Trailer Trash – War for the Planet of the Apes

I have the first two in the series on DVD, but still haven’t got round to watching them. That’s an omission I need to be deal with before this hits cinema screens in July.

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Filler content in new sleeve

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #30:-

ALTERED CARBON
Richard Morgan
Gollancz pb, 404pp, £10.99

It’s the 26th century and mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, with peace maintained on the new worlds by a UN Protectorate and its elite shock troops, the Envoy Corps. Consciousness is stored in cortical stacks, so that nobody need ever die, merely have the stack implanted in a fresh sleeve (clone, synthetic or the body of a criminal), though for this you need financial wherewithal. Real Death takes place only when the cortical stack is destroyed.

Ex-UN Envoy Takeshi Kovacs is brought to San Francisco on Old Earth, put in a new sleeve and made an offer he can’t refuse by the wealthy and powerful Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft was killed, a pointless exercise as his stack is duplicated in a secure environment and updated daily. Only recent memories were lost. The police believe it was a failed suicide bid, but Bancroft can’t accept that. He hires Kovacs to find out who killed him. From the start Kovacs senses something fishy about the whole set-up, a feeling that grows as he delves into the sleazy underbelly of society where men like Bancroft go for their pleasure, hampered in his enquiries by the interest other parties, such as the police, show in the body in which Bancroft’s had him sleeved.

Morgan’s novel has no hi-tech concept at its heart, no big idea, being first and foremost a tautly plotted slice of noir, dressed up in its SF Sunday best. Of recent books the one that springs most readily to mind by way of comparison is Neal Asher’s Gridlinked, but where Asher’s hero has something of James Bond about him Kovacs is your typical tough guy and loner, Philip Marlowe in a spacesuit and set to walk down streets meaner than any envisaged by Chandler. Sad and world weary, basically honest but ruthless to the bone when circumstances require, Kovacs is an engaging character, one of many in a book that seems to bus them in from out of state. Add to that razor sharp prose and a fast paced plot, political and personal motivations for what takes place, plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, and an ending that’s deeply satisfying by virtue of being both unexpected and totally convincing in terms of the technology available.

All this is to the good. What makes the book special though, again as with the Asher, is the wealth of incidental detail, the depth and gritty realism of its milieu. Morgan gives us more than enough throwaway ideas for half a dozen novels. A world where people change bodies as regularly as we change clothes, where the hotels are self-determining AIs and sexual lubricants come imbued with an empathic quality, where identity can be split in two and VR torture can endure a lifetime in only a few minutes, to name just a few. Plot and character are the solid foundations on which the story is built, but it’s all these extra touches that make the reading such an agreeable experience. The sense of wonder is in the details. Morgan gives notice that there’s a new star in the SF firmament.

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Song for a Saturday – Under the Gun

I love the intro.

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Filler content with extra hype

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #28:-

DECIPHER
Stel Pavlou
Simon & Schuster hb, 616pp, £12.99

It is the year 2012 and something’s gone wrong with the sun. Scientists are worried that unprecedented solar flare activity could be the prelude to the big one, a cosmic event with fatal consequences for mankind. Meanwhile, beneath the ice of Antarctica, geologists have discovered a hidden city that could be lost Atlantis, and other ancient sites around the globe are starting to act in ways previously thought impossible. It appears that the key to the present danger is hidden in the past. The USA assembles a team of scientists and military to investigate Atlantis, but the Chinese have other ideas and are already there in force. We’re under starter’s orders in the race to save the world, or at least to blow it all up before Mother Nature saves us the bother.

Decipher came with more publicity material than any book I’ve ever received to review, most of it having to do with the rags to riches story of author Pavlou, who after years working in Threshers by day and writing by night sold both this novel and a film script to Hollywood in the same fortnight. There was even a poster to hang on my bedroom wall. Not.

As someone naturally wary of hype I came to the book with low expectations. The sleeve notes mention Michael Crichton, but the plot synopsis suggests the sort of awfulness you get from Clive Cussler. In the event I was pleasantly surprised. To name drop a couple more worthies, Decipher reads like a cross between Greg Egan and Indiana Jones, and is the kind of book that in a few years’ time will probably (a) be gutted by a hired gun scriptwriter and (b) test to destruction the sfx ingenuity and budget of some Hollywood studio.

Central to the novel is the idea of an advanced civilisation that preceded our own but was lost, surviving only in legend and folklore, yet still found a way to bequeath its technology to present day man. Pavlou does a fine job of making this pill easy to swallow, padding it out with a compelling wealth of factual detail. On every page he throws off intriguing ideas about linguistics, mythology, geology, nuclear physics etc. I’m not qualified to judge the accuracy of this, but certainly the author makes it sound plausible, and a four-page bibliography suggests that he has done his homework and is extrapolating from known fact rather than just pulling stuff out of thin air.

The science is seamlessly woven into an exhilarating adventure story, one that never lets up the pace for a minute and has enough twists and turns to make the most seasoned action fan feel slightly dizzy. The characters are fully rounded and believable, aside from the ability of every single one of them to quote chapter and verse from the Book of Revelations. The rivalries within the group, between the scientists and the military men, who refreshingly don’t want to blow everything up at the drop of a hat, between the different areas of science itself, all help to raise the tension that little bit more. And of course there’s the obligatory love match to add spice. It ain’t great literature, but it is an exciting story well told.

I’m still wary of hype, but in this instance Pavlou more than justifies the claims being made on his behalf.

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Trailer Trash – Hounds of Love

The Hounds of Love are calling me.

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Filler content with iceberg

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #29:-

PASSAGE
Connie Willis
Voyager pb, 594pp, £11.99

Psychologist Dr Joanna Landers works at Mercy General Hospital cataloguing the Near Death Experiences of patients declared clinically dead and then revived. She agrees to work with neurologist Richard Wright, who’s found a drug to induce NDEs and hopes that better understanding of their true nature will provide clinical rewards. Joanna believes that his research might benefit Maisie, a ten-year-old heart patient with whom she’s developed a special bond. When Dr Wright runs shorts of volunteers Joanna agrees to be a subject, experiencing at first-hand what, until now, she’s only heard described by others. But Joanna’s NDEs take a form that’s entirely unexpected; she appears to be aboard the passenger liner Titanic just after it hit the iceberg. The explanation lies with Joanna’s old English teacher Mr Briarley, a Titanic buff now stricken with Alzheimers.

In previous novels such as Doomsday Book and Lincoln’s Dreams, Willis has made similarly oblique use of historic fact to telling effect. The ‘famous last words’ that head each chapter and the information about the Titanic’s fate and other great disasters that lace the text help create a fascinating backdrop to a compelling scientific detective story, one that develops into a race against the clock. There’s great characterisation too, especially of the wonderful Maisie, one of sf’s great kids, whose precocity never seems in doubt, and in the picture of Mr Briarley and his carer Kit Gardiner it offers the most believable and heartrending account of senile dementia that I’ve ever read. But though sad don’t go away thinking this is a depressing book. The picture of the human spirit coping with adversity is uplifting, and it ends with a vision of death that approaches the majestic.

Then there’s the irritation factor. As an example, Dr Wright has a subject called Mrs Haighton who, thanks to her busy social whirl, is continually calling to reschedule appointments. We get this not once or twice, but about thirty times. Willis seems incapable of making a point without she labours it. Over and over again we hear how Mercy General is a maze in which people are always getting lost, how the cafeteria is always closed and the ER is dangerous, how Joanna is always hungry and Richard always has food in his pockets. Then there are Mr Mandrake and Mrs Davenport, two NDE nutters who Joanna is continually avoiding. In fact, although she appears to be up for sainthood, I found Joanna quite irritating. For a psychologist she’s badly in need of assertiveness training, so she won’t let all these people and things go on wasting her (and my) time. These running jokes become a tax on the reader’s patience. They add about fifty pages, but nothing else.

I don’t want to detract from Willis’s achievement. Passage is a very good book, a substantial book that tackles serious themes in an intelligent and insightful manner, and certainly worth a few hours of any reader’s time. It’ll probably win the writer more awards to put on her mantelpiece, and deservedly so. But inside the good book there’s a better book struggling to get out. It needed a strong editor to tell Willis to cut all the crap.

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Song for a Saturday – Forever

If I gave you my heart…

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