Collected Ghost Stories

By M.R. James

Rating: 4 stars

This is a complete collection of James’ ghost stories and although it’s not a big book, it took me quite a long time to finish it, since I was reading it slowly, just one or two stories at a time as I was finding some of them actually quite creepy. Most of them now just feel like period pieces with a twist at the end, but some, particularly the early ones, still have a distinct power to them.

These do feel distinctly old-fashioned, you can imagine sitting around James’ fire in his rooms at Cambridge in the early decades of the last century listening to these stories, with the goosebumps rising on your arm. Enjoyable but has to be sampled slowly.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853268397
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Year of publication: 1931

Again, Dangerous Visions

By Harlan Ellison

Rating: 3 stars

This volume follows Dangerous Visions, Ellison’s earlier anthology, with the same mission statement: to allow writers to spread their wings and write something too dangerous to be published in the mainstream SF publications of the day. This volume was even bigger than the first one, containing 46 stories, each preceded by a foreword by the editor and followed by an afterword by the author, meaning you certainly get value for money.

There were fewer big names in this volume, suggesting that some of the “dangerous” authors that Ellison selected didn’t stick around. I also felt that this book was rather hard work. It started very well with Ursula Le Guin’s stunning novella The Word for World is Forest and ended strongly with Tiptree’s The Milk of Paradise but a lot of the stuff in the middle was, I think, trying too hard to be “dangerous” and edgy, often making them difficult to read, impenetrable or just leaving you scratching your head when you finished it. An interesting volume with some good stories, but I didn’t get as much out of it as I would have liked for the amount of effort that I invested in it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780385079532
Publisher: Doubleday
Year of publication: 1972

Prelude to Space

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

Written in the early 1950s, this book tells the story of Mankind’s first spaceship, the Prometheus, a nuclear-powered vessel that will take its crew of three to the Moon. In this (now) alternative history, Britain is still a major player in the space industry while there is no ‘space race’ between the superpowers, but all nations worth together in an organisation called ‘Interplanetary’ for their common goal. Our perspective into this world is Dirk Alexson, an historian sent from the University of Chicago to write the first draft of history for this pivotal moment in Human affairs.

Looking back it seems impossibly naive, but as Clarke points out in his post-Apollo preface, until America was frightened out of complacency by the “beep, beep beep” signal from Sputnik 1, it didn’t have any real ambitions for space and Britain’s Interplanetary Society was at the forefront of space exploration.

Clarke gets a lot wrong but somehow I’d still like to live in his world, where a reusable nuclear-powered craft is launched on a high-speed acceleration track in the Australian desert to the chimes of Big Ben and the superpowers work with the other nations of the world towards a new frontier purely for the joys of exploration and science rather than national interest.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345341020
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 1950


By Lauren Beukes

Rating: 1 star

This is a near-future cyberpunk-based dystopia set in South Africa where four people from disparate spheres of life are drawn together in a web of mystery and intrigue.

This was a free book that was in the con pack at Eastercon, and it’s not one that I would have picked for myself. It’s brutal, packs a punch and realistically disturbing. It postulates a society where having your phone locked as punishment means more than just not being able to make calls. The society is rigged so that public transport, money, access to your own home are done through your phone, and if the corporates and the government control that, they control your life. Our smartphones aren’t there yet, but connect the phones to something like London’s Oyster Card system, and you’re getting pretty close.

What I felt was going a little OTT was the ‘diffusers’ – tasers built into the phones by law that can be activated remotely by the police with hardly any checks and balances, and the releasing of a deadly virus as crowd control – only the authorities have the antidote so if you don’t want to die, you have to hand yourself in.

I didn’t find any of the characters particularly sympathetic, from the obnoxious journalist/blogger off his head on drugs to the rigidly idealistic anti-capitalist, which meant there was no real entry point that made me care about the story, apart from it being a sick world that I really wouldn’t want to live in.

Useful as a cautionary tale about the possible downsides to the heady mix of technology and corporate interests that makes up so much of modern life, but certainly not something I’ll read again.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007323890
Publisher: Angry Robot
Year of publication: 2008


By Robert Sheckley

Rating: 2 stars

When one picks up a Sheckley novel, one expects it to be weird. This book, however, went so far beyond weird that it was almost sensible. I don’t have the literary criticism language to describe it but it appeared to be a musing on hallucination and the effect of psychoactive drugs and as such was immensely disjointed. It started off with an astronaut’s ship being disabled and making it to an alien planet where a cache of spare parts has been located. He goes out to acquire the part with a survival robot and, um, then the drugs kick in.

Although there are indications of drugs and hallucination early on, the middle section of the book is entirely disjointed with random vignettes having no bearing on what comes before or after them. There is a coherent section towards the end although that eventually peters out.

All in all, I found the book disappointingly incoherent and difficult to read. Although the oddness and disjointed structure are something that I normally enjoy about Sheckley’s books, I found it completely overwhelming here and it removed any enjoyment I got from the book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586067116
Publisher: Grafton Books (London)
Year of publication: 1975

Hospital Station (Sector General, #1)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

This is the first in White’s Sector General series about a giant multi-species hospital in space following Dr Conway from his first entry into the hospital as an intern to his rise to become a Senior Physician. While some of the medical ideas may be outdated and somewhat quaint to our eyes, the idea of a medical mystery story (or rather, stories, since this is a collection of linked stories set in the SG universe) appeals to me and works quite well.

The first story in the book is somewhat of a prequel, showing the past of the hospital’s chief psychologist, Major O’Mara and his role in its construction, while the last is probably the weakest, with Conway acting in ways that seem awfully bizarre and irrational from the outside — even once you understand what he’s doing, it still doesn’t make sense.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable space opera set in a distinctly unusual environment (which was, I understand, the intention: to be an antidote to the warmongering SF that was prevalent at the time and in that it has succeeded.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345320681
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 1962

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