Burning Chrome

By William Gibson, Bruce Sterling

Rating: 4 stars

Cyberpunk is a genre that can date very quickly. It says something about Gibson’s work, here in this collection, and elsewhere in the Sprawl series, that it still feels fresh and relevant, even though the technology itself has dated.

To pick some highlights, I think my favourite story in the collection is one of the low-key ones: The Gernsback Continuum. The protagonist in this story keeps having flashes of a world that never existed: the future projected by the golden age science fiction of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, full of shining towers, airships and perfect people. It’s a loving homage to those stories, while still portraying the grimy reality of the ’80s as well. Very well balanced and great fun to read if you, like me, are a fan of those old golden age stories.

The Belonging Kind is quite creepy, where a man follows a girl he likes in a bar, to see her change and fit in perfectly, everywhere she goes. A nice tension builder with an unexpected pay-off.

The Winter Market tells the story of a dream editor, who can edit together the dreams of gifted individuals for distribution to the masses, and his obsession with the crippled woman who makes his career.

There are few, if any, actual misses in the collection, and it’s nice to see Molly Millions, of Neuromancer fame, make a return in Johnny Mnemonic.

This is the way the future was. Bruce Sterling, in the introduction, says that Gibson reinvigorated a genre in need of it, in the ’80s. This collection still feels angry and edgy whilst still shouting in sheer joy of living, and for that alone is worth your time.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006480433
Publisher: Voyager/Harpercollins
Year of publication: 1986

Completely Unexpected Tales

By Roald Dahl

Rating: 5 stars

This volume collects two books of Dahl’s short stories for adults, and they are pretty much all corkers. I wasn’t hugely familiar with his writing for adults, so came into this quite fresh, and I really enjoyed it. Each story is really well crafted and almost all of them have a really neat (often rather nasty) twist that turns the knife in a really pleasurable way for the reader (if often not for the protagonist).

I would say that the first book, Tales of the Unexpected is somewhat better than the second (More Tales of the Unexpected), with more stories and more interesting twists but there are very few misses throughout this whole collection.

It’s difficult to pick out highlights in the collection, but the first and last stories stand out for me. Taste is about an overconfident father who’s willing to bet his daughter’s hand in marriage over something he shouldn’t. The Butler brings us very neatly back to a similar theme regarding palate. Other highlights include William and Mary, which is one of the very few stories in the collection that contains a fantastic element; the incredibly creepy Royal Jelly about a man trying to do the best for his newborn child; and The Landlady, whose titular lady is just too good to be true.

A marvellous collection, if you only know Dahl from his (also marvellous) children’s fiction, these stories will make you look at him in a whole new light.

Book details

Publisher: Penguin Books
Year of publication: 1979

The Kraken Wakes

By John Wyndham

Rating: 4 stars

It starts with meteors falling from space into the ocean. Soon ships that try to explore the regions where they fell are sinking, and not long afterwards, no ships that ply the deep oceans are safe. But that’s not all, sea-tanks start raiding coasts, and then the sea level itself starts to rise, slowly but inexorably.

This book is a slow burn, but goodness is it tense. It’s like boiling a frog, it comes on so slowly that you don’t realise just how tense you’ve got.

In some ways, the book is very much of its time, but in others, it’s uncomfortably prescient and very much relevant to the modern world. One thing I liked was the foresight of commercial television, which didn’t make an appearance until several years after the book was published. And, of course, the image of politicians who stick their heads in the sand while the water levels rise is one that climate change has made us very aware of today.

In other ways, the book is very much of its time. The society, the deference to the established order and the ways of thinking feel very different to our own, but that by no means diminishes it as a very powerful story. Wyndham is often accused (or acclaimed, delete as appropriate) of being the master of the cosy catastrophe. I don’t think there’s very much cosy about eighty percent or more of the British population being wiped out. He also doesn’t stint on some of the nastiness that might happen when refugees from the lower areas try to flee to higher ground.

But for all that, Wyndham leaves us with hope. That’s something that some books seem to forget, but most of Wyndham’s novels offer some olive branch of hope that things will improve. There may be some way of fighting back, or the menace has been contained (even if only ‘for now’). This is what makes his novels so much more bearable than most dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels that I’ve read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141032993
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Year of publication: 1953

The Long Earth (The Long Earth, #1)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

Blueprints for a very simple machine (some wires, transistors and a potato) are published on the Internet. Kids all around the world try them out, and discover they’ve built a machine for stepping between alternate Earths. Fast forward a decade or so and the opportunities of the Long Earth are only just being explored. Joshua Valient√© is a ‘natural’ stepper, someone know can step between the worlds without the need for a device. He has been asked to go on an expedition with Lobsang, either the world’s first AI or a Tibetan mechanic who has been reincarnated as software. Together, they travel further than anybody else, more than two million steps from the ‘Datum’ in search of the boundaries of the Long Earth.

I enjoyed this story. I wasn’t sure early on what the tone of the story was, but it soon settled down — probably more Baxter than Pratchett. The core of the story is that of Joshua and Lobsang, but we also see some attempts at figuring out just what the stepping ability would do to the worldwide economy and population, and what happens to those who can’t step. The limitations of the ability are interestingly chosen to make it a bit harder to just ship stuff backwards and forwards (no iron can be stepped, can only take what you’re carrying etc) and there’s the basis of a fascinating economic shift going on. Not to mention the resentment that builds up of the rich, the well-off and of those who are unable to step.

I get the feel that Baxter probably did most of the grunt work on this, but some of the more flamboyant touches are pure Pratchett (Lobsang not least). A fascinating world, with likeable protagonists, I’ll look out for the sequels.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552164085
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2012

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