Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi’ Category

Being honest, it took my forty or so pages to get into this book. But, once I did I was as hooked as the protagonists were within the eponymous game of the title. Centred around a group of misfit teens in their final year of school, The God Game churns along, drawing you into a thrilling conspiracy as the helpless characters fight to understand the rules of the game they are trapped within.

The God Game starts innocuously enough. The gang of teens, the self-proclaimed ‘Vindicators’, all have difficult backgrounds but are smart, tech savvy outsiders to the American high school ecosystem. What begins as a bored flirtation with a seemingly harmless AI called GOD , in fact sets a course for the five friends down a road leading from silly pranks toward mass murder and suicide. When anonymous invites to join the God Game arrive, the friends jump in. It’s technologically advanced and fun. The rewards are intriguing as well. Somehow the virtual game is tied to real life; do well in the game, earn success in life.

Prompted to pull a prank, the gang get in a little deeper. But, suddenly, one thing leads to another as the game begins to coerce them, trap them, blackmail them. What began as fun becomes worrisome; real life rewards and real life consequences. College applications, social ridicule, police records – for five scholarly misfits, these are problems they can’t afford. But the game, or GOD, keeps prodding, pushing them each to do things against their better nature, to test them. It pushes them until the boundary between virtual and real is destroyed; until life is the game and they are actually playing to survive.

This is where the novel excels. It is a conspiracy theorists sweet shop; the idea of an omnipotent, omnipresent system controlling people without them even knowing the true source, making them just cogs in the game. As the book develops, it’s clear that the game is one big morality test. It’s a competition, between people, all forcing and pushing and cajoling others into things; and, typically, the worst of us comes to the surface. The God Game asks what we would do to succeed, and who would we sacrifice to get ahead.

It’s a gripping proposition couched in an entertaining thriller. Capturing the modern day reliance on phones and computers, and social media and servaillance, the notion of an ethics experiment played out in the real was excellent. The tension and helplessness created a cloying atmosphere as the group struggled against the all-seeing eye of the game. Fun and chilling in equal measure, The God Game is an excellent, dark, speculative book.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

After every move, my stack of books reveals some hidden gems; point in case, Sea of Rust. A stunning, far-future, post-apocalyptic, science-fiction thriller, this is an absolutely fantastic book to kick off the new year.

Flitting between the past of a developed, near utopian world with abundant AI and the present of a war-torn ravaged, post apocalypse present, Sea of Rust, slowly brings the reader up to speed in a world that is tearing itself apart under the conflict of massive Artificial Intelligences bent on total domination. Set after the war against humanity, and after the golden age of robot AI freedom, the present is a race for survival against the clock; either one assimilates into the greater hive mind or one dies out in the wastelands desperately looking for parts to fix oneself.

Following Brittle, a robot designed as a human companion but who now cannibalises other robots for their parts, we are shown the harsh reality of life. Hitting the ground running, the book opens with a tension that fuels the book and keeps in running hot. Injured and desperate for parts, Brittle is thrust into a wider adventure that puts her at the heart of the world’s, and her species, future. As the massive AIs compete to become the One World Intelligence, an older mind resurfaces on a mission to save robotic kind. Yet, the truths it speaks shake the very foundation of everything that has gone before, especially the war against humans.

Against a tide of enemies, both from within and without, Brittle has to face up to a lot of harsh realities as her systems begin to fail. It’s here that the novel really shines. Sea of Rust manages to be both a thrilling page-turner but also a considered discussion on what makes a consciousness unique, and what makes a being aware enough to be intelligent. It takes the human condition and transports in to robotic AI, allowing it to re-ask certain questions and probe ideas of sentience and being in a new and revealing light. In the face of death, Brittle discovers what it means to live.

Sea of Rust is a wonderful book. At its heart it discusses ideas of what makes us us; soul, spark, magic – whatever it’s called, it is that unique thing that gives consciousness its self. But, it’s also a stunning post-apocalyptic, action packed adventure through a land ravaged by war, populated by survivors and cannibals and crazies all in search of hope and life and the magic at the end of the rainbow. It’s brilliant.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

Set in an almost perfect, near-future London, CTRL+S is a thriller that spans both the real and virtual worlds. Featuring an ensemble cast of twenty-something’s pitched against a powerful foe with far-reaching political connections, this is a novel that takes the notion of video games and brings it to life.

After ‘SPACE’ is invented, a virtual universe where the interfacer can feel and experience things as if they were real, the boundary between reality and the virtual has blurred. Games, experiences, shopping and near everything else is done in SPACE; a place that has even evolved its own sentient life forms called Silfs. Though free for all, there’s always someone looking to take advantage. Because the users in SPACE can experience emotions as if they were real, the darker side of life has a market; feeling what it is to nearly die or what it’s like to murder. And, where there is a market, there are dealers.

Theo and his friends, Milton, Baxter and Clemmie, become embroiled in discovering who is behind the real-life snuff experiences when Theo’s mum goes missing. Poor, misguided and desperate, Ella leaves a series of clues for her son to follow, proving she is smarter than she seems, even though she’s caught up in the nasty business of pimping out people for their emotions. But, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs wrought with danger, including corrupt policemen, hired special forces killers and Silf extremists. Finding the innocents kidnapped and forced to live horrifying experiences to harvest their emotions becomes the thread Theo must follow if he’s to find his mother.

CTRL+S ticks along at a decent pace and the plot is great. Who is behind the ‘dens’ and emotion harvesting keeps the pages turning. However, I struggled a little with some of the character interaction at times perhaps, because, there was a leaning towards YA content. But, where some of the cast development is light (and, to me, a little off) the novel excels at using the idea of gaming adventures as a basis for the story, blending the action in the real and virtual into an entertaining read. I wanted to know how the novel ended and whodunnit, and though I might not have enjoyed the teeny romance vibe peppered throughout the story, the plot of CTRL+S had me intrigued.

Published by Orion

Review copy

The third instalment in Gavin Smith’s excellent series, War Criminals is another barn-burner of a book. Continuing the saga of Miska and her penal legion (an army of mercenaries for hire), the action is full throttle, the dangers more terrible and the enemies at play even worse. It’s Dirty Dozen in space and on steroids, and it is glorious.

*Beware mild spoilers*

Miska is still on the hunt for her father’s killers and still in the pocket of the CIA, who are backing her run as leader of an army full of brutal killers. However, her cover, and the costs of running an enormous prison barge plus all the equipment and material needed for an army, requires her to actually work as a gun-for-hire. On a forested moon, as part of a proxy war, Miska and the Bastard Legion are bringing their street smarts and prison rules to bear. Fair to say, she rustles some feathers; the ‘war’ is more a numbers game and a PR exercise, and the Bastard Legion’s actual desire to fight has left a few people feeling put out. It’s the catalyst for some serious smear campaigns against Miska.

Never one to back down, Miska is soon dealing with enemies on all sides amid growing pressure to capitulate her position. Paranoia about her own army, a determined attempt to ruin her reputation plus an enemy who is clearly not what they seem, leaves Miska searching for the missing pieces behind the proxy war she’s embroiled in. When the forest starts fighting back, things get even weirder.

War Criminals is all kinds of fun. There’s the greater mystery of Miska’s father and the growing conflict with Triple S (a very nefarious mercenary outfit). Then there’s her status as leader of a penal legion and the gradual bond she’s developing with many of her enslaved recruits. The development of scout, heavy armour and insurgent squads just goes to show the Bastard Legion’s growing strength. But there are also some obvious attempts to get rid of her. Add to that the gun battles, fist fights and excellent banter, it’s a book that’s impossible to put down (no matter how much sleep you’re meant to be getting..).

A serious Vietnam conflict vibe runs through the novel, creating another brilliant layer to the world building. Miska and her cast of characters have really found their place and the list of enemies are far from a repetitive plug-n-play baddy. There’s complexity to the mystery and there’s detail in the plot. The engaging and gripping action is the icing on the cake that makes War Criminals such a top notch military sci-fi read. I can’t wait for the next in the series.

Review copy

Publish by Gollancz

Much like the motif of a möbius loop used in the last quarter of the book, The Rig is a complex entanglement of two tales that slowly but irrevocably come together to conclude a story of epic proportions. Featuring a humanity that has stretched out into the stars and terraformed a number of planets, The Rig centres around a cast of characters, each with their own unique perspective and place in a novel that somehow manages to feel like old school science fiction yet is extremely innovative and engrossing.

Bound by vast systems such as the Song, a sort of huge internet, humanity has abandoned religion (apart from one planet). Instead it relies upon the Afterlife, a strange replacement that records each persons life and offers them the chance at redemption; a just hearing after death that comprises of a system-wide vote. Razer is an author who details and makes stories of people’s lives, part of Afterlife’s commitment to recording lives and experiences. Sent to the planet Bleak she meets two enigmatic men: Tallen, a loner with little to distinguish him but for his distinct nature; and Bale, a gruff, hardheaded, hard drinking cop. Soon all three are caught up in a murder spree that makes little sense.

Twisting around Razer’s storytelling is the confessional account of Alef and his boyhood friend Pellenhorc. After meeting on Gehenna, the only planet to worship a god, the two become entangled in a deadly conflict. Pellenhorc’s father, Drame, heads a huge criminal empire, pitted against another massive organisation. Alef’s father is his right-hand, a statistical wizard behind his employers success. Yet, Gehenna is not a safe haven and Alef’s parents are murdered by Drame’s enemy. A mathematician beyond even his father’s talents, Alef is folded into Drame’s organisation, beginning something that spans decades.

As the two stories unfold, slowly at first, there’s little to hint at what is being built. The Rig is a wonderful piece of architecture as it delicately places bits and pieces together, never revealing its underlying structure. Razer, caught up with Bale, is tumbled along with his hard nosed desire to unpick the terrible knot of the murders and how, or more importantly, why, Tallen was part of it all, saved as he was by Bale just at the brink of a terrible death. Meanwhile, Alef finds himself at the heart of a conspiracy to unseat Drame. A coup created by Pellenhorc himself and one which even Alef couldn’t predict.

In the brutal, unforgiving system of The Rig, the future is bleak; cancer and disease riddle the population and humanity has far from found its release from the bonds that fetter it. Roger Levy asks a lot of questions, and queries our desire to find peace outside ourselves. From the violent psychopathy of Pellenhorc to the mathematical genius of Alef, from Razer’s recording and listening to Bale’s uncompromising and direct nature, The Rig picks at what gives us purpose and hope. It’s a book that slowly ignites, the last few hundred pages exploding as things become clearer and the story coalesces. But, it’s a book that stays bright throughout. Much like the motif of the möbius loop, The Rig is a complex, interwoven and intriguing novel; a puzzle of sorts but, more importantly, a fantastic piece of writing.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

As a pre-teen youngster Drangonlance novels and the world of Warhammer 40K were some of my favourite things to read and “play” ( I preferred trying to paint the miniatures but I was never any good). Recently, I came across a signed copy of Gav Thorpe’s Space Hulk novel for just a few quid and couldn’t stop myself from picking it up.

Based on the board game, which I used to play (with my badly painted models), Space Hulk follows a squad of heavily armoured Space Marines as they look to avenge a centuries old defeat at the hands of an alien species. If you’ve not come across it before, think about the movie Aliens but with more armour and you’re close to what the game and novel are all about. Aboard a twisted conglomeration of space ships, the Terminators are sent to hunt down the aliens and collect data. Dark tunnels and walkways create a sprawling, hard to navigate terrain for the Space Marines as they seek their revenge.

The premise is somewhat simple but the novel still packs an entertaining punch. The squads of Marines, decked out in their Terminator suits, are tasked with holding the front line whilst other elements of the task force prepare a deadly toxin to kill off the horde of aliens. But, it’s not an easy ask. The alien hive mind is quick to learn and, like a swarm of insects, use their numbers as a tactic. In the tunnels and strange spaces of the sprawling ship, deadly engagements begin to take a toll. However, for the Marines, defeat is not an option.

When things escalate further, the battle becomes more than just an exercise in vengeance. Restoring the honour of their battalion and retrieving a long lost artifact adds an extra burden and, with dwindling resources, and a relentless enemy, the Terminators must use all their resolve to achieve victory.

It’s a fun, short read, well executed by Gav Thorpe who does an excellent job of revealing just enough about the universe of Warhammer without overwhelming the reader with details and lore. Space Hulk is violent and atmospheric military science fiction and all the better for it.

Published by Black Library

My copy

Review – Prospect

Posted: October 8, 2019 in Film, Sci-Fi
Tags: ,

Continuing the movie binge, I got to watch Prospect, a film I’d been wanting to see since I caught a trailer a little while ago. It’s a unique movie that blends different styles and atmospheres together to form something quite wonderful. A western-sci-fi with some very individual motifs, Prospect, is both gripping yet wonderful.

A father and daughter team decide to make one last drop down to an alien planet from the transporter rig they currently reside upon. It’s a tricky decision as it’s a small window of opportunity before the transporter leaves orbit but, the father insists its a play that will score big, pay off their debts and get them out of the game. Cee Cee, the daughter is less convinced but doesn’t have a choice. The drop isn’t smooth and, with their ship showing signs of wear and tear, they barely make it. On the surface of the alien planet, a weirdly quiet forest covered world, the two set out to find a batch of ‘gems’. These jewels are an odd kind of seed that has to be harvested from some sort of biological plant and treated carefully lest the gem become corrupted and it’s value lost.

As the duo are scavenging an old dig site, two men approach. Cee Cee hides while her father tries to negotiate his way out of this dangerous situation. It is the promise of a hidden haul of treasure that stays the men from harming him. But the temporary truce is short lived and the ensuing fallout leaves Cee Cee on the run with one of the men, Ezra, close behind. In the harshness of the alien world, strange alliances are formed all the time and soon Cee Cee and Ezra must help each other.

The frontier atmosphere creeps through everything, the lonely and claustrophobic space of the forest, the strange bonds between people, the prevalent need to find a way out of the scrabbling, hard nature of surviving. Prospect brings more to the table than that; the unusually retro technology of the suits and ships and weapons; the very alien nature of the gems; the hints of things and worlds beyond. Whilst on one hand it’s a story of a girl trying to survive on an alien planet, pursued by her father’s murderer and desperate to escape back to the transporter, on the other its a tale of someone finding themselves amongst the empty wild, of discovering what it means to be an equal and creating companionship through shared adversity.

Prospect is beautifully shot and that tempered pace of the western creates a science fiction story that is both gripping and enthralling. It’s rich with ideas and world building yet, at its heart, asks questions of the human condition that strike at our very nature. For me, this is the kind of science fiction that gets me excited – unique, mesmerising and thoroughly entertaining.

Review – Snowpiercer

Posted: September 29, 2019 in Film, Sci-Fi
Tags: ,

Once again, I’ve relocated. Once again, I’ve had to move boxes upon boxes of books. Though not just my library but also, now, my son’s growing collection as well. It wasn’t an easy move but it was worth doing. So, a new city, a new gym, and another reshuffle of books (which is always kinda fun). But, exhaustion/laziness and an excellent wifi package resulted in a film binge and, first up was Snowpiercer.

This is a movie I’ve wanted to watch for some time but it was near impossible to find in the U.K (or anywhere else we’ve lived). However, Netflix did me proud and hosted it, much to my enjoyment. I’m not entirely sure it lived up to my expectations but it’s a great piece of sci-fi action and that is always a good thing. A stellar cast mixed with fantastic photography all make for a rollercoaster ride in a post-apocalyptic future.

Set on an express train travelling on an endless circuit through the frozen wastelands of Earth, society has boiled down to the passengers. And, like any society, the classes are divided. At the front is the founder, saviour, ruler. Under him, the rich, upper classes before moving slowly down to the workers, protectors, engineers and finally the last carriage. Deemed as scum, the tail end passengers are treated deplorably yet the truth of the matter is even worse. It’s a story that slowly unfolds as Curtis, played by Chris Evans, leads a revolution to take the train.

The resulting march to the front of the train reveals all manner of things from the decadence of those first class dwellers to the horror of the ‘food’ manufactured for Curtis and his fellows. Amongst the pitched battles, friends are lost, secrets revealed and strange alliances made as Curtis frees an enigmatic yet drug addled security expert. Together they push forward to the front of the train and a terrifying realisation.

I don’t want to spoil anything but the twists and turns in the story are well handled; some signalled whilst others not so. The final act is explosive to say the least, fitting the vibe of the film perfectly. Snowpiercer is a blend of styles and it shows as the movie is a unique piece of storytelling. The mix of Korean and European influences create a film that is highly memorable from its cinematic set pieces to its wild conclusion.

It’s easy to use terms such as interesting or intriguing when discussing a book; sci-fi lends itself to these type of ideas that explore and consider the human condition. However, what M.T. Hill has done in Zero Bomb is produce a very thought-provoking work that deals in issues which are extremely relevant to the social situation prevelant in Britain today.

Of course, these concepts and concerns are extrapolated into a near future, though one built on the problems of today; Brexit, social mobility, economic welfare and the rapid expansion of technology. It is here that the author runs free, building a Britain divided and fractured, brimming with automation and mechanisation alongside an overarching obligation to be part of the social network. Told in three parts, each connected and explaining the wider plot, Zero Bomb takes all these issues to task and explores what happens when a minority of dissidents disrupts the status-quo.

In the opening part, we meet Remi, a man so confused and at odds with the world in which he lives that he tries to become a ghost, leaving his family and everything else behind. Yet, so lost is he that even his own memories are unreliable. His aversion to technology has left him adrift in a world ever automated, making him a perfect target for minds much more nefarious than his. As the book gathers pace so do the stakes. In the second stanza, a book within the book explores the idea of a robotic revolution; of the end of human worth under the weight of technological advances but also the strength to fight back and overcome, to destroy and rebuild. A mystic and magical fantasy that strikes at the heart of Remi’s delusion.

It’s an excellent vehicle that portrays the mind of a person willing to undo society, a person so obsessed and driven by an idea that they feel they have the authority to destroy a whole population’s way of life because they know better. It’s frighteningly close to reality; zealotry and elitist thinking balled up in an insane idea capable of collapsing society.

The final part deals with those it would affect and the effects a revolution of this kind, as unasked for as it is, would have. Zero Bomb asks so many questions and does it with wonderful prose and considerable acumen. It’s as unsettling as it is fascinating,the characters blindly groping their way through what is happening around them, striking, once more, at the heart of the human existence. The resonance of cause and effects, of being products of an environment, of being shaped by forces and being forced into situations echoes throughout the book.

Zero Bomb is a unique read both in terms of how it is written and what it deals with. It’s great science fiction, full of all the worldbuilding and ideas that make the genre great. But, it’s something else as well, something a little more special as it digs a bit deeper and pushes a little harder at the boundaries.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

Continuing from yesterday, here’s one more awesome thing I’ve watched in a stupor of post-training fatigue..

I saw the trailer, more than once, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. I initially felt like this mini-series would be one of those melancholic, navel-gazing type shows where little would happen but much would be discussed. How wrong I was.

Maniac is anything but. Instead, it was a journey out of despondency and depression, spiralling upwards toward a kaleidoscopic expression of wholesome emotion. In a retro-futuristic world of robots and weird science, there’s an off-key, off-centre feel to its sci-fi background that is as intriguing as it is tricky to hold on to. Following the entwined stories of Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) the narrative simultaneously converges and fractures around a bizarre pharmaceutical trial. Owen needs the money to strike out and find his dependence from his domineering and overly successful family; Annie is chasing the drug on trial and it’s particular effects.

Whilst Owen is anxious and withdrawn, Annie is brash and bold, and the pair are soon thrust together in the same group testing the drug. Adding more unique layers to the already unusual worldbuilding, the pharma Company is itself a story that unfolds in fits and starts, revealing a scientist exiled from his own research only to be brought back at a crucial time and a computer that is so self aware it’s sabataging it’s own experiment.

The drug works by dropping the user into old memories and visions, helping them realise a healthier and happy conclusion. However, each time Owen and Annie find themselves in each other’s visions, as different people, in different lives but always thrown together. Eventually both do escape their most negative aspects and find inner peace yet the journey there is a winding and fantastical path.

As a vehicle for the actors it’s a chance to play multiple characters within a narrative framework. This is where the uniqueness works, ebbing and flowing forward and rising ever upwards. It was surprising and fulfilling and hopeful, all couched in a thoroughly distinct and inventive worldbuilding. It’s odd, hard to categorise but excellent it’s own special and quirky way.