The Difference Engine

By William Gibson

Rating: 3 stars

Authored by two of the greats of the genre, this steampunk novel has a lot to live up to, something that I fear that it doesn’t necessarily achieve. It tells the story of three people whose lives intertwine at different points, alongside a mysterious box of cards, that some people are willing to kill for.

The history in this book deviates from our own in the 1830s, when Charles Babbage perfects his difference engine and then his analytical engine, ushering in the age of computing a hundred years early.

The world-building is flawless. Never infodumping, but it drip-feeds you enough information about this world, with Lord Byron as Prime Minister, and its Time of Troubles, after which a meritocracy rose in Britain, sweeping aside the old order, but I’m not convinced by the story itself. The box of cards (a program for one of the Engines of the title), is pretty much a macguffin, and the explanation of what it is, right at the end of the book, is a bit of a let-down, to be honest.

Of the three protagonists, Sybil Gerard is possibly the most interesting, although the least developed. Daughter of a noted Luddite, she starts the book as a fallen woman, finding herself being drawn into these affairs through one her politician gentlemen. Her story is then dropped and only picked up again sort of sideways, through the eyes of Laurence Oliphant, diplomat, spy and another of our protagonists.

Our third protagonist, Edward Mallory, gets the lion’s share of the narrative, coping through the Great Stink and trying to find the shadowy group who are trying to steal the box of cards that he has in his possession. This is possibly the least satisfying aspect of the story. The group chasing Mallory is never clearly defined, nor are their goals, and the final showdown with them, feels underwhelming.

So a fun romp through a well-realised steampunk world, which effortlessly mixes historical characters with invented ones, but one in which the story doesn’t entirely come together for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553294613
Publisher: Spectra Books
Year of publication: 1990

The Transformation Of Ireland 1900 – 2000

By Diarmaid Ferriter

Rating: 2 stars

I found this book very difficult to read. I don’t know if it was the structure or the language or something else entirely, but it’s taken me about 18 months to get through it. Also, and this isn’t the fault of the book, I don’t think it was what I was looking for. I don’t know very much about the history of Ireland, and this book, while trying to be an overview of the turbulent 20th century, seems to assume a lot of knowledge that I didn’t have.

Things that I would consider to be fairly major events: the Easter rising, the war of independence and civil war, the transition from Free State to Republic, the Troubles, didn’t get really get much space. In a book as ambitious as this, trying to cover social and cultural history, as well as political, I guess it’s inevitable that you can’t go into huge levels of detail, but I was hoping for a decent overview of modern Irish history before delving into more depth on individual topics, and I don’t really feel that I got that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781861974433
Publisher: Profile Books
Year of publication: 2004

The Flight of the Horse

By Larry Niven

Rating: 3 stars

This collection of short stories mostly describes the exploits of Hanville Svetz and his attempts to retrieve extinct animals to please the childlike ruler of this future world. Except nobody really knows what these animals look like, so nobody questions it when the Horse has a horn and likes young women; or when the Snake has wings and breathes fire.

These stories are mostly quite amusing as Svetz blunders about in time trying to retrieve whatever has taken the whimsy of the Secretary-General of the UN (hereditary absolute ruler of the world) this week, not quite realising that he has also gone somewhat sideways into fantasy lands. The future world is somewhat grim: a polluted planet swept clean of almost all non-human animals, but Svetz’s adventures into the past (and sometimes weirder places than that) help balance that. These stories form a prequel to Niven’s book Rainbow Mars, which is set in the same world.

There are two other stories in the book. Flash Crowd seems to be set in the early days of Niven’s Known Space universe in which teleporters have become the everyday means of transport but a young reporter discovers a darker side to them, when he witnesses an ugly incident in a mall, precipitating a riot in which people from all over the world can join in. What Good is a Glass Dagger? is one of Niven’s few attempts at epic fantasy, set in a past where Atlantis still sits above the waves and magicians duel. A magician known only as The Warlock has created a device that can entirely suck magic from an area and this story explores the consequences of that.

If I’m honest, I enjoyed the last two stories more than Svetz’s time travel exploits, but this is still a fun collection of shorts and worth a read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780860078494
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1973

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, Vol. 1 (Mouse Guard)

By David Petersen

Rating: 4 stars

I came to Mouse Guard through the role-playing game, and this is my first exposure to the universe, other than the short game that we played (although the stories in this book are non-canonical). It’s a lovely volume with stories and artwork provided by different artists, all within a framing story of a tale-telling competition in a tavern somewhere in the western end of the mouse territories.

The stories are all quite different, although many of them stick to a mythic quality. We have light-hearted, comic stories; myths of the origins of the Mouse Guard itself; even a retelling of Poe’s The Raven, with a mouse protagonist. All enjoyable and short enough to not outstay their welcome.

What I did find slight odd was the epilogue. I’m not sure, but it seemed to be a drunken dream of one of the clients in the tavern of the framing story. I didn’t find that it made much sense and it seemed like an odd way to close off the book.

For people who are unfamiliar with Mouse Guard this is a nice little introduction, and for those who are, I imagine it’s a lovely set of stories within the universe.

Book details

ISBN: 9781932386943
Publisher: Archaia
Year of publication: 2010


By Samit Basu

Rating: 3 stars

The cover quote on my edition of Turbulence, from the excellent Ben Aaronovitch claims that “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll gasp and you’ll demand a sequel”. Well, as entertaining as the book was, for most of its length, I won’t be demanding a sequel, despite an ending that very clearly opened the path for one.

Aman Sen, and everybody else on a flight from London to Delhi, finds themselves with a superpower. Whatever they dreamt of during the flight. Aman wants to use his powers to change the world for the better. Air Force officer Jai Mathur wants to take over the world, and with his powers of super-strength and invulnerability, he may well be able to pull it off. Caught between them is Vir Singh, another Air Force officer, who dreams of being able to fly without his jet and Uzma, an aspiring Bollywood actress who people really want to like.

Vir is basically Superman, complete with boy scout attitude but Aman is our protagonist. He’s the geek who becomes a communications demigod, having the Internet running in his head, who knows about comics and their tropes and who wants to form a superhero team and save the world from itself. When his first attempts to change things, moving money around to charities and outing corrupt companies online, goes the way that you’d expect, he struggles to cope. Aman is a sympathetic character who you want to succeed, although anyone with any knowledge of superheroes, not to mention basic economics, will know that he’s going to fail miserably.

I had a couple of problems with this book. Firstly was the casual nature of some of the violence. While Aman is devastated by the deaths that resulted (indirectly) from his actions, and it influences his actions from there onwards, other characters are less restrained. The body count rises inexorably, while the deaths rarely pack any emotional punch. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve been told that the Superman film, Man of Steel has a similar problem, where the violence and city-destruction gets so outrageous that it loses all impact.

The other problem that I had with the book was that it didn’t really feel like it had a unique voice. The author is Indian and the book is mostly set in India (although the climax moves to London). For all that India is such a vibrant, unique place, Basu doesn’t really capture that, either in the voices of his characters, or of the locations. The characters could just be any old comic characters in any city in the world. India isn’t invoked here, and I think the book possibly suffers because of it. Perhaps Basu could learn from the author quoted on the cover, Ben Aaronovitch, who invokes London so well in his ‘Peter Grant’ novels.

It’s not a bad book. The big action scene about half way through as Aman and Uzma cower through a super-powered fight in Mumbai between their captors and a group of powered crime bosses is pretty cool but the book feels like a missed opportunity to me. What could have been a unique take on the superhero genre ends up, despite the post-modern self-referencing of the genre, feeling very generic.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781161197
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2010

Complete Ghost Stories

By Charles Dickens

Rating: 3 stars

Containing all of Dickens’ ghost stories, the stories in this volume are mostly fairly short, although there are two longer stories: the famous A Christmas Carol and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. While the former of those two novellas is a joy to read, I found the latter curiously difficult. I’m not sure why, but it was a struggle to get through. I found it dense, the characters uninteresting and the language leaden.

As for the other stories, they were a bit of a mixed bag. There were some lovely ones in there, including The Signalman, A Child’s Dream of a Star and the humorous The Lawyer and the Ghost.

The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton feels a little like a trial run for A Christmas Carol, with a humbug-laden sexton being taught to be charitable by supernatural creatures. Some of the stories have lost their power over the years, some are just plain weird and I really didn’t get The Haunted House which spent a huge amount of time on set-up, and then concluded in a few paragraphs, having completely ignored the carefully constructed situation of the house and the friends who had gathered within it.

This volume is worth it for A Christmas Carol and A Child’s Dream of a Star alone, but I fear that Dickens was no M.R. James.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853267345
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Year of publication: 1989

The Lathe of Heaven

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

George Orr’s dreams can change reality. This frightens him so much that he takes drugs to suppress his dreaming, and eventually ends up in therapy with Dr Haber, who sees him as a tool to make the world better. During one dream, George wakes up and now there has been a plague ten years ago that wipes out five sixths of the world’s population in order to ease overcrowding. Despite Haber’s best efforts, the other dreams aren’t much better, and George is less and less sure of who he is and the reality of the world around him.

For a fairly slim volume, this book has remarkable depth, or perhaps not so remarkable, considering the author. Le Guin picks up themes about identity, reality and responsibility that recur in her work and weaves them, her language always deft and often striking, into a gripping narrative of love, loss and redemption. A very thought-provoking piece of work from a wonderful author.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586038413
Publisher: Grafton Books
Year of publication: 1971

Powered by WordPress