Sunday, 19 February 2017

Fractured Europe series, by Dave Hutchinson


There are three novels in the Fractured Europe sequence, which is probably all that we are going to get as the third volume rounds off the story nicely and there is no hint of any more.

The first is Europe in Autumn. To paraphrase the back cover, this tale is set in a dystopian near-future in which multiple economic crises and a flu pandemic have fractured Europe into countless tiny nations, duchies, polities and republics. Among these is The Line, a nation consisting of a narrow strip of land enclosing a trans-European railway. I was mildly amused to note that while the failure of the EU and the fracturing of Europe remain possibilities the author has already been overtaken by recent events, in that his England is seen as the strongest supporter of what remains of the EU!

The story focuses on the life of Rudi, who we first see as a chef in a restaurant in Kraków but then becomes recruited by Les Coureurs des Bois, a secretive but powerful organisation which is primarily concerned with transporting packages (live or otherwise) through Europe's complex maze of customs barriers and passport controls – but they have also become involved in espionage.

We see Rudi in glimpses over time, as he tackles missions of ever-increasing complexity and danger. The final one is the most intriguing as it introduces a new concept – a Europe which exists on, and apparently was brought into existence by, fantasy maps drawn by a British cartrographic family in the past, indicating a parallel world – the Community – which could be entered by those who knew how.

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The second volume, Europe at Midnight, starts with a 50-page sequence in the Campus – a strange, enclosed land some two hundred miles across, surrounded by mountains – and also by booby-traps which prevent anyone from leaving. The land is entirely occupied by a huge, dispersed university previously run on hereditary lines, at which a revolution –The Fall – had taken place a few months earlier. The story follows the new Professor of Intelligence as he investigates the crimes of the Old Board and also the various attempts to escape. The rest of the book intersperses the first-person viewpoint of the unnamed Professor with third-person viewpoints of others.

The plot then returns to the Fractured Europe universe with the focus on Jim, an English secret service agent who is roped into investigating incredible reports concerning a parallel world called the Community. His scepticism is soon dented when a real live escapee from the Campus turns up, at which point the two plot threads come together. And – halfway though the book – Les Coureurs des Bois make a reappearance.

The third setting for the story, the Community, features in much of the rest of the book. This is a strange version of Europe, basically like 1950s Britain throughout, and very well-controlled. The tension rises as various plot threads tying together Fractured Europe and the Community head towards a conclusion.

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The third volume, Europe in Winter has, rather oddly, more in common with the first volume than the second, as attention again switches to Rudi and we hear the rest of his story against the background of the competition between the Community and Fractured Europe. One of the giant, high-speed trains of the trans-European express is destroyed by sabotage – but who did it, and why? And what is the Community really up to?

Various other characters appear, some from the previous volumes, some new, although unless you have a more retentive memory than mine it might be hard to work out which ones we have met before. This meant that I was struggling to understand the context of many of the scenes, but I still enjoyed the read as the author spins such an intriguing tale.

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The paraphrase which popped into my mind with these books was "this is SFF Jim, but not as we know it". Full marks for originality, and for high-quality story-telling. I did find it a little confusing at times due to the number of characters and the switches of viewpoint, but it repaid the effort involved. I hope to revisit these three before too long, but without any gaps in between and making notes of the main characters when I first encounter them!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Films: Europa Report (2014), Star Trek Beyond (2016), and Warcraft (2016)


I had heard good things about Europa Report, but found it difficult to get hold of a copy. Eventually I bought a DVD which turned out to be from a German company. Clicking on the "Spracht" link on the opening page gives a choice of German or English, and also whether or not you want subtitles. At first I assumed that the film had been made in German and that English speakers had a choice of viewing subtitles or hearing a version dubbed into English, but after experimentation it turned out that the actors were actually speaking English and the optional subtitles were in German!

I'll quote part of the plot summary on the iTunes preview page as it gives a fair description:

"A unique blend of documentary, alternative history and science fiction thriller, EUROPA REPORT follows a contemporary mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to investigate the possible existence of alien life within our solar system. When unmanned probes suggest that a hidden ocean could exist underneath Europa’s icy surface and may contain single-celled life, Europa Ventures, a privately funded space exploration company, sends six of the best astronauts from around the world to confirm the data and explore the revolutionary discoveries that may lie in the Europan ocean."

The structure of the film is unusual, interspersing interviews with staff back on Earth, face-to-camera recordings by the pilot looking back on what had happened, and both flashback and live scenes aboard the spacecraft.  Some concentration is therefore needed to follow the story, and the structure is cleverly used to mislead viewers as to what happened, until the finale. The scenes on board the spacecraft are deliberately variable in quality, and the interactions of the crew seem far more genuine than the usual carefully polished cinematic dialogue. The pace is slow and deliberate throughout, the appeal of the film being in its realistic feel and in the gradual build-up of tension as the crew struggle with a sequence of problems.

Most of the cast were new to me, the exceptions being Michael Nyqvist and Sharlto Copley. Two key cast members were the pilot (played by Anamaria Marinca) and the team leader back on Earth, played by the American actress Embeth Davidtz - who I was amused to note spoke the kind of flawless, cut-glass, highly-educated, upper-class English which no native Brits speak any more!

This won't be enjoyed by those expecting the feel-good escapism of films like Gravity and The Martian, but Europa Report is a much better SF film than either, and is well worth watching – if you can find it.

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I read recently that the quantity and quality of dialogue in blockbuster films have been declining steadily in recent years, for the simple reason that to maximise the takings the films have to be successful around the world. So they have to be as easily understood in China as in  the USA. Which means simple plots and a strongly visual, action-orientated viewing experience with a minimum of chatter. Which leads me neatly into Star Trek Beyond. Once again, the only vaguely interesting character is the villain (in this case played by Idris Elba) – and he's not all that interesting. Most of the film consists of fighting, chasing, and lots and lots of the 'splosions beloved of the target audience, but is there anything of interest to adults? Well, there's the odd flash of humour – including in the very first scene a good visual joke about relative size and perspective – but that's about it. The rest is completely forgettable and, as I indicated in my review of the first film of this series, the old TV series and films of Star Trek: The New Generation are, by comparison, positively Shakespearean.

One curiosity: the MacGuffin in this film is a supposedly civilisation-destroying secret weapon, yet on the two occasions it is deployed the effect is little more than, and significantly slower than, a typical hand grenade.

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Warcraft is not a film I would ordinarily think of watching – I have no interest in computer games – but I was prompted to do so by two things: it was directed by Duncan Jones (Moon and Source Code) and received a surprisingly favourable review from the BBC's film critic, Mark Kermode.

I hesitate to try to describe the plot, as a quick check on the Warcraft game world showed that it is of bewildering complexity, the plot of this film only being a small extract from it. I will just briefly summarise it as: orcs – huge and belligerent humanoids – have created a magical gate which enables them to pass from their own ruined world to another (Azeroth), occupied by humans (in a medieval stage of development, as usual); the humans fight back; and much of the conflict depends on a contest between the magical powers of a few of the participants. I was amused to note the collection of high fantasy tropes – not just orcs, elves wizards and dwarves, but also in the names, such as Anduin (one of the characters) which I recall from Tolkein, and Azeroth, from a book in the 1970s Morgaine cycle by C J Cherryh (Fires of Azeroth).


Overall, I think that this film is a pretty good example of its type. It suffers somewhat (as do all such fantasy films) in comparison with the Game of Thrones TV series, which is much more grim and adult, but represents a couple of hours of good entertainment. And it includes a very buff Paula Patton whose good looks are hardly spoiled by a small pair of tusks!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M Banks, and Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear


The Hydrogen Sonata is the final SF novel by Iain M Banks, who died in 2013. It is therefore also the final novel set in the Culture, the utopian galactic civilisation which formed the basis of nine novels published over a span of twenty-five years, commencing with Consider Phlebas in 1987. Reviews of three of these have already appeared on this blog, and this is what I said in them about the Culture:

"…a galactic humanoid utopia in which almost inconceivably advanced technology provides everything that is needed, immensely capable Artificial Intelligences sort out the mundane business of running civilisation (the most powerful, known as Minds, usually being established in vast spacecraft or space habitats with quirky names), and citizens are mostly free to do whatever they like – live forever, change gender or even species, travel the galaxy. There are various alien civilisations in close contact with the Culture and a lot of others that are not, plus human planetary settlements that don't enjoy the same benefits. Relationships with such peripheral groups are handled by an organisation called Contact, and they apply less diplomatic means when required by means of Special Circumstances, whose agents are kind of blend of James Bond and Jason Bourne with comprehensive bio-electronic enhancements."

The Hydrogen Sonata follows the story of Vyr Cossont, a young woman who belongs to the ancient Gzilt civilisation - which although not part of the Culture is almost as advanced.  The population consists of what appears to be standard humanoids; although Cossont is different in that she has had two extra arms grafted on, to enable her to play a complex musical instrument made for one almost unplayable piece of music called The Hydrogen Sonata.

The background to the story is that the Gzilt are shortly to Sublime -  to leave the material universe en masse for an eternal existence in a kind of virtual afterlife. However, the Gzilt's plans are in danger of being disrupted by a threatened revelation that their Holy Book – which unlike all other such, contains predictions which have all come true, thereby giving the Gzilt the firm belief that they are superior to everyone else – was actually the result of meddling by a superior civilisation which sublimed long before this story began. This prompts a division in the Gzilt between those who are trying to discover the truth (aided by a bunch of interested spaceborne Culture Minds with the usual outlandish names and personalities) and those who are determined, at any cost, to stop the truth from emerging.

There are various side-plots including the contest between a couple of minor civilisations for the right to inherit everything that the Gzilt would be leaving behind, and the hunt to find the oldest known being who might even remember exactly what had happened concerning the Holy Book.

Like most of Banks's novels this is not easy to get into. It is difficult to understand what is happening at first (and for some time thereafter), but connections between several sub-plots slowly emerge like a drowned village from a draining reservoir. The number of Culture Minds is also confusing as it is initially hard to recall who's who – this is one book where it might be helpful to write down every name as it appears, together with a note about their place in the story. The author does include a list of characters right at the end of the book which might have reduced the need for this if only I had discovered it before I finished. As is usual in a Culture novel, the generally slow pace accelerates as it approaches the end, which features some spectacular combat scenes.


This is not the best of the Culture novels – for instance, it lacks the baroque inventiveness of Surface Detail or the fascinating shell-world of Matter – but it is very typical of the meandering but engaging Banks style, which enables readers to explore all sorts of odd details of his world. It is sad that the author died at such a young age, but in these novels he has left behind a magnificent contribution to modern SF.

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Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear, was published in 1999 but I've only just got around to reading it.  It is about the next stage of human evolution, although that does not become apparent until well into the story (not a great spoiler, you can gather that from the book cover).

At the beginning, two separate near-future plot threads are started: one follows a disgraced scientist (paleontologist Mitch Rafelson) who is shown a recently uncovered ice cave in Austria containing the mummified bodies of a couple of Neanderthals, plus their baby. The second follows another scientist (biologist Kaye Lang) in Georgia (the country, not the US state), who is called to investigate some strange bodies found in a mass grave. The viewpoint mostly alternates between these two throughout the book, but sometimes switches to Christopher Dicken, a US Government scientist concerned with tracking viruses.

The story focuses on a newly-discovered virus (an endogenous retrovirus, to be more precise) called SHEVA, which has the effect of causing pregnant women to miscarry a strange foetus, before an immediate second pregnancy which results in children being born dead. As this "plague" sweeps around the world, causing rising panic and threatening human civilisation, doubts begin to be raised about the nature of the virus and its implications for the future of humanity.

This story is extremely science-heavy. I try to keep up with scientific developments, but frequently reached the MEGO stage with this tale (My Eyes Glazed Over) and I skim-read a lot of the pages of detailed technical explanation concerning viruses and genetics. I also found that I had a problem recalling various secondary characters who, after being introduced to the reader, occasionally popped up again later without any help being provided in the way of reminders about who they were or what their significance was. As with the Banks story above, readers are advised to make notes of each character as they appear, it will be a big help later.

This may all sound negative, but buried in there is a story which was intriguing enough to keep me reading to the end; in fact I finished the last quarter of this rather long book in one session. I note that there is a sequel, Darwin's Children, and I might get around to reading it, sometime…

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Rook, and Stiletto, by Daniel O'Malley


Present-day London is the base for a centuries-old secret intelligence organisation, headed by people with a range of supernatural abilities, which supports the government in various ways including suppressing any uncontrolled supernatural occurrences.  These elements of contemporary urban fantasy in The Rook are not entirely original, you may think, and you'd be right. But the quality of a story lies in how the plot is handled, and this one is done very well.

A young woman gains consciousness and realises that she is standing in a park in the pouring rain, badly beaten and surrounded by dead bodies. She also realises that she has no memories at all, and has no idea who she is. She soon finds information, most particularly letters in her pocket from Myfanwy Alice Thomas, the first starting:  "Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine."

Following an information trail left by the letter-writer, the new Myfanwy gradually realises that she has some remarkable powers and that the previous occupant of her body was a senior officer (a Rook – they like chess names) in the Checquy, the aforementioned secret intelligence organisation. The old Myfanwy had received occult advanced warning about what was going to happen to her, which was the result of an attack by an unknown senior person in the organisation, so had prepared for her successor. New Myfanwy, with the help of the copious guidance notes left by her body's previous owner, has to convince the Checquy hierarchy that she is who she appears to be, while trying to work out who had attacked her. It doesn't help that her personality is very different from the shy original, being far more assertive. Or that she is constantly under pressure to deal with a range of weird emergencies, leaving her with little time to address the threat to herself.

The Rook is a fun mystery/adventure/crime thriller with horror elements which I was reluctant to put down and eager to get back to – something that happens too rarely these days. New Myfanwy is a resourceful  and likeable character and this reader was cheering her on from beginning to end. The only niggle which bothered me was, as usual, something rather more mundane than super-powers and vampires: I couldn’t help wondering how, if the original Myfanwy’s memories and personality were completely wiped, a functioning human being with a fully-formed – and very different – personality was left in her place; where did she some from? Our personalities are to a great extent the sum total of our experiences and memories, after all. With those all wiped, what would be left? Maybe this will be addressed in the sequel, Stiletto, which was released recently and is at the top of my “to buy” list.

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Stiletto continues the story, with some significant differences: most noticeably, while retaining an important role, Myfanwy no longer provides the viewpoint. Instead, this is shared between two contrasting characters: Felicity Clements, a junior Pawn soldier of the Checquy, and Odette Leliefeld, a young medical specialist of a rival European secret organisation, the Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen, better known to the Checquy as the Grafters. The Grafters are fundamentally different from the Checquy in that they are not born with any special abilities but have mastered medical science to a phenomenal degree, using their skills to build a range of enhancements into their bodies.

We learned towards the end of The Rook that a deadly emnity had existed between the two organisations for centuries, following a brief, devastating war between them. But a tentative peace agreement had been reached (largely due to Myfanwy's involvement); this is where Stiletto begins, and it remains the main plot thread throughout. Odette is part of the Grafter delegation to peace talks in London and a reluctant Felicity is assigned to her as a bodyguard. The pair do not initially get on, but contribute their different skills in a series of crises, most particularly concerning an unknown third party which seems to be focused on destroying the peace agreement, the resolution of which forms the climax of the story.

Like the first volume, Stiletto is an intriguing page-turner with likeable characters and is written with sardonic humour – sometimes, perhaps, a little too much of it. The writing also shows signs of bloat, with time taken out for long biographies and descriptive passages, which slows the pace in parts of the story. Finally, for my taste the various monsters that have to be dealt with are somewhat extreme, although I have no doubt that other readers will enjoy this. Oh, and there is still no explanation for the arrival of Myfanwy's strong new personality, nor any further mention of the devastating "weapon of mass destruction" she deploys twice at the start of The Rook. Despite this, Stiletto is a worthy sequel which maintained my interest throughout.

Overall, these two novels are a significant addition to contemporary urban fantasy and I will be looking out for any sequels.