BooksOfTheMoon

Ten Little Aliens

By Stephen Cole

Rating: 3 stars

The First Doctor, Ben and Polly find themselves in a hollowed-out asteroid, along with a group special forces in training – and ten of the Earth empire’s most wanted terrorists, dead. And then people (and corpses) start disappearing…

This is an interesting adventure with the First Doctor. This edition, part of a set for the 50th anniversary, has a new foreword by the author where he talks about the inspirations that brought the story together. Although he plays up the Agatha Christie connections, it felt like Starship Troopers or Aliens were the stronger elements. It was difficult to keep track of the marines, and some of them didn’t have hugely distinct personalities. Some of Ben’s comments about the races and sexes of the marines weren’t exactly endearing either, and I’m glad that Polly pulled him up on those.

I quite enjoyed the choose-your-own-adventure section. It was unexpected and an interesting way to get into each of the characters’ heads. In the end, though, the plot felt unnecessarily convoluted, in a way that Christie’s rarely do and I still don’t quite understand it. There’s also a huge amount of blood and gore. Certainly more than I would have expected from a Doctor Who story (especially the First Doctor). One scene where someone was literally torn limb from limb was especially distasteful.

2 1/2 stars, rounded up.

Book details

ISBN: 9781849905169
Publisher: BBC Books
Year of publication: 2002

Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 7: Synthesis (Gunnerkrigg Court #7)

By Thomas Siddell

Rating: 5 stars

Volume 7 of Gunnerkrigg Court collects chapters 60-68 of the fabulous webcomic. It starts where volume 6 left off, finishing the story of Jeanne that ended the previous volume. After that, we have a couple of chapters of fallout, first with the fairies and then with Kat and her father. Anja spends a chapter telling a story of how Annie’s mum and dad fell in love. We also have the formal introductions of Juliette and Arthur and the Shadow Men organisation (and, may I say, that these two are a somewhat delightful pair) before the story moves on to what seems like its next phase: Coyote’s gift to Ysengrim and the emergence of Loup.

At times, reading the story online, page by page, three times a week you can sort of lose track of its threads. Reading a large chunk in one go not only reminds you of why you love the characters, but helps clarify the story again. And the story is still hugely engaging. I thought that the end of the Jeanne storyline would be the beginning of the end, but instead Siddell has found really interesting new directions to take the comic, and I’m glad of it. It means I get to spend more time with Annie, Kat and all the rest (even Anthony).

Book details

ISBN: 9781684154418
Publisher: Archaia

This is How You Lose the Time War

By Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone

Rating: 4 stars

I read this novella immediately after finishing The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With her Mind and the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. From the short, clean prose and breathless action of the former to the leisurely pace and beautifully crafted letters of this, about the only thing the two have in common is the short chapters.

Red and Blue are agents on opposing sides of a war that rages through time. Against orders and, indeed, common sense, they strike up a correspondence that slowly turns into something more.

The time war is very much a background to the evolving relationship between Red and blue. In the early chapters they taunt each other after after thwarting the other’s plans, but the tone of the letters shifts as the backgrounds do and the reader comes to care for these two extraordinary individuals as they come to care for each other.

I loved reading this book. The language is beautiful and is something to savour. Short as it is, it took a while to read it first time round, partially because of a lack of time, and partially because I was reading it slowly. After finishing it, I went back and read it again, much more quickly, which gave me a stronger overall view of it, and the references which had passed me by the first time (as I’d forgotten the details of the earlier chapter by the time I got to the payoff later).

The two sides in the war are mostly stereotypical views of opposing SF worldviews: the technological Agency vs the Garden of bioengineering. While I would love to know more about them and the war, that’s not this book. This book is all about Red and Blue and paints them as a microcosm for the wider conflict. If you accept that, this is a very rewarding read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529405231
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2019

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind

By Jackson Ford

Rating: 4 stars

Unlike a lot of reviewers here, I didn’t pick up this book because of the (admittedly rather eye-catching) title. I’d seen a positive review of it in a magazine and was browsing a bookshop looking for something to cheer me up after a visit to the dentist. This caught my eye and I picked it up, and I’m rather glad that I did. It’s a lot of fun. Our protagonist, Teagan Frost, is the eponymous girl, and she’s working for a shady government agency as the only alternative to being vivisected by said government. She’s got a team around her, but as the story goes on, it becomes apparent that everybody in that team has their own secret. She has to navigate that whilst also being framed for a murder that could only be done by someone with her powers. And she’s the only one who can do that… isn’t she?

This book rarely lets up the pace, with almost every one of the (very short) chapters ending on a cliffhanger, urging you on to see what ridiculous situation Teagan has found herself in now. Teagan’s chapters are narrated in the first person, but there is another viewpoint as well, that of Jake – the other psychokinetic[1]. You start off being sympathetic to Jake, who’s had a rough life and doesn’t know where he came from. But you very quickly see him doing horrible things, all to find out more about his history. He displays a complete lack of any empathy and has no self-awareness. I’m very glad that his chapters are in the third person. I don’t think I could bear to spend time closer to him than that.

The team around Teagan get more characterisation than I was expecting in a novel of this nature, although her love-interest doesn’t fare quite as well. Teagan herself has a fun narrative voice and is enjoyable to spend time with. I look forward to reading more of her adventures.

[1] the book always calls it psychokinesis, not telekinesis, even correcting someone who uses the latter term, but never explains the difference; and the Wikipedia article suggests what Teagan does is closer to the latter than the former

Book details

ISBN: 9780356510446
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2019

Sunspot Jungle: The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction

By Bill Campbell

Rating: 4 stars

This is a pretty huge collection, and the range of stories is impressive as well. There’s no real theme to the collection, but it’s a set of well-told tales. The opening is as strong as you would expect from someone with the reputation of N. K. Jemisin, being a dystopia where the alien Masters control the earth, and the very bodies of its people. The tone of the stories varies up and down, but seems to get darker towards the end of the collection. That particular beat isn’t to my taste, but there’s enough else here to enjoy, and no story really outstays its welcome (the only story that I mostly skipped was Clifton Gachagua’s No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing as I just found it impenetrable).

Some highlights for me include Sarah Pinsker’s A Song Transmuted about the power of music; Real Boys by Clara Kumagai, telling the story of one of the boys turned into donkeys in Pinocchio (that scene in the Disney film terrified me as a kid); Madeleine by Amal El-Mohtar, about a woman who may or may not be going mad; How to Piss Off a Failed Super Soldier by John Chu, about a super-powered person who needs help to learn how to live. I perhaps shouldn’t have read Hal Duncan’s A Pinch of Salt — tale of sex and blasphemy — while I was eating, but then knowing what I do about Duncan, that was my own fault.

So a strong collection, with a lot of variety, and contributions from all over the world. It’s nice to see an editor willing to pull contributions from beyond the usual anglophone sphere.

Book details

ISBN: 9780998705972
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Year of publication: 2018

Noumenon

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

A macguffin is discovered in space at just the right time: the world is increasingly united and peaceful. So with resources to spare, a convoy of nine ships, collectively known as Noumenon, is launched to investigate. Even with FTL, this mission will take several generations to complete, so the crew is carefully chosen and then cloned for the duration of the mission to preserve skills and abilities over the duration.

I really enjoyed this story. We start on Earth, after the discovery of the macguffin (a weird star) and the planning phase of the mission. From then on, we revisit the convoy at various points in its history, as the the society changes in ways both envisioned by its designers and ways that weren’t. Throughout, the Inter Convoy Computer (ICC) watches over the crew, and several of the segments in the book are from ICC’s point of view.

One thing that I think the book never fully addressed was the idea that we are defined by our genes. This is patently untrue: two identical twins can have very different personalities. The idea that a clone of a person will have their aptitudes and skills, even with education and training being bent in a specific direction, seems dodgy to me. And then we get to a point where several gene lines are discontinued entirely, because one of the clones of the line has done something that the convoy society disapproves of (whether that’s mental health issues or attempted mutiny). This seems an odd decision given that there’s a closed gene pool to start with, with specifically defined roles, and, as I say, an individual is more than their genes. I do wish the book had addressed this more.

But that’s one issue in an otherwise excellent book that spans many human lifespans but still spends enough time at each stop to make us care about each individual, as well as the society of the convoy as a whole.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223397
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Year of publication: 2017

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

In 2050s Oxford, time travel is used to send historians back to observe the past first-hand, confident that they can’t alter history. Kivrin is to be sent further back than ever before, to the Medieval period. But a combination of bad luck and disease means that she’s stranded there for longer than she had intended, and she’s not in the 1320s, as she expected, but in Black Death-ridden 1348.

In a quirk of coincidence, I had just finished Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death just before starting this, which gave me some background and understanding of the disease and made me appreciate Willis’ research.

This is a big book. It’s nearly 600 pages long, and it runs at a sedate pace for most of that. Split into three parts internally, the first two are really all about getting to know the characters, from Kivrin in the past, along with the villagers that she comes to live amongst, to Dunworthy in the future, as he runs himself ragged trying to sort out the mistake that stranded her. This slow build up is worth it as in the final part, Willis carefully and clinically starts to use the threads that she’s painstakingly created in the previous four hundred odd pages to take a hatchet to your heart.

The future Oxford that Willis imagines feels closer to the Oxford of the 1950s, not the 2050s, with quaint independent colleges, fussy secretaries and political bickering and point-scoring that sometimes extends into full-blown warfare. It’s also interesting to see how self-absorbed everyone in Oxford is, with Gilchrist’s ambition, the Americans’ bell-ringing, Finch’s obsession with lavatory paper and even Dunworthy’s attempts to get someone to read the time travel machine logs after his tech, Badri, fell ill. They all feel myopic, which is ironic, given the nature of what they’re doing: travelling in time to understand the broad sweep of history.

Kivrin’s adventures are of the small-scale, domestic variety, as she comes to live amongst a family who have been sent away from the city. We get to know them as she does and we get to care for them as she does. And through it all, you’ve got in the back of your mind where and when she is and you hope, as she does, once she finds out the truth, that the plague will pass her village by and spare those whom she cares about.

And as the plague does hit her village, each death is a blow. We find ourselves counting them along with Kivrin, relying on the statistics, that each death is “enough”. And as they keep falling, towards the inevitable, we find ourselves as ragged as Kivrin becomes, raging against fate and any deity that would allow this to happen. The clinical description of Agnes’ death and the final blow of Father Roche in particular are heartbreaking.

A slow but powerful novel that draws out its characters and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575131095
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1992

Strength Of Stones

By Greg Bear

Rating: 2 stars

I found it difficult to engage with this book at all, I’m afraid. I loved the idea of mobile cities (long before Mortal Engines), who had kicked out their inhabitants, and yet yearned for citizens to fill their streets and be lived in. I found the characters not hugely engaging, but most of all I found the end unsatisfying.

With the final of the three linked novellas pulling together threads and characters from the previous stories, and the appearance of (a simulacrum of) the architect Robert Khan, who had created the cities, I felt like there would be change. Instead, we’re left with stasis. Nothing changes at the end; entropy wins. The living cities all die, religious zealotry prevents the improvement of the lot of the people of God-Does-Battle, and the city part Jeshua is left completely alone on Earth.

I didn’t entirely understand the whole thing with the multiple versions of Khan, but it seemed like his plan was to create matter transportation bridges to move the entire population (along with possibly the rest of the human race?) to a giant sphere, where they’ll exist in energy form. Or something? But the fanatic Matthew decided that God had decreed that everyone had to stay where they were, so he destroyed two of the cities that were to take part. And what was up with Thule? I still don’t understand that at all. Is the moral that gnosticism is bad…?

So some good ideas, but a muddy and disappointing (not to mention pretty bleak) ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9780441790692
Publisher: Ace
Year of publication: 1981

Double Contact (Sector General, #12)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

Without necessarily meaning to be, this is the last Sector General novel. White was ill when he was writing it, and its publication ended up being posthumous. This novel sees Senior Physician Prilicla and the crew of the Rhabwar answering multiple distress calls from the same location and finding a botched first contact operation. Prilicla and his comrades have to not just save their patients, but undo the damage that’s been done.

Like the rest of the series, this is a peaceful, one might say pacifist, space opera (although there is a “misunderstanding” that leads to a siege at one point). White was passionate about non-violence and uses his characters to repeatedly make the point that peaceful contact and co-operation is best for everyone. There’s a wonderful quote towards the end of the book:

“War, he thought sadly as he looked down at the terrified casualty, was composed mostly of hatred and heroism, both of them misplaced.”

There’s a nod back to Star Surgeon as Prilicla deliberately puts hostile patients in the same ward as other patients to show that they mean them no harm, and the constant correction of the “Etlan war” to the “Etlan police action” amused me.

And Prilicla finally gets promoted to Diagnostician! As the last act of the last book in the series, it feels really fitting. And the last sentence in the book hammers home White’s philosophy one more time: “One does not give orders to a Sector General Diagnostician.” – spoken by a senior marshal of the Monitor Corps, again making the point that the military (sorry, police) is subservient to the healers.

Sector General itself, alas, only gets a cameo at the start of the book. Goodbye you “shining beacon in space”, you’ve been an inspiration to us all.

Book details

ISBN: 9780812568608
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Year of publication: 1999

Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories

By Naomi Kritzer

Rating: 5 stars

I got this book as part of the Feminist Futures story bundle and it caught my eye because I’d read the title story when it was nominated for a Hugo award a few years ago. I loved the story then, and was pleased that it went on to win the Hugo for short story that year and was happy to revisit it as part of this collection.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t enjoyed a collection of short stories as much as this in a long time. There’s not a story here that didn’t connect with me in some way, although some moreso than others. I’m not going to go through every story in detail, but here are some of the highlights. Ace of Spades deals with themes of changes in modes of warfare, how the reduction in risk that technology brings affects decisions, and second chances, all with a sympathetic protagonist dealing with being dealt a crappy hand by fate. Wind is a story about extremes, about two girls who give up something that provides balance in their lives in exchange for something that they yearn for and then have to live with the consequences. Cleanout deals with three daughters clearing out their mother’s house, after she moves into a home and is a beautiful story of grief, loss and coping.

The Good Son had me in tears as a fey follows a human girl back to America and bewitches an old, childless couple, to think of him as their son, to provide camouflage while he chases the girl. Except he doesn’t realise the implications that creating a family will have for him. This is another beautiful story of what family means and the extents we will go to for those we love. Bits, on the other hand, is a hilarious story about alien refugees and the humans who fall in love with them and then need help to have a, er, full relationship. Sex toys. It’s a story about a firm that creates a line of sex toys to help alien/human couples have sex. And it’s brilliant. The final story in the collection, So Much Cooking is told as a series of blog entries in a cookery blog, at the start of an influenza pandemic and how the author and her family cope with not being able to leave the house (and it’s got some cracking recipes as well).

So having enjoyed this collection immensely, I very much look forward to reading more of Kritzer’s work.

Book details

Publisher: Fairwood Press
Year of publication: 2017

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