Thursday, 19 January 2017

Science fiction disappointing duo review

As I've mentioned before, after a long gap of not thinking much of contemporary science fiction writers, I have hit on two - Adam Roberts and the late lamented Iain M. Banks - who for me represent the best that SF has to offer. I got a whole pile of their books for Christmas and review two here. In each case, these happen to be the worst book by this author I've read. By most people's standards they're good, but - to me - weren't quite up to the usual incredibly high quality. This is no surprise - I've never seen an author who didn't have ups and downs.

We'll start with Adam Roberts and Swiftly. As usual with Roberts this is an exploration of an audacious idea - in this case, we are in a world where the various species from Swift's Gulliver's Travels (see what he did with the title?) are real and encroaching on business and life in Victorian Britain. Of itself this is wonderfully imagined - the abuse, for example of Lilliputians (or their neighbours Blefuscudians, who have to repeatedly point out they aren't Lilliputians) to perform extremely detailed work in factories is brilliant. And the employment in war by the French of giants from Brobdingnag who reluctantly help them to partially conquer the UK, helped by Babbage engines with a twist, is equally clever.

However, Roberts also introduces other layers, going bigger and smaller than Swift's variants, with a destructive ultra giant in a spaceship and a plague caused by tiny creatures that wipes out large swathes of humanity. As is almost always the case with disaster stories, the result is a depersonalisation of the storyline where I find it hard to identify much with what's going on. And though the main characters survive the plague, they too remain a little distant and untouchable, in part because Roberts in probably trying to give them period sensibilities, which mix with some more modern viewpoints that sit a little uncomfortably. In the end, the latter part of the book, a seemingly endless trek from London to York for what felt like no good reason, dragged a lot. I'm glad I read Swiftly, but I can't imagine reading it again, where most of Roberts' books are high on my list for repeated consumption.

The other title that didn't quite work for me was Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas. The absolute joy and totally original creation of his science fiction books is the Culture. This hedonistic, clever, human and machine, seemingly anarchistic yet superbly functional empire without an emperor is a work of creative genius and in most of his Culture books it is front and centre. One of the problems with Consider Phelbas is that, although the Culture has a presence throughout as one side in a war, the book isn't about the Culture but rather an individual and his crusade against the Culture, which he feels is ultimately wrong for humanity. Because of this, he sides with the three-legged species with which the Culture is reluctantly at war.

The result is that the book descends into baroque space opera pure and simple, where Banks' books are usually far more, even though they use all of the language and paraphernalia of the space opera genre. If you enjoy pure space opera, this will be good news - but it's rarely my thing. There's an element of a quest story, but an awful lot of set piece battles and unpleasant scenes where the protagonist comes close to death in sadistic ways. Though there are brief asides set in the Culture (and one ambiguous Culture central character), they feel tacked on and don't particularly add to the story. I'm afraid it also felt far too long and some of the set pieces - notably when the mega ship hits the ice - were hard to follow descriptively. I've been fascinated by every Culture book I've read so far - but this one wasn't for me. I gather it was the first of the Culture novels, and it may be that the author was yet to settle into his stride.

Swiftly is available from and

Consider Phlebas is available from and

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Shock, horror, EU madness

Unlike many of my social media friends, I am no fan of the European Union. Every direct contact I've ever had with the EU has involved ridiculous bureaucracy and vast amounts of wasted money. This has been everything from involvement in two large EU projects to something as simple as EHIC card, required to get healthcare in the EU - given I have an EU passport, why on Earth do I also need the costly (to the taxpayer) card, which has to be renewed every few years, as well?

However, if the news story illustrated is true, it seems that the European Parliament has sunk to the sort of levels that were mocked so effectively in Yes, Prime Minister. 'Electronic persons?' Really? Not only is it technologically ignorant - effectively they are considering legislating for science fiction - it's chauvinist, applying human labels to a totally different form of entity, even if robots were intelligent and conscious, which they aren't. I wonder if the MEPs have ever seen an actual robot?

I'm sorry, this is simply ridiculous.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Keep your retail nose out, please

I don't know if it's some kind of New Year retail 'engage with the customer' exercise, but practically every shop I've been in so far this year has required me to fend off personal enquiries from the sales assistant. Let's be totally clear here. I do not want to tell you:
  • What I've got planned for the day
  • If I've got the day off
  • If I'm having a relaxing day
  • Whether I have a full calendar
  • Or any other personal details of my life
You get the point. I go into a shop to buy something. I do not want a conversation. I do not want a fake friend pretending to take an interest in me. I have a life, but I have no interest in sharing it with a complete and often spotty stranger.

To be fair, I don't blame the sales assistants - they have no doubt been told to do this. But please be clear, retailers. Don't assume that all your customers want to share details of their day with complete strangers. Stop instructing your sales staff to ask about it. Or you are going to drive me entirely to online shopping. 

Got it? Good. How's your day going so far, by the way?

Rant over.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Dispatch, despatch, let's call the whole thing off

As a writer I'm interested in words, and I expect that most publishers have a similar affection, so I was slightly surprised when I got an invoice from Macmillan (I'd bought some copies of one of my books - someone has to) and found what appeared to me to be a spelling mistake. Here's what I saw:

The invoice used the spelling 'despatch' several times, yet I've always spelled the word 'dispatch'. As often happens at this point I had that nagging doubt I'd been doing it wrong all this time... so I hared off to that universal arbiter of all things wordly (sic), the Oxford English Dictionary.

Even though the dictionary gave both spellings, I was delighted to discover that my spelling is the more correct one - and the incorrect (sorry, less preferred) spelling seems to have been due to a late night on the part of Dr Johnson.

According to the OED, the word was always spelled 'dispatch' from its introduction until the early 19th century. However, Johnson use 'despatch' in his dictionary. This sounds almost certainly a mistake (we've all seen what he was like on Blackadder) - apparently Johnson only ever used 'dispatch' himself, as did all the authors cited by him, so it's hard to imagine it was intentional.

I leave the OED to give the final word: 'dispatch is to be preferred, as at once historical, and in accordance with English analogy; for even if this word had begun in Middle English with a form in des- from Old French (which it did not), it would regularly have been spelt dis- by 1500: see des- prefix, dis- prefix, prefixes.' Can't argue with that. So if you feel the urge to 'despatch', correct yourself immediately.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Should nits be picked?

I suspect most authors get emails from readers that cause an initial surge of pleasure, followed by a sense of anxiety. They tend to have the format 'I am enjoying your book...' Good! '... but...'  Ah.

I've just had the first of these for my new book Are Numbers Real and I wanted to share it, to consider whether sending this sort of email is a good idea or not.

My correspondent, Harvey Randall, started by saying he was enjoying the book, so I got my initial positive peak, but then he pointed out
However, there may be either a non sequitur or a typo on page 24...
The first line on the page, continuing the sentence on the previous page, states "... a simple rule) to add XXIII to XLIV for instance ... teach children how to add 23 to 45 ...."
I believe XLIV = Arabic 44.
While there is no particular reason why the Roman and Arabic sums should have been the same one, so it's not strictly a non-sequitur, I suspect with the numbers so close it was a typo (I honestly can't remember what I intended), and I have requested a change for future printings.

On the one hand, then, this is a useful thing to do. It's good that we can correct the typo (though obviously nothing can be done for existing books in print), because errors distract some readers from the content, and though this particular one does not alter the message in any way, anything that causes a distraction weakens the book.

Now, every book I've ever read contains typos and errors - I always spot at least one, but I don't usually contact the author to tell them. (If I'm reviewing a book I do as a courtesy, but that's a bit different.) I think there are two reasons for this. One is I don't want to impose the same sickening drop of the stomach on discovering an error on another author - and the other is I think it makes me look a bit of a nit-picker. To be fair, anyone who knows me realises I am, like many with a scientific background, a serious nit-picker anyway, so perhaps this shouldn't bother me.

I don't think there is a cut and dried answer. I'm certainly not asking readers to stop pointing out errors - I always pass them on to the publisher (though I'm not sure the publisher always does anything with them), and I genuinely want my books to be as good as possible. But they aren't very nice emails to receive.

So if you do pick up a copy of  Are Numbers Real, which I hope you will - it's taken off in the US faster than anything else I've written, and we'll have a UK edition in about three weeks' time (available for preorder) - please do feel free to point out any errors (though not this one). I will genuinely be grateful, if also a little sad.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Damned Busters review

The Damned Busters follows in a noble tradition of humorous fantasies in which someone gets one over on the devil when entering into a pact - such stories follow on from what seems to be a very early form of fantasy story with a number of legends (usually explaining odd landmarks) using this plot line.

In Matthew Hughes' novel, comic-book obsessed Chesney Artstruther, an actuary on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. accidentally summons a demon. His refusal to accept a pact results in a strike in Hell, which leads to Satan agreeing to allow Chesney demon-powered super abilities in exchange for ending the strike.

Altogether this works reasonably well - Hughes has some clever twists on the pact with the devil riff, and keeps us engaged, even though the female characters are very old-fashioned: the overbearing mother, the girl he loves who is beautiful but shallow and the girl he will end up with who is bright and sassy. The writing style is good but sits slightly oddly with the setting - I assumed Hughes was English (he's actually Canadian) because the way it is written feels like an outsider's view of the US.

The ending is somewhat unsatisfying too, fixing a local problem but clearly leading on to further books (there's a trilogy). And compared with the greats of this genre there really isn't enough made of the limitations that come with such pacts. Chesney's assistant demon seems pretty much lacking in demonic qualities and is a nice guy really, while the open-endedness of the pact itself allows for far too much deus ex machina in the plotting. However, the underlying concepts of the rebellion in Hell and of the idea that existence is a story still being written are genuinely interesting, so it may be worth continuing to volumes 2 and 3.

The Damned Busters is available from and

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Case of the 'Hail Mary' Celeste review

Malcolm Pryce is rightly known for his wonderful novels setting a Sam Spade-like, world-weary detective in the hell-hole of crime that is Aberystwyth, with druids as gangsters and good time girls in Welsh national costume. In these books, Pryce creates a fantasy world that is totally bonkers, and yet works remarkably well. His new creation, the railway detective Jack Wenlock, might seem at first glance to be more of the same - and the book does have some of the same kind of absurdity with, for example, a group of nuns who go mysteriously go missing from a train and rampage across Africa - but 'Hail Mary' Celeste is several degrees closer to reality than the Aberystwyth books, and both benefits and loses from this.

The plus side is Pryce's affection for the Great Western Railway. His lead character might be odd in the extreme, but it's hard not share some of Wenlock's love for the old-fashioned ideals of the railway (admittedly without being given a mother fixation on a locomotive). Pryce captures the emotional intensity that the railways have held for some, even giving a bit part to a young Doctor Beeching, already a hater of the railways, and culminating with an appendix to the book that lists over 2,000 stations that Beeching recommended closing in his report - this has the same kind of nostalgic heart-pull as that Flanders and Swann song that lists some of the evocative station names that were closed.

There's also more character development here than in the Aberystwyth books, where most of the players are set in aspic. This is a story of lost innocence - Wenlock begins by believing that the state and the powers that be are caring benefactors, but comes to realise that they ruthlessly take an 'end justifies the means' approach. At the same time he goes from being a child emotionally to understanding love for the first time. I also truly delighted in some of the details in the interspersed excerpts from the '1931 Gosling Annual', particular the 'Answers to readers' letters', where we never see what was written, but from the answers it seems the readers mostly wanted to create mayhem and murder.

In some ways, then, this is a book with a closer attachment to reality than Pryce's earlier novels (the Goslings might not have existed, but a lot of the GWR detail is real) and with stronger character work. And I did very much enjoy it - but for me it lacked the edge of the Aberystwyth books which create a parallel universe that is whole and works on its own merits. In this book the grotesque is half and half with reality, and somehow that made it a little less satisfying. Nonetheless, Pryce has demonstrated once again his mastery of seeing the world differently - and if there are more Jack Wenlock books to come, I look forward to reading them.

The Case of the 'Hail Mary' Celeste is available from and

Here's the Flanders and Swann song I was thinking of:

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Bete - Adam Roberts ****

For a long time, my taste in science fiction writers was limited to the favourites from my youth. The likes of Asimov, Blish, Brunner, Clarke, Heinlein, Kornbluth and Pohl. About as trendy as I got was Zelazny. But lately I've discovered two who have re-invigorated my love of SF - Iain M. Banks and Adam Roberts, both combining style and entertainment with superb ideas that really make you think.

The opening of Roberts' novel Bête had me spellbound. The cow that a farmer is about to kill is pleading for its life - and the scene is handled brilliantly. So too are conversations exploring the borderline between AI and consciousness. If an animal is made apparently intelligent by an implanted chip, is it the chip that is intelligent or the animal... or neither?

Some of the rest of the book worked well for me as well. The surreal conversations, packed with popular culture quotes (some of which I got) were fascinating. However, I'm not a great fan of disaster novels - I loved Wyndham as a teenager, but rather grew out of the callousness of the whole concept; the action that takes place throughout Bête is a disaster novel scenario, even if, this being Roberts, it is given all sorts of unexpected twists. So it's my fault, rather than the book's that I was fascinated by that opening scenario and the main character (especially as a friend is an ex-organic dairy farmer), but for me, it would have made a brilliant short story or novella, rather than requiring the rest of the book.

So Bête is not one of my favourite Roberts novels, even though the bits that really got to me comprised some of the best SF writing I've ever seen. Let's be clear, every Roberts novel is worth far more than most post 60s SF - and I strongly encourage anyone who likes science fiction, or the philosophy of AI to read this book. It simply wasn't in my top five.

Bête is available from and

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Shockwave Rider review *****

I've recently re-read one of my favourite SF novels from the 1970s, John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, and it has more than lived up to expectations.

Okay, like any book using future technology it gets some things wrong. Its early 21st century tech is mostly too advanced (but then they still use tapes to store information). However, this book absolutely sizzles with ideas, some taken from Alvin Toffler's far effective readable futurology book, Future Shock.

Just one example - the protagonist is in the business of creating digital worms to make changes to the net. At the time (1975), not only was ARPANet, the internet's predecessor very limited, the first actual network worm wouldn't be launched for another 13 years (Brunner originated the term in this novel).

Brunner also creates a stunning dystopian society, where the US government/major corporations (hand in hand) manipulate what could in principle be an exercise in effective distributed democracy - the public Delphi boards used to suggest solutions to problems and predict outcomes - to keep the population in check.

There's far more to it than this, and though the ending wraps things up a little too neatly (I'm afraid the bad guys would almost certainly have won), this remains a brilliant net-based SF novel.

Even better it comes here with two other Brunner novels as a bonus. The Traveller in Black is a short fantasy novel - a little vague for my liking, but still rather nicely explains the disappearance of magic from the world. The Sheep Looks Up generally gets better reviews than Shockwave Rider, and it certainly tries to do something more grandiose, but for me it's not as good a story. Even so, it's another example of Brunner doing something original and showing that science fiction should not be confined to a ghetto.

Brunner is now a largely forgotten author, but he really shouldn't be.

The Shockwave Rider is available in the collection John Brunner SF Gateway Omnibus from and

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Bad food nostalgia

There are times when I have a little twinge of nostalgia for the times when food in the UK was mostly terrible. These days we relish a huge range of cuisines (though interestingly, by far the majority are non-EU - from Europe only Italian and to some extent Spanish have a significant hold nationwide). But I'm talking about the time when cooking a Vesta curry was the height of exoticism.

This was all brought back to me by an advert I've just seen for a range of frozen roast dinners. They have one unifying theme. It's not the high quality meat. It's not the beautifully cooked vegetables. It's the fact that they're all smothered in the uniform, brown-flavoured gravy of my youth, Bisto.

Ah, Bisto! Wondrous memories...

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Can someone explain the logic of jaywalking as an offence?

Image by Transguyjay from Flickr
There's a lot I like about America. But something I really can't get my head around is the US assumption that human beings are unable to cross a road without help, and treating it as an offence if they attempt to do so.

As a European I struggle to understand the US attitude to gun control. To allow so many thousands to be slaughtered each year simply to uphold a small part of the constitution which is both out of date and arguably misinterpreted - a constitution that has already been amended many times - just doesn't seem right to us. However, despite this, I can admire part of the thinking behind the right to bear arms - that we shouldn't allow an overbearing government to take control of individual's decision-making more than we can help.

So, bearing in mind that Americans are prepared to allow thousands of their friends and relations to be killed each year to uphold the individual's ability to stand up to the state... why do they meekly allow the government to tell them that they are unable to look left and right, make sure there's no traffic coming and then cross a road wherever they like? Why do they accept the imposition of fines and humiliation, simply for failing to give in to the dominance of a light that says 'Walk' or 'Don't Walk' - or by crossing somewhere that isn't a designated crossing?

I ought to stress that I have never had this problem myself. I am not lashing out because I got caught. It simply occurred to me this morning, as I crossed a dual carriageway with the pedestrian crossing lights on red, because there wasn't a car in sight in either direction that it's not exactly rocket science.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Einstein and Father Christmas

It's that time of year when scientists get dragged into silly press releases, usually by a PR company wanting to push a product, though this one seems to be a bit different. I first heard about this from Chris Evans (n.b. I do not listen to him by choice), who announced that Einstein had finally solved the problem of how Father Christmas/Santa Claus gets round all the world's children and down chimneys. My immediate muttering was that this was pretty impressive, given Einstein's been dead over 60 years and I was going to leave it at that. But then read one of the articles based on the press release (I assume).

It tells us that according to Dr Katy Sheen, a physicist in the geography department of Exeter University, it would all work if Father Christmas travelled at 6 million miles per hour. This would get him around the world in time, and, as a bonus, (enter Einstein) 'drawing on Einstein's special theory of relativity' Dr Sheen worked out that he would shrink in the direction of travel, and 'at Santa's speed the shrinkage in so extreme he will appear invisible.'

Leaving aside whether or not 'appear invisible' is oxymoronic, there are two issues here. First let's assume Dr Sheen is right, and the relativistic contraction is significant. This would also mean that time dilation would be significant. So by the time he got round everyone, there might be issues with him having moved well into the Earth's future.

However, in practice that isn't a problem, because the shrinkage argument falls apart. If it's literally true, it doesn't help because, as the newspaper article pointed out (but Chris Evans didn't) the shrinkage is only in the direction of travel - he'd be as wide as ever sideways. But just how big would the effect be at 6 million miles an hour? It certainly sounds very fast. It's around 9.66 million kilometres per hour, which is 2.69 million metres per second. Fast or what? But the speed of light is around 299.8 million metres per second. So Father Christmas is only travelling at 0.008c.

The formula for the contraction is not complex. It's the original length x square root (1-v2/c2).

So that makes Santa's new front-to-back size 99.99% of what it was before. Not very helpful. Given the relative closeness of 269 to 299, I do wonder if the intention was for him to be 100 times faster - but every newspaper story I can find uses the low number (I couldn't find the original press release).

Am I breaking a butterfly on the wheel? Probably. But there would have been nothing wrong with giving a more realistic velocity. I've got mixed feelings at the best of times about these wacky science stories - it's all too easy to make it sound as if public funded scientists are wasting their time on trivia. But if you're going to do it, at least do it in a way that makes sense.

Update - Katy Sheen has kindly pointed out that the i misquoted her - the disappearance was due to Doppler shift, not Lorentz contraction - though the speed was quoted correctly, and so the contract effect would certainly not help with chimneys.