Elder Race

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with Tchaikovsky. I love many of his ideas, and he’s a great writer, but he tends to take his work in a much darker direction than I enjoy. After Bear Head and (especially) Cage of Souls, I thought I was done with him. And then I read the description of this novella, and here we are again. Except this time, it turns out I quite enjoyed it.

It’s a story of Lynesse, the fourth daughter of the queen, always getting underfoot and and in the way, who decides to take action against the rumour of a demon stealing people’s minds when her mother won’t. She invokes the ancient pact with the last wizard of the Elder Race, whose tower is nearby. Except Nyr isn’t a wizard, he’s an anthropologist (second-class), who’s observing the locals while he waits for relief from an Earth that’s gone silent.

The book is told in alternate PoVs between Lynesse and Nyr, as we see how the young woman from a medieval culture sees the product of a science millennia in advance of her own – truly a wizard from Clarke’s point of view, and how the still-young Nyr tries desperately to fit the fact that he’s helping her, while not expecting there to actually be a demon of any kind, with his breaking of the Prime Directive.

At the same time, Nyr is in the throes of very deep depression – he’s used suspended animation to sleep away over three hundred years, and still no relief has come from Earth. The loneliness and lack of purpose are crushing, so he relies more and more on technology that disassociates him from his emotions, so that he can function. And that, of course, comes with its own problems. And while he’s going through all this, he’s learning about this young woman, Lynesse, who awakened him and dealing with the deep communication barrier, not just of language, but of culture and understanding. More than once he tries to tell her that he’s a scientist, not a magician, but all she hears is “I’m not a wizard, I’m a wizard”.

The threat they end up facing is quite icky, with a reasonable amount of body-horror. We don’t learn as much about it as I would like, but it’s not that kind of book. While being in the quest format, it’s much more about cultural communication and misunderstanding, and dealing with mental health issues. Internal issues, not external.

So Tchaikovsky gets a pass with this one. I’ll still be approaching his work with caution though.

Book details

Publisher: Tordotcom

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)

By Liu Cixin

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this story mathematics, computer science and first contact. It felt quite old-school, with maths and science to the fore, and the characters being not as well developed – not that I have any major problem with that (I am, after all, a fan of golden age SF). In the midst of China’s cultural revolution, a young woman watches as her father is killed for his beliefs. Forty plus years later, a young scientist called Wang Miao is asked by Beijing police to investigate a secretive organisation of scientists known as the Frontiers of Science. His investigations lead to a virtual reality computer game, and beyond into something that may threaten the entire human race.

My favourite scene in the book, I think, was the first in the present day. After everything that went on in the Cultural Revolution period that immediately preceded it, it was a shock to see a scientist “giving lip” to the authorities, and that very nicely showed the passage of time and that things had changed immensely in China in the intervening period.

Although Wang is our main protagonist, he doesn’t get much in the way of character development. We know he has a wife and child, but they get exactly one scene and we see little of his life. The character who gets the most development is probably Ye Wenjie, the young woman from the start, whose life dovetails with Wang’s in important ways.

The translation by Ken Liu is excellent, with the narrative flowing without much in the way of awkwardness. And it’s very interesting to read SF from a different cultural point of view. Liu’s take on first contact is unusual and worth reading.

One thing I didn’t realise when I started this book was that it was part of a trilogy. The story doesn’t really come to any neat conclusion at the end of the book, so be aware of that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781784971571
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Year of publication: 2008


By Nnedi Okorafor

Rating: 3 stars

Three strangers find themselves drawn to Bay Beach in Lagos to make first contact with an alien race and find themselves, their city and their world changed forever.

This was an enjoyable first contact story set in the Nigerian city of Lagos. It’s not immediately obvious what a marine biologist, a soldier with a conscience and a rapper have in common, what brings them to the beach to become ambassadors for the Human race, but we learn more as the story goes on.

As it transpires, this isn’t a straightforward SF first contact story, as it adds some fantasy elements. At some points, various African mythological figures/gods appear and there’s a rather creepy road that literally kills and eats people travelling on it. These work oddly well, as you can imagine these things not being out of place in Lagos, a city whose energy and life spring from the pages of the book.

The aliens are a catalyst, and a bit of a deus ex machina, in the story. Their aims aren’t really all that clear, other than possibly wanting to settle on Earth, but they bring change with them, as their ambassador, the woman named Ayodele, repeats several times. Some of these changes are to bring the potential of our three protagonists to the surface and others seem like they could affect the world.

There are many threads left dangling at the end of the book, the narrator explicitly points this out, but this appears to be deliberate. I had wondered throughout what the rest of the world is making of the giant alien spaceship hanging over Lagos and the aliens entering it, and the narrator at the end implies that some people are going to be very unhappy about this and that the story must wait as it goes to join the fight…

This was an interesting and original (not to mention very Nigerian) take on first contact. The pidgin English was difficult to read at times, and I did have to make extensive use of the glossary at the back, but I found it a worthwhile read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444762754
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2014

The Boat of a Million Years

By Poul Anderson

Rating: 4 stars

In this novel, Poul Anderson tells an audacious story, spanning at least two thousand years, and forward into an unknown future. Across history, a tiny number of people are born immortal, with wounds healing quickly and never ageing beyond a vigorous early adulthood. Most of this book follows a number of these people as they flit from identity to identity, staying out of the way of history. Eventually, they are uncovered, and the Human race develops immortality for all. In the new utopia that follows, the original Survivors become more and more out of place, and they eventually take to space; even without faster than light travel, their immortal bodies mean that the time between stars is not a problem.

I really enjoyed the scale of this story, with its sweep of history and how the immortals stayed out of its way. Apart from a few encounters, the eight Survivors that eventually take to space together don’t really find each other until the twentieth century, when the globe is shrunk by technology.

Perhaps we don’t necessarily get a deep insight into the mind of these immortals, the eldest of whom was born in Tyre, about three thousand years before the twentieth century. They remain ciphers and archetypes, but that didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the story, but then, these sorts of epic stories – almost myths – often appeal to me, and being the fan of old golden age SF that I am, lack of characterisation doesn’t bother me that much.

Definitely worth reading for the scope of its history, and the vision of its future.

Book details

ISBN: 9780747406099
Publisher: ORBIT (an imprint of LITTLE, BROWN UK PAPERBACKS)
Year of publication: 1989

Have Space Suit-Will Travel

By Robert A. Heinlein

Rating: 3 stars

Clifford Russell wins a spacesuit in a competition (although he was actually aiming for a trip to the moon). He fixes it up, takes care of it, and eventually decides to sell it to pay for college. He takes it out for one last spin, accidentally gets kidnapped by aliens and eventually ends up pleading for the future of the Human race in an inter-galactic court.

I enjoyed the actual story in this book, Clifford’s tale of inter-stellar derring do, but this kept being interrupted by Heinlien’s politics, which are very near the surface in this book. The whole idea of the über-competent hero who’s self-taught in everything from Latin to electronics, and despises the state education system leaves me cold. Also, while I can usually ignore attitudes to women in older books, it was harder to do here, although I’m not sure if that’s because I was already prone to finding faults.

So the story would get four stars, the politics two, so I’ll average it out with three.

Book details

ISBN: 0450038548
Publisher: New English Library
Year of publication: 1958

Sacrifice Of Fools

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 4 stars

An alien fleet is detected at the edge of the solar system, but they come not as invaders, but as settlers. Here to trade their advanced technology for land, to live amongst us. In Northern Ireland, people barely notice, wrapped up as they are in their own petty dispute, until an 80,000 strong colony of the Shian is deposited amongst them. Reformed ex-con Andy Gillespie works with them, helping to integrate them with the Human communities around them, and when a Shian family is brutally murdered he takes it upon himself to hunt down the killer.

To me this felt like quite a personal book for McDonald, set in the country that he’s called home for most of his life (and my own homeland, even if I’ve made the migration in the opposite direction). He’s scathing about it being wrapped up in its own politics of bigotry and fear that the “community leaders”, and some parts of the community are in this Province. It’s the old joke updated: “yeah, but are they Catholic aliens or Protestant aliens?” The first contact scenario lets him rake an outsider’s critical eye over Ulster and he finds us wanting.

The Shian were pleasingly alien, in mind, if not necessarily in body. Although they are sexless apart from two mating seasons a year, they are humanoid and can pass well enough that sub-cultures spring up, attracted to them. The idea of encoding language in chemistry and being able to pass it on by exchanging bodily fluids is fascinating (and pleasingly icky).

Of our two point of view characters, ex-con Gillespie is easy to like. He’s the real hero of the book, trying to find a new family to replace the one that fell apart with his marriage and he thinks he’s found it amongst the Shian, until the murders begin. Our other protagonist, Detective Sargent Roisin Dunbar is much less likeable for most of the book. She has entrenched, old-fashioned policing ideas (not necessarily good, when the old police is the RUC) and her prejudices lie near the surface. But as we spend time with her, and get under her skin we start to empathise with her. A neat trick that McDonald pulls off well.

The book, set as it is in the first decade of the 21st century, has now become alt history. It was written in 1996, when the peace process that would lead up to the Good Friday Agreement was still in its early stages, and the Joint Authority (shared sovereignty of Northern Ireland between the UK and the Republic of Ireland) is an interesting alternative, although one that, I think, would have been much harder to get through, than the devolved settlement that we eventually got.

McDonald never shows us how the rest of the world is coping with the Shian, and that also can be a metaphor for Northern Ireland: parochial, petty and wrapped up in its own affairs. Maybe I’m being harsh on my homeland, and maybe the same can be said of most nations but given that apart from a brief mention in the prologue of how the UN was reacting to the news, our focus never leaves Northern Ireland (except for a brief trip to Dublin).

A good first contact story and a good murder mystery. I’ve been a fan of McDonald for some time and this book does nothing to change that.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575060753
Publisher: Victor Gollancz
Year of publication: 1996

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