Monthly: May 2013

Jan 16, 2017 by

Book review: The Cassiopeia Affair

The Cassiopeia Affair
Chloe Zerwick , Harrison Brown
science fiction

It was an early morning in the late 1900s. The shiny dome of stars which had enlivened the spring sky was fading into Wednesday's dawn. With the stars faded all hope of confirming the contact. Cassiopeia 3579 sank below the horizon.

This is an intelligent and thought-provoking piece of political sci-fi. The discovery of a transmission from another planet at a time of great political strife (America, China and Russia are on the brink of making the Cold War very hot indeed) could potentially bring world peace or world war. Though the consequences affect the whole world, the fate of the world comes down to the petty interactions of individuals – two Hungarian scientists with an old rivalry, an adulterous drunkard encountering an old flame, a young man struggling to deal with his attraction to the boss’s wife.

Considering current political tensions, this book is especially timely, and it’s a shame it’s so hard to fine a copy. The extent to which outside influence can make or break a delicate situation is a powerful message.

The book is very well written but slow moving, taking me several chapters to really get engaged with the characters. The ending is difficult to predict, but the epilogue gives a strong sense of satisfaction and it really is worth plowing through to the end.

Jan 2, 2017 by

Book Review: October the First is Too Late

October the First is too Late Book Cover October the First is too Late
Fred Hoyle

Renowned scientist John Sinclair and his old school friend Richard, a celebrated composer, are enjoying a climbing expedition in the Scottish Highlands when Sinclair disappears without a trace for thirteen hours. When he resurfaces with no explanation for his disappearance, he has undergone an uncanny alteration: a birthmark on his back has vanished. But stranger events are yet to come: things are normal enough in Britain, but in France it's 1917 and World War I is raging, Greece is in the Golden Age of Pericles, America seems to have reverted to the 18th century, and Russia and China are thousands of years in the future.

Against this macabre backdrop of coexisting time spheres, the two young men risk their lives to unravel the truth. But truth is in the mind of the beholder, and who is to say which of these timelines is the 'real' one? In October the First Is Too Late (1966), world-famous astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) explores fascinating concepts of time and consciousness in the form of a thrilling science fiction adventure that ranks among his very best.

A really interesting concept, but I found the writing wasn’t quite up to scratch. Though I enjoyed the book, it’ll never make the reread pile – in fact, it’s likely to make the charity shop pile. A real shame, because it was so promising.

The problems with the narration are evident from the first chapter, which is overburdened with with “telling” rather than “showing”. Characters are introduced never to be seen again, and the action rockets across Europe though the plot doesn’t kick in until we’re halfway through Scotland.

It picks up a bit after the first carrot of plot is dangled (if we’re being brutally honest, the real thrust of the plot isn’t until over a third into the book). Again, though, more characters that subsequently disappear. The plot demands it, but fails to follow up on the psychological ramifications. Apart from the narrator, there’s only one other consistent character, and he’s absent from a good third of the novel.

The telling returns in the final chapters, rushing us through argument that, if we take more time to look at, are rather flawed. No further discussion is allowed, the ramifications are barely touched, and the narrator rounds up the novel so sparsely you suspect even if he had made the opposite decision it would have had no further affect on him. It doesn’t feel like a decision at all.

Maybe if I knew more about classical music some of this book would have made more sense. The long digressions would have bored me less, no doubt. However, it wouldn’t have fixed the pacing or characterisation. I’ll forgive a lot in older SciFi, which is usually trying to make a broader point, but even that is lost in musical allegory. I wanted to like this so much – it has a great concept and a frankling amazing title – which is why I find myself being more lenient in my rating than I am in my review, but of the SFBC books I’ve acquired recently this is easily the poorest.

Dec 21, 2016 by

Book Review: Shield

Shield Book Cover Shield
Poul Anderson
Berkley Publishing Group

Koskinen had returned to earth with a strange new "Shield" - a device which enclosed the wearer in a force shield which absorbed all energies below a certain level. Light could come through the Shield, but no weapon known to man could penetrate it.

Koskinen had developed the Shield in collaboration with the Martians. From the moment of his return to earth he was in deadly danger. His own country sent men to kill him to prevent the Shield from falling into enemy hands.

Soon the whole civilised world was searching for this one man - a man armed with the greatest potential military weapon mankind had ever seen the only question was which power would possess the Shield as its very own?

I was really impressed with this book. It has everything in perfect measure – action, politics, romance, science – and the characterisation is superb. An intelligent, strong-willed, motivated woman who isn’t an emotional deadzone? Written in the 60s? (it’s more likely than you think!). Characters had their own motivations and goals that intersected, and I would love to read about some of the others that crossed paths with the protagonists – the Polish insurrectionist, the crime boss, the martians. It’s a really rich world.

This is exactly what good sci fi should be. Likeable characters, complex worldbuilding, tight pacing and rational plotting. I would love to see this adapted for film or tv, or even radio. Anything to bring it to a wider audience.

Dec 7, 2016 by

Book review: The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman

The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman Book Cover The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman
Herbert George Wells
Chatto & Windus

Lady Harman's concern for the women employees striking against her husband's tea-shops finally convinces her to leave him

Like a lot of H G Well’s sociological novels, I found this very easy to read when I was holding it, and very easy to ignore when I wasn’t. It’s probably the slowest paced novel of his I’ve read thus far, but the pay off is worth it.

The basic plot is straight forward. A woman is persuaded to marry young to a wealthy man. As she grows older she realises how little freedom she has, even to have opinions, let alone express them. She tries to find a way to gain that freedom.

Lady Harman is a pretty passive character, which is what makes her an interesting example of Edwardian feminism. I found her frustrating at times, but I appreciated that in her own quiet way she sticks to her guns and found a way through her marriage to the other side. Mr Brumley is an interesting foil, never quite understanding her motivations; he’s almost as sexist as her husband in his persistent belief that her complaints are solely due to her treatment at the hands of her husband rather than the treatment at the hands of a chauvinist society. The narrator appears well aware of this, and mocks him gently on occasion for it.

It’s hard to tell where exactly H G Wells stood on the issue. From the novels I’ve read so far he seems in favour of giving women the vote, but most of his female characters are very passive, existing predominantly in the background and with little impact on plot. His use of an omniscient narrator (hinted here to be a member of Lady Harman’s group of friends) means he distances himself from the opinions espoused in the novel quite neatly.

Overall, it’s definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in depictions of early feminism in contemporary novels. However, it is very slow, with predominantly passive characters, and is best saved for a long afternoon with no distractions, or it will get put down and not picked up again.

Nov 28, 2016 by

Book review: The Normans

The Normans Book Cover The Normans
Lars Brownworth
July 2, 2014

Traces the history of the Normans, who carved out kingdoms from the North Sea to the North African coast. Brings to life figures like Rollo the Walker, William Iron-Arm, Tancred the Monkey King, and Robert Guiscard, who with their kinsmen transformed the face of medieval Europe.

I received this book in return for an honest review via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

I’ve always enjoyed a good bit of historical non-fiction, but the early medieval period has mostly passed me by before. I never previously really thought about the Normans outside of William the Conqueror. This book did a very good job of filling that gap. By keeping it’s narratives tightly focused on a small handful of Norman dynasties, it deftly manages to demonstrate the impact of the Normans on the wider world.

My only quibble, at any point in the book, was the way the Vikings were reduced to simple barbarians, consistently described in animalistic language. What makes this more jarring is that the author has written a similar book about the Vikings (which I’m tempted to pick up). This oversimplification doesn’t appear to extend to the other cultures referenced in the book, though, and it really is only a minor quibble.

In terms of practical considerations, I’d suggest picking up a paper copy of this book. The maps were too small to read on an ereader (though may be easier to see on a computer or tablet screen) and it was frustrating having all the family trees at the beginning, rather than by the relevant chapters.

If you’re looking to get a better sense of early medieval Europe, or to put certain historical figures into a wider context, then I thoroughly recommend The Normans. I don’t know if it would be of much use to someone already immersed in the period, but coming to it from the outside it was very informative.