) is American fantasy writer Kij Johnson, author of three novels and associate director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.

This year’s Nebula winners, and expected contributors, are Kim Stanley Robinson, Nancy Kress, Andy Duncan, and Aliette de Bodard, with E.C. Myers winning the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book.


I came late to the zombie party. A few years ago I picked up World War Z by Max Brooks just before I started watching The Walking Dead and, though it has taken me a while to join the shambling hordes in their appreciation of the sub-genre, I’ve definitely got a hunger for more zombie apocalypse books. (Ok, enough of the bad puns.) I’ve recently started a small collection of zombie literature; Zone One by Colson Whitehead came highly recommended and for a number of good reasons.

A pandemic has devastated the planet, sorting humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead. After the worst of the plague is over, armed forces stationed in Chinatown’s Fort Wonton have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One. Mark Spitz is a member of one of the three-person civilian sweeper units tasked with clearing lower Manhattan of the remaining feral zombies. Zone One unfolds over three surreal days in which Spitz is occupied with the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD), and the impossible task of coming to terms with a fallen world. And then things start to go terribly wrong…

Zone One is an exceptional book. It has everything expected of a zombie novel but it offers it up using a language and style that is both meandering and luxurious. This adds another layer to the story, pulling you in and wrapping you up in the thoughts of the protagonist. It’s not to be overlooked. Whilst it is not the gut punch of an all-out action book, Whitehead’s tale is a devastating and creepy story, just as powerful and just as addictive to read. Similarly to The Walking Dead (TV show), Zone One is concerned with the affect that the apocalypse has on the survivors. Whitehead’s characters are brilliantly sketched, small details creating believable and relatable actors. The protagonist, ‘Mark Spirtz’ (a nickname with a story that is slowly revealed adding another intriguing and distinct layer to the novel) is painted as Mr mundane, middle-of-the-road. He’s not a military/commando/prepper ready for anything. He’s an unexceptional young man with small dreams which, apparently, is exactly what is required to survive a zombie apocalypse.

The book is told in a series of flashbacks and present scenarios, recalling the main character’s journey to Zone One (a cleared area in New York) through a landscape of survivors all dealing with the terrible realities of ‘the last night’ and the attempts to stay alive. It is those flashbacks that reveal so much. That, just like the inevitable zombie attack, every fellow survivor is a ticking time bomb. This claustrophobic realisation that nowhere is safe and no one is untouched by the horror and insanity of their shared nightmare is pervasive; a creeping terror that powers the book forward.

Zone One is a stunning work of fiction that looks at the zombie apocalypse concept and considers the psychological toll it would have on any survivors whilst simultaneously dropping the reader into a horror story of epic proportions.

The long and short – Definitely worth reading.

Published by Vintage.
My own copy.

Solaris and Abaddon, sibling imprints under the Rebellion Publishing umbrella, are consistent in finding interesting new authors to add to their impressive list of writers. 2015 will see another name join that list as KM McKinley debuts with The Iron Ship, the first book in the Gates of the World series.

Solaris editor-in-chief Jonathan Oliver had this to say: “KM McKinley mixes two favourite things in fantasy: an epic quest and a terrifically exciting adventure story. I’m delighted to be bringing this astonishingly talented debut author to a wide audience. McKinley’s characters are brilliantly portrayed and the novels promises to be packed full of incident, incisive writing and immersive world-building.”

Check out the evocative cover art by Alejandro Colucci and the blurb below. Definitely one to keep an eye out for..

KM McKinley

The Twin flees across the sky, bringing in its wake the Great Tide. The Earth trembles under the shadow of its brother. Times are changing.

The order of the world is in turmoil. An age of industry is beginning, an age of machines fuelled by magic. Sprawling cities rise, strange devices stalk the land. New money brings new power. The balance between the Hundred Kingdoms is upset. For the first time in generations the threat of war looms.

In these turbulent days, fortunes can be won. Magic runs strong in the Kressind family. Six siblings strive – one to triumph in a world of men, one to survive murderous intrigue, one to master forbidden sorcery, one to wash away his sins, one to contain the terrible energies of his soul.

And one will do the impossible, by marrying the might of magic and iron in the heart of a great ship, to cross an ocean that cannot be crossed.


The Bookbeard blog’s beginning…

Posted: May 22, 2014 in Random

old book


I’ve been writing about combat sports for the best part of a decade and a few years ago decided that I’d like to write about my other hobby – sci-fi and fantasy literature. I’ve written a fair amount of content for the BSFA site, a great resource for fans and writers of the genre, but thought that now was a good time to go it alone into that great expanse that is the interwebs…

This is my first foray into social media as I’m not on Facebook or Twitter (not sure if that is a humble boast or the confession of a Luddite) and I’m hoping this blog will allow me the space to consider all the great books that I read – and the occasional film should I get the chance. There will be reviews of older books and newer titles, second-hand bookshop finds and, hopefully, some ARCs and the odd interview, along with a random Quantum Leap reference every now and then. So, after much beard stroking and procrastination, lets begin this book blog.


If you want to get in touch with me about reviews or anything book related, email me –
thebookbeardsblog at gmail dot com