2004 SFX Reviews

Alastair Reynolds: Absolution Gap

(Gollancz, 565pp, £12.99, ISBN: 0575074345)

Alastair Reynolds continues to think big, with yet more space opera on a mindboggling scale. The events of Revelation Space awoke the dread Inhibitors, self-replicating machines programmed for excellent long-range reasons to wipe out interstellar civilizations. They made their first big strike against humanity in Redemption Ark, and our latest exotic weapons are barely enough to slow them down in Absolution Gap.

In keeping with these vaguely religious titles, book three features a convoy of vast mobile cathedrals. These trundle perpetually around a gas-giant's barren moon to keep devout watch on the planet overhead, which every so often – just for an instant – disappears. To the virus-indoctrinated faithful, a miracle. To others, a hint of forces that might be useful against the Inhibitors?

Following edge-of-the-seat episodes of weird space combat and gory revenge, several established characters head for this mystery aboard the starship Nostalgia for Infinity – still merged with its hideously transformed captain, like a kilometres-long Giger design. Traps within traps await them; lies, double-dealing and terrible choices.

Absolution Gap itself is a vast rift in the moon, with a long descent and ascent that hinders those cathedrals for days. But it's also spanned by a delicate 40-kilometre bridge built by unknown hands. When the hugest cathedral's demented Dean announces that these are the End Times and that his juggernaut must take a short cut for greater glory, you just know how this has to finish ...

But there are many complications, perhaps too many, as we learn of other players in the galactic game besides humanity, the Inhibitors, and the "gas giant" entities who the Dean suspects are demons. From his climax Reynolds jumps abruptly to an epilogue 400 years later, showing an outcome which is neither expected nor entirely satisfying. A terrific read, though, with some of the best boys' toys and special effects in contemporary SF.

One major character is a genetically modified pig who plays a heroic part, gun in trotter. Catchphrase: "A pig has to do what a pig has to do."

Ursula Le Guin: Changing Planes

(Gollancz, 214pp, £8.99, ISBN: 0575075643)

Changing Planes is a book of imaginary tourism, visiting fifteen worlds or "planes" which at first seem strange but often lie suspiciously close to home. Six of these excursions appeared as standalone short stories.

Le Guin's joky travel mechanism is driven by the utter tedium of airports. While waiting forever to change planes, experienced travellers can, as it were, mentally change planes and escape into alternate worlds. If that sounds like a metaphor for reading books, it's not the only one here. The other planes are settings for whimsical metaphors, parables, and thought experiments.

All this is surely an intentional homage to Italo Calvino's wonderful Invisible Cities, with its elaborate descriptions of fantastic cities – as reported by Marco Polo, who is always "really" talking about aspects of Venice. Likewise, the alien societies in Changing Planes, however disguised with beaks or wings, are mirrors for the human condition.

So we meet a race that has wrecked its own integrity with genetic engineering. Another that uses speech but mysteriously prefers silence. One whose emotions all come out as anger. One whose dreams are literally shared experiences. Yet others are locked for ridiculous reasons into unending cycles of war. Some of the pieces feel mildly preachy, but are still beautifully told.

The funniest report comes from the plane of the Hegnish, whose people are obsessed with royalty (though with a new satirical twist) and who lure tourists with pointless ceremonies like the Alternation of the Watch on the Walls. Royals, by the way, keep pet "gorkis". Who could Le Guin be sending up?

She doesn't spare Disneyland, either, in the all-American nightmare of a worldwide theme park whose attractions merely begin with Christmas Island, where the full Yuletide experience of tinsel, carols and (artificial) snow continues all year round.

Though relatively minor for Le Guin, Changing Planes is an enjoyable collection that switchbacks between wry humour and jarring emotional insight.

A sample Changing Planes story can be read online at The Infinite Matrix.

Martin Sketchley: The Affinity Trap

(Simon & Schuster, 306pp, £10.99, ISBN: 0743257340)

Martin Sketchley's fast-paced first novel combines elements of military SF, future dystopia and individual rebellion, garnished with oozing dollops of weird alien sex.

Earth is in a mess, with most people huddling inside vast towers. Anyone trying to scrape a living in the polluted outdoors is by definition scum, to be shot by sadistic "purifier" forces. What passes for government is a world military dictatorship run by the gross, corrupt General Myson.

Our hero or antihero Delgado is an old Intelligence man who remembers better days but still accepts the mission to track down Myson's escaped consort Lycern. For reasons of interstellar politics, the general has made a diplomatic alliance with a child-bearer from the three-sexed Serriatt race, and now this (approximate) woman has gone missing.

Delgado is an odd, unlikeable character who kills freely, takes bizarrely implausible risks to get hold of Lycern, and realizes too late that "he had been hasty, stupid, possibly both." In particular he doesn't bother to read his own mission briefing – with its urgent warning against canoodling with Serriatt child-bearers – until well after certain scenes unsuitable for children.

With new priorities driving him, Delgado chooses not to deliver Lycern to Earth as instructed. A spree on a decadent "leisurestation" in space leads to further deaths and a somewhat shocking betrayal. Against all the odds, Delgado makes it back home and plans a very nearly single-handed strike against Military Intelligence HQ, which is also Myson's personal palace.

The resulting action is suitably violent and hair-raising, with distinctly unexpected developments. But the finale is more a pause for commercials than a proper ending, for it seems that this author is committing trilogy.

Overall it's rousing stuff, with most unusual sex scenes. Delgado's personality, though, is not so much complex as chaotic, and takes ages to settle into even halfway sympathetic shape. An interesting debut, promising better things to come.

Read all about Mr Sketchley at his website: http://www.msketchley.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/

Tim LaHaye and Greg Dinallo: Babylon Rising

(Hodder & Stoughton, 400pp, £9.99, ISBN: 0340863102)

This supernatural thriller's opening "Message from Tim LaHaye" gives fair warning of his standpoint – that chiefly American vein of evangelism which insists on the literal accuracy of the Bible and its prophecies. Favourite issues include the Rapture, with the saved physically snatched up to heaven as in LaHaye's US-bestselling "Left Behind" sequence, and the imminence of the preceding Latter Days which begin in Babylon Rising.

Much of the action is sub-Indiana Jones adventure. Tough archaeologist hero Michael Murphy is armed not with whip and handgun but with a Bible, which he thumps. He's supposedly a scientist, but unlike real scientists doesn't accept the possibility that his theories could ever be overthrown by evidence.

To provide an exciting, movie-like opening, Murphy has an old adversary nicknamed Methuselah, who amuses himself by baiting death traps with priceless ancient artifacts. Surviving the latest challenge, our hero finds himself on the trail of the Brazen Serpent originally made by Moses, whose three fragments are (surprise!) concealed in widely separated Middle Eastern locations. Methuselah then vanishes from the story.

Meanwhile, all-powerful global conspirators known as The Seven plan to restore the evil empire of Babylon, and recruit Rupert Murdoch – well, someone very like him – as Antichrist. Their nasty hired assassin Talon enlivens things with ingenious murders, and spreads the wicked smear that evangelical fundamentalists are fanatical nutters.

Murphy's archaeological searches are desperately implausible. One fragment is found by accidentally falling down a hole. Another's position in miles of mediaeval sewers is helpfully signalled by chanting from a death-cult. The third lump of metal, most absurdly, has been floating for millennia in an air updraft within a pyramid. These three treasures lead to a fourth, miraculously undiscovered and unlooted in Iraq ...

Babylon Rising ends with Evil triumphantly twirling its moustachios, and sequels to follow. Even if you don't mind the force-feed of religious hectoring, this is pretty dire. It will be a US bestseller.

Here's Murphy the open-minded scientist: "Proving the Bible is true is what I do. I can't think of anything more important."

Liz Williams: Nine Layers of Sky

(Tor UK, 427, £10.99, ISBN: 1405005637)

The remnants of the Soviet Union hold special fascination for SF authors. Here the 21st century is weirdly different from all those Cold War predictions ...

Liz Williams has a sure feel for the dreams of Russia and its breakaway states. Her story, mixing realism, fantasy and alternate-world SF, deals with the clash of visions that have gone awry. Its otherworld refuge began eighty years ago as an idealized, mythic Russia that's now slipped into Stalinist paranoia, with literal thought police – not-quite-humans who steal dreams and reshape minds.

For the real-world rocket scientist Elena, space travel is the big dream, but her career foundered with the Soviet space programme. Secret interworld plotting forces her into the company of Ilya, an immortal swordsman hero who after eight centuries is a despairing heroin addict, actively seeking death. But he's invariably saved by his perceived enemies, the rusalki of Central Asian folklore, shapeshifters who under their veils of illusion seem strangely similar to Alien Grays.

There's a kind of McGuffin, an ancient device which opens gateways between Earth and the dreamland "Byelovdye". After accidentally picking this up in chapter one, Elena is targeted by various groups. World-hopping pursuits ensue, spiced with violence, zeppelins, futuristic jets, dream technology, horse-clans, and sorcerers. The book's real charm, though, is firmly based in character and landscape. Liz Williams surely loves the countries through which Elena and Ilya trek so painfully.

Nine Layers of Sky has no Dark Lord or kitten-stroking supervillain; just uneasy factions of ordinary people and not-quite-people, driven by insecurities and incompatible dreams. Eventually Elena gets the opportunity to make an important choice about the worlds and their destiny, and – hanging on to her own dream of space – picks an option that wasn't among those offered. Suddenly the future looks different but still (like all futures) uncertain. A strongly atmospheric story that sticks in the mind.

Liz Williams's past jobs include tarot fortune-telling on Brighton Palace Pier and teaching in (guess where) Central Asia. Her website: www.arkady.btinternet.co.uk.

Robert Rankin: Knees Up Mother Earth

(Gollancz, 376pp, £9.99, ISBN: 0575073152)

Once again Rankin makes his title brilliantly irrelevant to the actual, anarchic story.

Few people know that one of Terry Pratchett's favourite funny novels is J.L. Carr's How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup. Just for Mr Pratchett, Robert Rankin offers an even more awesome assault on the ultimate crown of British football, by ... Brentford.

Naturally the fate of Earth hangs in the balance. Brentford FC is millions of pounds in debt. Satanic property developers are poised to foreclose on their ground – the true site of the Garden of Eden – and thus unleash Armageddon. With the Brentford team's proven incompetence compounded by installing beer-swilling layabouts Pooley and Omally as manager and PA, the outlook is hopeless.

Nevertheless Professor Slocombe, ancient wizard-about-town, has a cunning plan. Some very strange football matches ensue, with tactics not seen since the beautiful game was invented during the Roman occupation. In Brentford.

Unfortunately the diabolical Consortium, brooding in its Dark Tower in Chiswick, has limitless resources. These range from mind control to lost Babbage-Tesla technologies (accidentally rediscovered by local newsagent Norman) and Great Cthulhu himself. Then there's Mr H.G. Wells and his faulty Time Machine ...

The plot, in short, is every bit as outrageous and silly as expected. Storytelling varies from the padded jocularity of those old Billy Bunter yarns ("talking toot", Rankin calls it) to flashes of lunatic genius, like cascading gags about the predominance of dead or moribund stars at the football club's gala benefit night. Bits may be falling off the Beverley Sisters, but the show must go on.

Again Pooley and Omally confront horrors worse than regular employment – not merely evil, damnation and death, but getting barred from the Flying Swan pub. Not to mention many terrible old jokes. "What terrible old jokes?" "I told you not to mention them!" As H.P. Lovecraft said, the Old Ones are the best ones. Sometimes.

A typical Rankin extravaganza of illogic. Read it and go mad.

This is not only book seven of the Brentford trilogy – prefacing the rest – but a sequel to The Witches of Chiswick. God knows why.

Conrad Williams: London Revenant

(The Do-Not Press, 336pp, £7.99, ISBN: 1904316387)

A hallucinatory shocker whose readers may never risk the Circle Line again.

London is a favourite setting for urban nightmares, from plague-pits and Jack the Ripper to Iain Sinclair's psychogeography, Barbara Vine's Underground paranoia in King Solomon's Carpet, and the London Below of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Conrad Williams offers his own take on the City mythos – knowing, memorably dark, full of unexpected jolts.

The hero Adam is likeable, despite the trauma of a failed relationship and a memory chopped to salami by narcoleptic fits. He's wryly witty about his awful, dead-end jobs. But Adam hears voices, sees cryptic symbols on walls, finds clues pointing to his own involvement in an alternative London where they call him Monck.

Meanwhile, London Revenant flirts with the serial-killer genre, as many Tube passengers have close encounters with train wheels. Newspapers call the unknown villain The Pusher, but sometimes a hand snakes up from below to pull ... and worse tricks await. How can a lone madman make simultaneous attacks at five different stations? In a gut-wrenchingly literal sense, the chief villain proves to be faceless.

Adam's love for London leads him to follow his scarily dysfunctional friends in quest of secret geographies, "dead zones", haunted city corners which can't really exist but sometimes, in just the right light, do. Repeatedly and scarifyingly, he touches the edges of that other, hidden London. However, Adam also suffers bad dreams, and firmly rejects certain memories as things that "hadn't actually happened". He may sometimes be wrong about being wrong.

You can't dismiss all the deep-rooted weirdness of London Revenant as fever dreams. London Below exists, has a shadowy claim on Adam/Monck, and expects him to handle an appalling responsibility. One scene which "must" be deliriously symbolic hallucination is actually the beginning of a massive (un)natural disaster. London doesn't survive unscathed. Nor does Adam. Nor will you. An impressive tour-de-force that ranges from grimy magic realism to outright horror.

Writers namechecked in London Revenant include Lewis Carroll, Alan Garner and Ramsey Campbell. The jacket carries plugs from Graham Joyce and M. John Harrison.

Ramsey Campbell: The Overnight

(PS Publishing, 414pp, £35.00, ISBN: 190288096X)

Never build a bookstore on haunted marshland that's swallowed whole villages ...

Is it wise for a master of contemporary horror to write a novel calculated to leave us terrified of entering those ghastly, blasphemous shrines called bookshops? In 2000, Ramsey Campbell spent months working for Borders, and the memory lingers.

Of course his Texts store in fogbound Fenny Meadows retail park is nothing like Borders. Perish the thought. But Campbell is expert at building spidery structures of disquiet from unpromising real-life foundations. Shuttling through the viewpoints of thirteen doomed bookshop staff, The Overnight generates a whacking charge of paranoia even before supernatural influence begins to ooze from the woodwork.

Naturally Texts has customers from hell – ominous bald thugs who seem permanent fixtures, potty-mouthed children, Pythonesque pranksters, stroppy folk returning strangely damaged goods, censorious reading groups, and the unfortunate Mr R. Sole whose phoned orders don't get taken seriously. Then the author from hell demands VIP treatment at the signing session from hell ...

Even their computer seems cursed, with publicity flyers – no matter how carefully proofread – announcing event's and readins at Text's. Fog thickens. Dampness infests the children's section. Odd shapes wobble across security TV monitors. Shelves rearrange themselves by night, helping awkward relationships among the staff to speed downhill. The determinedly gung-ho American manager demands synthetic smiles and hearty greetings to customers, even while exasperation slides into nightmare.

One ragged-nerved worker finds his reading ability fading away in Texts. Others are troubled by the shop's cranky service lift, which would be a running gag if this were comedy; a grim punchline awaits. No one can quite make out the shapeless figure responsible for the first, shockingly unexpected death. With an important event looming, our desperate manager orders an all-night shift. Bad idea.

Final episodes of full-throated horror seem more conventional and less penetrating than Campbell's earlier, acutely observant, even witty escalation of unease. Still, it's a powerfully disturbing read. Bookshop attendance may plummet.

Nice jacket by J.K. Potter. But the binding of this £35 hardback (£60 in deluxe slipcase) began to come apart in just one reading. Horrors!

Clive Barker: Abarat II: Days of Magic, Nights of War

(HarperCollins, 512pp, £20.00, ISBN: 0007100450)

Dark Lords are bad enough, but their grannies are worse.

Book two of The Abarat Quartet returns to Clive Barker's fantasy archipelago of twenty-five islands, each frozen at its own hour of the day. Inevitably the nightmarish Dark Lord, Christopher Carrion, rules the isle of everlasting midnight. For little reason beyond general luxuriation in villainy, he plans to extend this darkness across the entire magic sea called Izabella.

The scanty, haphazard opposition centres on Candy Quackenbush, an "ordinary" girl from a ghastly US Midwest town who (rather like Dorothy in Oz) was carried to fantasyland by Izabella's impossible tides. Secretly, of course, Candy's far from ordinary. Touring the archipelago, dodging repeated murder and kidnap attempts by the forces of Night, she discovers unexpected abilities ...

So far, so familiar. Barker places his unique stamp on this enterprise with a gallery of wonders, horrors and eccentrics. The Abarat teems with weirdly-shaped life, most of it sympathetic. Even Carrion has flashes of fellow-feeling, though his still more appalling granny seems beyond repentance. Denizens of the carnival island's freak show are more inwardly human than the cruel proprietors (this is very Barker), and Candy frees them while on the run.

Strangely, despite frowning on racism, heightism, freakism and general monsterism, Barker shows a touch of insectism here. Carrion's world-destroying hordes of noxious "sacbrood" are insectile and therefore, it seems, irretrievably malign – a routine fantasy attitude, but something you'd expect this author to subvert. Perhaps in later volumes he will.

Alarmed at being a perpetual focus for violence and death, Candy reluctantly decides to rejoin her family in Chickentown, USA. The voyage isn't easy, though, with a hideous warship in pursuit as once again the sea comes to the Midwest ...

Abarat reads well. Barker may pull his gruesome punches slightly for a supposed audience of children – Carrion himself seems rather feeble at showdown time – but there are shudders and marvels aplenty. The book finishes well; the story's only half told.

It's illustrated with over 125 Barker oil paintings, in colour. Critics disagree about these: interestingly grotesque or grotesquely bad? Website: www.thebooksofabarat.com.

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

(Bloomsbury, 788pp, £17.99, ISBN: 0747570558)

Magic and mystery in the time of Pride and Prejudice

Susanna Clarke's first novel is both a vast historical fantasy and a elegant comedy of manners which, though dealing unashamedly with magic and fairies, reached the Booker Prize longlist.

In her alternate 1807 England, magic is studied but not actually practised – until Mr Norrell gives a spectacular demonstration. Norrell is a stuffy miser of magic who likes to "destroy" rivals, forcing them to abandon their books and occult studies. But he's greatly taken by the talent of young Jonathan Strange, who becomes his pupil.

Though Clarke's witty narration pays homage to Jane Austen, the action has a wider, Dickensian range. The Napoleonic wars benefit from sorcerous assistance, like ships made of rain and hastily rearranged geography. Supporting characters include worthless society fops, an upright black manservant fated to become a king, and a false magician carrying a true prophecy. Mad King George IV is almost literally away with the fairies; there's a splendidly catty portrait of Byron.

Norrell and his rebellious apprentice clash – in a gentlemanly way – over the roots of English magic. But their real problem is a whimsical, amoral gentleman of the fairy folk, with whom an ill-advised contract was struck. Repercussions include two kinds of madness, attempted assassination, a changeling, abduction, and an eternal curse.

Amid the interwoven plotlines there are comic and sinister fairytales filling lengthy footnotes; centuries of tasty back-story and occult scholarship; even quirks of real history like the Duke of Wellington's encounter, during Waterloo, with a British button manufacturer who'd come to watch. During some digressions the tale loses momentum, but patience is richly rewarded.

Throughout, Clarke's magic is truly magical, unexpected yet fresh and natural. Her period prose and dialogue are a joy to read. A final wry comedy of errors brings the story to a unexpectedly satisfying resolution. Highly recommended.

Follow-ups (if not direct sequels) are planned: see www.jonathanstrange.com. Strange himself first appeared in Clarke's 1996 fantasy "The Ladies of Grace Adieu", in Starlight 1 ed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

Stephen Donaldson: The Runes of the Earth

(Gollancz, 596pp, £18.99, ISBN: 0575075988)

Another outbreak of Foul play

It was 1977 when self-tormented leper Thomas Covenant first entered the fantasy "Land" whose magic and beauty he didn't dare let himself believe. In that first controversial, knottily-written trilogy, Covenant the Unbeliever eventually thwarted the subtly named Lord Foul the Despiser and his plans of mass destruction.

A decade later – millennia in Land time – Covenant revisited the newly blighted fantasyland for the Second Chronicles, and ultimately saved the day by dying. Now, ten years and further millennia after that, his former companion Linden Avery is violently hurled into the Land to face a subtler contamination and a dwindled Foul working evil by proxy: "I have merely whispered a word of counsel here and there ..."

The Runes of the Earth opens the Last Chronicles with a prologue summarizing the past six volumes, followed by much scene-setting. Covenant himself issues cryptic advice from beyond the grave. There's an aged madman who long ago lost the Staff of Law, vital to the Land's health. New hazards include giant wolves and mysterious timestorms. The unsleeping Bloodguard, this world's staunchest defenders, have (to Linden's horror) forbidden all use of life-enhancing Earthpower magic for fear of its misuse.

Again Foul gloats interminably that Linden's opposition to his unexplained plans will only help him. Nevertheless she launches a wild quest for that Staff, with strange allies who were once enemies. Though endlessly self-doubting, Linden has a cheerier personality than Covenant, and achieves partial success. But there are dire side effects ...

As shown in his SF "Gap" series, Donaldson has developed a gift for labyrinthine plotting. Runes introduces many intriguing characters, often flawed or wrong-headed, with the promise of complex interaction to come. It reads pretty well, with a jolting cliff-hanger ending. Let's hope for satisfying payoffs in the sequels.

Donaldson still flaunts his famously offbeat vocabulary. Computer analysis of this volume's favourite words predicts that book two should be titled The Eldritch Phosphenes of Formication. Actually, it's Fatal Revenant.