Today’s Art (5th September 2020)

Well, this is the fourth (and final) digitally-edited painting in my “1990s sci-fi” series and, although it’s a little bit more minimalist than I’d originally planned, I really like how the perspective/composition turned out 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Car Journey 1999” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (4th September 2020)

Well, here’s the third digitally-edited painting in my “1990s sci-fi” series. Originally, this one was originally meant to be a more realistic 1990s thriller movie-style painting. But, when I was sketching this, I worried that it looked a bit too “serious” so I added a few more imaginative sci-fi elements that – to my surprise – improved the painting.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Alien Agents 1995” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (3rd September 2020)

Well, this is the second digitally-edited painting in my four-painting “1990s sci-fi” art series and, although the composition of this painting didn’t end up being as interesting as I’d originally hoped, it was a lot of fun to make.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Conspiracy Caravan 1998” By C. A. Brown

Review: “The Uninvited 3: The Abduction” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for “fun” books, so I thought that I’d take a look at a slightly obscure Shaun Hutson sci-fi novel (yes, sci-fi. You heard that right) from 1985 called “The Uninvited 3: The Abduction”. If you haven’t heard of it before, this is probably because Hutson originally wrote it under the pen name of “Frank Taylor” and, from what I can gather, it has only been reprinted once in the UK (in a budget omnibus from 1999). Naturally, I was curious.

Luckily, I’ve had a second-hand copy of this omnibus sitting on one of my bookshelves for years and I’ve been meaning to read it for about as long. If I remember rightly, it was a chance discovery in a second-hand bookshop at some point during the 2000s and I mostly bought it because it contained a copy of Hutson’s “Come The Night” (which was apparently a censored version of a novel called “Chainsaw Terror” that was released in the UK because some shops refused to stock “Chainsaw Terror” during the 1980s).

But, since I wasn’t really in the mood for a “serious” horror story, I decided to read one of the sci-fi stories in the omnibus instead.

So, let’s take a look at “The Uninvited 3: The Abduction”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1999 Pan Books (UK) omnibus that contained the edition of “The Uninvited 3: The Abduction” that I read. Fun fact: The cover art was painted by the same artist – Melvyn Grant – who made the cover art for several Iron Maiden albums and “Fighting Fantasy” books 🙂

After a wonderfully melodramatic introduction from the author, claiming that the story is based on true events – the novel begins in Buckhinghamshire in February 1983. A railway signalman called Tom Wilton is sitting in his signal box and listening to the radio one night when, suddenly, the air is filled with crackling static. Thinking that there is a problem with the radio, he tried to turn it off – only to find that the dials are red hot. A burning smell fills the air. But, when he dismantles the radio, everything inside it seems to be in perfect working order.

Suddenly, the signal box itself begins to heat up and Tom rushes outside. A mysterious glowing light in the sky begins to descend towards the train tracks. He suddenly remembers that a high-speed train will be arriving soon and decides to phone the police for help.

Meanwhile, PC Colin Regan is driving back to the station when he gets a message on the radio from Sergeant Vic Dyson asking him to investigate a report of something on the railway tracks. When he arrives, his car begins to heat up and he is astonished at the glowing craft hovering above the tracks. Luckily, it takes off and flies away mere moments before the train arrives. Regan asks Tom to give an official statement, but Tom declines and points out that he’d be a laughing stock if word got out that he’d seen a UFO.

Disheartened, Regan returns to the station and tells Vic about the UFO – only to be advised not to write an official report about it and to go home for the night. But, on the way home, he sees the UFO land in a field and decides to investigate. He hides nearby and sees two glowing humanoid figures emerge from the craft. It isn’t long until they spot him. He flees back to his car and begins to drive away, only to find that the UFO is following him. It goes away after a while and he has a hard time even getting anyone to believe him about what he saw. Then, sometime later, the UFO returns again…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was better than I’d expected. Although this is a rather slender and streamlined “pulp novel”, it’s also a reasonably atmospheric and suspenseful “realistic” 1980s sci-fi thriller which also contains some well-placed horror elements too. The best way to describe it is that it’s like a cross between one of Hutson’s earlier novels (like “The Skull), classic 1970s-style science fiction, H.P.Lovecraft and a British version of the type of UFO-based sci-fi that would later become popular in 1990s US TV shows and films (like “The X-Files” and “Men In Black”).

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, they’re surprisingly good – if a little minimalist. In the tradition of writers like H. P. Lovecraft, more is left to the imagination than is actually shown – which really helps to make the novel’s aliens actually feel alien. Likewise, they also follow a fairly consistent set of “rules” throughout the novel too – with the area near their spaceship heating up as they approach and electrical equipment going haywire. Not only does this hint at their technology, but this consistency also helps to add an extra level of “realism” to the novel whilst also allowing for lots of suspense in the moments before each alien encounter too.

Even so, this novel’s alien-based scenes can sometimes feel a bit like a low-budget movie from the 1970s (eg: lots of details obscured by glowing lights etc…). Not to mention that, whilst both the build up and aftermath to the alien abduction hinted at in the title are surprisingly suspenseful, grim and/or unnerving, the actual alien abduction itself is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy. The closest comparison I can think of is probably the low-budget “so bad that it’s good” 1993 movie “Alien Intruder”.

Still, as you’d expect for a novel about UFOs, there is the obligatory government conspiracy too. This is handled surprisingly well and is more of a subtle background detail that helps to add to the suspenseful feeling of isolation and indifference that runs throughout the novel. Although those in authority ask Regan not to talk about his UFO encounter, he isn’t really directly threatened by them – mostly because they don’t need to threaten him. Whenever he tries to tell the horrifying truth to anyone, he is often just ridiculed or dismissed.

In terms of this novel’s thriller elements, they are absolutely excellent. There’s a really good mixture between slower-paced suspenseful moments and more frantic faster-paced moments which means that this novel becomes more and more compelling as it goes along. All of this is also helped by the intriguing mystery of the aliens, several claustrophobic moments and the fact that Regan can’t really find that many people willing to believe or help him. Seriously, if you want a fun and reasonably streamlined thriller from the 1980s, then you might be pleasantly surprised by this one.

Of course, being a Shaun Hutson novel, there are also some horror elements too 🙂 Surprisingly though, these are very different to what you might expect if you’ve read any of the horror novels Hutson originally published under his own name during the 1980s. To use a videogame metaphor, the difference is like the difference between “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill” – with this novel being the latter. In other words, there’s little to none of the gory horror that you’d expect from a 1980s Hutson novel and a much greater focus on H.P. Lovecraft-style cosmic horror, medical horror, atmosphere, claustrophobia and suspense.

And this novel absolutely excels with these elements. Plus, if you’re a fan of “Silent Hill”, then some moments here may feel oddly familiar (even though this novel is more than a decade older than the first “Silent Hill” game) – with lots of ominous radio static and other eerie things heralding the arrival of the aliens long before the characters actually see them.

Yet, although this novel uses a very different style of horror (closer to something like, say, Guy N. Smith’s “Accursed), it still feels very distinctively like a Shaun Hutson novel – with some of this novel’s more claustrophobic and suspenseful moments almost feeling like a “quieter” moment from Hutson’s 1986 horror novel “Deathday“. Needless to say, this is never a bad thing 🙂

As for the characters, they are functional. Regan, Lynn and all of the background characters just seem like fairly “realistic” people in an understated kind of way. We don’t really get a huge amount of backstory and, although the opening chapter about the signalman includes some hint of the deep characterisation that is a classic feature of 1980s horror novels, this is very much a novel about “ordinary” people facing the extraordinary. The characters in this novel certainly aren’t “badly written”, but don’t expect the level of characterisation you’d find in a typical classic Hutson novel.

The writing in this novel is probably also one of it’s strengths. Although it may not be to everyone’s tastes, this novel’s third-person narration is written in the style that Hutson used during the 1980s and it is an absolute joy to read 🙂 The best way to describe it is probably that the narration is reasonably “matter of fact”, but with a lot of surprisingly formal (and occasionally over-written) flourishes. This not only allows the story to move at a reasonable pace whilst also giving it both atmosphere and personality, but the slightly increased level of formality also lends everything a wonderfully “retro” feeling too 🙂 And, although there aren’t really many classic “Hutsonisms” in this novel (eg: no “coppery” blood, scapula bones, “liquescent” things etc…), he does seem to use the word “effulgent”/”effulgence” about three times or so.

As for length and pacing, this novel is excellent. At a ridiculously efficient 157 pages in the ominbus I read (192 pages in the original paperback), it never really feels like a single page is wasted here. Yes, this efficiency means that some sacrifices have been made in terms of things like characterisation and backstory, but it still results in a refreshingly streamlined story. I’ve already mentioned the expert mixture of slower and faster paced scenes, but this is also a novel that becomes more and more intense, suspenseful and compelling as it goes along too.

In terms of how this thirty-five year old novel has aged, it still holds up reasonably well. Yes, the writing style is slightly more formal than a modern novel (but still very readable and reasonably paced) and there are a couple of brief “politically incorrect” moments too. But, for the most part, this novel just feels endearingly “retro” rather than dated. Another cool thing about this novel’s age is that the lack of things like smartphones and the internet means that many moments are a lot more suspenseful, since it is harder for Regan to record evidence of the aliens or tell other people about them. It is the kind of story that only really “works” in pre-smartphone settings and it works really well 🙂

All in all, this novel was better than I’d expected. If you want a fun and suspenseful UFO-themed sci-fi thriller that is set in 1980s Britain, then this one is well worth reading. Plus, if you’re a Shaun Hutson fan, then this novel contains the “classic Hutson” style and atmosphere that we all know and love – but with some intriguingly different types of horror too.

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

Review: “Vienna Blood” by Adrian Matthews (Novel)

After finishing the previous book I reviewed, I wasn’t sure what to read next. Eventually, I ended up scouring the dustier parts of my bookshelves in search of hidden gems and, after a while, a crumpled copy of Adrian Matthews’ 1999 sci-fi thriller novel “Vienna Blood” caught my eye.

Although I can’t remember when or where I first found this book (at a guess, it was probably a second-hand bookshop at some point during the mid-late 2000s), I can easily guess why it interested me. After all, like with Jack O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh“, this was a novel with a prominent critic quote on the cover that referenced the movie “Blade Runner”. What can I say? This will usually make me buy a book, even if I haven’t heard of it before.

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

This is the 2000 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “Vienna Blood” that I read.

Set in Vienna in late 2026, the novel begins with a local journalist called Sharkey learning that a man called Leo Detmers has died in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. Sharkey vividly remembers meeting Leo for the first time during a trip to a data protection conference in Germany several weeks earlier and going out drinking with him. But, although Sharkey only met Leo once, he gets a message from Leo’s pregnant wife, Petra, asking to talk to him.

Petra tells Sharkey that Leo considered him to be his only friend and that he somehow knew that he was going to die several months before it happened – to the point of taking out a large life insurance policy and telling her to contact Sharkey if anything happened to him. Although Sharkey is initially sceptical about this, he reluctantly decides to investigate further…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it was much slower-paced and more “literary” than I’d expected, it is a surprisingly compelling sci-fi thriller that is also eerily prescient in some regards too. Yes, the comparison to “Blade Runner” on the cover isn’t one that I’d make myself (in terms of setting and atmosphere, it’s probably slightly closer to a 1990s William Gibson novel), but – if you enjoy eerily plausible near-future sci-fi with a hint of cyberpunk and biopunk, then you’ll enjoy this one.

Still, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. For the most part, this novel focuses on genetic engineering and all of the various ethical issues surrounding it – all of this stuff is handled in a rather thoughtful and “scientific” way, whilst also being the source for lots of drama and thought-provoking moments.

It is a novel about how technology is often far ahead of the regulations surrounding it and about all of the various moral issues surrounding eugenics. This is also used to critique right-wing politics, with the novel pointing out the practical importance of genetic diversity too.

The segments about genetics also pose questions about what makes us who we are, “nature vs nurture”, whether companies should have the right to patent biological discoveries etc… All of these topics are handled in a really nuanced and “realistic” way, which makes a point without ever really patronising or preaching at the reader.

However, the most interesting sci-fi element of this novel is probably the “future” of 2026 itself. Although some elements of it are wonderfully ’90s, it is genuinely surprising just how much stuff this novel actually gets right about the 2010s-20s. Seriously, it’s almost on the level of something like William Gibson’s “Idoru” in this regard.

Whether it is the use of technology like augmented reality, smartphone-like devices (called “bip-bips”), e-books, virtual personal assistants and electric cars, or political developments such as more places legalising cannabis or the disturbing rise of xenophobic hard-right populist politics in Europe, this novel almost feels like it was written with the assistance of a time machine.

On a side note, since I prepare these reviews quite far in advance (though not as far in advance as I used to), I started reading this novel when I was still a citizen of the European Union – and by the time I finished it – I was no longer one. This is a novel from 1999, and yet it felt more ominously relevant than ever in the run-up to Brexit. If I remember rightly, one eerie moment in this novel was a mention of something like a “European Federation” (?) with only twenty-seven member states. Yes, this novel gets some stuff wrong about the future – but it gets a shocking amount of stuff right!

Interestingly, although this isn’t really a “cyberpunk” novel, it takes quite a bit of influence from the genre – with a few vaguely cyberpunk-style locations (such as the police station), a focus on powerful tech companies and several scenes involving computer hacking. But, in an interesting twist, these scenes aren’t the kind of stylised “Neuromancer”-type thing you might expect. In fact, the topic is mostly presented in a decidedly understated and unglamourous way that is clearly based on research into real-world 1990s computer hacking (albeit with a few mildly “futuristic” elements).

This novel is also something of a thriller too. Although you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced story, this novel contains a really good mixture of “investigative reporter”-style detective elements and a complex, twist-filled plot that become more and more gripping as the story progresses. This is also paired with a few suspenseful moments and a couple of dramatic “set pieces” too, in order to keep the reader on their toes. Again, this is a rather slow-paced thriller, but it is still a fairly compelling one.

In terms of the characters, this novel is interesting. As you’d expect from a first-person perspective novel, the narrator – Sharkey – gets the bulk of the story’s characterisation. He’s a typical hard-boiled reporter character who, in true ’90s fashion, is a cynical twenty/thirtysomething. Interestingly, although he’s supposed to be Austrian – he often comes across as very British in the kind of way that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in an old Alex Garland novel, a film like “Shooting Fish” etc.. Even his nickname sounds British. Plus, for a “millennial” character, his tastes in music and knowledge of philosophy/literature feel decidedly older. Still, he’s a rather interesting protagonist nonetheless.

Although the other characters don’t really get as much characterisation as Sharkey and can occasionally seem a little bit on the stylised side of things (Petra and Leo spring to mind here), they still seem like distinctive, quirky and unique characters who all have personalities, motivations and backstories that help to add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the novel.

The writing in this novel isn’t what I’d expected though. Unlike the more “matter of fact” narration you’d expect in a thriller novel, the first-person narration here is very much on the “literary” side of things. Yes, it has some informal moments and a bit of a hardboiled tone to it (with a few hints of 1990s-style edginess and “Cool Britannia”) – but this is very much a high-brow literary novel that is aimed at experienced readers.

In other words, expect a very extensive vocabulary, detailed descriptions, classical music/philosophy references, scientific/technical jargon and some untranslated German words (although these can usually be understood from the context). On the plus side, all of this stuff adds a lot of atmosphere, seriousness and individuality to the novel, whilst also giving the reader a bit of an enjoyable challenge too. However, on the downside, the writing style slows the story down quite a bit too and can occasionally come across as “showing off” and/or being mildly unrealistic (seriously, Sharkey seems a lot older than his stated age).

This, of course, brings me on to length and pacing. Although this novel is a reasonably short 312 pages in length, don’t expect it to be a quick read (it took me 4-5 days to read. Thank goodness for my article buffer). Although the novel’s plot is a rather compelling one and the story also includes lots of atmosphere and intriguing background details, the “literary” writing style can really slow things down to an absolute crawl at times. Yes, the story starts to flow a bit better and more quickly when you get used to the writing style – but this is still a slower-paced story than you might expect.

As for how well this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it is still difficult to explain how uncanny reading this novel can feel. It is very clearly from mid-late 1990s Britain (eg: characters, atmosphere/attitude, writing style, some of the tech, some brief “politically incorrect” moments etc..), and yet it often feels like a modern novel about the modern world too. Again, I have to wonder if a time machine was used when writing this novel.

All in all, this is an eerily prescient and atmospheric “realistic” near-future sci-fi thriller with a rather compelling plot and some vaguely cyberpunk elements. Yes, it is a very slow-paced novel that is written in the kind of “literary” style that doesn’t always fit in well with the characters or the type of story that is being told – but, if you want a good example of “realistic” sci-fi and/or are a fan of writers like William Gibson, then you’ll probably enjoy it.

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

Review: “Sweet Dreams” By Tricia Sullivan (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for sci-fi again. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Tricia Sullivan’s 2017 novel “Sweet Dreams”. I found this novel a week or so before writing this review whilst searching online for sci-fi novels and, being a fan of both the cyberpunk genre and anything involving dreams, the premise intrigued me enough to buy a second-hand copy of it and take a look.

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

This is the 2018 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Sweet Dreams” that I read.

Set in London in 2027, the novel begins with Charlotte “Charlie” Aaron sitting in a bedroom with a flatulent teacher called Mrs. Haugh-Wambaur asleep next to her. Ever since she took part in a mysterious medical trial, Charlie has gained the ability to enter other people’s dreams when they are near her. The only side-effects are alcopecia and narcolepsy. Since the latter of these has made getting a “conventional” career difficult, she makes a living as a “Dream Therapist”.

After dealing with Mrs. Haugh-Wambaur’s anxiety dream and being awoken by even more flatulence, Charlie notices that she has a message from her ex-boyfriend Antonio asking for help with his new girlfriend’s problems. Needless to say, their relationship didn’t end well and Charlie is unsure whether to take the job or not.

We then see a transcript of Charlie being interviewed by two detectives called Roman and Donato. She is a witness to the death of a woman called Melodie Tan and she doesn’t know whether they consider her to be a suspect or not.

Charlie’s next client is a rich lawyer called Martin Elstree who has hired her to create several violent revenge dreams for his enjoyment. After the first dream, Charlie freaks out and flees his hotel room before her narcolepsy makes her collapse in the lift. She is rescued by a man who works for Charlie’s agent and landlady, O – an elderly cancer patient who is also highly intelligent and interested in technology.

When Charlie wakes up, they eventually end up discussing Antonio’s request and O convinces her to take the job. So, Charlie goes to visit Antonio and meets his new girlfriend, a Canadian classical musician called Melodie Tan who has been suffering from recurring nightmares about a mysterious masked killer called “The Creeper”…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot better than I’d initially thought it was. The best way to describe this novel is that it is kind of like a cross between films like “Paprika”, “Inception” and “Nightmare on Elm Street”, with very strong elements of the cyberpunk and spy thriller genres too 🙂 In other words, if you like creepy thrillers set in cyberspace-like dream worlds, then you’ll enjoy this one 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements – which are excellent 🙂 Although the novel includes lots of scenes involving augmented reality and nanotechnology, with dream-like segments that are like a more surreal version of the virtual reality hacking found in a typical cyberpunk novel, the tech isn’t really the main focus of this novel. This is more of a dystopian novel about the power of tech companies and the fact that governments usually find themselves struggling to keep up with technological developments. It is a novel about the problems of technological advancement and the power of lawless tech companies. And, now that I think about it, this is cyberpunk. It is incredibly cyberpunk.

All of the novel’s tech is handled surprisingly well, allowing for lots of subtle social commentary too. For example, the novel’s version of London is filled with AR adverts – which of course allow companies to sell ad-blockers – and, not only that, most of the advertising companies also can’t be bothered to spend money on adapting their American ad-bots for British audiences too. Likewise, social media is also critiqued by the fact that many of the visitors to the Dream City are shown to be greyscale people who are blindfolded by emotionless masks. This novel is a comment about tech taking control of the world and how we should take control back from it.

Likewise, the novelty of dream-manipulation tech also serves as a mirror for the anarchic early days of the internet, in addition to allowing the novel to explore issues of privacy in the modern world. This is, of course, done through the thoroughly creepy medium of characters quite literally accessing other people’s minds, in addition to more traditional scenes involving the privacy nightmare that is “cloud” computing. Yes, the novel’s tech seems a little too advanced for 2027 (it is literally only seven years in the future, ten when the novel was first published), but this novel is an excellent piece of cautionary dystopian sci-fi for the modern age.

And, talking of creepy stuff, I was also delighted to find that this novel has some fairly serious horror elements too 🙂 Although these appear slightly more often in the earlier parts of the book, they are this wonderfully disturbing mixture of psychological horror, disturbing imagery, character-based horror, gory horror, suspenseful horror, surreal horror and “Nightmare On Elm Street”-style slasher horror. A good portion of the dreams in this novel are outright nightmares and this really helps to add a lot of compelling intensity and suspense to the story 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements are absolutely stellar too – being a gripping mixture of suspenseful moments, intriguing mysteries, faster-paced moments and the kind of complex twist-filled plot that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a traditional spy thriler novel. Although you shouldn’t expect an “action movie” type novel, this is one of those books that becomes more and more gripping as it progresses. Likewise, as the story progresses, it also becomes slightly less of a horror story and slightly more of a detective story too. It is also one of those wonderfully weird thrillers – like Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” – which involves complex large-scale intrigue in a mysterious virtual world too.

As for the writing, it is an acquired taste – but it fits in perfectly with the story. Although the novel’s fairly informal first-person present-tense narration grated on me slightly when I first started reading it, I soon began to appreciate why Sullivan chose to use this style. Not only does it allow for a lot of extra characterisation and add extra immediacy, but it is also more well-written than it initially seems to be. The present tense keeps the thriller plot fairly gripping and, although the narration is fairly informal, there are still plenty of atmospheric and descriptive moments that really help the novel to come alive. Likewise, the first-person perspective also allows for lots of extra mystery (since we only see things from Charlie’s perspective) and more immersive descriptions of things like lucid dreaming and ASMR too.

This novel’s characters are more interesting than I’d initially expected too. The bulk of the novel’s characterisation focuses on Charlie and she becomes much more of a likeable, interesting and sympathetic character as the story progresses. She also becomes a more complex and interesting character who adds a lot of personality, humour and humanity to the story too. In typical modern fashion, she’s also living a fairly precarious life and seems to be in a perpetual state of chaos and disarray – which helps to make her more of a realistic character too.

Although the other characters don’t get as much characterisation as Charlie does, they still seem like fairly interesting and realistic people. The only exception to this is probably “The Creeper” who is a genuinely terrifying and mysterious creature of pure evil. Yes, these scenes do veer towards “cartoonishly evil” at times, but – for the most part – “The Creeper” is probably one of the scariest fictional villains that I’ve seen for a while and this is probably because it is such a “larger than life” character.

As for length and pacing, this novel is excellent. At a reasonably efficient 313 pages, there’s very little in the way of filler here. Likewise, not only does the story itself move at a reasonable pace (not ultra-fast paced but not slow-paced either) but the novel begins in a compellingly mysterious and scary way before gradually turning into more of a complex spy/detective thriller plot that is almost unputdownable in some parts. Plus, although this isn’t really a Dan Brown-style “short chapters” thriller, the chapter length is often kept reasonably short during large portions of the novel in order to keep things even more gripping. Likewise, the novel also clearly signposts when a dream scene is taking place thanks to a diary/report-like chapter headings for these segments. So, this element of the plot never gets confusing.

All in all, this is a much better novel than I’d initially thought. If you want a slightly unusual cyberpunk thriller novel that also contains some decent horror elements too, then this one is well worth reading. It is a novel that gets better as it goes along, that has a lot to say about the world and it is a novel that fans of films like “Paprika” and novels like Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” will probably enjoy.

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

Review: “Doctor Who – Molten Heart” by Una McCormack (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for sci-fi novels and spin-off novels, so I thought that I’d take a look at Una McCormack’s 2018 novel “Doctor Who – Molten Heart”.

This was a book that I’d first thought about getting in late 2018 after the eleventh series of “Doctor Who” had finished. At the time, the three spin-off novels based on this series were fairly expensive and I only ended up getting a copy of Steve Cole’s “Doctor Who – Combat Magicks“. Still, a year or two later, second-hand copies of the other two “series eleven” spin-off novels had come down in price enough for me to take a look at them.

Although this novel tells a new self-contained “Doctor Who” spin-off story, it is probably worth watching a few episodes of either series eleven or twelve of the modern version of “Doctor Who” in order to get to know the main characters before you start reading this book.

So, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who – Molten Heart”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 BBC Books (UK) hardback edition of “Doctor Who – Molten Heart” that I read.

The novel begins with a description of the surface of a rather boring planet called Adamantine, before hinting that something interesting lies beneath the surface. We then see Yaz standing around in the TARDIS. She tries to talk to The Doctor, only for The Doctor to suddenly have some kind of strange feeling about Adamantine and decide to pay it a visit. We are then treated to a mysterious vignette about three friends with different personalities.

When The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham step out of the TARDIS, they find themselves on some kind of rocky plain. But, things don’t seem quite right. The stars above look odd and the horizon is at a slightly strange angle too. It doesn’t take them long to realise that they are in some kind of giant underground cave with glowing crystals on the ceiling. Things become even more wondrous when they see a beautiful crystalline city in the distance. However, as they try to walk towards it, the ground opens up and Graham almost falls into a pit of boiling water.

Behind some nearby rocks, a rock-based lifeform called Ash watches the strangers. They are proof of her missing father’s theory that there is life beyond the cave. But, before she can go over and help them, she spots members of the Greenwatch – the planet’s secret police, run by a crystalline being called Emerald – approach the strangers and arrest them. Still, feeling that they might be able to help with the boiling pits that are slowly destroying the cave, Ash decides to follow at a distance and rescue them….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a rather compelling “feel good” sci-fi adventure thriller story, with some wonderfully atmospheric locations, which really seems like a “lost episode” of the TV show. Yes, it doesn’t really have as much complexity as I’d hoped – but if you want an enjoyable and streamlined adventure that can be read in about 2-3 hours, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, they’re really interesting. Although the novel certainly contains a few futuristic gadgets, this is one of those sci-fi novels that is as much about the characters and locations as it is about the technology. Even though the relatively short length and faster pacing only gives us a tantalising glimpse of the story’s underground crystalline world, it is is a brilliantly atmospheric place that is filled with lots of wonderfully cool stuff (eg: lava sharks, crystal cities, mushroom forests etc…). Plus, if you grew up in the 1990s, this location will probably also remind you of all of the imaginative computer games that were around then too 🙂

Yes, this novel is probably slightly on the “science fantasy” side of things at times – with plenty of references to “Lord Of The Rings” throughout the novel – but this actually works here. Although the worldbuilding is reasonably economical, the novel still gives us a basic understanding of the closed society living beneath the planet’s surface, plus a few hints about their politics, idioms etc… that really help the world to “come to life” and make it easier for the reader to suspend their disbelief during the more fantastical moments. And, if you can suspend your disbelief, then this novel is truly wondrous 🙂 I don’t usually criticise novels for being short, but I’d have loved to see more time devoted to all of the interesting background stuff in this novel.

The novel’s thriller elements are also reasonably well-written too. For the most part, they consist of a mixture of large and small-scale suspenseful moments that are also combined with an intriguing mystery and, of course, the classic thriller technique of splitting the main characters into two groups. All of this stuff really helps to keep the novel compelling and is also fairly reminiscent of the (mostly) non-violent thriller elements of the “Doctor Who” TV show too. But, although there are some vague political intrigue and/or mild dystopian fiction elements, these weren’t really as detailed or complex as I’d hoped. Even so, they are still reasonably compelling.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting. In essence, it is a story about the environment and unintended consequences of technology. These themes are handled really well, with the novel making a point about this in a subtle non-preachy way that is both relevant to the story and also respects the reader’s intelligence too. It’s also something of a story about the value of science and journalism too – with Emerald trying to suppress research and news into the cause of the fissures that threaten the underground world, out of the belief that it could cause a mass panic.

As for the characters, they’re fairly good. The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham are reasonably accurate to their characters in the TV show. The novel’s rock-people characters are really interesting too, with fairly distinctive personalities and motivations that make them seem like realistic characters. We also learn quite a few tantalising things about the underground world from these characters too. However, thanks to this novel’s short length and fast-pacing, don’t expect the kind of ultra-deep characterisation you’d find in a “traditional” sci-fi novel. Even so, the characterisation here is still fairly good, if a little briefly-sketched at times.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration usually uses a reasonably fast-paced and informal writing style. This keeps the story moving at a decent speed and also means that it is also fairly close in style and atmosphere to the TV show. Even though I’d have liked to have seen more complex descriptions, the reasonably short descriptions of several fascinating locations still manage to evoke a feeling of wonder and add a lot of atmosphere to the novel.

As for length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a wierd one. Usually, I’d praise a faster-paced 193 page novel for being streamlined and efficient. However, I absolutely fell in love with the fascinating “world” of this story and wanted to see more of it. So, this novel felt a bit rushed. But it’s still a very compelling and atmospheric novel, which also has the added bonus of only taking as long to read as it would take to watch 2-3 episodes of the TV show. Still, it feels more like just one “episode” of the TV show than the more complex multi-episode sized storylines that you can often find in sci-fi TV show spin-off novels.

All in all, whilst this novel sometimes feels a little bit too streamlined, it is still worth reading if you are a “Doctor Who” fan. If you want a thrilling adventure that is set in an awe-inspiringly wondrous location, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel. It’s kind of like a “lost episode” of the TV show and even a whistle-stop tour through the novel’s fascinating crystalline caves is still a journey worth taking.

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

Review: “The Rosewater Redemption” by Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’ve wanted to read for a while. I am, of course, talking about Tade Thompson’s 2019 sci-fi novel “The Rosewater Redemption”, which was a much-anticipated Christmas present from a family member last year (and, yes, I write these articles quite far in advance).

However, I should point out that this novel is the third novel in Thompson’s “Wormwood” trilogy and should only be read after you’ve read “Rosewater” and “The Rosewater Insurrection” (in that order). Yes, this novel contains a few small recaps – but it not only follows on directly from these two novels, it also requires a good knowledge of the series’ characters and setting too. So, read this trilogy in order! You won’t regret it.

So, let’s take a look at “The Rosewater Redemption”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS for the entire trilogy.

This is the 2019 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “The Rosewater Redemption” that I read.

After a brief introduction from Oyin Da, we return to the newly-created African city state of Rosewater after it won independence from Nigeria at the end of the previous novel with the help of the alien life-form living below it. But, although Rosewater has won the war, it’s troubles are far from over.

Not only is Aminat, now security chief, furious that mayor Jack Jacques keeps pardoning his war buddies whenever she arrests them but she also learns that he’s agreed to a prisoner swap with Nigeria. Femi is to be exchanged for a mercenary called Dahun that Jack wants to be Aminat’s second-in-command.

But, before Femi is returned to Nigeria, she asks Kaaro to visit her in prison and talks him into briefly reading her mind before the guards can intervene. After she is released, she moves into a luxury hotel and gathers a team for her semi-official plan to retake Rosewater and deal with the alien lifeforms via a carefully-planned campaign of destabilisation and manipulation.

This isn’t the end of Rosewater’s troubles though. Human-Homian tensions begin to simmer over the treaty that allows the Homians to download their stored minds into the bodies of anyone who dies within the city after Jack’s wife, Hannah, launches a legal case about the status of re-animated humans. Not only that, some of the Homians who have started arriving on Earth are “synners” – violent terrorists who can reincarnate with impunity every time they are shot by the authorities. The Homians’ representative, Koriko, is also reluctant to agree to any of the measures suggested by Jack and Aminat to deal with this problem.

Whilst all of this is going on, Oyin Da teams up with Femi and goes on a time-travelling journey through the Xenosphere in order to learn more about what happened to America before it shut itself off from the rest of the world…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly satisfying conclusion to the “Wormwood” trilogy 🙂 It’s closer in style to the large-scale drama of the second novel, yet also more of a traditional-style thriller at the same time. If you enjoy complex cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash“, then you’ll probably enjoy this one 🙂 It’s atmospheric, gripping and brilliantly-written.

Interestingly, this novel is slightly more of a suspense, spy and political thriller novel than the action-packed second novel. This isn’t to say that this novel doesn’t have a few well-placed action sequences, but it is slightly more of an old-school thriller and this really works. The complex thriller plot allows this novel to feel really satisfying, not to mention that the contrast in pacing and scale between the story’s many connected plot threads also helps to keep the reader on their toes and ensures that the story remains compelling throughout.

Although this story certainly contains a high-stakes “save the world” plot (think “Independence Day”, but with much more moral, narrative and intellectual complexity) and some extremely dramatic moments, the most compelling parts of this story are probably the large-scale political and spy-style drama. Not only does Jack find himself still struggling to run the city and deal with a number of issues, but there are numerous secret plots and things like that which really help to keep everything suspenseful. If the second novel was like an epic action movie, then this third novel is more like an incredibly gripping TV series. And it works really well 🙂

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, although this novel includes the detailed worldbuilding that you’d expect and also expands on a lot of interesting stuff that was introduced in the previous novels, it focuses more on the social and ethical implications of the series’ alien technology.

Initially, this begins as a dispute over who has the right to collect dead bodies – but quickly escalates into a much more complex topic, focusing on issues like colonialism, bereavement, terrorism, authority, military/scientific ethics and what makes someone human. This last theme is also very evocative of classic cyberpunk films like “Ghost In The Shell” and “Blade Runner”, whilst also being very much it’s own thing too 🙂 So, although this novel certainly includes it’s fair share of cool cyberpunk tech and Cronenburg-style body horror, it’s probably the most cerebral and thematically-complex entry in the series.

All of these themes are handled absolutely expertly, with the novel also making numerous points about a variety of other topics (eg: LGBT rights, the rule of law, religion/traditions, the environment etc…) in a way that usually fits in absolutely perfectly with the atmosphere of the series. Yes, one or two brief moments might feel slightly clumsy but, overall, this is a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence in a similar way to many other modern sci-fi classics 🙂

One of this novel’s many strengths are the characters and, although this novel is ostensibly focused on Oyin Da, all of the series’ familiar characters get a really good amount of characterisation and character development that allows Thompson to wrap up the series in a satisfying way 🙂 This is one of those excellent novels that handles a large cast of well-written characters in the kind of expert way that makes them all feel like main characters with their own story arcs.

In terms of the writing, it is exquisite 🙂 Thompson uses an expert blend of formal and informal narration that not only adds a lot of atmosphere and complexity to the story, but also allows for quite a few playful moments of subtle humour, in addition to the kind of gritty realism that you’d expect in a good cyberpunk or thriller novel 🙂 Not only that, the novel’s variations in formality allow for all sorts of other clever stuff too – such as extra characterisation and more gripping pacing too. These variations also allow Thompson to tell a complex, descriptive story aimed at experienced sci-fi readers, whilst also keeping the novel accessible for slightly less experienced readers too (since the informal segments and/or sentences break up the more formal passages of the novel).

Interestingly, this novel also blends first and third person narration – with the segments focusing on Oyin Da being in first-person and the rest of the novel being in third-person. Although this can be mildly confusing at first, the fact that the perspective changes follow a clear structure mean that it is reasonably easy to follow after a while. Not to mention that if you’ve read the previous books in the trilogy, then you’ll probably also be used to these types of experimental narrative techniques too.

As for length and pacing, this novel excels here too. It crams more storytelling into 373 pages than some novels can manage in 600, and not a single page feels wasted. The novel’s complex plot also contains a really well-handled mixture of faster and slower paced moments that really help to keep everything compelling and unpredictable too.

All in all, this is an excellent and thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the “Wormwood” trilogy that was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a compelling cyberpunk-influenced thriller novel with excellent characters, lots of atmosphere and quite a bit of thematic depth, then this one is well worth reading. After the first two books in the trilogy, of course.

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

Today’s Art (4th August 2020)

Well, during a moment of inspiration, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t decide whether to make a piece of sci-fi art, a piece of horror art, a piece of heavy metal art or a piece of punk art. So, I combined all four into this digitally-edited painting 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Slime-Drinking Skeleton From Mars” By C. A. Brown