Running Black by Patrick Todoroff

Running Black is a science fiction novel, the debut of Patrick Todoroff.

For the last eight years, the North Korean mercenary Tam Song has headed up Eshu International, a private security team that takes any job for the right price, no questions asked. Based in the Belfast Metro Zone, they’re reputed to be the best outfit on the planet.

Stable nano-technology: the melding of man and machine on the microscopic level, it’s a breakthrough worth billions that no one’s been able to achieve until now. The UK based Dawson Jull Corporation has finally developed a viable Nanotech Neural Network (N3 for short), a system that would exponentially increase a person’s cyber-capabilities. They’re days away from unraveling their prototype to the world.

Eshu International just got hired to steal it.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is that it doesn’t mess about with introductions, back-story or building up characterisation, it just launches straight into the plot head first and expects the reader to keep up. This minimalist approach to world building can be quite effective if the story hold the interest enough, and more importantly if it’s well written. I am glad to say that the plot holds up well, and for a debut novel it’s very well written.

Running Black is a little like a 21st century version of William Gibson’s seminal novel Necromancer, but with the startlingly clear differences of character building and back story. The book has a mixed narrative, sometimes told from the first person of the character “Jace”, a member of the Eshu International – sometimes told in the third person. The plot follows the emergence of true “wetware” on a nanotechnology scale, and to just what lengths people with power will do to control the technology. The novel is fast moving with plenty of twists and short, descriptive chapters which manage to avoid breaking up the pace too much.

The near future setting is intelligently considered and effortlessly described, the countries are ruled by commercial entities, the neural network interface is a reality and genetic cloning is big (illegal) business. I liked the gritty, raw feel to a post modern UK (or in the book Northern EU) and while the characters aren’t fleshed out to any real degree, the author nevertheless manages to create a bond between reader and protagonist.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
Running Black is a very easy to read, fast novel with plenty of action and describes an interesting vision of a future Europe, this book is highly recommended for those science fiction junkies that like many a military-based action but also an interesting and unique perspective for a possible future. Although this book is an easy read with a lot of people prefer to call “a beach book.” Meaning something to read on vacation, it will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat and turning pages on a lazy afternoon.

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

The fantasist author of the, hilarious The Shambling Guide to New York City (2013) ventures into science-fiction horror.

The immediate setup will be familiar to mystery fans: five dead bodies, variously stabbed, poisoned, or hanged, and no survivors. Whodunit? We’re in the 25th century, however, on a sub–light speed starship that’s controlling artificial intelligence, IAN, is offline. The six—gofer Maria Arena, Capt. Katrina de la Cruz, navigator/pilot Akihiro Sato, security chief Wolfgang, engineer Paul Seurat, and Dr. Joanna Glass—wake in new, cloned bodies, covered in slime, surrounded by vats, tubes, gore, and the horror of their own slaughtered corpses, with no idea of what’s been happening since the voyage began. They do recall earlier lifetimes, but evidently they were all criminals, so nobody can afford to reveal anything or trust anybody else. And with both the clone-growth and memory-backup processes sabotaged, the bodies they now occupy are their last. Maybe this is all just too devious; In any event, the narrative never quite lives up to that remarkable opening. Momentum dissipates amid frequent pauses to belabor the cloning process and laws relating to clone succession, not to mention a succession of scientific howlers (for instance, the ship depends for power on a solar sail—but there’s no “solar” in interstellar space). Still, as the characters delve separately and together into their previous lives in search of an explanation for their predicament, the tension rises, personalities are revealed, and common factors emerge—some of them, we learn, are retired, recovering, or repurposed homicidal maniacs.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
You have to wonder why, given Lafferty’s manifest talent for humor, she didn’t simply play it for laughs. Still, readers easily captivated and not overly concerned with structural dependability and she delivers everything will find much to entertain them.

And she delivers everything a science-fiction fan could want from a wonderful world to well developed characters and dialogue. This book is sure to help you while away those lazy winter hours.

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Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Moxyland is the debut novel of Lauren Beukes and the first book published by Angry Robot Books. It is currently nominated in the longlist for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

Set in Cape-town in the near future, four hip young adults live in a world where your online identity is just as important as your offline life. Getting disconnected is a fate worse than imprisonment but who will stand up to the overpowering and oppressive government?

Kendra is an art school dropout who finds her niche by signing up to a nano-tech marketing program, basically becoming a living, breathing advert for a soft drink.

Lerato is a very ambitious Aids Baby who is busy plotting to defect from her corporate employers.

Tendeka is a hot headed activist who is becoming increasingly destructive.

Toby is a rogue blogger, creating a video-cast of his daily screwed up life, trying to create as much chaos to film as possible.

Moxyland essentially deals with technical progress and how on its current track could quite easily result in complete loss of personal freedom, think a very adult version of Cory Doctorow’s little brother mixed with blade-runner, then peppered with “V” for vendetta and topped off with cyberpunk classics like Snow Clash and you will begin to grasp the ultra modern novel that is Moxyland.

By its very definition, the dystopian novel tends to make for uncomfortable reading, the subject matter will not allow otherwise, as a result it can be very difficult to create a readable and ultimately entertaining story.

I am happy to say that Lauren not only achieves this feat but actually surpasses many other attempts to do so, creating a dystopian future that is corporate in nature with a brutally efficient police force highly efficient at suppressing any form of public protest.

Opinion:

Five Stars
Not only is this very topical (looking at the current economic and political climate it is easy to see happening) but by also combining current technological trends and then expanding on them, (for example the current mobile phone / pda / iphone tech) the reader is drawn deep into the story.

Managing to combine futuristic lingo with current street talk, Moxyland is a highly charged, imaginative and empathetic story that manages to both impress and disturb at the same time, a word of caution though this is clearly an adult only novel, not for the younger readers.

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The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

The world of The Dervish house is a reflection of its parent city of Istanbul which is itself a reflection of the nation of Turkey; ancient, paradoxical and divided like the brain of a human being. In the year 2027 on a blisteringly hot summer’s day there is a small explosion in Enginsoy Square, a minor bomb on the 157 tram – the only casualty the suicide bomber whose head was wired to explode. Yet this everyday occurrence will send shock-waves much further, resonating louder and ultimately affecting the lives of those around it in unexpected ways.

Turkey of 2027 is the largest, most populous and most diverse nation in the EU, but also one of the poorest and most socially divided. It’s a boom economy, the sweatshop of Europe, the bazaar of central Asia and the key to the immense gas wealth of Russia and Central Asia.

This is the age of the carbon consciousness, each individual given a carbon allowance which has brought forth a whole new trade. Those who can master the trading between gas prices and carbon trading permits can make a fortune; the old Byzantine politics are back. They never went away.

Ian McDonald can be a very subtle writer at times, he manages to weave a tale that is ultimately about the people and places, managing to do so in such a convincing fashion that it can be some time before you realize the ideas he’s transplanted within the messages and ideas he is really writing about.

Such is the case with The Dervish House itself – a beautiful, old, middle-eastern style house designed around a central square with garden and water feature, a focal point to the story that weaves drama with conflict and intrigue with thriller, one central theme connected through three story strands that feature six main characters. Each of these characters is clearly delineated, lending strength to the literary style already present and notable for the pure quality of the prose. We are treated to a week in the ever so real lives of these characters as each change in some way in the after affects of the bomb.

Each of these individual story threads would make up a novel in its own right for many authors but here it creates something very special, a rich, confident and masterfully cultivated journey – joined together and culminating in a climax which makes excellent use of the underplayed science fiction elements.

Opinion:

Five Stars
The main message here is about artificial intelligence and the natural progression towards artificial sentience, the “singularity” event that describes such a leap in technology and the dangers of nanotechnology popularized after Prince Charles coined the phrase “grey goo”. I loved the inclusion of the “mollified man”, a little known bit of history that hints at the research the author has gone to. My favorite though has to be the very idea that our own bodies could one day be living super, incredibly well thought out and a fantastic thought – although a computer crash or software reboot could be quite painful.

I also loved the way that McDonald manages to bring each of the colorful characters that inhabit the book to life in such a manner that makes them uniquely human and ever so realistic. Part of the beauty is in the detail, managing to give little insights, foibles and characteristics about each without affecting the pace of the plot.

The book has been nominated for just about every major genre award this year and has already won the British Science Fiction (BSFA) and the John W Campbell awards despite some very fierce competition.

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The Other Log of Phileas Fogg by Philip Jose Farmer

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg is very much a “literary mashup” novel which fills in the blanks from Jules Verne’s classic novel “Around the World in 80 Days”. Its being given a new lease of life thanks to Titan Books originally published almost 40 years ago.

As the title suggests the novel introduces the idea that there was a second, previously unknown journal that Phileas Fogg wrote detailing a secret history of his famous trip. Farmer merges characters from some of Verne’s other novels such as Captain Nemo and then blends these with other fictional works including Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Rather than re-write Vernes accounts, Farmer expands the story in new directions and offers a greater insight into who (and what) the characters are. As such it makes sense if you read Around the World In Eighty Days although it’s not essential. The author does an admirable job of keeping the literary style similar to Vernes, which has it’s own advantages and disadvantages; the story has an air of authenticity about it however like the novel it’s based on it does feel a little dry and in places the descriptive narrative that details areas that Verne didn’t know about slows the pace.

The story more than makes up for this though, it’s a great tale that manages to completely change the original story without contradicting it or causing any continuity issues and the way Farmer manages to meld characters from different series is just genius (for example Captain Nemo is actually the one and same master criminal James Moriarty). It’s got a slight air of the Steampunk about it too, enough to be considered part of the genre but it’s also got a style all its own. The story is set within the authors “Wold Newton” series which makes the supposition that the 1795 meteorite strike near the titular village caused genetic mutations to anyone passing by which gave them extraordinary abilities (which were then passed on to their descendants).

These alien abilities include an extremely high intelligence, superior strength and longevity along with the desire to do great “good” or great “evil” and they fall into two distinct families, the Eridanean (agents for good) and the Capelleans (villainous rogues) who battle each other in a continuous secret war.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
I can’t see this book being to everyone’s taste, it’s too close in style and form to the late 19th and early 20th century authors to appeal to all (which in itself is an admirable accomplishment and clearly intended) but anyone who can see the entertaining story and insightful ideas through the slightly dry narrative, or indeed likes the style and form of the classic authors such as Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs should love it.

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In a Right State by Ben E

It’s a fact that following the explosion of technology we now give away vast amounts of information freely and often unknowingly. Big companies have got smart at figuring out just how best to get such information. Many sell that data on without compunction. Fast forward to the year 2066 and big corporations control every part of people’s lives – with a constant stream of personal data analyzing every little thing they do.
In a Right State is set in such a future, a late 21st century United Kingdom ruled by big business, a country focused on profit and consumerism. This is also a future where the very idea of waste is a criminal one, renewable energy rules and CO2 emissions a thing of the past. Food is grown genetically modified by law to produce the least wasteful crops with the most efficient taste and nutrients. This is a future where even the body parts of the deceased are sold off to the highest bidder.
The story begins at such an auction when Duncan’s late wife is sold off piece by piece. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be an issue however the body hides Duncan’s secret, a secret that will get him into a great deal of trouble should anyone find out.
The most striking, most worrying thing about this book is the plausibility, a future vision that is one very small step from reality. Adverts take the place of any form of entertainment and can leap out at you when you are out for a walking, in your home or anywhere else for that matter. This violation of privacy is only one step away from where we are right now. And yet almost everyone accepts this, almost everyone seems prepared to give up our privacy, our data and our very freedom as long as the next gadget, film or show is but one click away.
While this future might have done away with global warming and embraced the concept of recycling it is at the expense of a tightly controlled state where consumers are little more than cattle milked for their money. Freedom is an ideal long forgotten by most.
Luckily the story is told with a great deal of humor and distinctly British humor at that. There are a few times when exposition drags the pace down a little but overall the story moves forward well and the characters respond in realistic manner to the many unexpected turns the story takes. Sarcasm and intelligence combine well with a twisting plot and some great characters set against this dystopian vision.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
The result is an impressive read, as delightful as it is disturbing. Ellis treats us to a cautionary tale of consumerism taken down one plausible path that seems likely to happen if we sit back and let it. For many, our country is already in a right state; Ellis shows how it could be a whole lot worse.

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Foreign Devils by John Hornor Jacobs

Foreign DevilsA steampunk science-fiction fantasy set in a world that draws some uncomfortable inspiration from our own, Foreign Devils is the sequel to John Hornor Jacobs’ The Incorruptibles and follows the adventures of Fisk and Shoe – two would be mercenaries making their way through a world of demons, feral elves and worse. The story is told in a suitably gritty first person narration from the recollections of Shoe – the dwarf.

The second book picks up from where the first book left off, with Fisk and his new wife Livia. Both are sent on separate missions and so the book’s narrative divides, although we continue with Shoe as primary narrator and Livia’s recollections are sent to Fisk via the Quotidian, a blood enabled personal communication system, and he provides an edited version to Shoe, preserving his partner’s role as the journal keeper.

Hornor Jacobs expands his canvas by sending half his cast to Tchinee – the analogue of China in his fantasy world. Livia’s petition on behalf of Rume is to secure their support in the oncoming war against their Medieran enemies, whilst Fisk and Shoe continue to hunt down Beleth, the rogue demon engineer.

Hornor Jacobs’ world of Occidentalia is a fusion of western, steampunk and old religion. The religious language is much more closely related to our own world than many fantasy authors choose to tread, with Hornor Jacobs’ demons very much unwashed from their satanic origin in the way the characters discuss them and other references are much closer to home than we might be accustomed. The starkness of The Incorruptibles is muted somewhat in this sequel and some of the unsettling culture parallels of prejudice and class from the first novel are less pronounced. In some ways this is a shame as we are less inclined to reassess our own legacy. The direct correlation is retained and used when exploring the nature of slavery from a personal standpoint and we do see characters demonstrating the kind of filtering needed to endure the ways in which their supposed superiors treat them as objects. In the early chapters, some of the principle characters – particularly Livia – are starting to connect their own unconscious mistreatment of those considered beneath them with the blatant denigration performed by others.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Foreign Devils concerns itself more with the hunt and the introduction of the new Tchinee culture. We do get an interesting interlude related to the downtrodden Dwarves who are gradually coming to resent their oppression and this bodes well for a further installment that might explore praxis. The book is much longer than its predecessor and the diverging plot lines means it is less of a page turner. However, the world devised by Honor Jacobs is unique and interesting with its developing mythology, technology, demonology and dark magic. There is substantial grit to the writing throughout and Hornor Jacobs does not compromise in his description of events. There are surprising twists and turns, with characters murdered, kidnapped and tortured as the writer requires, the conclusion of both quests providing revelations in equal measure.
If you’re seeking a gritty steampunk series, which offers interesting characters in an analogous real world setting, you’ll find plenty to like in Hornor Jacobs’ series.

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Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

 Wolfhound CenturySet in an alternate Russia the novel tells the tale of Investigator Vissarion Lom who is summoned by the head of the secret police to Mirgorod (the capital) in order to catch a notorious terrorist; a “home grown” insurgent who has been eluding the state and undermining their totalitarian regime. Being an “outsider” with a sliver of angel stone embedded in his head, Lom is seen as the perfect choice to confront this menace.

This is a state that has been worn down by an endless, brutal war and Lom quickly discovers that it’s also a country more corrupt that he could have imagined: a hidden world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.

What follows is an incredibly rich, rewarding novel that has an amazing feeling of depth. The use of an alternative noir-tinged Russia complete with the authoritarian, iron-fisted and deeply corrupt bureaucracy works brilliantly with the plodding world-weary gumshoe narrative and bleak, angel-wrought alternative world. It’s the first time I’ve read anything approaching “soviet noir” and it’s a perfect fit – the immersion is absolute, carried forward by the rich quality to the prose that borders on the poetic in places.

I was reminded of China Mieville’s linguistic style on occasion – especially his The City & The City, along with that of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama however what mostly sprang to mind was one of my favourite novels – The Man in the High Castle – even the ending seemed to be somewhat of a salute to that classic.

The pace is set just about right, achieving a nice balance between world-building and story development and this is assisted by short chapters and changing perspectives. The book is very easy to read, like Mieville and Tidhar the narrative feels very much within the literary style that just happens to feature elements of science fiction; fallen Angels providing a solid sense of the alien are at war with the forests and reality itself seems to rebel against this violent invasion. The action sequences are dramatic and are assisted by the gritty realism that pervades the novel, the creation of tension at these times is almost tangible. It is important to remember that this is the start of a series though otherwise you could be a bit shocked by the abrupt ending – which is doubtless very effective as a draw to read the next.

Opinion:
Four star
Four stars
I absolutely love this book, it’s got everything you could hope for in a classic (and yes it does feel like a classic), literary allusions, a dynamic narrative that works on many different levels and a well structured story that keeps moving forward and keeps you guessing. A gritty noir-tinged feel and characters that appear to have a life of their own all combined into a novel That’s completely unique – I cannot recommend this highly enough.

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The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

The Dark ForestDefeatism, Fatalism; these are universal, recurrent maladies that everyone experiences at points throughout their lives. Even if one moves forward – how do we find meaning in such a vast, uncaring universe?

Only here, the universe isn’t uncaring, it’s quite pointedly predatory. These are the central themes that China’s foremost hard sci-fi writer Liu Cixin wraps up in an elegantly written, surprisingly humorous and ultimately humanistic sequel to The Three Body Problem. Cixin plays around with a number of dense, speculative science and technology concepts which wonderfully underpin the dramatic action and very rarely obscure the action. In the interests of not spoiling them, and word-count, this review might have to simplify a few of the more pertinent ones.

The events of the first book concern a Chinese budding astro-physicist named Ye Wenjie whose spirit and faith in humanity is utterly broken by the Cultural Revolution. She takes a kind of refuge at a military facility secretly researching how to contact alien races and discovers a primitive method to do so. She thus accidentally gives away Earth’s location to a civilization four light-years away known as the Trisolarians – whose own incredibly volatile planet is under risk. They launch an invasion fleet and work with Ye to establish a secret movement to obstruct humanity’s technological progress in preparation.

The Dark Forest picks up after the pro-invasion organization on Earth have been largely exposed and defeated and with approximately 400 years left until the Doomsday Battle. The UN proposes an unorthodox plan necessitated by the ‘Sophons’, essentially intelligent protons developed by the Trisolarans to spy on humanity and interrupt/sabotage research into frontier physics. It’s deemed ‘The WallFacer Project’, and tasks four individuals with coming up with audacious strategies, the true intent of which is known only to them. They’ll be given almost limitless resources and the option to hibernate for decades, or centuries at a time to see their plans through to fruition.

Cixin’s style is expansive, imaginative and at times intensely personal. The cast is larger than usual and so inevitably a few of them don’t get quite as detailed treatments as the Wall-Facers or crucial characters in and around the Chinese Space Force. However, when Cixin does delve into the inner workings of a character, it’s transportive and utterly believable, even amidst the atmosphere of inevitable cataclysm and high-concept speculative science.

Nor does Cixin shy away from the inner workings of the science itself. He’s clearly a gifted thinker and he’s done his research – topics and technology that are by no means glossed over include: neural-networks and mapping of the human brain; a variety of possible space propulsion drives; socio-economic and cosmic-sociological theory; and at one particularly dense point a treatise-like chapter on how slowing the orbit of a planet would affect the entire galaxy.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Although for some these segments could break immersion, I found them digenetic enough and actually fascinating in their rationale. Be warned, this is definitely rock hard sci-fi.
The Dark Forest then is a wonderful conceit with a foundation of exceptional writing. Again skirting spoilers, the stakes and conclusion are much higher than The Three Body Problem and I’m intrigued as to where exactly the final volume in the trilogy will actually pick up. There is the odd pacing problem and the final few chapters feel slightly rushed after hundreds of years (and pages) of build up, but they’re all minor gripes set against Cixin’s ambition and talent.

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Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

Ben Elton is a talented individual. His humor is often satirical, off-the-wall and almost always makes me laugh.
The only novel I’ve read of his prior to Time and Time Again, is Stark — an early example of modern environmental fiction and a book that feels a lot like the love-child of Douglas Adams and Grant Naylor. I like Time Travel novels, there have been some great examples fairly recently. Last year we had the stand-out example The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August — we also saw the release of Jerry Cornelius: His Life and Times — by the legendary author Michael Moorcock.

As such my expectation was high for this book, a time travel story with the infamous wit of Ben Elton. I was hoping that Time and Time Again would perhaps be a satirical romp through time or at least with a thick vein of the author’s humor running through it. Unfortunately it’s largely devoid of both.

Instead it’s much more main stream and feels diluted so as to appeal to the masses. There is a good story though, revolving around an ex-SAS soldier who is chosen to go back in time and prevent the first world war — the argument being that preventing the first world war would prevent the second and bring an era of peace our world hasn’t known. Of course anyone who has seen or read a time travel story knows that it’s never as simple as that.

The story moves between the past and present, the former being described in great detail — such that it almost feels like you are there. The authors intelligence and talent as a writer really shows here however without his more absurd humor it does feel a little too serious. The protagonist Hugh Stanton is a grieving widow who takes some convincing to become a time-traveller but the grieving widow thing does feel a little overplayed and part way through the book I did feel like telling Hugh to get a grip on himself, he is though all action hero and the depiction of his legendary combat prowess and abilities are also a little over-the-top — one of the weak points of the book.

The other issue is one of balance. Yes we’ve got the wonderful ambience of the early 20th century but partly as a result and partly due to the plot being sidelined a few times the last 50 pages seem so much more weighted to moving the story forward and time travel related shenanigans’ have to say when it does pick up it works well and the last part of the novel is, clever, inventive and quite mesmerizing.

It has to be said though that the history aspect is superb and the author must have carried out a great deal of research to get the level of detail he has. A large part of this exploration involves that spark that ignited the powder keg that led to war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, itself leading to World War One. That is of course the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Principe (part of a secret society known as the Black Hand). It is quite fascinating and the author presents a plausible argument for alternative events.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Despite the pacing issues and too-good-to-be-true action hero, Time and Time Again is a good book. It’s got its fair share of the moral dilemmas that are faced by fellow time travelers, a detailed look at the historical events the book makes use of and a strong ending, rewarding ending. Just don’t expect the author’s trademark humor.

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