Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Intriguing Background Details For Your Sci-Fi Story

Well, since I was both reading a sci-fi novel (“Transition” by Iain Banks) and as writing a sci-fi/horror short story practice project at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about one of the coolest parts of the sci-fi genre. The background details.

These are the kind of random, futuristic and/or dystopian details that aren’t always directly relevant to the story that is being told, but which serve to give the story’s “world” more personality, backstory and depth. Once you get an instinct for writing these kinds of details, you can really surprise yourself with them.

But, how do you come up with them? Here are three basic tips.

1) Think logically/practically: Simply put, one of the best ways to come up with these kinds of details is just to think logically and/or practically about the “world” of your story. In other words, you need to think in terms of cause and effect. Most of the weird, quirky and random – but mundane – details of the real world have emerged or evolved for a practical reason of one kind or another.

For example, the layout of a modern QWERTY computer keyboard was designed to mirror the most common layout of typewriter keyboard (in Britain and America) -which made it easier and more intuitive for typists to switch from typewriters to computers during the 1970s-90s. The QWERTY keyboard layout itself was originally designed so that the type bars on typewriters wouldn’t jam – by making sure that letter combinations that caused jams were placed far apart from each other. So, yes, there are practical reasons why computer keyboards have such a “strange” layout.

So, yes, if you start thinking in logical and practical terms, then you’ll be able to come up with all sorts of intriguing background details. Looking at real life examples of this sort of thing, or looking at fictional examples (and working out how and why they were created) can really help you to think in this way.

2) Think about the “world” of your story: In short, the “world” of your sci-fi story will also have an effect on the background details that you can add. So, if you understand the setting of your story, then these types of details will just emerge naturally.

For example, in a dystopian future run by corporations, most things in that world will be geared towards making money. If you remember this, then you might be able to come up with chilling background details involving things like planned obsolescence, invasive advertising, product placement etc…

So, if you understand the “world” of your story (eg: why it exists, what motivates it etc..), then thinking up intriguing and quirky background details becomes a lot easier.

3) Look at current technology (cynically): One of the best ways to come up with intriguing background details is just to look at modern technology and then either change it in some way or take it to an extreme.

This sort of thing works best with elements of modern technology that annoy or worry you, since it’ll motivate you to include things like satire, parody, world-weary cynicism etc.. in your story.

And, yes, the modern world certainly isn’t short of annoying and/or worrying technological trends that can be used as the basis for satirical sci-fi background details. Whether it is the ominously ubiquitous smartphones, the increasing reliance on “cloud computing”, the Big Brother-like smart speakers that people willingly install in their houses, the inherent insecurity and unreliability of the “internet of things”, issues about online privacy, how some modern online games include greedy “micro-transations” etc… I could go on for a long time.

But, the more worried, annoyed and/or cynical you are about current technology, the more motivation you’ll have to come up with intriguing, satirical and/or dystopian background details for your sci-fi stories.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Review: ” A Trail Through Time” By Jodi Taylor

Well, after reading the first three novels in Jodi Taylor’s amazing “The Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series (you can see my reviews of them here, here and here), I reluctantly stopped reading the series for a while since second-hand copies of them were getting progressively more expensive the further I went through the series.

But, when I noticed that the fourth and fifth books weren’t quite as expensive as I’d thought, I decided to splash out on them. And, although I’ll probably save the fifth book for a later date, I thought that I’d take a look at Taylor’s 2014 novel “A Trail Through Time” today 🙂

Although this is the fourth novel in a series, it contains quite a few recaps. So, it can theoretically be read as a stand-alone novel. However, the story will have much more comedic, dramatic and emotional impact if you’ve read the other three books first.

So, let’s take a look at “A Trail Through Time”. Needless to say, this review will contain a metric ton of SPOILERS (including for the previous three novels).

This is the 2017 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “A Trail Through Time” that I read.

The novel begins with a recap of the ending of the previous novel. Time-travelling historian Madeleine “Max” Maxwell has just found herself in a parallel universe with a version of her lover, Leon. In Max’s universe, Leon died. In Leon’s universe, Max died. Needless to say, both are pretty amazed to see each other again.

However, before Max and Leon can spend too long in each other’s company, they get a phone call warning them that someone is coming. Less than a minute later, mysterious armed men begin to attack Leon’s house.

Luckily, this version of Leon has a time travel pod hidden in the garden. So, they jump back in time to a deserted tropical island. Leon explains that the armed men are the time police! The name pretty much says it all really. They’re after Max. And it isn’t long before they show up on the island.

After dodging them again, Max and Leon jump back to 17th century London. There is a frost fair on the river Thames, and it is bloody freezing! Needless to say, it isn’t long before the time police show up again. But, how long can our favourite fugitives keep ahead of them?….

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that it’s even more compelling than I expected. I binge-read most of it in a single day 🙂 Everything great about the first three novels in the series has been focused, refined and reinvented and it is brilliant. It is epic. Seriously, I cannot praise this novel highly enough! It’s like “Doctor Who” meets “Sliders” meets “Bluestone 42” meets “Stargate SG-1” meets… well… something even more awesome.

Not only is the early part of the novel like a brilliantly comedic version of “Doctor Who” (seriously, it reminded me a bit of this episode), but the time police are an absolutely brilliant addition to the story too. They’re exactly the right combination of chillingly menacing and hilariously silly (I mean, time police!). Likewise, turning Max and Leon into fugitives is a brilliant way to keep the story focused whilst also adding lots of thrilling suspense, chase scenes and character-based drama. Genius!

Likewise, the slightly slower middle parts of the story add more atmosphere, characterisation and depth (including hinting at a lot of dramatic “off screen” politics, conflicts etc..) whilst also building up to a spectacularly dramatic, powerful and thrilling final act 🙂 And, yes, the later parts of the story are absolutely epic. Imagine the series finale of a great TV show and you might come close. Although the final battle is relatively small in scale, this only makes it more powerful and dramatic.

The parallel universe premise of the novel is utterly amazing too 🙂 Not only does this allow the story to return to it’s roots, but it also allows for lots of other interesting changes and subtle differences that really help to keep the reader on their toes. It also adds a lot of drama and suspense to the novel too, since Max finds herself abandoned in another, strange world with a very slightly different history.

Plus, as you’d expect from a “St.Mary’s” novel, there are also quite a few interesting time travel scenes too. Although these aren’t the main focus of the story, there are a reasonable number of them and they include random and eccentric things such as a visit to ancient Egypt to see Pharaoh Akhenatan, the eruption in Pompeii, a frost fair on the River Thames, a character catching bubonic plague in the middle ages etc…

As for the novel’s characters, they’re as eccentric and well-written as ever. In addition to the parallel universe storyline allowing for the return of a familiar villain (Barclay) and for some interesting character changes, the novel’s early focus on Max and Leon fleeing the time police also allows for a lot of characterisation too. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, the time police are brilliant antagonists too – being just the right mixture of menacing and hilariously silly.

In terms of the writing, it’s also as good as ever too. If you’ve read previous novels in the series, you’ll know that Max’s first-person narration is a wonderfully unique combination of irreverent humour, serious storytelling and more “matter of fact” narration. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but I find the narration in this series to be an absolute joy to read 🙂

In terms of the length and pacing, it’s reasonably good. Although the novel is 379 pages long, it never really feels too long. Likewise, not only is this novel more of a fast-paced thriller, but even the novel’s slower-paced scenes still feel gripping thanks to the dramatic backstory. Likewise, this novel has a really good structure and story arc too. There’s also a really good balance between faster and slower segments of the novel, and the story feels a lot more confident and focused than some earlier novels in the series did.

All in all, this is an absolutely awesome sci-fi/comedy/thriller/drama novel 🙂 Everything that makes this series so brilliant has been refined, focused and reinvented excellently in this novel. If you want a novel that is a bit like a more eccentric, comedic, irreverent and grown-up version of “Doctor Who” – complete with a really epic story arc – then you can’t go wrong with “A Trail Through Time”.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a five 🙂

Review: “Autonomous” By Annalee Newitz (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from all of the fantasy fiction I’ve been reading recently and read some science fiction instead 🙂

I first heard about Annalee Newitz’s 2017 cyberpunk/biopunk novel “Autonomous” after seeing this online review that likened it to “Blade Runner”. Naturally, I was intrigued.

When I looked the book up online, I found that it had been praised by none other than Neal Stephenson and William Gibson (two of my favourite cyberpunk authors). After reading the online preview chapters, I realised that this was my kind of novel. So, after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I decided to splurge on a new paperback copy of it. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Autonomous”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Autonomous” that I read.

Set in Canada in 2144, pharmaceutical pirate Judith “Jack” Chen is making a smuggling run in her submarine when she happens to spot a news story about a student who has become chemically addicted to homework.

It doesn’t take Jack long to realise that this must be a dangerous undocumented side-effect of the Zaxy Corporation’s unreleased productivity drug Zacuity – a drug that she recently reverse-engineered and replicated for quick cash. But, before Jack’s can think about this too much, her sub’s defence systems alert her to the presence of intruders. Stowaways are trying to steal her drugs!

Meanwhile, International Property Coalition military combat bot Paladin is going through the final stage of training at a desert base. However, soon after the training mission, Paladin is paired with an IPC agent called Eliasz and ordered to track down Jack….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is really brilliant. Imagine the style and atmosphere of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash“, mixed with the philosophy of movies like “Blade Runner” and “Ghost In The Shell”, mixed with the liberal open-mindedness of “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey“, mixed with a bit of the intelligent grittiness of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” and you might get a vague idea of what this novel is like 🙂 Like all great sci-fi novels, this one is also at least 5-10 years ahead of what Hollywood is doing in the sci-fi genre too.

Where do I even start? I suppose that I should talk about the sci-fi elements of this story first. Needless to say, these are all really well-handled. In addition to things like nanotechnology, body-modding, biodegradable phones, stealth kayaks, a programming language called “Adder” (Python, surely) and all sorts of other fascinating background details, all of the technology here seems like an extrapolation from current technology. And, given that the author has worked as an editor for several tech websites, all of this stuff has a real feeling of authenticity to it too.

Seriously, it’s really awesome to see a truly modern cyberpunk novel – which manages to create the same sense of fascination about modern technologies (eg: 3D printing, AI, “smart” drugs etc..) that the cyberpunk writers of the 1980s/1990s created about the internet.

Plus, this novel also tackles all sorts of modern tech topics too (eg: open source software, online privacy, security concerns about the “internet of things”, sex robots etc…). So, yes, this is very much a science fiction novel – in addition to being a rather gripping story too.

The setting and atmosphere of this novel is really interesting too. Whilst it mostly eschews rainy, neon-lit mega cities in favour of more realistic futuristic versions of Canada, Casablanca etc.. it is still very much a cyberpunk novel. In addition to the story’s dystopian world (which includes things like slavery, powerful pharmaceutical corporations etc..), this novel also has the “high tech and low lives” moral ambiguity which is central to the cyberpunk genre. And, given the focus on things like medical chemistry, body modding, cyborgs etc.. it’s also a biopunk novel too 🙂

In terms of the writing, it is really brilliant. This novel’s third-person narration is informal and fast-paced enough to be compelling, amusing, dramatic and intriguing – whilst also being complex enough to give the story a real sense of depth. Like in any good cyberpunk novel, the narration also contains futuristic and scientific jargon that really helps to immerse the reader (whilst also being written in a way where the reader can usually easily understand it from the context).

This brings me on to the characters. Whilst all of the characters can feel very slightly “larger than life” in a really interesting way, they still feel like realistic people who live complicated lives within a complicated world. The story also devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation and flashbacks too – whilst this can slow the story down a bit at times, it really helps to add some depth to the story.

Jack is a former student radical, turned drug pirate, who is trying to sort out the mess she made by selling a defective drug (whilst also trying to take down the corporation who designed the drug). She reluctantly teams up with a liberated slave called Threezed, who is at least somewhat traumatised by his past. In addition to this, she also meets some of her former student friends – some of whom have gone into legal open-source pharmacology instead (which allows the story to explore the merits of open source stuff vs. piracy).

On the other side, Eliasz and Paladin are the kind of brutal, morally-ambiguous “evil detectives” who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a film like “Blade Runner”.

Yet, they are humanised quite a bit in this story – with Eliasz falling in love with Paladin (and trying to reconcile this with the conservative culture inflicted on him when he was younger), and Paladin gradually trying to learn more about both who they are and how humanity works. Seriously, Eliasz is one of the best “I shouldn’t feel sympathy for this character, but somehow I do” characters I’ve seen since Deckard in “Blade Runner”.

In addition to this, the story is also filled with a rather interesting background cast too. The most interesting members of the background cast are probably the autonomous robots, who are basically free robots with human rights etc.. And the robot district of Vancouver, designed by robots for robots is one of the most fascinating settings in the story 🙂

Thematically, this novel is as intelligently complex as you would expect 🙂 In addition to tackling topics like slavery, free will, humanity, unjust laws and capitalism, the story also focuses on topics like open-source technology (as an alternative to piracy) too.

“Autonomous” also includes some really interesting LGBT themes too 🙂 One fascinating element in this story is how both the protagonist (Jack) and the antagonist (Eliasz) are bi – but, whilst Jack is completely at ease with this part of herself, Eliasz is racked with anxieties, repression and old prejudices about his feelings for Paladin.

In addition to being a subtle commentary about how modern culture views male and female bisexuality differently, it also shows the psychological damage that growing up in ultra-conservative surroundings (a religious part of Poland in Eliasz’s case) can sometimes cause. This element of the story also helps to emphasise the contrast between the free, open and bohemian world of the pharma pirates and the authoritarian, repressive, regimented world of the IPC.

Plus, the subject of Paladin’s gender is handled in a really interesting way too. For starters, Paladin doesn’t even think about this topic until Eliasz mentions it. Paladin is a robot with a male-looking exterior who later discovers that their organic brain (which is only used as a graphics/facial recognition processor, and doesn’t hold memories) came from a female donor.

Eliasz is eager to see Paladin as female once he learns this (in order to quell his own anxieties), and Paladin goes along with this (even after the organic brain is later destroyed in combat) even though Paladin doesn’t really seem to feel innately male or female. This external imposition of gender links into the novel’s themes of free will, authoritarianism etc.. whilst also emphasising that gender resides in a being’s mind/consciousness rather than the physical body/physical brain.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. “Autonomous” is a lean and efficient 291 pages in length, which is a wonderful rarity in both modern novels and cyberpunk novels 🙂 Seriously, it’s always cool to see a modern novel that isn’t a gigantic tome 🙂 In terms of pacing, this novel is reasonably good too. Although the character-based flashback scenes do slow the novel down a bit occasionally, it is mostly a rather fast-paced and compelling thriller story.

All in all, this novel is absolutely awesome 🙂 It’s a compelling, intelligent, atmospheric modern cyberpunk novel 🙂 2017 was a bit of a renaissance for the cyberpunk genre (eg: “Blade Runner 2049”, the US remake of “Ghost In The Shell” etc..) but “Autonomous” is one of the very few things from that year I’ve found that genuinely feels like a truly modern continuation of this awesome genre.

So, if you want to see what Hollywood sci-fi movies will probably look like in a decade’s time, then this novel is well worth looking at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Mini Review: ‘Xaser’s Arena (Version 2)” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ “ZDoom”)

Since, once again, I’m still reading the next book I plan to review ( another 600+ page Tudor tome called “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel), I thought that I’d review another “Doom II” WAD, since there really aren’t enough WAD reviews here these days.

So, after clicking on the “random file” button on the /idgames Archive a couple of times, I eventually found an interesting-looking WAD from 2003 called “Xaser’s Arena (Version 2)“.

Interestingly, this is an earlier WAD from the creator of several WADs I’ve reviewed in the past called “Zen Dynamics“, “Dead. Wire” and “Dead. Air“.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD, although I’m guessing that it will probably run with most modern source ports.

So, let’s take a look at “Xaser’s Arena (Version 2)”:

“Xaser’s Arena (Version 2)” is a single-level WAD that includes new textures and music. This WAD actually has a backstory in the accompanying text file too. Basically, the Doomguy is in the middle of a holographic training simulation when a virus causes the monsters inside the simulation to become real and dangerous.

So, yes, it’s basically like a “Doom”-themed version of one of those holodeck-based episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” 🙂

Set phasers to “obliterate”!

One of the first things that I will say about this level is that it looks really cool. After you’ve worked out how to enter the hologram area (just press the two consoles next to the doors), the main part of the level uses a really awesome neon green grid texture that reminded me of both the holodeck from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and some of the sci-fi levels from an amazing “Doom II” WAD from 2015 called “Reelism“. Seriously, this level looks really cool 🙂

Yes, technically speaking, this is a cyberpunk WAD 🙂

The level design here is pretty interesting too. This is one of those intricate, compact, claustrophobic levels which will require you to press switches, collect keys and constantly search for where to go next.

The level’s small size works really well here since, although some switches may affect things slightly further away, you won’t have to search for them for too long. Likewise, the many claustrophobic corridors you’ll find yourself in really help to add some challenge to the level’s combat too.

However, this level does have something of a strange difficulty curve. Basically, although it is technically possible to get the shotgun near the beginning of the level, you’ll probably miss it – since working out where it is and going through the steps to get it whilst being hounded by multiple cacodemons etc.. is a little bit difficult when you’ve only got a pistol and your health is getting drained quickly by multiple monster attacks.

What this means is that you’ll probably spend many of the early parts of the level with low health and an inadequate amount of pistol ammo. In other words, you’ll probably end up having to use your fists a lot. If you’re experienced with “Doom II”, you’ll probably be able to use tactics to get through most of these parts of the levels in a slow and methodical fashion. Still, whilst this turns low-level monsters (eg: imps, pinky demons etc..) into a genuine threat, it does come across as a rather cheap, and occasionally frustrating, way to achieve difficulty.

Five health and no bullets. Never let it be said that “Doom II” is an easy game. Still, this crumpled door looks pretty cool.

However, as soon as you get the super shotgun, chaingun and/or rocket launcher slightly later in the level, everything quickly becomes far easier. So, yes, the difficulty curve of this level is a little bit strange.

Seriously, once you find this place, the difficulty level suddenly changes from “challenging” to “pretty easy”.

In terms of the new background music, it consists of fast, upbeat, futuristic music that goes surprisingly well with the level. It’s cheesy enough to be fun, but good enough not to become annoying for the 15-45 minutes you’ll probably spend with this level.

All in all, although this level has a little bit of a strange difficulty curve, this is a cool-looking and reasonably well-designed WAD. It’s a fascinating early level by a designer who would go on to create even cooler sci-fi WADs (the most enjoyable of which is probably “Dead. Air).

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and a half.

Review: “Just One Damned Thing After Another” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Back when I first discovered another novel called “The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman, I happened to notice Jodi Taylor’s 2013 novel “Just One Damned Thing After Another” on the same website. Intrigued by the title, I… waited several months before eventually remembering it and buying a second-hand copy.

So, let’s take a look at “Just One Damned Thing After Another”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “Just One Damned Thing After Another” that I read.

The novel begins when a historian called Dr. Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short), receives a job offer from a mysterious research facility called “St. Mary’s”. After the interview, she is asked to sign some official documents before it is revealed that this research institute doesn’t just study the past… they can travel to it. However, it is a dangerous job. An extremely dangerous job. The kind of job that gives Health and Safety people nightmares. Naturally, Max is delighted…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is brilliant! Imagine “Doctor Who” mixed with “Stargate SG-1” mixed with “Warehouse 13” mixed with “St. Trinians” – but with a bit more humour, a bit more grittiness, a slightly punk attitude, a lot more eccentricity and even more tea. Seriously, there is a lot of tea in this novel.

Basically, this novel is a gloriously quirky, nerdy sci-fi thriller novel (with some comedy and grim drama too). The sci-fi elements of the story are vague enough to be quirky/intriguing/comedic, whilst also being explained enough to seem realistic. The novel also does the “the extraordinary is mundane” thing in a way that I haven’t seen done so well since I finished watching “Stargate SG-1” on DVD a few years ago. Plus, the novel sets up some really interesting rules… which are then broken in equally interesting ways.

In addition to this, despite being a sci-fi novel, one amusing theme in the novel is how history is the least glamourous of the academic disciplines and how the historians are eager to compete with the sciences for press coverage and/or prestige. This hilariously ironic plot element is also helped by the fact that more emphasis is placed on how cool time travel is rather than the science behind it.

The novel’s thriller elements are really interesting too. This story includes a really interesting mixture of character-based drama, situation-based drama and action-thriller elements. Whilst this novel isn’t the kind of thriller that can be binge read in a single short session, it is an incredibly gripping book. Plus, there are some truly brilliant moments of suspense and drama too 🙂

As for the novel’s historical elements, it probably isn’t historically accurate. There’s even a disclaimer at the beginning of the book that reads “I made this all up. Historians and physicists – please do not spit on me in the street“. And this novel’s gleefully irreverent attitude towards history, despite being a novel about the importance of historical accuracy, just adds to the gloriously eccentric charm of the story 🙂

The writing and narration in this novel is absolutely amazing. This novel has personality. The novel is narrated by Max and her informal narration is so much fun to read 🙂 It’s both grimly matter-of-fact and brilliantly comedic at the same time.

Seriously, the last time I found first-person narration as good and distinctive as this was in an incredibly chilling horror novel called “Slights” By Kaaron Warren that I read a decade ago. Or possibly in Hewlett & Martin’s hilarious “Tank Girl: Armadillo” novel (which I really must re-read sometime). Or in Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”. In other words, the writing and narration in this novel is brilliant.

The characters in this novel are also brilliant too. Whether it is Max herself, who is a more British and mildly more realistic version of the typical “badass action hero” character you’d expect to see in a thriller, whilst also having emotional depth too (the closest comparison I can think of is Starbuck from the modern version of “Battlestar Galactica” mixed with Tank Girl, but this comparison doesn’t even come close). The background characters are quirky, interesting and/or complicated too.

The novel’s villains are especially interesting too. The main villain is a moustache-twirling evil mastermind who only appears in a few scenes, and is more comedically evil than genuinely frightening. Yet, all of the story’s lesser villians are a lot scarier and more… shocking… than you would expect. Seriously, this novel’s moments of evil will catch you by surprise and make you gasp.

One interesting thing about this novel is that the time and place it is set in are left mysteriously ambiguous. At first, we’re given the impression that it is set in some version of present-day Britain. Yet, the novel’s “world” includes hologram technology (which is seen as normal, mundane and everyday). Plus, the characters sometimes use realistic guns and sometimes use futuristic “blasters” (seemingly at random). At one point, someone without any money visits a “free clinic” (seriously, what happened to the NHS?!?!).

So, whether this novel is set in a mildly dystopian parallel universe and/or version of the near future is left intriguingly ambiguous. Personally, I like to think of it in a similar way to the “so bad that it’s good” television series “Bugs“, in that it is set in an amusingly weird alternate version of our own world.

The emotional tone of this novel is extremely strange though. When I started reading it, I thought that it was one of the best comedy novels I’d read in quite a while. Then there was a slightly serious segment about WW1. Then the story was back to being a comedy again. And then it suddenly got very dark, creepy and disturbing (you’ll know the scene in question when you see it!). Then it became a comedy again. Then there was more misery and unrelenting bleakness… that then relented to provide some brilliant moments of satisfying drama. And then…

Seriously, this novel is one hell of an emotional rollercoaster! And, although the story’s darker moments can really catch you by surprise, this contrast works surprisingly well. The novel’s grim/bleak/disturbing parts make the humour funnier by contrast and vice versa. Even so, be prepared for a shock or two when reading this book.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably interesting. The pacing is really good, and the story never really gets dull. Somehow, this book manages to seem like a meandering, random thing whilst actually telling a very carefully planned and structured story that won’t fully make sense until the end. Seriously, the pacing in this novel is brilliant! It’s relaxing, yet also unpredictable and incredibly compelling.

Plus, although the novel is a little on the long side at 394 pages in length, it crams a lot of storytelling, settings etc.. into those 394 pages. Likewise, this novel is compelling enough that you’ll want to spend a while longer reading it. So, the length is acceptable.

Although this novel is clearly the first novel in a series (and I’ve already ordered the second book), it thankfully only ends on a small cliffhanger and tells a reasonably self-contained story that leaves you eager for more. Basically, this novel is spent setting up what I presume to be the premise of the rest of the series. But, you’ll be so gripped by all of the story developments that you won’t care that you’ve just read what is essentially an extended “pilot episode” for a longer series.

All in all, this novel is astonishingly good. Yes, the changes in emotional tone might catch you by surprise (and some parts of the book are pretty grim/shocking). But, everything from the narration to the humour to the atmosphere to the adventures to the settings to the premise of the story is brilliant.

If you want a quirky, gripping sci-fi novel that is alternately hilariously funny and grimly depressing/shocking/bleak, then read this book! If you want something that is like a slightly punk, post-watershed version of “Doctor Who”, mixed with a British version of “Stargate SG-1”, then read this novel. In short, read this novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

Review: “Snow Crash” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

After I read Neal Stephenson’s astonishingly good “The Diamond Age“, one of the first things that I did was to enthusiastically order a second-hand copy of Stephenson’s most famous cyberpunk novel – “Snow Crash” (which was written before, and seems to be set before, “The Diamond Age”). I then… somehow didn’t get round to reading it until a little over a month later. Hence this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Snow Crash”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Penguin (UK) paperback reprint of “Snow Crash” (1992) that I read.

Snow Crash begins in a futuristic version of America that has no real central government. The country consists of lots of small “burbclaves” and “franchulates”, which are territories and outposts of various groups and organisations. And, part-time hacker, katana enthusiast and Mafia pizza delivery guy Hiro Protagonist is barrelling through them at a ridiculous speed in his car because if he doesn’t deliver a pizza within the next few minutes, the Mafia will not be pleased.

However, he is being chased. Not by the police (they don’t exist), but by a “kourier”. A teenaged skateboard-riding courier called Y.T., who works for the RadiKS corporation and gets around by car-surfing using a magnetic harpoon. And she’s just harpooned Hiro’s car. Hiro tries to shake her but then they both run into trouble and Hiro ends up crashing his car. With only a couple of minutes left on the pizza box’s electronic timer, Y.T. agrees to take the pizza. She somehow manages to deliver it on time, which impresses the Mafia.

A few days later, with no car left and his Mafia job just a memory, Hiro focuses on one of his other sidelines, gathering random information for a central database. To do this, he enters the Metaverse – a virtual reality world – but ends up returning to the headquarters of his old hacker buddies. When he enters the virtual building, a random stranger offers him a program called “Snow Crash”. He refuses, thinking that it’s probably just a virus.

After seeing his ex-girlfriend Juanita talk to his old friend Da5id, she warns him about Snow Crash. But, when Hiro talks to Da5id, the conversation turns to Snow Crash since Da5id has a copy of it. Since Da5id’s got more anti-virus software than a pharmacy, he decides to open the mystery program out of professional curiosity. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… wow! This is a cyberpunk novel! Seriously, it’s up there with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” in the pantheon of great cyberpunk novels. Imagine something like the anime version of “Ghost In The Shell” mixed with “The Matrix”, mixed with Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” graphic novels… then remember that “Snow Crash” was not only written before these three things (and probably inspired them), but that it’s about three times deeper and more complex too.

This novel is, like Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”, a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence. However, it is a bit more of an “accessible” novel than “The Diamond Age” is. Even so, you should probably take a few notes and set aside a fair amount of time to read it. But, trust me, it is well worth your while. To call this novel gripping would be an understatement – it is a fast-paced, slick thriller that somehow also manages to be extremely deep and complex at the same time.

There’s just so much to talk about in this novel. In essence, this is a novel about viruses – or, rather, how information can spread like a virus. It is also a novel about culture too – contrasting the fragmented cultures of the story’s micro-nations with Borg-like monocultures and/or religions. It is a novel about the “gig economy” (written before this phrase was even coined). It is a novel about the value of community and friendship. It is a novel about identity and identity politics. It is a piece of social satire. It is so, so many things. Seriously, if you want an intelligent novel, read this one (or “The Diamond Age”).

But this isn’t to say that this novel is boring. It really isn’t. Seriously, this is one of the few things that I’ve ever seen that can tell a thrillingly action-packed story that would put even the most spectacular modern CGI Hollywood movies to shame (and, remember, it was published in 1992!) whilst also being intelligent enough to have a deeper resonance and impact on your thoughts and emotions than you would expect.

The characters in “Snow Crash” are, in a word, brilliant. Although they are slightly stylised and larger-than-life (the main character is literally called “Hiro Protagonist”!), they come across as unique, interesting people. They’re also not really your typical thriller characters too – or at least they weren’t when this novel was published in 1992, so this novel is a really refreshing read.

Seriously, this novel’s characterisation is economical enough not to get in the way of the story whilst also being deep enough that – for example- you’ll find yourself welling up with tears whilst reading about a cybernetic dog called Fido who only appears in about two or three short scenes.

The writing and narration in this novel is brilliant. Cyberpunk narration typically relies on “information overload” in order to make the reader feel like they’ve been plonked into a high-tech future. This novel is no exception, but it does it in a bit more of a moderate and controlled fashion – and is paired with some brilliantly informal and fast-paced “matter of fact” narration. This informal tone really helps to put the “punk” into “cyberpunk”, whilst also being much more readable than the Victorian-style narration in Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” too. Seriously, this novel is that wonderful thing – a novel that is easy to read, yet incredibly sophisticated.

Literally, the only criticism I have of the writing in this novel is that it contains a few info-dumps about religions, ancient history etc… which are then concisely summarised in a seven-page segment later in the novel. The info-dump segments can break up the pace of the novel a little bit and it would have been even better if these parts had been left intriguingly mysterious, with the summary providing the reader with the information instead (which would also allow it to serve as a plot twist or a reveal too). Still, this is only a small criticism.

Although the edition of “Snow Crash” that I read is about 440 pages long, don’t let this fool you. This is one of those rare 400+ page novels that more than justifies it’s length. Seriously, it crams more into those 440 pages than many novels would struggle to do in 800. But, although this is a fast-paced, information-overload, adrenaline rush of a novel, don’t expect to blaze through it in a couple of evenings. Even though this novel travels at a hundred miles an hour, the road it travels along is thousands of miles long. But, this is a book that you’ll want to spend lots of time with.

In terms of how this 27 year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged incredibly well. The narration mostly still sounds incredibly fresh, the sci-fi stuff still seems incredibly futuristic and the story is still incredibly gripping. When this novel was first published, it was probably wildly ahead of it’s time. Even now, it still seems fairly modern and/or futuristic for the most part. Literally, the only clues that this novel is 27 years old is are the fact that there are a small number of brief “politically incorrect” moments that probably wouldn’t appear in a more modern novel.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. If you love the cyberpunk genre, you need to read this book (if you haven’t already). If you want something with three times the intensity of the average spectacular modern Hollywood movie that also recognises that you have a brain and want to actually use it, then read this book. If you want a novel that makes you feel rebellious, read this one. If you want a gripping thriller, read this book. If you want to lose yourself in an interesting fictional world, read this book. In short, read this book.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Review: “Aliens: Alien Harvest” By Robert Sheckley (Novel)

Well, after reading S.D.Perry’s excellent “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, I was in the mood for another “Aliens” novel. And, after looking online, I found a couple of old second-hand omnibuses going cheap.

Once they arrived, I tried to work out which novel to read first and then I noticed that one of the novels – “Alien Harvest” from 1995 – was written by none other than Robert Sheckley.

I remembered his name because the very first book review ever posted on this blog (way back in 2013) was of one of his “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” novels that I read after being curious about all of the one-star reviews it had got online. Since I enjoyed that novel and since I wanted to read something by an author I hadn’t read in a while, I decided to read “Alien Harvest”.

So, let’s take a look at “Alien Harvest”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Alien Harvest” I read.

“Alien Harvest” begins in a dystopian future where Earth is in the later stages of recovering from an attack by ferocious alien creatures. Famed roboticist Dr. Stan Myakovsky is having a bad day. Not only has his spaceship been reposessed by a court order, but a visit to the doctor reveals that he is suffering from a terminal case of melanoma. The doctor offers him some illegal narcotics, made from alien secretions, to ease the pain – but points out that the disease has progressed to an incurable level.

As Stan sits around at home and begins to feel sorry for himself, there is a knock on the door. The mysterious visitor turns out to be an expert thief called Julia Lish who needs Stan’s expertise with robotics to pull off the heist of the century. Since Stan has got nothing to lose and since the heist will be a way to get back at his hated rivals in the BioPharm corporation, Stan agrees. After all, how difficult can a daring raid on an illegal secretion-harvesting operation on an alien-infested planet be?

One of the first things that I will say about “Alien Harvest” is that it is absolutely excellent, but it is also a very different novel to what I had expected.

If you’re expecting a relentlessly gruesome sci-fi horror novel, then you’re going to be in for a shock. This novel is many things – a brilliant piece of old-school science fiction, a gripping thriller, a drama, a bit of a comedy and a gloriously mischievous heist story – but it isn’t really that much of a horror novel. Even so, it is absolutely awesome 🙂

One of the best ways to describe this novel is that it’s kind of like a quirky 1950s/60s-style sci-fi novel (think Harry Harrison, Philip K. Dick etc..) but with a few brilliant hints of cynical “1980s cyberpunk”-style dystopian grittiness too (eg: in addition to the dystopian Earth locations, the early meetings between Stan and Julia are vaguely reminiscent of both the first meeting of Case and Molly in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and the friendship between Pris and J.F. Sebastian in “Blade Runner).

This novel also has an absolutely brilliant three-act structure too. The first third or so of the novel is a gloriously slick 1960s-style caper story involving daring heists, criminal plotting, glamourous gambling dens and other such things. The second third of the story is a good slice of traditional space-based sci-fi drama. The final third is a little bit more of a horror/action thriller story, with some drama elements.

Although some readers may find this structure a little bit unusual or slightly slow-paced in parts, it works absolutely brilliantly and each segment of the novel segues into the next one perfectly.

In addition to this, this novel has personality 🙂 Although it is set in the universe of the “Alien” films, it is as fresh and different as a totally original novel would be. Not only does this novel have a gloriously quirky and nerdy sense of humour (eg: one of the characters is a surprisingly eloquent robotic alien called Norbert, there’s a Data-like android called Gill etc..), but the “world” of the story is also described in a brilliant way too. In addition to this, there is actual characterisation in this novel 🙂

Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this novel highly enough 🙂 All of them come across as three-dimensional, albeit stylised, people who all have personalities, emotions, history, flaws and quirks. Yes, they all fit into the archetypes you’d expect (eg: genius scientist, master criminal, washed-up spaceship captain etc..) but they are all clearly shown to be interesting, unique people. Seriously, for a novel in this franchise, I was surprised at how much humanity it had.

Interestingly, most of what makes this novel so compelling is just good old-fashioned drama and storytelling. Yes, there are a few brief action-based scenes and a few brief moments of grisly horror but, for the most part, this novel is a cross between an old-school adventure yarn and a drama. There are perilous missions, mysterious locations, complex relationships, daring gambits, treacherous mutinies and other such things. All with lashings of gloriously nerdy old-school science fiction too 🙂

In terms of length, this novel is a little under 300 pages in length. Although the slightly slower pace in some scenes and the slightly more descriptive narration makes the story feel about 50-70 pages longer than this, the story never really feels particularly bloated. In other words, the story is well-suited to the length and never outstays it’s welcome.

As for of how this 24 year old novel has aged, it has aged in a really interesting way. Although the (mostly) third-person narration is still very readable these days, the fact that the novel almost seems more like a 1980s-influenced version of a classic 1950s-60s sci-fi novel gives it a wonderfully “retro” quality. It seems both very old and fairly modern at the same time. Not only that, the excellent characterisation means that the story’s human drama is pretty much timeless. Plus, although there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments, there’s nothing seriously eyebrow-raising here. So, on the whole, the novel has aged surprisingly well.

All in all, this novel is astonishingly good. It goes beyond being a mere sci-fi movie spin-off novel to being very much it’s own thing. If you like very slightly nerdy old-school sci-fi, if you like slick heist thrillers, if you like daring adventure or if you just like compelling human drama, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂 Yes, you might be a little disappointed if you’re expecting a splatterpunk-style horror story, but everything else about this novel more than makes up for the slight paucity of horror.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.