Squid’s Grief by D.K. Mok

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A fast-paced thriller filled with humor, intrigue and palpable smoke-screens.

Set in the near future, Squids Grief is a crime thriller with some cyberpunk elements. Squid is a thief with morals who has ‘one last job’ before she goes clean, but everything goes wrong when she finds Grief, a man with no memories, inside the boot of a car she steals. Meanwhile, the gangs are in upheaval as they are restructured and gang-war begins to break out and Police officer Casey is trying to tackle the rising gang violence in the city of Baltus; but the harder she fights, the more intricate the web of corruption ensnaring the city and it’s officials becomes.

D.K. Mok’s third novel, Squid’s Grief is thoughtfully written; fast-paced with excellent action and consistent humor throughout, it also manages to deal with strong themes without being preachy. Both villains and heroes are seeking new beginnings; the gangs, the police department, Casey, Squid, Grief and even the city itself – everyone is seeking a figurative rebirth and a fresh start. The secondary theme of redemption is also strong in this book. Both heroes and villains alike are three dimensional characters full of regret and desire; they are well written, likable characters who all walk in that moral grey zone. There is no clear-cut good or bad. Everyone is a hero, or a villain, to someone depending on their situation or point of view.

The thriller aspect of the story was well done. I fell for many of the distractions and got distracted by the smokescreens and I was wholly surprised by the twists as they appeared. In all, this was a very enjoyable read that I recommend to anyone that enjoys the show Gotham or authors like John le Carre or Lee Child. 8/10.

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Mortal Gods by Jonathan Fast (part one)

2271892Her skin was sea-blue, so fine as to be almost transparent. The scintillation of light across it seemed to be caused by some sparkling oil, possibly cosmetic or else an effusion of the flesh. Her neck was long, thin and graceful; her face, surrounded by a halo of fleecy white hair, was dominated by huge almond eyes. Nose and mouth combined in a pliant beak, giving her the profile of a hawk.

And thus are we introduced to the strange and reclusive Alta-Tyberians: a species destined to extinction unless the scientists at MutaGen Corporation can find the fault in Alta-Ty DNA and prevent further generations of deformities and sterility.

Nicholas Harmon – a failed genetic engineer now working as public relations officer – is chosen to accompany Hali, the Alta-Ty emissary who brought the frozen samples of sperms and ova to MutaGen. While she is on Sifra-Mesa Spaceport (cloning and genetic engineering being outlawed sciences on Earth) she witnesses the murders of two Lifestylers – God-like genetic constructs that are worshipped across the galaxy.

It is at this point that the story starts taking twists and turns in unexpected directions. It becomes an inter-dimensional murder mystery layered with political intrigue, social rhetoric, decent action scenes and some crazy adventures that give it a 50’s pulp science fiction vibe.

Nick Harmon is bigoted and chauvinistic and makes no effort to disguise the fact. His attitude towards women and aliens, the casual use of strong swear words in some scenes and the numerous sex scenes (a mix of equally erotic and uncomfortable to read,) make this book a futuristic blaxploitation story but with an updated colour pallet.

This feel is further fuelled by the almost-African features of Hali on the cover and the constant retrofuturistic language and technology used throughout the book. And yet, these elements are redeemed; the science is, still to this day, relatively accurate, the political environment surprisingly close to post 9-11 America (this book being written in 1978), and Nicholas Harmon actually has a deep and thorough character arc.

Pepper this with a mixture of hard-science, biopunk and some technoir elements (imagine The Matrix and Blade Runner and the Alien franchise had a bastard child), and add some intriguing ideas and compelling plot, and you get an incredibly unique and entertaining story.

See Mortal Gods (part two) for an interview with Jonathan Fast.

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Plague Ship by Andre Norton

uiqlqvtPlague Ship is the second novel in a seven volume series about the Free Traders – A crew of Merchants that explore new worlds and make contact with new species to open up trade. The story was published in 1956, and though it is almost sixty years old now, it has aged gracefully.

Set within its own clear continuity, it makes no specific references to style, language or culture that could otherwise date the book. The story makes no effort to try to explain the precise intricacies of its scientific principles; a common pitfall of vintage science fiction that causes the stories to become nonsensical as our evolving knowledge of technology destroys their credibility.

The first chapter does an amazing job setting the scene on the strange and exotic planet of Sargol; its strange cultural practices, its beautiful scenery and its interesting people. Dutiful and honour-bound, the crew of the Solar Queen are all likable and well-written characters. The antagonists are the IS – InterSolar – an interplanetary trading conglomerate that uses corrupt bureaucratic processes and corporate espionage to undermine their competitors and secure trading rights

At its heart this is an under-dog story. It is a tale of over-comming obstacles and challenges, and the battle of truth over injustice. This is a theme we can all relate to at some point in our lives, whether it is in our youths or in our adulthoods.

The story is well paced and broken into three Acts. The first Act deals with the inter-relationships between the Solar Queen, the IS agents trying to sabotage their trade negotiations, and the Salariki – the native inhabitants of Sargol – and there is plenty of well-written exploration of the Salariki culture and their environment.

An interesting species, they remind you of the Na’Vi from James Cameron’s Avatar – a strong, lithe and cat-like alien species that lives in balance with their surrounding environment. An interesting and unique part of these people is their sense of smell. It is so strong that it has guided their cultural evolution, and their customs and currency all revolve around scent and aroma.

The second Act deals with their travels in space as they leave Sargol behind and return to Terra to sell their acquired commodities. It is during this time they begin to fall ill and are labeled by the IS as a Plague Ship. This creates all sorts of conflicts as they have limited resources, their crew numbers are dropping, and they are contractually bound to complete their trade or they lose the sole trading rights to Sargol and forfeit a fortune and are potentially black-listed.

The pace becomes faster as they try to meet the trade deadline whilst struggling to solve the growing mystery of the plague. The plague itself was well-written and keeps you guessing throughout the story as to its origin or cause. Ideas and concepts from the start of the story are reintroduced here and this makes the story feel well rounded.

The third Act is a departure from the first two as it deals with bureaucracy and politics and the legal ramifications of the actions the Solar Queen’s crew in their struggle to survive. There are some nice action scenes in the climax, and then a short but satisfying denouement: the heroes are rewarded, the antagonists get their comeuppance, and the final lines are a tidy segue into the next book:

     “Thank the Spirit of Free Space there’s practically no trouble one can get into on a safe and sane mail route!”

     But Cargo-Master Van Rycke, in spite of knowing the Solar Queen and the temper of her crew, was exceedingly over-optimistic when he made that emphatic statement.

I have read this book several times over the years, and I think each time I read it I enjoy it a little bit more. As previously stated, the characters are likeable and, most important, they are relatable and realistic and so are their actions.

Andre Norton was always a master at creating colorful worlds and creatures and she knew how to make them co-exist in believable ways, and I highly recommend this book for any fan of Science-Fiction or Fantasy.

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The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

0141John Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction, later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) once commented that Science Fiction was incompatible with Mystery. In response to this, Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel – A Science Fiction murder mystery which, to this day, is still one of the best technoir books I have read.

It is set in a distant dystopian future where Earth’s population explosion and limited resources have seen humanity cluster together in self-contained megacities. As humanity dwells in these ‘steel caves’, they become more agoraphobic and xenophobic with each passing generation as people forget about the outdoors and forget about open spaces, the concepts becoming archaic and almost mythical.

Because of lacking resources, these megacities are designed to be efficient in various ways: there is no longer a fiscal currency, only a privilege-based caste system, designed to encourage people to work harder for perks instead of abstract wealth; and amenities are shared to reduce maintenance and energy costs (unless your caste provides you with individual amenities,) and to more efficiently utilise available floor-space.

The story is about detective Elijah Baley who is tasked to solve the murder of a robotics expert who lives outside in a “Spacer Outpost”. The Spacers are Earth emigrants that have colonised many other worlds. They maintain low population densities and use extensive robot labour and as a result they live comfortable lives of wealth and excess.

Elijah, with all his inherited prejudices and biases, is partnered with a robot detective, R. Daneel Olivaw, from the Spacer Outpost. Together they must investigate the murder while trying to remain inconspicuous in an environment of fear; riots and hate-crimes against robots within the city being standard. Not only must he be discrete, but Elijah must succeed in order to preserve his social privileges and prevent being declassified into a lower caste.

The characters are likeable – Elijah’s concerns are actually valid and thought-out, and Daneel is just the right mix of computer and personality. They each have decent character arcs, and their relationship is realistic and sometimes down-right funny.

The settings are incredibly unique (and are the precursors to Asimovs Foundation series, with Daneel Olivaw a recurring character) and are well described, and as with any Asimov fiction, the world is logical and makes sense.

The murder mystery is superb. There are so many suspects, so many dead-ends, red-herrings and false trails, that up until the last chapter I had wrongly deduced the murderer at least half a dozen times, and anytime I came close to the truth, Asimov would throw misleading information at me and I would be just as confused as the characters.

This book is of prime dualities – it is an excellent example of how to write a detective murder mystery, and it is also a great example of how to write intelligent science fiction that takes into account technology and civism and politics and how they change over time.

If you love Asimov then you will enjoy this book. If you have never read Asimov, then this is a great introduction for you, and a great introduction to the Laws of Robotics that define almost all his writings, and influenced generations of writers and film makers.

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