The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

By Roman Mars, Kurt Kohlstedt

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve been listening to the 99 Percent Invisible podcast for quite some time now and it’s one of my favourites. I was excited when I heard about the book and made sure I pre-ordered it. There’s a lot to enjoy in the book, but much of it is adapted from stories that the podcast has run over the years (at over 400 episodes at the time of writing, that’s a lot to choose from), but as someone who has listened to all of them, it’s a little disappointing that there wasn’t more original work in the book. The stories themselves are well-chosen for the most part, although some could do with a bit more depth than the page or two that they get. They’re grouped first into chapters with very wide scope and then into sub-chapters that collects related topics, whether that is signage, synanthropes (animals that have adapted to live alongside humans in cities), or safety.

The one big thing that’s missing from the book are photographs of what it describes. There are some neat line illustrations by Patrick Vale that give you an idea, but sometimes they’re not clear enough to properly illustrate the subject under discussion. I can see that using the illustrations gives the book a unifying feel, and that getting appropriate photographs might have been more difficult, but it is something that I think would have really helped a book that is, fundamentally, about architecture and design.

The stories are all very much 99PI though so are all interesting to read, even if I recognised them from before. And I couldn’t help but read the whole thing in Roman Mars’ delicious voice.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529355277
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Champion of Mars

By Guy Haley

Rating: 4 stars

It took a while to get into this story, but once I figured out the flow, it was much smoother. It’s a tale told from both ends of history: in the early 22nd century, Dr John Holland is a scientist studying the remains of Mars’ native life, before the terraforming effort wipes it out; while in the far, far future, Mars is dying a second time and the disgraced champion Yoechakenon and his spirit lover Kaibeli are tasked with finding the long-lost Great Librarian of Mars to save it. We also have chapters that cover the future history between these two time periods, as we jump further and further into the future, and see how the two are linked.

I really liked the tone of the piece. I liked that the voice of the near future was so different to the far future. The near-future stuff was no-nonsense hard SF, while the far-future felt much more mythic and grand in scope, reminding me of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom.

The novel is also concerned with AI and how it will co-evolve with us over the millennia in a symbiotic relationship. Add to that a form of human immortality, as a person’s memories are recorded at death, and later returned (to some degree) to other, newborn bodies at some time in the future, and we have the makings of a love story that spans the ages, as an AI spirit follows the one she chose across time and space.

I’ll confess that I wasn’t sure it was all going to come together, but it did so in the last few chapters, as it tied the whole story together and links Holland’s time to that of Yoechakenon. So a lot of good ideas and some writing that’s very enjoyable to read. It can be a little clunky at times, but I found it worth persevering.

Book details

ISBN: 9781907992841
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2012

Ancestral Night

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

This is a thoughtful space opera, that combines action, character and philosophical musings on the balance of the rights of the individual versus the collective. Haimey Dz and her salvage partners find something amazing on the edge of known space, and they have to try and get it back to the Core before pirates catch up with them.

I enjoyed the world building that went on here, especially in regard to the interstellar, inter-species society known as the Synarche. The balance between individualism and society is very much a core concept here, with members of the Synarche, including humans, undertaking “rightminding” to alter their minds such that they will want to be better citizens, all working for the common good. Of course, this isn’t without problems, both with the “clades” that take it too far, becoming introspective cults where they are all programmed to agree with each other (Haimey is a survivor of one of these clades) and those who reject the concept entirely and live on the edges of society, parasitical upon it, and proud of their sociopathy.

Haimey is an interesting protagonist: her past in the clade has damaged her, despite the psychic reconstruction that she underwent after she escaped. One example is that she’s afraid of relationships, so has had her sexuality turned off entirely so that she can avoid them. She mostly avoids thinking about her past, but as the book goes on, is forced to confront it. We don’t get as much insight to her salvage partner Connla, just some tantalising hints about his own troubled past, growing up on a world that fetishises hyper-masculinity, and suppresses their feelings. The AI, Singer, is probably the most balanced of the crew, but even he decided that he wanted to spend his time barely making a living, on the edge of known space. It’s also convenient that he’s a politics geek, making an easy way to fill in the world-building of the society.

I got lost a couple of times as big idea piled on top of big idea – symbiont that lets the host sense and modify gravity; sentient space whales; incredibly ancient spaceship from lost super-civilisation; structure imposed on reality; big dumb smart object outwith the galaxy. Despite this, there’s a lot to enjoy, and hopefully some more of this will be explained in future White Space novels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473208759

Sentenced to Prism (Humanx Commonwealth, #12)

By Alan Dean Foster

Rating: 4 stars

Evan Orgell is a fixer for his company: he gets sent in to Deal With Things when they go wrong. And now they’ve got a planet that they’re trying to illegally open up for exploitation that’s gone out of contact, so they send Orgell in, equipped with the latest in survival suit technology. What he finds is beyond his imagination and that of the designers of his oh so marvellous suit.

I first read this as a teenager, finding it in the local library, when I was hoovering up whatever sci-fi they had. I loved it for the imagination and cool aliens. Rereading it, I find it a bit clunky, and I’m less taken with the protagonist, but the alien world of Prism is still a magnificent creation. Full of silicon-based life forms, some of the descriptions fall into full-blown horror, as almost everything he meets wants his tasty, tasty rare earth minerals. Orgell is described as an arrogant generalist, very intelligent and able to integrate lots of new knowledge. This is undermined by his actions in the book, where he does display the described arrogance, but less of the intelligence.

The central theme of the book is our over-reliance on technology. That is Orgell’s early undoing, that he assumes that his suit will be able to overcome anything that the alien world can throw at it. He obviously learns this isn’t true, but he unlearns this reliance on technology surprisingly quickly. There’s also discussion about exploitation of natural resources and new lands – bringing to mind how colonisation fared in our world, from the arrival of Europeans in the New World, to the 19th century European empires that decimated cultures around the world.

There’s a lot packed into a book of under 300 pages and while the writing can be a bit clunky, and the protagonist irritating, the plot is sound, the worldbuilding is great and the ecosystem of Prism very neatly thought out.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345319807
Year of publication: 1985

Rivers of London Volume 8: The Fey and the Furious

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

Alongside the excellent pun in the title, this is probably one of the better recent Peter Grant graphic novels, as the Folly is called to investigate a drowned boy racer with a boot full of very unusual cargo. Once again, Peter finds himself entangled with the fey, reliant only on his wits to help him through.

Moreso than even usual, this graphic novel was Grant-heavy, with minimal appearances from Nightingale and Guleed (and none whatsoever from Molly, boo). There was an incident with Guleed that I think would have been interesting to expand upon, although with space restrictions, they made do with what they could, and the visual medium does help here, with facial expressions and body language.

The artist has changed again for this story. They’re good, and handle the fast action of the car racing well, but I still miss Lee Sullivan.

The story is very plot-heavy, with little character development, and possibly the most interesting snippet in that area comes right at the end, with some internal captions from Beverley musing on her relationship with Peter which is both sweet and kind of ominous.

Like the last volume, there’s some articles at the end discussing the historical background to some of the story elements, including street racing and fairy myth. These are interesting, but I’d have preferred it if the text were in straight columns rather than at an angle. It might look cool, but it does make it a bit harder to read.

All in all, a fun, standalone story. Not essential, but a good read for fans of Peter Grant and his world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785865862


By Cordwainer Smith

Rating: 4 stars

This is Smith’s only SF novel, and I mourn the lost stories that he could have told. It’s not the only story in this future history though, with many short stories being collected in a volume called The Rediscovery of Man, and even more being collected in a different volume, confusingly with the same name, that collects all his short fiction.

The Rediscovery of Man tells the future history of a universe ruled by the benign dictatorship of the Instrumentality of Mankind. Over time, humanity stagnates in its utopia, and so a grand project, the Rediscovery of Man, is created in order to bring violence, danger and excitement back into people’s lives.

This book tells one story set during this period. The planet of Old North Australia (Norstrilia) is the only place in the universe that the immortality drug, stroon, can be found. It’s a hard place, where the people live simple lives, and luxury imports are taxed at millions of percent to keep them that way. Where each child reaching adulthood has to pass a rite, and if they fail, they are sentenced to death. This is the story of how one Nostrilian boy, Rod McBan, (just reaching manhood) becomes the wealthiest man in the universe, buys the Earth, and gets away with it. In the process, many people try to kill or abduct him, and he gets involved, mostly without his knowledge, in the schemes of the Instrumentality itself.

Rereading this after many years, I’d forgotten how much I love Smith’s lyrical language (his writing reminds me of Bradbury, but while Bradbury’s work is usually small-scale and down to earth, Smith lets his soar). It has its issues, mostly of their time; although there two relatively major female characters – the girl Lavinia, who loves Rod, and C’mell, the most beautiful girlygirl on Earth, who helps him – neither of them get much in the way of characterisation. But on the other hand, there’s a character who, by the end of the book, could be considered to be trans, and that is accepted, without judgement.

The plight of the underpeople, animals uplifted to sentience and human form, is fascinating, as an obvious analogue to slavery, and their slow, patient, movement towards equality with “real” people. They are complex, and more of their movement is described in the short stories (including the martyrdom of D’joan).

I don’t think Rod has much in the way of agency in the book, he’s mostly thrown from one situation to the next, barely having time to draw breath. Sometimes I find this frustrating, but it bothers me less here, and I’m not entirely sure why. Possibly because Rod has so many new experiences throughout his adventures. He’s wide-eyed and appreciates each experience, and that makes it harder to be hard on him for his lack of agency.

A beautifully lyrical book, set in a rich future history and an exciting story that moves at quite a pace. Just a warning though, it does end on a slightly jarringly bleak note.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575070189
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1975

The Dark Archive (The Invisible Library #7)

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 5 stars

Irene is juggling the peace treaty between the dragons and the fae, helping her pal Vale out on a case, dealing with a new apprentice, and trying to keep up the day job of stealing books for her interdimensional Library. She’s quite put out, then, when there’s a number of assassination attempts on her and her friends, pointing to a mysterious new criminal mastermind. Irene needs to find them and stop them, before it’s too late.

This is very much a book of two halves. Whilst you can’t complain that the first half of the book is slow, the pace definitely picks up in the second half. We get to meet Irene’s new apprentice, Catherine, and start to get a feel for her as a character. She’s fae, so is inevitably drawn into stories and archetypes. She wants to be a librarian archetype (subtype TBC, but not spy) and so is quite upset that her work involves more running and hiding than cataloguing and recommending). It’s early days, but I’m warming to Catherine quite a lot already.

The rest of the supporting cast is present and correct, with Vale a major presence in this one, which I always like to see. I wonder where Vale’s story is going – since he’s got fae heritage and the “Moriarty” character plays into his Great Detective archetype. I fear as much as Irene that he might get sucked into his own story. We also get to meet more of Kai’s family, no spoiler to say that we end up liking them about as much as Kai does.

The second half of the book really shifts up a gear as revelation is piled upon revelation, old enemies crawl out of the woodwork, and Irene has to work harder than ever to just stay alive. This feels really exciting, even if you’re reasonably confident that our protagonists will get out of it in one piece. And the epilogue gives us just a taste of the secrets buried in the Library itself.

There are some great set-pieces, with the oversized science fair (in my head like something out of Girl Genius) being my favourite. But there’s also time for some character beats. There’s a moment near the end where we’re reminded about how ruthless that Irene has to be and the sorts of split-second decisions that she has to make, and that she’ll have to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

An excellent addition to one of my favourite series, I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529000603
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 2020

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