I complete very few series/trilogies – #somanybookssolittletime – but there are, of course, some I will make an exception for. I won’t be missing any of Alison Weir’s books about the wives of Henry VIII, or a new Matt Haig but in terms of science fiction I think Becky Chambers’ particular brand of intelligent, character-led space opera is one of the only ones I will guarantee a read to. I bloomin’ love Becky Chambers.
This book is set on the Exodan Fleet – the ships which humankind set out on when they left Earth generations ago. But we are not, on the whole, looking at the kind of big, life-changing events which lead to evacuating a planet. There is an episode early on where one ship in the fleet is seen to fail – which was fatal for those involved, traumatising for those who witnessed it from other ships of the fleet and, then, the source of scrap material for the surviving vessels – but generally we are seeing day to day life. It is a well thought out society where family, work and the community all work hand in hand and we meet a wide range of inhabitants: children, young adults looking for their role and older people. We meet those responsible for keeping mankind’s memory of their past safe and those who oversee what happens to people when they die. There is incident and human emotions but I was also fascinated to hear about all those little details which most sci-fi doesn’t mention.
Chambers’ books aren’t, strictly speaking, a series. There are connections between characters and they all take place in the same world, during the same timeline, but each could be read as a standalone novel. What they do all share is a great sense of humanity (even when referring to non-human characters but it seems a bit too Douglas Adams-y to go into Vogonity/Harmagianity…) – you care about the characters whether they are on a spaceship punching wormholes through the fabric of the universe, an A.I. learning if they want to be human or a Harmagian anthropologist reporting on the humans who live on the Exodan Fleet. And you care whether you are male or female, gay or straight, a rebel or a conformist – everyone is represented in this world (and yet it never feels like anyone is just included to be politically correct). I am fascinated by the stories which Becky Chambers tells – I hope there will be many more forays into the world of the Galactic Commons and mankind’s place within it.
Modern life isn’t easy. The economy, climate change, bad news everywhere – sometimes I just need something to take my mind off the real world. Of course, for me that something is almost always a book and, at the moment, what I really need is something deeply, deeply silly. Luckily a new book by Rob Grant and Andrew Marshall arrived for me and my silliness quota was filled…Rob Grant is half of the writers of Red Dwarf and Andrew Marshall is a sitcom writer who was, apparently, the inspiration for Marvin the Paranoid Android – my hopes were very high! I was not disappointed.
The year is 1952. So was last year. And the year before. In fact, it has been 1952 for over sixty years and this isn’t the strangest thing that has happened. There have been a number of Martian invasions, attacks by Mole People and Troglodytes from under the sea and much of this unusual activity revolves around one man: Professor Quanderhorn. Even the government (led by Churchill, of course, it is 1952) is scared of him – and who wouldn’t be afraid of a man with a fleet of lorries driven by monkeys, a Dangerous Giant Space Laser and a dark secret in his cellar? We follow Quanderhorn’s team of top operatives – the beautiful scientist Dr Gemini Janusson, Martian captive Guuurk, Troy Quanderhorn (the Professor’s ‘son’ – or possibly a very dim but physically perfect human-insect hybrid) and Brian Nylon (a test pilot and spy for, well, everyone if only his amnesia would clear up…). The plot begins with a giant broccoli-woman trying to climb Big Ben, moves behind the Post Office (where a giant asteroid is glowing) and out to space. It all makes the same kind of sense that Red Dwarf and Hitch-Hiker’s Guide do (i.e. not much until all the strands get brought together at the end) but is a gloriously silly ride. In a spaceship. Driven by a Martian in tennis whites and impersonating Leslie Phillips and containing a man stupid enough to try and open external doors mid-flight. Completely daft and as British as drinking a cup of tea and saying ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.
If you need a bit of a humorous pick-me-up or are just a fan of Douglas Adams or Toby Frost give this a try. And check out the Radio 4 show too – it’s where all the cool comedy sci-fi series start out…
Nobody ever described space better than the much-missed genius Douglas Adams. You know the bit from the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide about how big it all is?* However, like most sci-fi writers Adams was mostly interested in the bits of space with stars and planets in. Other writers, like Becky Chambers, have written about groups of people travelling through space in various ways but Anne Corlett’s book is, as the title says, about the gaps. The parts that are not there…
Like many books this one starts with the end of the world. A virus has wiped out an eye-wateringly large percentage of the human population – a fever, spread by almost any kind of human contact, which last for three days. At the end you either recover or turn to a surprisingly small pile of dust. On a small and isolated planet we meet a small group of survivors – a vet, a preacher, an older woman who believes that God is trying to cleanse the world, a prostitute and a young man on the autism spectrum. They are rescued by a small space ship (manned by a slightly Han Solo-ish captain and his engineer who reminded me a bit of Tasha Yar) and head off to the system capital. The group travel on, eventually, until they reach Earth – and more specifically the Northumbrian coast near to Lindisfarne.
This isn’t really a book about the science of sci-fi. The virus, its transmission and effects (including the fact that it seems to render survivors infertile) are explained well but the bulk of the book is about humans: their emotions, passions and fears. This is a story about the gaps in people – their emotional voids, the people missing from their lives and, in some cases, the gaping holes where their moral compass should be. Some sci-fi readers won’t like this but others – fans of Becky Chambers, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book or P.D. James’ Children of Men perhaps – will relish it. Science-fiction isn’t all about rockets and ray guns – psychology is a science too, after all…
*’Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.’
When it comes to the sci-fi and fantasy section at work I tend to lean heavily on the side of fantasy fiction. Terry Pratchett. Trudi Canavan. Tolkien. Sherri Tepper. I’ve dabbled in the harder sci-fi, like the Martian, but I tend to go for something humorous like Douglas Adams or something which blurs the line between fantasy and sci-fi like Anne McCaffrey or Julian May. I tend not to read books set purely on spaceships or space-opera-ish stuff. Rob has hinted that I might like to try Arthur C Clarke but I’ve never taken him up on it – and the fault is mine not Clarke’s, obviously. Maybe it is just that I’m more interested in the human side than the science. Or maybe I tend to associate hard sci-fi with lots of explosions and shouting (which is certainly how the films appear to me), and with characters who are created with more thought to potential action toys than actual human qualities. Not there is anything wrong with blowing stuff up and merchandising but it is not usually my cup of earl grey (hot). And then, like so many others recently, I discovered Becky Chambers and was re-introduced to the human face of science fiction. Actually to be fair I didn’t so much discover Chambers’ first book, the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, as give in to the encouragement of many of my bookselling colleagues (and, it seemed, a fairly large chunk of bookish people on Twitter). They enthused me so much that I didn’t even see if I could get a freebie from the publisher (although they were on offer) but went straight for buying my very own copy. I don’t regret it in the slightest, though, as all those folk pushing me towards this marvellous novel were absolutely correct – this was a fabulous book. The fact that it was a debut novel made it even more remarkable.
I didn’t show any such restraint when a proof copy of a Closed and Common Orbit – not quite a sequel, more of a linked story – showed up at work. I had really enjoyed getting to know all the characters in the first book – a varied band who gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘diversity’. Humans, aliens of many races, and even a close relationship between a human and the ship’s A.I. system – so I knew I’d be interested in what happened next to some of them. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers about either book so if you haven’t read TLWTASAP (as I understand its fans call it) then I’d nip off and read it now before you carry on with this review. Done? Good, I’ll go on…
Lovelace, the A.I. system from the Wayfarer has been removed from the ship and is currently learning how to exist in a very realistic – but totally illegal – human body. She is helped by Pepper and Blue who obviously have a complicated back-story of their own and, instead of a spaceship, the story is set on a very cosmopolitan planet where commerce and technology seem to be the order of the day. Although there are a lot of differences between this story and the first book what has remained is the importance of great characters. We discover who Lovelace is (or Sidra as she now calls her human form) at the same time that she does – she has to discover how to be human, how to be limited by her own body and how to fit into society – and, as Pepper and Blue’s past is gradually revealed, we realise that there is more than one way of being human. I’ve seen a few negative reviews of Chambers’ writing (but only a very few – the vast majority are hugely positive) which seem to take objection to the fact that qualities like equality, fairness and basic niceness are given such prominence but I think they may be missing the point. This is a universe where humans are pretty much at the bottom of the pecking order and where more enlightened alien races keep control. There is a sense of equality – in terms of gender, colour and species – but there are still taboos (especially in terms of mixed-species relationships). We can see that A.I.s are the very last group to be given equal status just as, in the shape of Sidra/Lovelace, we are learning how much like humans they can be. There are not many explosions but lots of people – and people of every colour, gender, sexuality, species and programming.
We all have favourite authors: writers whose books we eagerly await and then devour as if we were never going to see another book ever again. Sometimes we are part of a huge group of fans – this is pretty much the reaction of every admirer of George R R Martin or Sylvia Day – sometimes we feel like lone voices in a wilderness. I spent many years sad that I couldn’t recommend one of favourite authors because there were no UK editions of her books in print – but luckily publishers saw the light and Connie Willis (winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards among many other honours) is now on my ‘push books into customer’s hands’ list again. Be warned, I will suggest you read Domesday Book and/or To Say Nothing of the Dog if you hang around the sci-fi section…
Willis’ latest book is full of the stuff that makes me love her work so much. Fast-paced, almost slapstick, action with lots of confusion and a dollop of romance. Her books have been compared to the kind of comedic films that used to star Rock Hudson and Doris Day and, considering how much I enjoy those kind of films, I’m inclined to agree. They also have their sad moments and can make you spend time thinking about the ideas they raise. In Crosstalk these ideas are about privacy, connectivity and whether our smartphones are a wholly good thing.
Briddey is a young woman with a great job in a smallish telecoms company, with an attentive boyfriend and a large, interfering Irish-American family. The story opens with her engagement to the eminently eligible Trent and their decision to undergo a procedure which will enable them to bond to the extent that they will ‘feel’ each others emotions. Although Trent seems rather more concerned about beating Apple to new developments in mobile phone technology and her family would rather she settled down with a good Irish lad. Into this throw C.B., a reclusive geek who would rather develop technology to limit our connectivity than increase it, and Briddey’s sudden and unexpected ability to hear what everybody is thinking (and not just Trent) and the way is prepared for the comedy to begin. The darker side is not neglected as we also explore how hearing voices has been seen as a symptom of mental ill-health for centuries.
Sci-fi always seems a hard thing to make funny – as if the future were no laughing matter*. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen (I laughed like a drain at parts of The Martian and Douglas Adams is a genius) but it rarely turns out as well as it does in the hands of Connie Willis.
*Fantasy on the other hand is full of giggles. See the entire works of Sir Terry for a start…
I’ve mentioned before about having the best job in the world haven’t I? You know, getting to read lots of books and talk to customers about them? Access to cake? Not to mention all my lovely customers? Well, some weeks it is even better than that – and last week was one such. For I had not one but two evenings out courtesy of those wonderful folk at Harpercollins. On the Wednesday I made my way over to Manchester (or the dark side as I have learned to call it since moving to Yorkshire) with a colleague to hear from three children’s authors – Sophie Cleverley (who was wearing the most amazing dress), Shane Hegarty (who was exactly the charming Irish chap he sounds like) and Holly Smale (who apologised for having to rush off after the talk – she had a book to finish in four weeks and had snuck out to attend the event: shades of Douglas Adams, I feel). Their books are now on my ever huge to-read pile and will be reviewed as soon as I get to them!
The main reason I didn’t dive straight into my stack of children’s books was because of last week’s other publisher event – held in Leeds on Tuesday by Harper Voyager, Harpercollins’ imprint for Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror. I’d started flicking through a proof by one of the authors that lunchtime, was a quarter of the way through by the time I got to the event and wasn’t going to be stopping until I’d reached the end.
This book (and the Joe Abercrombie titles I blagged at the same event) are sci-fi/fantasy titles which, while not specifically young adult books, are certainly suitable for that audience. But not so much so that they feel too ‘young’ for more mature readers. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy quite a lot of YA books (the Dancing Jax series, Half Bad by Sally Green and many more) but I am, allegedly, a grown-up and like to have a good range of ages represented in my reading. Anyway, I digress…
In the world created here every person born is a twin – always a boy and a girl. One perfectly healthy and robust: one deformed in some way. And when one twin dies so does the other. From this fairly simple but intriguing premise a plot develops. Our heroine, Cass, is not split from her twin until they are 13 – her ‘deformity’ is mental rather than physical and she is able to hide her status as a seer for many years – so she develops a closer relationship to her brother than is usual. However, when her brother rises to a position of power we find that he doesn’t seem to feel the same closeness with her. It is explained that the twins, and particularly the deformed siblings (known and branded as Omegas), are the result of some kind of a nuclear holocaust. For most of the perfect twins (Alphas) their other halves are something to be feared and even blamed for the evil in the world. Omegas are shunned and hated by Alphas – yet it is necessary that they exist in order for the Alphas to continue to live. And the easiest way to kill a powerful Alpha is through their twin…
There is an adventure story here, a smattering of love interest and lots of the world’s internal politics. But there is also a lot to think about – I found myself wondering about how we feel about our own Omegas (the disabled, the poor, the other) – and some rather beautifully turned phrases. Francesca Haig is an academic and poet as well as a novelist which I think really shows in this well thought out and well written tale. I’m looking forward to the next installment already.