The Professor

Science fiction, pulp and anything else that takes my fancy. I review everything I read.

“That’s the sum story of human history, isn’t it? Could be worse...”

By Alastair Reynolds On the Steel Breeze - Alastair Reynolds

Running out of superlatives now. The second part of a three-part narrative begun with “Blue Remembered Earth” takes us back to the land of Afro-futurism, cognitively uplifted elephants and a giant mandala (“as wide as equatorial Africa”) on the surface of the planet Crucible. However the waters (of the Merfolk?) are muddied most pleasingly leaving this reader well up for part 3.

In “Steel Breeze” we have three clones of Chiku Akinya in play: one remains on Earth in Lisbon, another heads for the mysterious planet Crucible and another tries to catch up with her space-faring Grandmother Eunice. Earthbound Chiku discovers data from Crucible has been mucked about with by a malevolent AI “Arachne”: that Mandala is certainly there but, deliciously, so is something else in orbit and preliminary terraforming by robot pioneers is notable by its absence. There’s also the little problem that the ships heading there set off without any idea how they might be able to slow down once they arrive. Oh, plus that AI “Arachne” has got it in for an illegally built AI facsimile of Chiku’s famous grandmother. After a trip to parlay with the space-whale Arethusa (yes, really) and a disastrous Venus encounter with June Wing (who gets a beautifully described au revoir) we split our time between the Lisbon Chiku and the one travelling to Crucible. Ahead lies a sort of Windows 97 version of Arachne, the mysterious Watchkeepers and big decisions to be made, particularly about the advisability of letting artificial intelligences into your head. If you think you’re under pressure at work, check out what the characters here have to go through. I’d be signing up for “skipover” like a shot.

Reynolds’ ideas are never wildly out of left-field – he’s not Philip K. Dick – it’s all rocket-fuelled versions of ideas doing the rounds today. However, anyone can extrapolate but Reynolds never forgets we as readers wouldn’t mind having a bit of fun too in amongst all the SF-ness. He maintains what Rider Haggard called “the grip”, that difficult to quantify adhesive glue that keeps us turning the pages and which is the mark of all great popular writers. I admit I don’t *quite* get Reynolds’ interest in elephants but I’m perfectly willing to indulge him when everything else whirling around in the mix makes for such good readin’. I love his sense of story: the secret passages, a door only one person can open, a mysterious explosion during experiments to create a new power source to decelerate after space travel. “On The Steel Breeze” put me in mind of John Wyndham’s “The Outward Urge” – another novel that tackled the classic SF subject of man’s ascent to the stars – and while Reynolds’ “Revelation Space” trilogy seems to get most of the light I can’t see why, if he sticks the landing with part 3, “Poseidon’s Children” shouldn’t be considered just as good – at least by me, if the critical consensus hasn’t got there already. That’d two slam-dunk trilogies to his name. Imagine if the man went absolutely crazy and embarked on a 10 book sequence. Now there would be some reading.

“Winter’s coming”

Early Autumn - Robert B. Parker

An odd one, this. Other reviewers seemed to have lapped it up even while pointing out the fine ethical/deeply questionable line Spenser walks here. Spenser plays Pygmalion and personally the White Knight routine didn’t sit well with me at all but that may have been because I wouldn’t have swallowed Spenser’s Machismo 101 course (with a sprinkling of the liberal arts) anywhere near as passively as his monosyllabic ward, Paul.

“Early Autumn” is another well-written, lean, novel and the subtle use of the seasons as a metaphor for growing up and winter, quite rightly, implied as adulthood suggests Parker was aiming for something a bit more literary with this outing. It’s certainly not a thriller or a mystery, more a character piece allowing us to learn a little more about Spenser’s veneration of autonomy and self-reliance; a bit rich considering his constant mooning after Susan Silverman, but never mind. Spense gets wrapped up in a bitter divorce battle in which the father has absconded with the son and the wife naturally wants him back. Except actually the parents don’t give a toss about the boy, they’re just scoring points off each other and that hasn’t done much for the bairn’s self-esteem. In fact the fellow seems to be in a state of arrested development or withdrawal, like he’s had his mobile phone confiscated. The novel serves as a useful, if dispiriting, reminder that terrible parents have always been around even though in the 21st century there are some spectacular examples in public life to point to and observe in a sort of Daily Mirror way that someone needs to think of the children. Here Spenser acts out our fantasies of being just that person, right down to undertaking to teach the boy how to pump iron and bang a nail in and, um, blackmailing the conveniently dodgy parents to stay the hell out of the life of their son.

The parents don’t take this sitting down, eventually – get this – hiring hitmen to spray Spencer’s place with bullets and understandably seriously rocking his relationship with Susan Silverman. It’s fair to say I am Team Silverman in this novel, she is highly suspicious of Spencer taking the boy under his wing and not happy when trouble comes home to roost on her doorstep. Meanwhile, 20 years before Billy Elliot, the young man whose life they have taken over expresses (handily) an interest in dance and setting him up at a college for just such an education becomes the goal. He also, by the by, ends up entirely complicit in Spencer’s breaking and entering of the offices of his parents, discovering his parents hobbies include arson and monthly sex-fests but that’s suburbia for you.

That interest in dance is what elevates this novel from the mundane and it is perfectly in keeping with the liberal Spenser-verse as established in the previous novels. Despite my misgivings I must concede the version of this story where Spencer’s actions all go horribly wrong would be tediously predictable and off the top of my head I can think of several crime dramas in which a teacher shows too much of an interest in a pupil and becomes suspect number one in a murder investigation. Been there, done that and Parker avoids it all. He posits a version of the American hero who pumps iron, builds houses, visits art galleries and cooks for his girlfriend. Spenser was a New Man right from the “The Godwulf Manuscript” and seven or eight novels in it’s interesting to see how far he’s willing to go to live that life, how much he believes it’s a way of life that could benefit the young boy. In the end, though, it’s Hawk that proves especially useful as a solution-provider when Spenser hits the final brick wall. Spenser talks the talk, but Hawk walks the walk.

Having said all this, and I remain dubious, there is no way I could possibly dislike a novel that opens with a reprisal of the “thigh” joke from “The Judas Goat”. A very nice little reward for loyal readers, right into the 21st century. Bravo, Mr P.

“You’re quite a lethal chap, aren’t you?”

The Judas Goat - Robert B. Parker

Spenser goes globe-trotting. It’s a jammy gig too; money no object, first class air travel, the best hotels….except he’s got to track down nine members of the terrorist group “Liberty” whose collateral bomb damage included the family of money-bags Hugh Dixon. It also means Spenser has to spend time away from his beloved Susan Silverman. Not an easy task.

Spenser heads to my old stamping ground in London, the environs of Goodge Street, the Post Office Tower, Mayfair and the Strand and rather sweetly chivvies things along by placing an advertisement in The Times. Well, it is 1978. The ad yields a note suggesting a rendezvous in Regents Park, a stakeout of the young woman who delivered it and a visit from two Liberty knuckle-draggers which turns out to be bad news for them. Understandably the police aren’t thrilled by gunplay in a central London five star hotel but they nevertheless let Spencer be Spencer so as to a) be rid of these yahoos and b) not to halt the novel in its tracks. Liberty is a rather amateurish, if violent, little collection of thugs with a racist bee in their bonnet about maintaining white rule in Africa and it’s exactly the sort of thing that doesn’t sit well with Spencer – a liberal who happens to carry a gun. He really didn’t like people raining on Rachel Wallace’s parade, either. Spenser does what the London police can’t do, breaking and entering the flat of the mysterious woman who delivered the note – one Katherine Caldwell – and there he finds a whole lot of crazy: guns, ammo, grenades and Mein Kampf.

Spenser breaks cover to once again mix things up and triggers Katherine’s flight to...Copenhagen. After another bullet fest and an encounter with a Liberty apparatchik Spenser summons friend Hawk for backup and together they head to Amsterdam. Sick of this pursuit Liberty sends the bodies of the final two bombers to Spenser along with Katherine tied to a bed mentioning they hope that’s an end to proceedings. Think again, says Spenser, after Katherine casually mentions her Liberty stooge has tickets for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Dixon okays the mission-creep and Spenser refuels with a half-time visit to Susan who offers an analysis of the sexed-up Katherine’s psychology…among other things. Spenser and Hawk ultimately uncover a post-Munich plot to bump off medal-winners and, despite both being jolly fit types – no bottles being hit other than recreationally here – they find themselves almost physically outclassed by the ringleader of Liberty who happens to be built like Giant Haystacks.

“The Judas Goat” is my third Spenser novel and now I’ve belatedly twigged there are continuing characters and a developing relationship with Susan I’m regretting reading them out of order. Like “The Godwulf Manuscript” and “Looking For Rachel Wallace” this 150-page, one or two-dayer passes the time most agreeably. Spenser is good company, offering bon mots, movie references and a strong moral compass (he remains sexually true to Susan throughout despite Katherine trying a number on both him and Hawk). He’s handed a credible task with high stakes, we watch him and Hawk be good guys through a lot of violent and sexual shenanigans and he then returns to Susan to remind himself – and the reader – that actually there are good things in the world. Parker basically offers solace and reading this sort of thing after, say, a 500-page James Ellroy tour of hell – or watching the news – comes as welcome relief. Some reviewers dislike the mushy stuff in the Spenser novels but this reader finds it to be a perfectly fine splash of sincere humanity after all the broken men you usually find going doolally over the wrong broads in these novels. Spenser is a genuine good guy and he has a passionate connection to life: “It’s like I need to love you to come back whole from where I sometimes go” he tells Susan.

“The Judas Goat” isn’t cutting edge, experimental or particularly original – Hugh Dixon is an obvious General Sternwood avatar, with a sprinkle of believable grief – it’s just a very congenial ride. Parker is an artist you want to be around and the movie references, the knowing racial banter with Hawk and the refusal to accept he got shot in the arse rather than in the upper thigh make Spencer the sort of private investigator you’d actually want to hire if life took a turn for the worse. Yes, he walks some mean streets for sure but he doesn’t let you forget that in the end there is rolling countryside out there if you know where to look. “Here’s looking at you, kid”

“I walked to the heart of the neon smear.”

The Black Dahlia - James Ellroy

Rogue One: A Black Dahlia Story. James Ellroy uses the ‘missing week’ of notorious murderee Elizabeth Short to nuke 1940s Hollywood from orbit and take down some demons of his own. The world depicted here is stygian, this is not a beach read, but it is rivetingly written by a writer obviously, screamingly, in total command of his art. ‘Dahlia’ would be a career capper for most authors; for Ellroy, as we now know, he was just revving his engines.

“Dahlia” has far more in common with dystopian science fiction than noir or hardboiled fiction. We have a horrifying world in a Godless universe meticulously depicted, in which even the sovereignty of the human body is sliced and diced. I’m sure the academic and fan communities that Ellroy’s work has accrued would argue he is actually sui generis and while he’s obviously on a direct line down from Chandler I’m not going to disagree with that. This is the crime novel smashing through the walls of the literary novel. This is Dostoevsky goes to Hollywood.

Thank God, there is a plot and while it is serpentine Ellroy keeps tight control over it. Two ex-fighter cops – “Blanchard and Bleichert: a hero and a snitch” – encounter each other during a riot and a politically useful show-fight sets them up as partners. Lee Blanchard is shacked up in a conspicuously flashy crib with his rescued gangster’s moll Kay who is no mere cliché. Blanchard also had a sister who, natch, wound up dead and who, of course, drifts like gun smoke through his jittery psyche. He and buck-toothed, impressionable, Bleichert, ‘Fire and Ice’ as they’re dubbed, work jolly well together beating the living daylights out of various monsters until the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s bisected cadaver tears into their world like a rent in the fabric of space-time.

The Dahlia is “the most baffling piece of detective work the Department had ever seen, the disrupter of most of the lives close to me, the human riddle” and the case seriously messes with Lee ‘Benzedrine’ Blanchard and incrementally starts taking Bleichert down too. So we have multiple women cosplaying as the Dahlia in bed and out – the image of Elizabeth Short violated even after death – a meat-hook torture scene one suspects Scorsese must have read (a scene capped by the Shakespearean “So were Kay Lake and I formally joined”), a trip to that fine eatery Club Satan, Kay commenting that her ex “photographed me with animals”, a nightmare sandpit, a shack and house of horrors and more psychosexual games than ‘Love Island’. This could be, in the hands of a lesser writer, completely ridiculous and stories in which girls turning up dead overturns a whole anthill of troubles are ten-a-penny. In Ellroy’s hands, however, “Dahlia” reads like a crie de coeur which, a cursory Google informs me, the novel pretty much was.

The good stuff here is not just the prose or the whole tour de horizon, societal sweep of the novel. It’s the range of human responses depicted. It’s the empathy. It’s the sense of sickness, of soul attrition, of inner lives being corrupted. Ellroy has Blanchard and Bleichert beat each other’s brains out in the ring and has Bleichert wiping tears away when he visits his incapacitated father. He delivers a pitch black, genuinely laugh out loud Russian Roulette scene (“Five to go. Prepare for doggie heaven, Hacksaw…”). There’s also the final chapter. The final word. This isn’t a thriller. This isn’t ‘True Detective’. It’s a mournful prose poem by someone who has been to hell and back.

I anticipated Ellroy would be fairly hard work going in and indeed the richness of the prose, the slang and the argot, made “Dahlia” comparatively slow-going. Worth it though. What kept me reading was the richness of the world, Ellroy’s control, the occasional precis, the rogues gallery of characters, Bucky Bleichert’s heavily tested humanity but above all the through-the-roof beauty and brilliance of the writing.

And by ‘through-the-roof beauty and brilliance’ I absolutely do mean: ‘Fuck it, lets roll’.

“She’s alive. Don’t ever doubt that.”

House of Suns - Alastair Reynolds

Sought escape in the far future and looked to Alastair Reynolds for the means. Was Not Disappointed. “House Of Suns” is yet another barnstorming performance from the man who, over the last 12 months or so, has become my favourite modern SF novelist.

We follow, in alternating chapters, Campion and Purslane, two “shatterlings” – clones of one Abigail Gentian – making their way home to a reunion of their family line. They stop off to upgrade their ship (handy, for what’s to come) and in the process acquire a gleaming, partially amnesiac, Machine Person called Hesperus who rocks a human arm. The Shatterlings are also accompanied by the aquatic Dr Meninx who is disinclined towards Machine People and unforthcoming when asked whether he’s ever heard the phrase “House Of Suns”. Approaching home, news of an atrocity reaches the travellers. Campion and Purslane refuse to run and along with Hesperus look for survivors amid the floating rocks – and lurking Homunculus weapons – of what was once their home system. Questions abound. Who would do this to them? What’s with the “House Of Suns”. Why has the entire galaxy of Andromeda completely disappeared? Has this anything to do with Campion’s wonderfully icky encounter with the Vigilence, the ancient archivists of the galaxy. And what is Alastair Reynolds drinking and can I have some?

Reynolds has a taste for the baroquely grotesque which would give Iain M. Banks a run for his money. In “Suns” there is a terrifying, meticulously described, torture scene involving “sectioning” which is clearly there to seed the idea that these clones might not be as fluffy as might first seem. The clones casual habit of messing with memories is also nicely prefigured by the sequence with the elephantine post-human Ugarit-Panth who, unfortunately, for the Gentian line has an explosive sewn into his stomach and isn’t as slow to work out the details of a scandal as he might seem. There’s certainly less sex and humour than in Banks’ work but Reynolds keeps a tighter hold on plot and, of course, famously, adheres to a no-FTL rule which he has almost single-handedly proved in no way kyboshes space opera. His previous scientific career does his writing no harm either, adding a few extra sprinkles of legitimacy to the mix and making us forgive him when, say, the precise mechanics of “the Absence” go unexplained and therefore coming across as fantastical. Such an idea nevertheless allows Reynolds to posit the “Bootes Void supercivilisation” which is the sort of idea that gets people like me very excited. Also, I can’t not mention the extraordinary tale of Abraham Valmik aka the “Fracto-Coagulation” which is Exhibit A when it comes to Reynolds’ much bally-hooed mind-blowing ideas. I envy 14-year olds coming across this for the first time. This is an author casually making reference to the Bright Efflorescence, the High Benevolence, the Third Phase Nereids, the Plastic, the Providers and the Witnesses and the last fifty pages or so are a bravura crescendo of revelations and storytelling. Plus, there’s this:

“Sometimes you just have to hold on, to keep doing what you’re doing, to have faith that things are going to get better. It’s how we survive. There’ve been a million bottlenecks in history where things would have turned out much worse if we’d all just given up and accepted the inevitable. Some of those bottlenecks would have ended us if a few irrational, doggedly optimistic souls hadn’t clung to a thread of hope”

“House Of Suns” is standalone and thus the perfect introduction to Reynolds’ work if you haven’t already partaken. It’s a tale of a galactic atrocity sparking a frantic diaspora and the perils of putting in place the means for a pre-emptive strike against your current allies, lest they should ever become enemies. It’s also the reason why Alastair Reynolds is front and centre on the shelves of the SF section in Foyles’ flagship London store and, in this reader’s opinion, quite right too. Long may he stay there. “He was talking about something that had happened thousands of years ago. To me it was yesterday’s news.”

“He was in Al-Rassan, land of terror and legend.”

The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay

My first GGK and the rest of his oeuvre instantly becomes Must Read. If he ever does a London signing I’ll be there, just to check he’s real and not from outer space. This novel is utterly, exquisitely, wonderful.

A young Kindath (Jewish) Doctor, Jehane, practising in the Asharite (Muslim) city of Fezana, is summoned by the genial Khalif-killing Ammar ibn Khairan to administer to a sick family friend. To the north lies the split Jaddite (Christian) kingdom of Esperana and despite the tributes paid tensions are brewing. What follows in Fezana becomes known as the “Day of the Moat” and if you think “Game Of Thrones” has tailed off and George isn’t going to finish the books anytime soon stop everything, get thee to your bookseller of choice and put your phone on mute. “Lions” is intoxicating.

Sometimes, rarely actually, you come across a writer who, when it comes to writing a review of his material, renders you painfully aware that your facility with words is as naught compared to his. This is an exceptionally well written novel – you know you’re in safe hands right from the off – and once you get a handle on the geography and the alt-faiths in play the characterisations and storytelling verve sweep you away. The storyline is complex but clear (huge kudos for the clarity, at no point was I lost) with political maneuverings, divided loyalties, romance, sex, a fantastic arrow shot from Miranda Belmonte, a young boy with a touch of farsight, a young solider wondering whether he’s made the right career choice and above all peoples of different faiths coming together to do incredible things while the world burns around them. While the prologue scene of assassination is a great hook (and has far-reaching consequences) for my money it’s with the introduction to Jehane in Chapter 1 where Kay’s supernatural talent for characterisation kicks in. This novel has many passionate things to say about faith and civilisation but that difficult to pin down, secret sauce, to my mind, is Kay’s ability to really make you connect with the characters. No exaggeration, while reading this on the London Underground there were moments I had to put it aside because I was close to bawling my eyes out.

Kay suggests beauty, poetry, friendship, family and inter-faith solidarity as the hallmarks of civilisation and they all go straight out of the window when Kings start plotting. Ragosa has a carnival the day before horrifying things start happening and the contrast is stark. Characters of all faiths in this novel are merrily sexually liberal, Khairan and Belmonte both acknowledge their manly love for each other, while Jehane, woman of agency though she is, has at least three men in play at one point. Good for her. Kay calmly depicts people of different faiths getting on perfectly well with each other on the micro level, but viciously slaughtering each other on the macro. The growing friendship and respect is never hammered home, you just start to slowly notice it (“proof that men of different worlds can blend and mingle those worlds”) until events crescendo to that medical procedure which never could have occurred without cooperation and then the final, tragic, silhouetted encounter between Rodrigo Belmonte and Khairan, “the two most brilliant comets in the sky”. All of this plus knock-out lines: “The deeds of men are as footprints in the desert”; “Work was sometimes the only barrier there was between life and the emptiness beyond”; “Sometimes the heart’s arrow found its way to certainty despite the cautionings of a careful nature” and above all “Destroy Cartada”. Finally, leaving three full wineglasses on the rim of a fountain as your final image in a novel like this is beyond elegant. Bravo!

So yeah, I liked it. I’m pretty shell-shocked, actually. It’s so great when you have a first encounter with an author that makes you want to read everything they’ve ever written. Fingers crossed Amazon or Netflix or HBO or whoever don’t snap this up and turn it into just another piece of good-looking content. This sort of novel deserves to be cherished for what it is. Then again “some people you just couldn’t help, no matter how you tried.”

“I have to move you to the future on this one"

The Gone World - Thomas Sweterlitsch

Twin Peaks minus the dream logic. Agent Shannon Moss drinks a lot of coffee, travels amid pine trees to investigate murderous goings-on at the Blackwater Lodge and finds herself hip deep in dopplegangers. No dancing dwarves, but Moss is missing a limb. “Hospital corriders were unnerving spaces” and “they’d all slipped behind an invisible curtain that hung halfway across”. It’s a wonder no one turns up wrapped in plastic.

Let me say at the outset “The Gone World” is absolutely worth reading, full of striking imagery and the first hundred pages or so create a mild giddy excitement at the genre mash-up going on. “True Detective” gets mentioned in “Gone World”’s blurb and, yeah, there are antler-tastic crime scenes, a key player referred to as “Cole” and talk of life being a dream (in “True Detective” McConaughey played ‘Cohle’, espoused similarly existential dribblings, got a cosmic perspective on things in the final episode and a missing girl was in play) but “Gone World” serves the female characters way better than “True Detective” even if you want to read that series as a critique of toxic masculinity which, bearing in mind how series 2 jumped the shark, I am disinclined to do. Instead, there are moments, ideas, passages in “Gone World” which clearly signal that Tom Sweterlitsch is not just messing about in genre here. No writer who has an AI manifest as Gary Kasparov and talk about hastening the technological singularity and transhumanism is doing so just to tick SF off the list. He can genuinely do passages which would not be out of place in modern procedural crime or idea-heavy SF novels. To do so in the same novel is impressive and quite exhilarating. I really hope he writes more SF.

Yet, there are oddities. Sometimes the prose descends to brute stage directions and occasionally a stronger editorial eye would have been good (“The moment someone mentions the Turing test *at* you, assume they know nothing”; a bomb is “sewn inside his rectum” – now that’s what I call a…oh, you know). Some of the SF ideas are well thought out, others are very hand-wavey. Nanotechnology in the air is a fun idea, but quickly falls apart when you think about it and Sweterlitsch seems to think “it was an orchestration of thousands – millions, maybe – of robotic particles”. Well, since we’re talking nanotechnology I’d conservatively put the figure more around the trillions. While we’re at it, sitting in the “Courtyard Marriott’s lobby bar” and flicking through top security FBI documents manifested in mid-air while there’s a bachelorette party at the next table seems a little casual. The base on the dark side of the moon where spacecraft augmented by tech from the future set off for Deep Time also, like many of the ideas, hinted at entire other juicy novels but was only ever used as a cut scene to get us to another time period. Then there are the many “Twin Peaks” similarities – whether intentional or not – which will leap off the page to any committed Peakie and Moss’s (ironic?) love of “The X-Files” comes across as one notch too knowing. Some too may have a problem with Shannon’s ultimate fate in the epilogue but I shall say no more for fear of spoilers. All this, alongside the positives, made “Gone World” a weirdly frustrating novel at times.

Still, my concern as the pages turned was that the narrative was going to descend into lots of shouting and incomprehensibility and it’s to Sweterlitsch’s great credit he keeps control and maintains clarity even while providing a spaceship to be blown up at the end. There is clearly a literary ambition at work here – the no-spaceships cover, the title, much of the sense of melancholy and pining for companionship – and it’s quite an interior narrative, with shifts from third to first person, despite the time-travelling spaceships. It’s also a brave writer who – post-Red Dwarf’s “Time Slides”, post-Star Trek’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise” – attempts any time-travel story these days. Capsule summary? I wouldn’t mind jumping forward in time 20 years and seeing what Mr Sweterlitsch himself is up to. Fingers crossed the White Hole of the inevitable stylish Netflix adaptation doesn’t prove to be his Terminus.

“Slow down, Pete. What’s a lightbender?”

The Hercules Text - Jack McDevitt

Utter bobbins. Jack McDevitt’s first novel but still exactly the sort of cloth-eared writing that gives science fiction a bad name among the general public. A slog to read, no humour and pre-school level characterisation. If this novel had been beamed from the Altheans humanity would have given it one star and gone about its day. Yet it’s routinely called a classic and gets five star reviews. Colour me bemused.

For the purposes of reminding myself what this tract of text was about in years to come “The Hercules Text” had the misfortune to be published a year after Carl Sagan’s 1985 “Contact” which is a bit like a church deacon delivering a sermon just after Moses has declaimed from Mount Sinai. SETI (or, hello Mr Cameron, “Skynet” here) pick up a “hello” signal from the stars, point everything they’ve got at it and win the lottery, receiving an alien version of Wikipedia which, humans being humans, causes no end of squabbling. The whys and wherefores of this are not really worth discussing – in this novel the signal crosses intergalactic space without attrition and is picked up only by a narrow caucus of poorly managed scientists rather than, say, an entire hemisphere of listeners and the witholding of its details pisses a lot of people off – and the novel wants to depict the religious and political impact of such a Book of Revelations. It’s a rather nice idea, it’s just that McDevitt is clearly still learning how to bang a nail in prose-wise and depicting the sociological impact of imminent post-humanism would cause many an old hand to think twice. You want someone like Kim Stanley Robinson on something like this, not a genial hack.

Oddities abound. Harry Carmichael is a honkingly obvious enabler of info-dumps rather than a character. “Star Trek” plays a part in the plot. One boffin takes a transcription of the alien text home with him, idly starts building a machine from blueprints contained therein and unsurprisingly ends up blowing himself and half the surrounding countryside up. Loose talk of new energy sources immediately causes the stock market to crash and banks to fold…events that are never referred to again. The Hercules text contains details on how to cure blindness, create death rays and manipulate black holes which quickly gets silly, like Klaatu or the aliens of “V” offering to solve all of humanities ills at one stroke. There’s also no explanation why so much of the Hercules text is anthropomorphically-specific, right down to curing shortsightedness and little Tommy’s diabetes. As for the prose, sorry Jack but it’s sludge and we’re in Repetition City. Here’s what happens when I put the word “steak” into the search function of my ePub reader:

Page 44: a steak for Gambini, roast beef for Harry
Page 70: They ordered drinks and steaks
Page 145: While they grilled steaks and baked potatoes
Page 195: The steak was delicious
Page 236: …indulged in steaks

…and I list just the one steak reference for each juicy steak-related scene. I won’t start listing all the dead sentences or we’ll be here when the Altheans arrive.

So yeah, thumbs up for the idea, thumbs down for everything else really, I have no idea what book Stephen King read, probably just giving a tyro writer a helping hand. One last point: the version of “The Hercules Text” I read was the 2015 edition in which McDevitt had found necessary to defrost any Cold War references and otherwise bring up to date, which appears to have amounted to solitary mentions of 9/11, Obama’s second term, the internet and email. In the foreword he justifies these changes with “It seemed prudent to go back and reframe The Hercules Text in the light of these happier times.” What happier times Jack is referring to escapes me but I’m sure in light of his career as a best-selling author they involve steaks. Lots of steaks.

“Don’t let them do that to you"

Looking For Rachel Wallace - Robert B. Parker

A publisher hires wise-cracking, ex-fighter Spenser to protect one Rachel Wallace, a writer championing LGBT rights who is rubbing powerful types up the wrong way by exposing discrimination wherever she finds it. No problem, says Spencer, until he actually meets Wallace. Unromantic sparks fly, Spenser is sacked and then his client gets kidnapped. How was your day?

This short novel (111 pages in my copy) goes down very nicely. In the first half Spenser – with much humour and integrity – withstands a full-frontal verbal assault from the client from hell. The highly politicised Rachel Wallace does not do humour and she’s not happy with Spenser getting physical when she’s threatened by demonstrators, which renders him impotently checking identities at her gigs and sitting outside her hotel room when she’s inside ordering room service and having a little ooh-la-la. Her brand of identity politics is unassailable – Parker, Spenser and Wallace are all on the side of the angels – but thanks to her spikiness and clear distaste of Spenser’s machismo the novel gets to dance a little around the male hero complex, all while Spenser cracks wise and quotes Shakespeare. Personality-wise, Wallace put me in mind of late-period Patricia Highsmith, another gay writer whose personality was more than a little difficult. Parker is careful to give Wallace shades of grey, moments of vulnerability and connection with Spenser and a tender relationship with her lover that catches even Spenser off guard but frankly I wouldn’t have lasted as long as him on that gig, certainly not after Wallace slaps him. The fact that he does hang in there, until she tells him to get lost, very much gets us on his side. Spenser heading doggedly out into the snow to find Wallace when she’s been kidnapped will either have you cheering or pitying the man for his tenacity.

When Wallace is kidnapped Spenser, reflexly, goes digging among the local Klan low-lives, unpicking a rich-type demonstrator and tracking down the two shady types who tried to run he and Rachel off the road. He has a nice romantic evening in (steaks, mushrooms, rice pilaf; “Spencer’s the name, cooking’s the game”) with his partner Susan and, in contrast, next day gets his head kicked in, winding up face down in the bloodied snow for his trouble. The cops are none too pleased with Spenser’s involvement either, letting him do all the heavy lifting and fisticuffs so they get the intel without any pesky assault charges. Spenser throughout is delightfully wry, people constantly tell him he’s not funny, but it’s humour and his relationship with Susan which sets him apart from most other angst-ridden, alcoholic private investigators. He has a sunnier disposition than most, afflicted merely with a conscience and in this narrative you desperately want him to have his moment, desperately hopeful that Wallace at least thanks him for his troubles. Spenser is a New Man before the term was invented: you can be a tough guy and keep yourself in shape but still be witty. You can be relentlessly pummelled by Rachel Wallace’s identity politics but still keep your sense of humour and integrity intact. You can rescue the girl and still burst into tears. All of which probably made Parker the wrong person to write the sequel to “The Big Sleep” back in 1991 (yes, they tried franchising Chandler), earning himself a rather snotty review by one Martin Amis.

My only other encounter with Spenser has been via Parker’s “The Godwulf Manuscript” which memorably mixed art theft, student murder, drugs and ritualism. That and “Looking For Rachel Wallace” definitely piques my interest for more. The USP is Spenser’s voice and character and that, I’ll bet, is largely responsible for the longevity of the character. After two short novels I like the guy. I want to see what else he gets up to. “If I could find Rachel Wallace, I might believe in God.”

“Events did after all seem to be rushing towards some grand culmination"

Absolution Gap - Alastair Reynolds

The ‘Revelation Space’ trilogy sticks the landing. Some pacing issues but bucket-loads of new ideas (a gas giant that casually blinks in and out of existence; a spaceship used to alter the spin of a planet), deliciously twisted new characters and careful paying-off of tiny details as the end approaches. Alien: Covenant this ain’t.

For all the big ideas and Universe-shaking action on display here Reynolds reels the reader in with three simple but toothsoome plot threads. In 2615 an Ultra scavenger Quaich finds a mysterious bridge on an unexplored planet then loses his lover in an horrific but brutally hard-science manner. It’s fair to say this has consequences. Years later, in 2675, our beleagued chums from ‘Redemption Ark’ Clavain and his genetically uplifted cohort Scorpio are still hiding out from the dastardly Inhibitors on miserable Ararat with the remains of humanity only to get visited by a mysterious space pod, an old friend, and a request to save a child. That child is in a spaceship…which is in an iceberg. Finally, in 2727, young Rashmika Els on planet Hela runs away to find out what happened to her brother who she hopes has not succumbed to the, wait for it, *Quaichist* faith. What the hell is that all about, one asks and, thank the maker, all gets explained.

Got all that? If you recall the way the Battlestar Galactica reboot went – dwindling survivors, sojourns on miserable colonised planets, a magic baby, voices only certain characters can hear, a religious angle – then a lot of this might seem fairly familiar, possibly because those writers were inspired by/paid homage to/blatently ripped off Reynolds’ work. But Reynolds is a prose world builder and filmed SF can never hope to compete with the written word. Plus the Inhibitors themselves are arguably descendents of the Berserkers and there are at least two moments of baroque horror (Quaiche’s Ultra mistress and Clavain’s fate) which wouldn’t look out of place in an Iain M. Banks novel so we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Arguably Reynolds goes overboard with the description in ‘Absolution Gap’ – particularly with the caravans and the Cathedrals of the Way – but you can understand the editors backing off when the material is this good. One unexpected but very welcome move is the focus on our genetically engineered porcine friend Scorpio who gets much character development – the poor fellow constantly makes correct decisions only to be overruled and goes through absolute hell for his sins. After three novels there’s also a lot of residual fondness for characters like Clavain, Ana Khouri and Antoinette Bax and genuine dismay when it’s unveiled that the Inhibitors have obliterated Chasm City and the Rust Belt et al, all very real locations after the work of the previous novels. Reynolds also introduces the superbly screwed-up Quaiche, pitifully off his rocker, and the dread Grelier and his tapping stick. I love the little time jumps too. Just when you think you’ve twigged how the next 100 pages or so are going to go, Reynolds’ will elegantly skip forward, giving you a nice big reward for paying attention. Great characters and knock-out ideas. One wonders why everyone isn’t reading this.

‘Revelation’, ‘Redemption’ and finally ‘Absolution’. There certainly are a lot of characters in ‘Absolution Gap’ looking to make amends for past sins. I’m hesistant to identify any particularly through-lines or themes with this trilogy but at the same time, while it’s rollicking adventure fiction, it is much better written and thought-through than pretty much any other end-of-the-world fiction out there. There’s a lot of lore, a lot of deliciously realistic detail, from the provenance of the Inhibitors to the Melding Plague and the Rust Belt and while this reader completed the 700-odd pages definitely in need of a glass of cool water and a bog standard thriller by way of a palate cleanser there is no sense this universe is mined-out. Reynolds’ clearly thought this too as he continues to explore aspects of his worlds and I am in no way disinclined to join him.

So here ends the greatest novel trilogy explanation for the Fermi Paradox. It’s so great to have a modern science fiction author of this calibre producing work like this. If you haven’t read these novels and you’ve got a holiday coming up, line ‘em up because you’ve got a lot of fun ahead of you: “Quaiche. Popping outside for a bit. May be some time. Call you back.”

“The rapture…the rapture…”

Gulf Coast Girl - Charles   Williams

An abandoned boat, eighty-three thousand dollars and a long story in ship’s log. Bill Manning meets leggy blonde Shannon Wayne but to steal a phrase “This is not going to go the way you think”.

“Gulf Coast Girl” (aka “Scorpion Reef”) begins with that delicious Marie Celeste mystery prologue, then rewinds through the ships log to a job offer from the aforementioned Shannon (“She was a cathedral of a girl”/”She’d stick out like a Chartres cathedral in a housing development”), a nasty encounter with some heavies and then, ta-daa!, the real job offer. We’re in the land of boats and suntans and beautiful women and dreams of escapes to island paradises and as such, just as a piece of lifestyle porn, “Gulf Coast Girl” makes for good reading. It all pootles along quite inoffensively until, after one injudicious punch up, a wild hit sends Manning tumbling into a very well painted nightmare hellscape of sunken corpses, vengeful mobsters and justice seeking officials. One thing the great pulp/hard-boiled/noir writers of the fifties knew all too well and which has made it wholly intact into the Godforsaken twenty-first century is how life can go straight down the can in the blink of an eye.

Shannon Wayne’s real reason for hiring Bill Manning (her initial gun retrieval gig does smack a little of plot gears grinding) is all crashed planes, stolen diamonds and sociopathic gangsters. That’s the A-plot, but bubbling underneath is a rather affecting grown-up love story. Williams has a poet’s soul. His characters take time out to luxuriate in a swim or enjoy the evening air or landscape and reading this soon after Dan J Marlowe’s “The Name Of The Game Is Death” one is struck by the wistful yearning and tenderness rather than, say, toxic masculinity out to burn the world. Williams, however, does do existential dread very well (“There was a lot of dark water between here and the shore”/”It was drifting in the same trackless void”) and he gets cosmic when the stars come out and Shannon and Manning are adrift in the sea. The ending may seem anti-climatic until…well, Williams has very lightly suggested there’s more going on here than meets the eye. No spoilers, but Manning’s tiny character detail of wanting to start to write again sets up a very nice twist of the ribbon at the end. Sharper minds might spot this a mile off but I was enjoying the ride too much to extrapolate.

In a nutshell this is far better written than the (delicously) trashy covers might lead snobbier types to believe. There’s lots of procedural description in the making ready of the boat for the trip to the sunken plane and then the gunpoint voyage to Scorpion Reef itself which really places you out there on the sea with Manning and Shannon and their two dangerous captors. Interestingly, I detected faint Bondian tropes: diving and the sea in general, Scorpion Reef versus Crab Key and Shannon has a fit of the heebie-jeebies towards the end faintly reminiscent of Vesper Lynd’s at the end of “Casino Royale”. These writers do like their tough but tragic heroines

Charles Williams was clearly a craftsman of good, solid prose, shot through with melancholy and yearning and a teller of rattling good yarns that make twenty-first century commutes fly by. It also helped that early on I head-cast Tom Hiddlestone and Elizabeth Debicki from the BBC’s “The Night Manager” as Manning and Shannon. If either fancy a trip to Scorpion Reef I’d be up for it but without Williams’ prose it’d just be shots of beautiful scenary.

“Basically, he wanted Deirdre gone"

Bust - Ken Bruen, Jason Starr

Deliciously reprehensible. Surprisingly light on its feet too; fifty pages of this stuff goes down like a shot. ‘Stuff’ is ‘kill the wife’ and it goes south most entertainingly. “Bust” isn’t anything you haven’t seen before but it won’t half make the commute fly by.

This is a soufflé, a romp, populated by cartoonishly horrible people out to do each other over in search of money and sex and whatever else they can get. We have Dillon – a.k.a. “Popeye” – a psychotic Irish lunatic and the ‘Begbie’ of this piece, coronary-waiting-to-happen businessman Max, the wily Angela (Lady Macbeth crossed with Jessica Rabbitt), ex-vet Bobby Rosa and various cops who get in the way of the dance. Everyone is potty-mouthed and out for themselves (and those that aren’t don’t last very long) and get lots of opportunities for devilment. The prose is simple, the chapters are short and the POV changes between each one, so you’re never bored. Characterisation is…hyperbolic: Dillon is such a psycho he not only hits Angela, not only takes a dump in the house he breaks into, not only kills tourists for lolz then watches cartoons but kills his own dog when its starts whining because Dillon hasn’t fed it for a week. Max’s slow motion descent into ruin recalls Robert Lindsay in Channel 4’s “G.B.H.” series and of course Angela is an angel, if you like lots of silicon which all the men do here. Everything is heightened such that you’re watching these characters and laughing with them but you’re not wholly gripped by them. There are plenty of gags (“And Zen there were none!”) and fun escalations and these edge the plot closer to classic farce in its later stages. Strangely, with Angela getting covered in blood and Dillon having dreams of a Banquo-esque Tinker he once killed it can sometimes feel as if the novel is trying to strain for some sort of Shakespearean element but then there’s another murder, Angela switches sides yet again and the plot races on.

It’s quite a skill, by the way, to deploy all of this so expertly. No, it’s not going to change the world but it’s a great little ride. However you do end up with the nagging wish that the two authors had deployed their obviously considerable skills on something really pitch black, something that got you to experience the true quagmire of the human soul. “Bust” is pure entertainment, nothing more or less and when its done this well it feels churlish to take the number of stars down from the heights of the real knock-out classics but down they must come. It’s slight but, “bejaysus”, it’s bloody good fun. “If he’d just had a thing for flat-chested women none of this would have happened.”

The Hot Spot

The Hot Spot - Charles   Williams “Well, you haven’t set the world on fire so far or you wouldn’t be in this place.” Two women, a lot of anger and a bank with rubbish security. Right from the start the reader is asking “Which way is this going to go south?” and most satisfyingly it does too.

Car salesman Harry Madox, low on cash and “full of a black restlessness and angry at everything” gets sweet on buttoned-up office bomb Gloria Harper while getting it on with his boss’s va-va-voom wife Glenn Close….er, Dolores Harshaw. Madox is a sarcastic so-and-so, very enjoyably taking no nonsense from his boss and Williams hints, hints, hints at the dodginess of his character, setting up a get-rich-quick wheeze and having Madox commit to it before pulling back the veil and getting thrillingly specific on the details of his backstory. It’s a moment of delicious craft. Harry Madox is actually a rather good salesman, runs the business well when his Boss goes fishing and pays attention to the fine details. He’s partial to midnight swims and wins Gloria’s heart by rescuing her dog (“I watched her, thinking how it would be, the way you always do, and how pretty she was”). He’s no monster, he genuinely falls for Gloria (“And then they dynamited the dam…”), he’s just a red-blooded guy hurtling over the edge. He’s a bit like Donald Westlake’s Parker in his attention to detail and the delicious suspense of this novel is watching him allllmost get away with his schemes. Unfortunately for him the cops are no slouches, there’s some hill-billy blackmailing his sweetheart and Dolores Harshaw is clearly a sandwich short of a picnic.

Stupidly, Maddox is played by Don “Miami Vice” Johnson in Dennis Hopper’s film adapation and he’s a) 10 years older than Madox (Johnson was 41 at time of filming, Connolly 20) and b) the lead of “Miami Vice” when Madox self-describes as frightening women off and Harshaw herself says “You’re a big ugly bastard with a face that’d stop a clock, but you’re sweet”. His wheeze when he breathes because of a boxing injury is a plot point and it doesn’t work in the film. Virginia Madson – a dead spit for Gillian Anderson – plays Dolores Harshaw a notch too trashily while Connolly is such a beauty it threatens to nuke the plot, making one wonder why the hell would Madox fool around with Harshaw and therefore making him deserving of everything he consequently gets. In the novel, we hear his inner dialogue and he’s more conflicted, although still imprisoned by his libido. Dennis Hopper’s steamy, erotic thriller, 18-rated movie version (swearing, boobies and smoking, all of which are in the novel minus the swearing) is otherwise a remarkably faithful adaption, however, right down to dialogue (“What was my batting average so far in staying out of trouble when it was baited with that much tramp?”), the ice-cube tray, the plot-relevant shoes, Gloria’s lesbian dalliance and much else. A foot-tapping soundtrack, too. The novel wins though, with its great sequences of gathering tension and suspense – Madox meticulously building the fire-bomb – and then in the final rain-sodden, pitch black escape from Sutton’s cabin, a bravura sequence of insane, real world, details threatening to bring a man to the end of his tether. Williams is a really great writer and jettisoning anything from a novel this well constructed (with this many quoteable lines) would have been a great shame.

After “A Touch Of Death” and now this novel, that’s two for two when it comes to Charles Williams novels and my outstanding question is why the hell haven’t I heard of him before? Hollywood and crazy old Dennis Hopper obviously had (as had the makers of “Dead Calm”). Still, my bad. Something I intend to rectify. “You can take care of everything except chance. Chance can kill you.”

The Name of the Game Is Death

The Name of the Game Is Death - Dan J. Marlowe “I’d taken the law into my own hands, and I liked the feel of it.” Woah. None more hard-boiled. A guns-blazing bank robbery and getaway gets intercut with a rivetting back story (don’t mess with this guy’s friends or pets) that rivals “The Catcher In The Rye” for top notch characterful storytelling. Our “hero” is on a short fuse from the cradle – he’s Not A Team Player - but circumstances drive him to walk down some very mean streets. You do not want to cross this guy but by God is he a hell of a read.

This is the book for anyone who can't stand the modern veneration of ‘the team’. "Animals I like. People I can do without", "The bastard rubbed me completely the wrong way", "That day I quit the human race." There are many elements to the plot - bank heist, revenge thriller, road novel – but the “find the loot” narrative is clear and the characters complex. The corrupt cop and his floozy are painted fairy thinly, but narrator Drake (named some way down the novel line) drinks with transient friends, looks after maimed dogs, and in his youth got obsessively incensed by the injustices all around him. What drove him over the edge into absolute darkness (and lets be clear, this man is a murderer and rapist) is very relateable which will make this a – lets be polite – conflicting read for anyone who cleaves to their moral absolutes. After 50 or so pages of scorching storytelling (I can completely see why Stephen King tipped his hat to Marlowe in his dedication at the start of “The Colorado Kid”) the pace shifts down a gear in the middle as our anti-hero murders his way across country and inveigles himself into a small town trying to find out what has happened to his mute partner and the stash. Hilariously, he sets about searching for a lead on foot, road by road until he comes up against two problems: a local police thug and his abused missus, and a previous business partner who really should know not to go into a swamp on an Airboat with friend Drake. The finale is rip-roaring firey mayhem with a great reappearance from drinking pal Jed and Kaiser the dog that had this reader going “oh no!” aloud on the London Underground.

Then, oh boy, there’s Hazel and her cowboy boots - "the model for all women for all time" – and for me she is along with Drake, the soaring break-out character which made the "So long, baby..." moment very hard to read. Page after page of this novel has quoteable lines on it (“Fifty percent of us liked it” is one of the greatest brutal lines I’ve ever read), it’s fantastically well written (Drake arrives back at the bar fresh from murdering someone and gets immediately involved in a conversation about the "unmitigated dullness of life in a small town”) and in fact more so in this reader’s opinion than many more self-conciously serious novels. Marlowe – beyond his literary namesake – is a new name to me, one whose oeuvre I fully intend to laser onto the back of my eyeballs, and someone who cursory researches suggest had a rather, ah, interesting life himself. Fingers crossed “The Name Of The Game Is Death” is not the pinnacle of his work but representative of it. Either way, on the basis of this, it’s a mystery to me why this man isn’t more widely known outside of we lovers of pitch-black, hard boiled, guns-blazing, man-fic. "Somebody else will have to explain it you."

A Touch of Death

A Touch of Death - Charles   Williams “The hell with all dizzy women, anyway.” Ex-footballer Lee Scarborough tries flogging his Pontiac to sun-bathing twenty-something nurse Diana James. She has other ideas. What follows involves $120,000, a world of trouble for Scarborough and a lot of fun for us.

This tale will be a good friend to any red-blooded male outmaneuvered by a designing female. Every page is studded with lines to either make you go “Ha!” or to underline as pure pulp goodness: “If she wanted ice water, I thought, all she had to do was open a vein”; “She was chromium plated and solid ice both ways from the middle”; “The hours passed as the hours must pass in hell”. Lee Scarborough’s story is age old – destiny is desire – and Williams dutifully enmeshes the poor sap in a fiendishly constructed spider’s web built not by that sun-bathing nurse but by one Madelon Butler whose banker hubby, *it is claimed*, has gone bye-bye with $120k. Burglarising the banker’s house in search of loot Scarborough ends the night holed up in a mate’s empty house with…Madelon Butler who puts whisky away like Oliver Reed and relentlessly, and rather wittily, trolls him. Bitterly aggrieved assailants mount murderous attacks on them and – Scarborough wondering how the hell he’s got himself into all this – they eventually hatch an inadvisable plan to head back to her place despite the heat to pick up the keys to three safe-deposit boxes stuffed with cash. That little endeavour ends in gunplay, arson and two bodies. Scarborough goes on the run with Butler and that proves to be a test of his mental health that some chaps might find rather familiar.

This is a short, taut, well-written novel and it belts along. Everything counts, it’s all muscle, and there are many reveals and volte faces. I particularly enjoyed Scarborough having the sense to walk right away from this caper the moment he hears of it – bright boy, we think, chap after my own heart – until he reviews his finances and has all too understandable second thoughts. The two women he crosses swords with are, natch, va-va-voom knock-outs but amusingly Scarborough and Butler rub each other up the wrong way right from the start. Sure, he’s a red-blooded male and snatches the odd kiss but the two of them have some great poisonous badinage. Scarborough is no schmuck – he certainly thinks more clearly than I would in his shoes – it’s just that we know he’s going to get royally shafted but we read on to find out how.

Off the top of my head the closest filmic companion to all this would be that nineties neo-noir “The Last Seduction” which is just as delicious and leaves the protagonists in similar positions at the end of play. Linda Fiorentino would be an absolute shoo-in for Madelon Butler. Plus – since Scarborough is an ex-footballer – I’d pay good money to see David Beckham or Vinnie Jones dropped into all this mayhem and have them totally out-played, wandering around punch drunk, trying to fight their way out of the swamp they’ve found themselves in. "A Touch Of Death" is a great read – right book, right time, for me – and while Madelon Butler may have ice water in her veins at the end you are rather cheering her on. As for Lee Scarborough…well, he should have stuck to flogging cars. “Baby, I thought, if only you knew.”

Blue Remembered Earth

Blue Remembered Earth - Alastair Reynolds “Voke me active ching privilege. I need to drive your body.” Alastair Reynolds’ does John Wyndham’s “The Outward Urge” and the results are delicious. A more basic plot than usual is offset by great ideas and a hectic final 100 pages promising major consequences in the next two installments. Since consequences in an Alastair Reynolds work usually span time and space we can cut this entrée a little slack if it feels like a minor step down from some of his other mind-blowers.

The plot concerns the activities of elephant-whisperer Geoffrey and his moon-based artist sister Sunday of the Akinya family who are coerced by their far more business-y cousins into resolving some dangling threads after their indomitable grandmother Eunice passes away. As Sunday explains half-way through: “On the Moon my brother found something in a safe-deposit box. That led us to Pythagoras. What we found in Pythagoras led me to Phobos. Phobos led me to the Evolvarium….” and so on. That safe-deposit box is certainly the hook that reeled in this reader. That, along with super-telescopes, Iceteroids, alien mandalas and the transhuman mer-people of the United Aquatic Nations. “Aquaman” will have to go some to top Reynolds’ depiction of an undersea civilisation. The only problem with Reynolds’ setting up a scavenger hunt through his toothsome world to some Big Secret is that in his rational-as-far-as-possible strait-jacket the number of Big Secrets to chase after aren’t that many and this reader kinda guessed where it was all heading fairly early on. The ride, however, and the world it takes place in is very much worth it.

There’s always a lot of back story in Reynolds’ novels that suggest whole other narratives. Possible candidates for his next short story collection might include grand dame Eunice and the trusty Memphis setting up operations on the Iceteroid “Lionheart”, for one thing. Then there’s the genesis of the Martian “Evolvarium” and what it might lead to for another. I presume elements such as the Mandala and Eunice’s final fate might be explored in further volumes and I’m sure future characters might in passing cite the Panspermian Initiative as their religion. While there is deceit and betrayal the world of this novel is surprisingly optimistic – little crime, for instance – but never naïve. Geoffrey’s sociopathic cousins and business partners (one has an “empathy shunt” installed to allow him to be a better businessman) get a pleasingly mature fate, and What Happened To Memphis turns out not to be some dastardly plan. Our guides in this world are rich types but Reynolds’ is careful to make them the outcasts of the family and thus more relatable.

“Blue Remembered Earth” also has some interesting things to say about surveillance. The Mechanism is clearly some sort of Deep Thought supercomputer wirelessly linked via the “aug” to nanomachines compulsorily introduced into the blood stream. Great for augmented reality infomatics and the like but it steps in to police violence too. Hence, when Geoffrey tries to punch one of his odious cousins he immediately gets a crippling headache. So no crime, no murder…except on the peripheries of the aug and in the militantly “descrutinized zone” on the moon. It is exactly this sort of careful thinking and world-building that gets we Reynolds fanboys excited. It’s all ju-u-st possible.

I was a bit cheeky in picking this as my next Reynolds read, having yet to finish his "Revelation Space" saga but I read reactively and wanted something very different after Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84”. It’s difficult to rate his novels as there is a consistency of quality and prose, the man just delivers again and again. He is Arthur C. Clarke (the Phobos Monolith is suggested to be a “sentinel” at one point) by way of Iain M. Banks. I’m catching up with his back catalogue but I can’t wait to see what he does over the next ten to twenty years. I find it difficult to believe newbies or anyone familiar with Reynolds’ work would find “Blue Remembered Earth” a disappointment but then again “For smart monkeys, we can, when the mood takes us, be exceedingly stupid.”

Currently reading

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy