The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham

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When the carnivorous bio-engineered plants that can walk and communicate to each other, known as Triffids, are accidentally released into the wild they quickly begin breeding and spreading around the world, their spores born in the wind. They are farmed and harvested en masse for their valuable extracts, but when a mysterious meteor shower renders those who witness it blind, the Triffids are free to escape and breed more prolifically.

Bill Marsden is a biologist who specializes in Triffids. He is attacked by a Triffid while working and gets venom in his eyes. Exposure to immature venom in his youth have given him a resistance to the venom’s usual fatality and he is rushed to hospital. This is where the story begins. Bill wakes up in hospital, bandages over his eyes, and notices that the world is silent. He wanders through a crippled and chaotic London and learns that most of the world is blind; people are huddled in terror or crawling everywhere, calling out for their families. He quickly learns that it is dangerous to let people know he can see as the blind swarm him like drowning men scrabbling on a life-raft. He also quickly learns the harsh reality that he is unable to help anyone and that to survive he must leave everyone else to their fate. Bill befriends and becomes infatuated with a young woman, Josella, who can also see, and the two follow a beacon light on a hill and discover a small group of survivors who intend on setting up a colony in the countryside.

Like most apocalyptic fiction, this book is pretty standard fare – groups of gangs and raiders, slavers and militant types. Modern post apocalyptic fiction is considered to have first been published in 1826 by Mary Shelly in her novel The Last Man, in which a group of people struggle to survive in a plague-infected world. H. G. Wells re-invigorated the concept in the late 1800’s, but the genre rose to prominence after World War II, with the focus being on nuclear or bio-engineered cataclysms. Where Wyndham stands out is in the constant ominous overtones and the almost biblical images of the blind crawling, and eventually, rotting in the streets. The book does not take place after the apocalypse, it watches it painfully unfold and literally decay. Thematically, the major focus is in man’s meddling with nature and how ultimately nature will reclaim from humans. Gardens and countryside grow wild, streets are ruptured with weeds and shrubs and buildings crumble as plants rip through them.

And then, there are the Triffids. They almost come as a surprise – the book focuses so heavily on the destruction of civilization and on the journey of the protagonist, that you forget about these amazing creations. Until Bill sees Triffids Stalking him in the bushes. Attacking people in the streets. Eating their flesh. As their numbers increase the Triffids become a more and more significant threat. Similar to how in The Walking Dead the zombies are attracted to other groups of zombies, Triffids communicate and attract more Triffids. Soon the protagonists find themselves trapped in their countryside retreat, fighting at the walls and fences in a futile battle against a threat that is constantly and literally growing.

The Day of The Triffids is a complex apocalypse story set in an uncertain era of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the dawn of The Space Age, the beginnings of a truly global market and burgeoning genetic sciences. All of these things have influences in the book, and most have a direct impact upon the story itself. Though aesthetically it is a science fiction survival story, at it’s heart it is a snapshot of post-war Britain; a social commentary of the concerns and fears of a generation that had just survived the greatest and most horrific war in the history of mankind. The war had shaken people’s faith in the world and the notion of peace and security, and these fears play out in the book on a global, tribal and personal level.

A thrilling and suspenseful survival story garnished with some truly creepy and terrifying moments. A classic novel that I highly recommend, and that truly deserves the title given it by Arthur C. Clarke of “an immortal story.”

Billy and The Cloneasaurus by Stephen Kozeniewski

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Sharp, witty and cynical: Billy and The Cloneasaurus is satirical science fiction done right. The book is as much fun to read as the title is to say out loud. 9/10 stars.

Is this the Great American novel? Possibly. In the future all wild animals have become extinct and all humans have been replaced by clones. Just one clone, in fact. Billions of him. The world is populated by Williams – the perfect corporate citizen – he works hard, is compliant and even complacent, is an excellent consumer of goods and services as dictated by the corporations, and is entirely predictable. The world is managed by a giant corporation that produces everything Williams need, thus absorbing their hard-earned money back into the never-ending system. The media, news, consumer goods and food are all produced and managed by Williams for The Company.

Our hero is William 790-6 (57th iteration). On every clones birthday he must report to the factory where he is terminated and recycled back into the food supply for the next generation of clones. Due to equipment malfunction, William 790 finds not only his termination to be delayed until after the weekend, but his replacement clone has already arrived. Never before have their been two clones at the same time. Through circumstances his replacement gets mistaken for him and becomes slushed, and 790 becomes the first clone to live beyond his first birthday. The experience leaves William 790 disillusioned and then enlightened as he realizes that he is something special. He is unique. But rather than being an uplifting experience he discovers things about society that don’t add up. Not only are resources and clones recycled, but so are the media and the news. The Company is manufacturing more than consumer goods – it is manufacturing lies and oppression.

This is a brilliantly original book that, despite being funny also deals with complex themes such as existentialism and questions just what it means to be an individual in an increasingly manufactured and controlled society. Like The Company, Kozeniewski has manufactured characters that are clever, sympathetic and tragic and has populated them into a dark dystopian world. William (who chooses the name Billy to mark his individuality) escapes The Company and, literally, becomes Free Will. His journey is an exploration of just what free will and free thought mean in a world where everything is mass produced including marketing and consumerism. It is a satirical look at modern consumerism and media-driven society, and also a cynical look at the future of mankind and our dependence upon said consumer goods and services and our reliance upon formulaic news and media.

Kozniewski writes a book that is gripping from the first page, filled with mystery and thriller elements. It is a well-paced adventure that sweeps you away in it’s current, depositing you on the banks of it’s conclusion where the only criticism of the book can be found. The conclusion to Billy and The Cloneasaurus feels a bit rushed, with new ideas being introduced but not expanded upon enough. Despite this, the cyclical nature of the book is repeated in the ending, closing the narrative loop he created in a dramatic and satisfying nature. This book is an exceptional 9/10.

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The Observers by C. R. Downing

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A buddy-cop comedy of errors in the tradition of Douglas Adams or J. D. Crayne. This is what happens when a science teacher writes fiction. Not to be confused with Damon Knight’s ‘The Observers’.

The Observers explores complex scientific themes; should science and technology advance simply for the sake of progress? Who should be in control? Who does ownership of information really belong to? These themes are explored through our two main characters, Mxpan and Zerpall. Mollusc-like telepathic beings, Glieseians have made themselves technological overseers that monitor species technological development and intervene as necessary. The Observers is a comedic buddy-cop novel about two investigators, one being the by-the-book professional, and the other being a fun-loving take-it-as-it-comes kind of guy.

Despite interesting and well-written characters the book falls flat, however, with its setting and plot. There are three major plot lines in this book. Each is contextually irrelevant to the other and the book feels like three short stories were stuck together and as it progresses it begins to feel disconnected. The story is forgettable and the major plots lack satisfying conclusions, leaving you feeling underwhelmed.

Downing is a teacher of science, and his knowledge and love for technology and biology clearly show, but he has missed some major opportunities. As with the forgettable plot, so are the settings equally uninteresting. Different alien worlds and civilizations are treated almost indifferently – despite well developed characters downing has forgotten to characterize the worlds or environments, and with the vague story this lends to the feeling of staleness throughout the book.

However, this is a comedy book and the humour is well written: timing is everything in comedy, and Downing delivers witty punch-lines and well-paced gags that carry the reader through an often drawn-out experience. The banter between Mxpan and Zerpall is delightful and Zerpall’s child-like innocence is often laugh-out-loud material. If Downing had given even a fraction of the attention he gave his characters to the settings and plot, this book could have been a monumental entry to the genre, placing him with the likes of Heinlein or Asprin. 5/10.

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Star Wars: Ylesia by Walter Jon Williams

YlesiajediorderYlesia is the sixteenth installment in the New Jedi Order series. Set in the Expanded Universe (now known as Star Wars Legends) it takes place approximately thirty years after A New Hope, though the EU/Legend stories are all now considered non-canonical since the Disney purchase of Star Wars. Ylesia takes place specifically between chapters 21 and 22 in Williams’ Star Wars novel The New Jedi Order: Destiny’s Way.

On the planet of Ylesia a group of traitors and criminals have set up a collaborationist government working in tandem with the devastating invasion forces of the Yuuzhan Vong. Inadvertantly finding himself leading these traiters is Han Solo’s nephew, Thrackan. The forces of The New Republic are planning a massive offensive to obliterate all collaborators on the planet and make an example of anyone that hinders the Republic.

Jacen Solo, Han Solo’s son, has a bitter resentment towards the Yuuzhan Vong, once being their prisoner. He proposes a raid into the heart of Ylesia’s capital, to capture the collaborators and hold them for trial and exile them offworld; a prolonged trial, he hopes, will extend the message that traitors to The New Republic will be held to account. What The New Republic doesn’t realize is that Yuuzhan Vong reinforcements have been sent, and the simple extraction of political officials turns into a full-on battle.

Not being familiar with this particular time-line in the Star Wars Legends universe, it took me a while to familiarize myself with the characters and settings. I didn’t read the blurb or synopsis and had no idea of what the book would be about. Once I knew the who and the what, the story became very self explanatory. Ylesia is a novella, so Williams doesn’t have page space to drag out character development, but does so efficiently with the time and word count that he has.

This is not a book filled with light-sabre battles and storm troopers – this is a more thought out political drama dealing with more complex issues, while still providing the expected stock of (limited) force-use, alien creatures, spaceships and explosions. It is an enjoyable book, despite doing very little to stand out, but it does nothing to really make me criticize, either. It is a genuinely good book, that left me wanting more. I wanted to know where these characters were going, what the consequences of the battle of Ylesia were. It was an unsatisfying ending for me, because I was left wanting so much more. Now that I know this is actually set between chapters in a larger Star Wars novel, I see now that I shall have to find and read this book as well. Like anything Williams writes, the book has excellent dialogue and action sequences, and you never feel lost in the excitement or confused by inconsistent characterization.

I recommend this book to Star Wars fans and rate it a 4/5. To download a FREE copy of this e-book follow this link here: Ylesia Download.

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The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

18619684As Niffenegger’s debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, has sold nearly five million copies worldwide and has been translated into over thirty languages. But does this make it any good?

The Time Traveller’s Wife is about a man with a genetic disorder that allows him to unpredictably travel through time, and the woman that eventually becomes his wife, struggling to cope with his absences. Henry is a librarian who is far too concerned with making ‘punk’ references, and Clare is an Artist that makes paper sculptures, and between the two of them there is a lot of pretentiousness.

The book is not really science fiction or fantasy, it is a mainstream romance with ‘some science fiction elements’ in it. The story is… actually, non-existent. It’s a snapshot of these two people’s lives and an exploration of their relationship, but there is no real plot. At one point Henry visits a specialist who discovers his time travelling is a genetic disorder (because thats how DNA works, just ask Marvel comics) and here Niffenegger misses her biggest opportunity.

There could have been a thriller aspect, actually giving this book some real story: the government (or governments, multiple) could find out from the doctor (who could have been self serving instead of so blandly empathetic,) and could be hunting Henry, to study him and try to weaponize his ability. But instead we get a melodramatic ‘relationship story’ in which Henry’s friends are like stamps or coins – he just keeps collecting them throughout the book, and they are just always… there. In the background, or on the proverbial shelf.

Despite the story (or lack of) the relationship aspects are written well… mostly. Clare first meets Henry when she is six, and over the years as he pops in and out of her life she falls in love with him and learns that they are married in the future. She essentially sacrifices developing her personality and life to the “prophecy” of guaranteed marriage and ‘happy ever after’ regardless of her actions.

Both sides of the story are told from first-person perspective, but unfortunately, the characters themselves are actually quite bland, and the tones/voices used throughout the book are indistinguishable from each other. There are many many plot elements that felt forced or lazy, but there were also some pretty descent ones as well. Henry not only time travels, but also shifts through space as well. In one scene he time travels back and finds himself trapped inside a cage-like atrium in the library he works at that seems to have been built just for him to get trapped in (how unlucky).

Like James Cameron’s Terminator, it is only Henry’s body that time travels – so he always finds himself naked after he time travels. This leads to many situations where he is chased, arrested, beaten up, almost frozen to death in the snow: and with a few, brief exceptions, we are told about all these dramas and exciting sequences but never actually shown them. They are used as a ‘mystery element’ to give Clare something to worry about.

Personally, a naked man time travelling and finding himself on the run from Federal Agents and Russian/Chinese/Other military scientists would make a much more interesting book. In fact, I might just go write that book now.

But this book is a Romance Drama. That is all it is. It is written predominantly for women readers, who get off on reading about how Henry “licks her cunt” (a phrasing I find repugnant regardless of the book or the context of the story it is in,) and Niffeneggers self-evident (and confessed) sexual frustrations at the time are evident throughout the book. It almost becomes the author’s erotic fan-fiction journal.

There is a moment akin to in The Watchmen where a time-travelling Henry comes home to find Clare in bed with another version of Henry and climbs into bed with her and fucks her right there and then, next to himself. There is also a moment where Henry’s father walks in on two naked fifteen-year old Henrys doing what, according to Niffeneggar, ‘anybody would do if they could travel back in time.’ Her understanding of male sexuality is as accurate as her understanding of genetics.

This is a harmless read, perhaps not deserving of the praise it has received, but still enjoyable in most aspects. Women will enjoy the book for it’s romantic melodrama: the male demographic may be put off, expecting the military or X-men to come into it somehow and being disappointed that nothing exciting ever happens.

An acceptable 3.5/5.

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The Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

625603“It is the 31st millenium. Under the benevolent leadership of the Immortal Emporer the Imperium of Man has stretched out across the galaxy. It is a golden age of discovery and conquest. But now, on the eve of victory, the Emperor leaves the front lines, entrusting the great crusade to his favorite son, Horus. Promoted to Warmaster, can the idealistic Horus carry out the Emperor’s grand plan, or will this promotion sow the seeds of heresy among his brothers?”

For anyone not familiar with the Warhammer 40K franchise it can be daunting to look at the three pages of dramatis personae and wonder what you have gotten yourself into. 40,000 years in the future, mankind is spread throughout the cosmos, waging wars on a grandscale with all matter of sentient and non-sentient life; monstrous aliens, robotic-lifeforms, chaotic demonspawn, rogue factions of humans, magic-wielding races of advanced beings… Warhammer is full on. Imagine Star Wars on steroids, mixed with Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror, and everything written by Dickson, Busby and Heinlein.

Horus Rising is the first in the Horus Heresy trilogy, documenting his fall to the forces of chaos. The Imperium of Man is a complex Roman-inspired civilization split into countless factions and legions, all with varying alliances and ethos despite all fighting under the banner of the Emperor. Taken from wikipedia:

Horus Rising, the series opener, starts its real time narrative in the early years of the 31st millennium, during the 203rd year of the Great Crusade. It describes the rise to power of Horus Lupercal, Primarch of the “Luna Wolves” Legion of Space Marines, and the most versatile and favoured “son” of the Emperor. The Emperor has recently appointed him Warmaster, overall commander of Imperial military forces, and has left him in charge of the Crusade; he then returns to Terra, where in relative isolation is undertaking a secret project that even Horus is not privy to. Much of the focus of this novel is on Garviel Loken, Captain of the Luna Wolves’ 10th Company. He becomes a member of the Mournival, an informal advisory body to Horus, and participates in Crusade campaigns against anti-Imperials and aliens, referred to in the series as “xenos”. The story also hints at tensions in the nascent Imperium, exacerbated by the Emperor’s absence and actions – these are common themes in following books.

Though the scope of the franchise is galactic, and the vastness of the context for this book alone is enormous, the story relies on many small, quit and personal moments that make the characters unique and interesting. It is a heartbreaking tragedy to watch Horus on his path, knowing he will fall to darkness and many lives will be lost. It is a tribute to Dan Abnett that Horus is so well written, that we like the character and we feel a connection to him. And this makes his inevitable fall hurt so much more to witness.

But Horus is a primarch of the Space Marines – he is the pinnacle of genetic engineering and military training. And this means the book is drenched in sweat and blood and diesel and gasoline fumes and hydraulic fluid from mechs and robots and war machines, and the pages are littered with corpses that are burned, crippled, evaporated, dismembered or eaten. Dan Abnett has a skill for successfully blending the rough, testosterone-injected madness of future warfare with the quiet contemplation of philosophers and scholars and strategists.

You do not need to know anything of the Warhammer universe to enjoy this book. There are several pages of backstory and quotes and the dramatis personae at the front to bring any new reader up to speed quickly. Dan Abnett’s writing style is concise and well paced and you are instantly drawn into his world. For lovers of military science fiction or vast galactic military space operas, this book – and this franchise – is an absolute must.

A solid 8.5/10.

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Deepwater Landing by Ken Catran

Deepwater Landing.jpgThe biggest flaw with this book is that it tastes and smells and feels like a nineties young adults book. The biggest flaw with the nineties was the decadent sense of style – this book reads like that pair of neon-striped shorts that I used to always wear to school with the tie-dye shirt my crazy Aunt made for me; colourful, flambouyant and pointlessly stylistic, but like those neon clothes, this book didn’t keep me warm or comfortable: there was not enough substance to make it endurable, and when the colours faded after the last fatal wash, I was secretly relieved.

The story can be summarized thus: a ship crewed by teenage clones of living teenagers from a long time ago must explore the universe, searching for their ship’s namesake that carries the gene bank to restart life on Earth while alternating between numerous space-conflicts involving various aliens or dealing with various space phenomenon, or just plain dealing with teen angst in close quarters. In space. And sometimes the characters ‘prex’, stepping out of consciousness and re-living the memories of the people they were cloned from… except the memories are interactive and can be altered to affect the outcome of the future… it’s a potentially awesome idea that wasn’t quite fleshed out by the author and, like one of the signature alien monsters in the book, was just ‘trite’.

Don’t get me wrong, there was an engaging sense of story here – there was a suggestion of something epic waiting to happen, but the plot was filled with distractions and confusing story arcs that would have made more sense if the author hadn’t written with the assumption that the reader had already read the previous book. There were some visually neat concepts which were unique, and I can appreciate that, but the science that went with them was seriously understated or assumed and often made no sense, and this distracting confusion kept pulling me out of the story.

The characters were generic; but that is fine for a young adults book. YA want their expectations met when they read a book, and thus they do tend to be archetypal and formulaic, but I think this let the book down. Catran is clearly an accomplished writer and his story telling is highly imaginative; perhaps this story would have been better set for an adult fiction market or perhaps expanded into a quadrilogy; a little more time could easily have been spent on establishing some clearer rules on how this universe functions.

The book itself was lovely – the cover and pages are made of quality paper and card – it looks and feels crisp and the words are very easy to read. The Tui imprint by HarperCollins publishers, New Zealand, did a fantastic job when they produced this version of the book. There are plenty of inaccuracies and plot holes, and the overall feel of the book is immature and unfinished, but that aside, it was still an enjoyable read. This book would definitely have more appeal to a less critical or judgmental audience.

Ken Catran (born 1944) is a New Zealand Author with numerous awards for his children’s books and  is most well known for the Deepwater trilogy and his contributions to local serial drama, Shortland Street. Any article on Catran would be remiss not to quote his most famous line: “You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata.”

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