Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

51qQMNkR-wL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By Adrian Tchaikovsky

A little spoiler warning. Because this is a sequel, I will refer to events of Children of Time, so be warned! (And If you haven’t read Children of Time I heartily suggest you do!)

An earth terraforming project travelled many lightyears to a distant star, and a world they named Nod. They expected to find a blank slate upon which they could imprint a copy of Earth, but instead found a world teeming with alien life. While part of the terraforming team studied this world, others travelled to an ocean planet they named Damascus. Here they began to terraform, and began breeding octopuses using an experimental drug to uplift their intelligence. Soon Earth collapsed as the conflict there reached a terrible conclusion, and the terraformers were left all alone in the universe, or so they thought…

Thousands of years later the remains of humanity, along with their spider allies, travel to the worlds of Nod and Damascus, following fragmentary radio signals. They find an advanced race that can trace its roots back to old Earth, and, more terrifying, something truly alien that threatens them all.

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Children of Time is probably the most enjoyable book I’ve read in the last ten years, so I was eagerly anticipating this sequel, and its fair to said Tchaikovsky didn’t disappoint. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t quite as good as Children of Time, but that novel was always going to be a hard act to follow, and the author deserves all the kudos imaginable for writing a follow up this enjoyable and it kept me gripped from the first page to the last.

The main issue is that the element of surprise is missing, but having said that, in doing for octopuses (octopi? Even Tchaikovsky doesn’t seem sure of the correct nomenclature) what he previously did for spiders, he once again showcases not only an incredible imagination, but also an in-depth knowledge of biology. More importantly he’s able to get that across in a way that the average reader can understand.

As with Children of Time, his world building is truly stupendous, but any indication that this is merely a carbon copy is quickly dispelled. What starts as sci-fi soon morphs into something far darker as he creates a species whose existence threatens the very nature of what it means to be an individual human (or spider, or octopus), and the repeated “We’re going on an adventure” line is incredibly unsettling (and would work equally well on screen if you ask me).

His prose is excellent, and as said his worldbuilding top drawer. If there’s a flaw I’d say that the some of the characters didn’t quite come alive for me, though I did really engage with the terraformers Senkovi and Baltiel, and also with Fabian, the male spider struggling in a female spider’s world.

As for Children of Time the ending wraps things up perhaps a little too neatly, but I am being really picky here because this is a superb book. Truly epic in scale, hopeful and with a wonderful evocation of deep time and evolutionary biology akin to the first book, with an added dose of body horror and a truly unusual alien species that only adds to the universe he’s created.

Highly recommended!

9781781085967It’s 2081 and Judge Joseph Dredd is about to begin his second year as a street judge in this omnibus that brings together three very different novellas about Joe’s second year on the sked.

THE RIGHTEOUS MAN, by Michael Carroll

Even though Joe was the man to arrest his corrupt clone brother Rico, Dredd is viewed with suspicion by his fellow judges. In an attempt to get him out of the firing line Judge Goodman transfers him to a remote sector, and from here Dredd goes even further afield as he and two other judges are sent to a mining town in the Cursed Earth. Meanwhile the feared SJS, the Special Judicial Squad, who investigate crooked judges, have Joe in their sights and won’t stop until he joins Rico on Titan.

I liked this story. It’s nice to see some aftermath of the whole Rico affair, and good that people still distrust Joe, even though he brought Rico in, figuring if they’re identical clones then why wouldn’t they be identically guilty? The storyline out in the Cursed Earth isn’t that original—think the Magnificent Seven—but a town under siege tale is always fun and Carroll writes the action well. If there’s a criticism then it’s that sometimes Dredd gets side-tracked in favour of some of the secondary characters. Still very enjoyable and the Cursed Earth is always interesting.

 

DOWN AND OUT, by Matthew Smith

A routine stop and search leaves Dredd badly wounded, out of contact with Justice Dept and all alone in a very scuzzy sector. With only his wits and training to rely on Joe struggles to stay alive, even as a wider conspiracy unfolds.

The weakest story in the collection unfortunately, and one I struggled to get into, although it does have its moments. Part of the problem stems from Smith’s prose; his paragraphs are very long, and when I say that I mean VERY long, which made it a slog at times, but the story also feels just a tad too similar to the movie Dredd, with Joe struggling to survive being hunted by gang members. Also, there’s a fine line between portraying Dredd as a tough SOB and having him survive injuries that would kill, or at the very least completely incapacitate another man, and Dredd seems to spend most of the novella on his last legs, which leaves the action nowhere to go because he’s so badly injured in the first place. Still some nice bits, and while I guessed there was a Wall Squad judge involved I guessed wrong as to who it was and I always like being caught off guard.

 

ALTERNATIVE FACTS, by Cavan Scott

While the city prepares for an upcoming mayoral election Dredd investigates the murder of several journalists, teaming up with a psi judge and his former mentor when the case takes some unusual turns.

The third and final story is the pick of the bunch, and features a nice cameo from Judge Morphy (the senior judge who supervised Dredd’s final assessment as a rookie) as well as references to fatties, skysurfers, sleep machines, riot foam, and a whole heap of Mega City 1 lore. Is it a little too on the nose and referential at times, maybe, but I think for the most part it walks the line perfectly and, of the three, is the one that felt most like a story you’d see in 2000AD. The story twists and turns, and the resolution is satisfying, though it maybe suffers from one dramatic reveal too many, but best of all it’s just really well written.

 

So, to sum up; one great story, one good story and one decent story, not a bad package as omnibuses go so well recommended to Dredd/2000AD fans.

One Way

Posted: November 19, 2019 in Book reviews, science fiction
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9781473222571-ukBy S. J. Morden

When a corporation hired by NASA to set up a base on Mars realises how expensive the endeavour will be, they hit on a novel solution. They send a group of convicts on a one-way mission to get everything ready for the real astronauts to arrive.

Frank Kittridge was an architect until he murdered the man dealing drugs to his son, now he’s a convict who’ll likely die in prison, so when offered the chance to travel to Mars, to use his skills once more and to do something meaningful, he jumps at the chance.

The training is harsh, and his fellow astronauts are a shady bunch, but they make it to Mars and begin building the base. Which is when they start to die. At first Frank thinks the deaths are accidental, but soon it becomes clear, one of them is a murderer, and with no way of escaping Mars, Frank must work out who it is before he becomes the next victim.

It really takes talent to take a premise such as this—’The Dirty Dozen’ meets ‘And Then There Were None’ meets ‘The Martian’—and make it so utterly dull, but Morden manages it. One presumes the book was sold on the back of the idea, and to be fair it is a doozy of an idea, and to cash in on the phenomenal success of The Martian. One hopes it wasn’t sold on the back of the plot, which is plodding and predictable, or the prose, which is clunky and lifeless.

For starters it’s pretty obvious from the get-go who the murderer is. Maybe Morden is trying to pull a clever double bluff, but if he is it doesn’t work. That’s fine though, and if the rest of the book had been any good it might not have mattered, but it isn’t.

Plot wise things take an age to get going, and we’re well into the book before the cons get to Mars. Again this would be fine is the author had used the training scenes to introduce us to the characters, get us inside their heads, but he doesn’t, and that’s a major flaw with the book, very few characters stand out aside from maybe Zeus, the hulking former white supremacist covered in swastika tattoos who got religion and seems to have turned into a nice guy, but even here the author undercuts himself. We have Zeus, and then we have Zero, breaking the cardinal rule of not having characters with similar names. Most of the cast are little more than cardboard cut outs, chess pieces with no life of their own who exist only for Morden to move around the board, and one by one remove from the board.

They all sound the same, spouting cliched dialogue, or just plain dull dialogue. Morden’s prose is leaden and I’m sorry but surely an editor should have made improvements. “It’s Frank,” said Frank, being just one example of how clunky the prose is.

As a one off read it never got quite so bad that I wanted to toss it aside, but I’ve since found out there’s a sequel and I won’t be reading that one.

Great premise, lousy execution.

Directed by Tim Miller. Starring Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna.

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Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Reyes) is a young woman living in Mexico and working at a car assembly plant. She thinks of herself as an ordinary young woman, until a Rev-9 Terminator (Luna) travels back from the future to kill her. Luckily Dani is protected by Grace (Davis) another time traveller, this time human, sent back to protect her. Grace has been enhanced with technology, but she still struggles to fight off the Terminator, until Sarah Connor (Hamilton, duh) arrives to intervene.

Sarah has been living an aimless existence since a tragedy that befell her several decades before, but she has found meaning in destroying the Terminators Skynet despatched through time, receiving cryptic messages warning her when one is due to arrive.

Sarah and Grace form an uneasy alliance to protect Dani, but it may take more than the two of them to destroy the Rev-9, it may take the assistance of a T-800 (Arnie obviously) who Sarah has every reason to hate.

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It’s kinda scary to think we now have six Terminator films, especially considering T2 supposedly saved humanity from the Skynet dominated future, but then again if T2 didn’t really warrant a sequel, you could argue Terminator didn’t either, but a world without T2 doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s still hard to choose between them, in part because, much like Alien and Aliens, they’re vastly different films. What I think most everyone was sure about is that in terms of sequels it’s been a case of diminishing returns. T3 was a bland actioner partly redeemed by a heck of a twist at the end. Salvation was just terrible, committing the worst cinematic crime of being dull, and Genisys was an unholy mess, but at least it wasn’t boring.

The sheer potential of the franchise can’t be held back however, and has prompted another entry in the series. Cameron returning in a story and production capacity, and the hiring of Deadpool director Miller gave people hope that Dark Fate might be good.

I’ll be honest here, by ten minutes in I was seriously worried. The film’s opening is incredibly clunky, committing the cardinal sin of dropping us into the action rather than giving us time to get used to the characters. The Rev-9 is on Dani’s case within minutes, I appreciate it’s a more advanced model and all, but remember when Arnie had to go raid a gun shop and use the phone book to try and track Sarah Connor down?

But then Linda Hamilton turned up and things took an upward turn. The film settles down and things again shift in a positive direction. And then Arnie turns up and from here on it’s a roller coaster ride of a film, and an enjoyable one. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t in the same league as Terminator or T2, but it’s the third best film in the franchise by a country mile and that’s about the best we could have hoped for.

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The casting helps, and at the centre of it all is Hamilton. Much like Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween sequel of last year Hamilton returns to perhaps her greatest role, and she’s a hoot. Grouchy, world weary, damaged yet strong …this might be my favourite of her Sarah Connor performance, Terminator Sarah was a touch too simpering, T2 Sarah too fanatical. Hamilton has fun, and yet again demonstrates why it’s a crime she hasn’t had more success as an actor than she’s had.

I’ve yet to see Mackenzie Davis give a poor performance in anything, and she’s great as Grace, driven and stubborn and desperate to protect Dani at all costs and she has great dynamics with both Hamilton and Reyes and she always convinces as a battle hardened warrior.

Reyes does a good job as the initially innocent Dani, and never seems overawed by the talent surrounding her.

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Luna does a decent job as the all new Terminator, appearing threatening or friendly as his mission dictates. I’m still not entirely sure about the solid endoskeleton and liquid metal exoskeleton, and it seems like just a case of “What can we do different Terminator wise?” but it does make for some fun scenes, allowing a single Terminator to double team his opponents as required.

And then there’s Arnie.

imagesHis inclusion in this film is preposterous, but I don’t care because he’s great, he’ll never be the greatest actor in the world, but he has presence and comic timing many better actors would kill for. It’s hard to imagine the film without him and he gets many of the funniest lines, yet at the same time he never overshadows the female triumvirate at the heart of the film.

Plot wise the film undertakes some temporal contortions to contrive a new Terminator with a new target, but clearly a lot of work has gone into the story and for the most part it works. There’s one thing that happens early on that’s annoying—and I do hate the ‘kill a character off to make room for a new story’ trope, but it annoyed me less as I was swept up by the story. Kudos on the script front as well to the level of consistency, Grace’s enhancements take a toll on her body and she needs regular injections to counteract this, in a lesser film this would have been forgotten as the film progressed but not here.

The action scenes are frenetic and there’s obviously a lot of CGI. Maybe too many were showcased in the trailer, but this at least wasn’t the re-tread of T2 I was expecting it to be.

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Whether I genuinely enjoyed this in its own right, or merely because it was so refreshing to see a competent Terminator film again is something only repeat viewings will clarify, and calling it the third best Terminator film may be damning it with faint praise but it’s funny, action packed and features engaging characters, and maybe it’s just not possible to make something as good as we got in 1984 and 1992. It’s just a shame Dark Fate seems to have done poorly at the box office, so will we see another semi-reboot eventually? I hope not, either continue with this new timeline or, and here’s a radical idea, just accept the franchise is never going to hit the heights of 1992 again.

For the record my current rankings of the Terminator franchise go something like this…

  • Terminator/T2
  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles
  • Dark Fate
  • T3
  • Genisys
  • Salvation

Capture

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We shouldn’t have come here. If the journey from Earth hadn’t been so tortuous, if we hadn’t felt so weary, and if our ship hadn’t been on the verge of falling apart, I think we’d have turned around, because this world wasn’t what we envisaged.

It was harsh. Cold. We didn’t understand. We thought it was a world to be tamed, a world we could shape in our own image. The reverse was true.

The days are short, but the years are agonizingly long. This world takes decades to orbit its sun. By the time the climate began to warm we had almost forgotten what heat felt like. We welcomed it. We didn’t understand.

The ice melted.

Then we melted.

We assumed it was a disease, some horrible affliction that turned flesh into water. We threw every meagre resource we had left at it. Perhaps if the scientists hadn’t fallen victim first, or if ship’s computers still functioned, we might have understood, though I doubt we could have stopped it.

Drugs. Quarantine. Prayer. Nothing worked. One by one we succumbed. One by one we died. Or thought we did.

The dream followed. A languid, fluid dream. Our thoughts merged, memories slithered and twisted around one another like a nest of snakes. We were no longer individuals, we were a gestalt. It was beautiful, no secrets, and yet no guilt, because we no longer had any sense of self. We floated in perfect chaos all summer long.

Then winter returned, and the ocean froze. Suddenly we found ourselves corporeal once more, only now it was different. Not only because we’d got used to our disembodied dream state, no, it was different because we didn’t coagulate as the individuals we’d once been. Now we were curious, hybrid entities. Mongrels made of memories. A Frankenstein’s monster of thought stitched together from disparate recollections and desires.

We were confused and frightened. We were in pain. Somehow, we evolved the ability to move, becoming stiff, creaking giants of ice. We tried to find harmony, but we didn’t understand ourselves anymore, and we certainly didn’t understand each other. There was fear. Distrust. Liquified togetherness gave way to solidified separation.

We disagreed. We argued. Eventually we fought. Winter was long and violent and terrible. Death was beyond us, but suffering wasn’t.

Summer eventually ended the war. Those rigid creatures of ice collapsed once more into wonderful anarchy. We ebbed and flowed and dreamed, and we were happy. Only now, somewhere in that collective sentience, there was a hint of fear, the knowledge that winter would return.

Which of course it did.

That was so long ago. We cannot comprehend how many winters, how many summers. A thousand? A million? It makes no difference. Time only matters when we’re ice, when we are liquid, we’re beyond such pettiness.

We are solid now. I am solid now.

I am ancient, and yet at the same time brand new, because this particular collection of thoughts and memories has never coalesced before. I am old. I am young. I hurt. I am newly born and already I long for summer, but summer is so very far away.

 

Us

Posted: March 31, 2019 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker.

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In 1986 Adelaide Thomas holidays in Santa Cruz with her parents. One evening she wanders away from the boardwalk and enters a hall of mirrors where she encounters her doppelgänger. The experience is so traumatising that for a time she becomes mute and has to undergo therapy.

In the present-day Adelaide (Nyong’o) returns to Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Duke) daughter Zora (Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Alex). Adelaide is nervous, still haunted by events that happened as a child, but she tries to put these aside and enjoy the trip. Once there they meet up with their friends Kitty and Josh (Moss and Heidecker) and their twin daughters.

When Jason gets lost on the beach Adelaide panics. That night she explains to Gabe about her childhood trauma. He’s convinced that all she saw was her own reflection, but then the children tell them there’s a family standing in the driveway. It soon becomes clear that the family in the driveway are their doppelgängers, and they’re very, very angry…

 

In 2017 Peele’s Get Out took everyone by surprise, a smart satire that was made for peanuts yet made millions. It was Peele’s directorial debut and it immediately cemented his reputation as both a writer and director. It was clear he’d have no trouble securing the green light for any kind of follow up he wanted, and people were eager to see what he’d do next, certainly I was. I had a few issues with Get Out, it was smidgen too funny in places underscoring the dread, but on the whole it was great; original and with something to say about race.

us-movie-1553126874.jpgSad to say therefore that I came out of Us a little disappointed. If Get Out was a taut, clever film that mostly balanced scares and laughs, Us is a sprawling mess that often veers too far towards comedy and was rarely as creepy as it could have been, worst than this though, where Get Out had a great central idea and ran with it, Us feels too much like Peele has thrown as many ideas as he can against a wall, and whilst some of them stick, too many slide down to the floor.

One can’t fault the cast however, and each of them is excellent in dual roles, especially Nyong’o and Wright Joseph, with Nyong’o doing most of the heavy lifting as the leader of the ‘Tethered’. She’s superb, and they really do feel like different people, a loving mother and a malevolent attacker.

Some of the funniest moments in Get Out came courtesy of Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent Rod, and in Us, Winston Duke takes on a similar role. He’s very funny, of course its debatable whether he should be quite as funny as he is, and that’s part of the problem with the film, because at times its so funny that it does kind of undercut the tension. Take the moment the family start comparing kill scores for example. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need that in horror, it’s just here it’s all very broad, and much like Rod in Get Out, at times it feels like Gabe is in a different film.

As a side note if they ever decide to gender swap the Joker, Elisabeth Moss has to be considered!

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Peele has a good eye, and there’s some good imagery at work here, lots of reflections and use of shadows to reinforce the notion of duality, he directs humour very well and he does direct some creepy moments; that said it says something when probably the creepiest moment in the film is in the first ten minutes when young Adelaide visits the hall of mirrors. Peele can also clearly write well, his dialogue and characterisations feel real. The problem is the plot, and whilst it’s a curious thing to say, this is a film that gives us too much information, but at the same time too little. Peele’s said he has a whole mythology created for the world of the Tethered, and this clearly shows, but in trying to show off some of this mythology, whilst maintaining an air of mystery, the film falls between two stools.

There’s some disturbing imagery on view in the world of the Tethered, but by showing it Peele prompts more questions that he then provides answers for (where do the jumpsuits and scissors come from, how can people survive just on rabbit, how do the Tethered know exactly where to find their above ground doubles?) and the longer the film goes on the more preposterous it becomes and the more you have to suspend your disbelief. Suspending disbelief is something I do quite well, I’m a sci-fi/horror fan so it comes with the territory, but Peele demands too much and the final act really did have me saying “seriously?” That said one of the central twists is nicely done and does work.

jordan-peele-us-movie-first-trailer-01-320x180It is intriguing, and Peele does clearly have something to say about the American underclass rising up—and it’s surely no surprise that they wear red, there’s a clear allusion to Trump supporters here, and Us also means US, but whilst this might have worked well as a 45 minute Twilight Zone style episode (and I’m still looking forward to Peele’s TZ reboot) that gets in and out before you have time to consider the ramifications, at almost two hours this film gives you far too much time to think and notice plot holes.

I didn’t hate it, and I will watch it again, knowing what kind of film it is going in might mean it goes up in my estimation, but on first viewing it’s ok but nothing special. There could have been a creepier, tauter film here. Less is more, but in the case of Us I’m afraid More is less.

 

indexAbridged by James Goss from his original novelisation of the 1979 episode by Douglas Adams and David Fisher.

The Doctor and Romana arrive in Paris 1979 in hopes of a relaxing, cultured holiday, but all too soon they’re drawn into a plot to steal the Mona Lisa concocted by the mysterious Count Scarlioni. Throw a gritty British detective with a tendency to punch first and ask questions later, and a captive scientist working on time travel into the mix, and if the last of the Jagaroth have their way life on Earth won’t just be wiped out, it’ll have never existed in the first place!

Back in the day there was no Netflix, no iPlayer, no DVD boxsets and episodes of Dr Who were rarely replayed, so unless you were fortunate enough to have an early video recorder you had two options, the first was to make a sound recording of the episode, the other was to get hold of the novelisation, and from 1973 to 1991 Target books published practically every classic era story.

In recent years the BBC have resurrected the Target brand to release novelisations of modern Who episodes, including Russell T Davies writing an adaptation of Rose, and Steven Moffat with a novelisation of The Day of the Doctor. One of the few classic stories never to get the Target treatment (until now!) was City of Death.

It’s a lean novel, but no less fun for this. Of course Goss had great subject matter to work from, because the original script is a fun and frothy adventure (which depending on your view may be a good or a bad thing—some people don’t like the silliness inherent in this story, whilst others see it as a very early forerunner of how the modern show was able to marry the serious and the silly at the same time).

The dialogue sparkles, and because I’m so used to the serial it’s easy to hear the voices of Tom Baker, Lallla Ward, Julian Glover et al. So classic lines such as: “I say, what a wonderful butler! He’s so violent!” are as much a joy to read as they are to watch. Goss doesn’t just rely on the script however, and he fills in a lot of gaps, for example it’s made clearer here that Scaroth is only vaguely aware of his other splinters, in fact it seems Scarlioni doesn’t even realise he is a Jagaroth until the reveal at the end of part one which isn’t how it comes across on screen.

It isn’t perfect, but in the main what failings there are come from the source material, and to be honest the trope of aliens being responsible for human development is something that annoys me in far more Who stories than just this one.

I don’t know how this would read if you were unfamiliar with the source material, but as a fan I found this a fun read. Now I really must dig my DVD out!

By Alastair Reynolds

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It was a real honour to be declared runner up in the National Space Centre’s short story competition last year, but it was just as awe inspiring to meet Alistair Reynolds, and to learn he’d read and enjoyed my story! Part of my prize was a book signed by the man himself, a huge collection of short stories the size of which, to be honest, put me off at first, but I finally set a few months aside to work my way through it and what a treat.

As with any anthology some stories are better than others, some stories hit an emotional note with me and some didn’t, but all demonstrate a master of his craft. Anyway here’s a brief review of each of the stories within…

 

The book opens with Great Wall of Mars, a tale of enhanced humans and Martian terraforming that it took me a little while to get into, but once I had intrigued me greatly.

It’s followed up by Weather, a story set later in the same universe. It’s an interesting tale of space farers menaced by pirates, and the extreme measures they need to go to in order to escape, relying on an augmented human who they’re not sure they can trust.

The titular Beyond the Aquila Rift is next up, an unsettling tale of lost travellers that merges the Twilight Zone with the Matrix.

Minla’s Flowers is a neat tale of political expediency and features a character trying to save a less advanced civilisation, popping himself into cryogenic storage for a few decades at a time in order to monitor their growth. It’s a story that starts out quite sweet and winds up somewhere rather dark.

Zima Blue is probably the first story not to grip me, there’s an intriguing idea at its heart about an artist who’s now more machine than man, and his obsession with a particular shade of blue, but I’m glad it was one of the shorter stories in the collection.

Fury is about an incredibly old robot who serves as the personal protector of an equally ancient galactic emperor. When an attempt is made on the emperor’s life the robot goes in search of those behind it, but discovers secrets about himself and his emperor in the process that will change their relationship forever. It’s a story that didn’t remotely go where I expected it to, and the end is nicely done.

The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice is a gloriously gory story about cybernetically enhanced space pirates. It’s bloodthirsty and just plain bloody, but if you have a strong stomach it’s fun too.

The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter is more of a fantasy tale, albeit one with clear science fiction overtones. Set in a future Northumbria trapped in a mini ice age it features a young woman struggling to avoid the machinations of a vile suitor, and an old woman who may or may not be a witch. It’s an interesting mix of genres, and if I had a problem with it it’s that it feels like the prologue for a more epic story, rather than a self-contained story.

Diamond Dogs is a very long story, and another quite gory one, merging Steven King with films like The Cube as a group of explorers try and get to the top of an alien spaceship through room after room, each of which contains tests of increasing difficulty and penalties of increasing severity. It goes on a bit too long, and I found the eventual end a little unsatisfying, but it was delightfully devious for most of its length.

Thousandth Night was a bit of a joy, featuring as it did the characters of Campion and Purslane from House of Suns. I was already au fait with the characters and their world, and an enjoyable murder mystery ensued.

Troika is an evocative tale of a soviet cosmonaut who escapes from a hospital to try and reach an old scientist in order to tell her she was right in her theory about a mysterious alien artefact. It turns out he is the only survivor of a Russian mission to explore the artefact, but the story has an unexpected twist in the tale. I liked this one a lot, especially in its depiction of a snowbound Second Soviet. Very Quatermass.

Sleepover is the one story I didn’t read, because I read it a few months ago in The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF!

Vainglory is another story about art, and oddly another one I couldn’t quite engage with, although it’s central theme of people chiselling asteroids and creating rings around planets wasn’t uninteresting.

Trauma Pod, like Diamond Dogs, is another one that relies heavily on body horror, as a wounded solider is kept alive inside a robot which goes to increasing lengths to keep him safe. It’s very unsettling.

The Last Log of the Lachrymosa is another story featuring characters risking death to explore an alien artefact, in this case something buried in a cave system on an uninhabited planet. There’s a rough and ready piratical edge to the story I quite liked.

The Water Thief is okay, but only really interesting in that it doesn’t go where you expect it to as we follow the story of a refugee barely earning a living as a teleoperator remotely controlling robots, who eventually ends up involved in a political struggle on the Moon!

The Old Man and the Martian Sea has some wonderfully evocative imagery, and winds up being quite sad as a young girl runs away from home and meets up with a grizzled old man who takes her to one of Mars’ original settlements, now a city sunk beneath a lake.

The final story, In Babelsburg, has an interesting premise, that of a sentient space probe, but I feel it didn’t really go anywhere so it wasn’t one of my favourites.

All in all though a wonderful, if somewhat impenetrable at times, anthology that I’d recommend, maybe I should have interspersed it with other books in between every few stories though because it was like reading three novels bound together in terms of sheer size.

The Predator

Posted: September 25, 2018 in Film reviews, science fiction
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Directed by: Shane Black. Starring:  Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane.

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Someone asked for one retake too many!

During a hostage rescue mission sniper Quinn McKenna (Holbrook) and his team encounter a crashed spacecraft and are attacked by a predator. Quinn manages to incapacitate the predator but only after his team is wiped out. Realising that the government will cover it up and pin the blame on him, he mails some of the predator armour home to his autistic son, Rory (Tremblay) and estranged wife, Emily (a criminally underused Yvonne Strahovski).

Quinn is captured and, due to the incredible nature of his story, is treated like he’s suffering from PTSD. As such he’s placed on a bus with a group of other former soldiers, each of whom is suffering from mental health issues.

Meanwhile evolutionary biologist Casey Bracket (Munn) is recruited to study the predator that Quinn encountered. The only trouble is, the predator isn’t quite as incapacitated as everyone thinks.

As Quinn and Bracket’s paths cross, and the predator causes havoc, Rory has managed to activate the predator’s armour, drawing the alien to his small town, but also attracting the attention of a second predator who’s far more dangerous than the first.

Suddenly Quinn and his rag tag group of misfits not only have to save Rory, they might well have to save all mankind.

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When news of a new Predator film was announced I was vaguely excited, whilst I loved the first film it’s definitely been a case of diminishing returns. Predator 2 has its moments, but it’s dated far more than the original has, and whilst Aliens Vs Predator is a far better film than it has any right to be, AVP: Requiem is a disaster, arguably not only the worst Predator film but also the worst Alien film into the bargain. That leaves 2010’s Predators, which I’m actually a fan of, for me it’s probably the second best film in the franchise, though this isn’t a view held by all. When it was announced that the new film would be written and directed by Shane Black my interest ratcheted up significantly. Not only is Black an accomplished writer/director (who’s had a hand in a whole heap of great movies, going back to Lethal Weapon in 1987 (which he wrote) and right up to just a couple of years ago when he wrote and directed the superb The Nice Guys) but he also starred in Predator as one of Schwarzenegger’s ill fated men. It was a winning combination that suggested the next Predator film might well be a joy.

It isn’t.

It really, really isn’t.

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A film so bad even the predator has his head in his hands!!

Instead it’s a confused mess.  Tonally it’s all over the place, and it’s hard to tell just what kind of film Black was trying to make, on the one hand he’s talked about ET and Close Encounters from an awe inspiring perspective, and at times there’s an almost family friendly comic book sensibility of the kind you’d find in Ghostbusters or the Goonies, yet married to this is an R rated attitude to violence and profanity quite at odds with a family audience.

Black is clearly trying to emulate the testosterone fuelled banter of Predator, and Quinn’s band of PTSD sufferers do have their moments, but several are instantly forgettable (especially Alfie Allen who vanishes for long swathes of the film—maybe because he couldn’t keep his ludicrous Irish accent going) and even with those who aren’t there are issues. Thomas Jane’s Baxley has Tourette’s, which is played for laughs initially, and then which seems to vanish entirely as the film goes on! I can almost accept that once back in combat Baxley is too focused for the condition to affect his speech, but what’s more ridiculous is the fact that, as the film progresses, Jacob Tremblay’s Rory seems to get better from autism! It’s ridiculous, and a shame as, initially at least, the character is dealt with quite sensitively, but it soon becomes apparent that rather than choosing to make a point about inclusivity, Black just wanted a plot point. Autism as the next stage in human evolution!

As the lead Holbrook is a trifle bland, and whilst Munn does her best to rise above the material she’s hampered by having to go from serious scientist to an ass kicking gun wielder in about 24 hours, not to mention go through the wince-inducingly contrived scene where she has to get naked, for, you know, plot purposes. Keegan-Michael Key has a nice antagonistic buddy/buddy relationship with Jane, but really no one comes out of this film with too much credit.

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Black is famed for his wise cracking dialogue, and the film is genuinely funny at times, but it all gets a bit wearing when every character essentially sounds the same, to the point where even a small boy with autism becomes a foul mouthed wise cracker!

The script is all over the place and the plot makes little sense, there’s a ‘good’ predator who seems to kill as many people as the bad one, and the film’s clearly been attacked by a crazed editor with some scissors. Early on the misfits escape from military custody, and the next time we see them they’re driving a Winnebago and have amassed a small armoury of weapons, with no explanation! And late on one of the main characters is killed, not that you’d notice because it’s so badly handled.

An eleven foot super predator is stupid, but maybe not as ridiculous as the predator dogs that look like the dogs in ghostbusters and have, I kid you not, dreadlocks! Throw Predator subtitles and a Predator talking (rather than just aping human speech) and it’s just one bad decision after another.

It isn’t all bad, and at times it comes close to so-bad-it’s-good territory, just not often enough that it will ever become a cult classic. Too beholden to homaging(lampooning?) the original, and too confused about what kind of film it wants to be to have any hopes of success, this is a dire film. For 20th Century Fox it’s back to the predator drawing board, as for Black, please eschew the blockbusters and just give us The Nice Guys 2, Shane!

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I know how you feel, mate, I know how you feel…

Dogs of War

Posted: August 31, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
Tags:

dogs-of-war-16By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rex is a good dog.

He’s also a 7 foot tall canine/human hybrid killing machine. A bioform bred for war by a private security firm, he leads a multiform combat team that also includes Honey, a heavy weapons toting bear, Dragon, a serpentine infiltrator come sniper, and Bees, a distributed intelligence in the form of, well, a swarm of bees.

Loyal to his Master and his inbuilt hierarchies, Rex just wants to be a good dog and fight Master’s enemies, but when he and his comrades are deployed in Mexico to battle insurgents, the lines between friend and foe blur, and when his Master is charged as a war criminal, Rex’s whole existence is up for grabs. Are he and the other bioforms mere things, or are they sentient creatures worthy of rights?

*****

If you read my review of Children of Time you’ll see I absolutely loved it (still the best book I’ve read in years) but this left me with something of an odd conundrum, on the one hand it encouraged me to seek out more from Tchaikovsky, but it did make me worry that whatever I read next wouldn’t be as good as Children of Time.

Well if I’m being honest Dogs of War isn’t as good as Children of Time, the good news is that it’s still an enjoyable read.

On the surface it’s a very different kind of book, less expansive, and a much leaner read, and yet there are similarities. Again Tchaikovsky excels in writing sentient, non-human characters, and where Dogs of War works best is in the shape of its central character, Rex, who feels completely three dimensional, and Tchaikovsky never feels the need to fully anthropomorphise the character. Rex isn’t human, and Tchaikovsky never cheats the reader by pretending he is, yet still makes him a character we can empathise with.

And you have to applaud the sheer chutzpa of making your lead characters a sentient dogman, a surprisingly eloquent bear, a lazy reptile and an intelligent swarm of bees! Really, you’ve never read anything like it, and the sheer imagination of show here’s is amazing.

It isn’t perfect, after a strong start the middle portion of the book feels somewhat disjointed and meanders a little before the pace and the plot pick up again, and given there are so many big ideas at play here (sentience, distributed intelligence, cloning, private security firms doing governmental dirty work etc.) at times I wanted it to become more epic in scope, but then again we’d have lost the intimacy we have with Rex and the other characters if the author had gone down that route, so swings and roundabouts and all that!

All in all a though provoking and enjoyable read.

Rex is a good dog, and this is a good book!