Review: “Old Twentieth” By Joe Haldeman (Novel)

Well, after I’d finished reading Joe Haldeman’s excellent “The Accidental Time Machine” a week or two earlier, I looked online and ended up finding a second-hand copy of Haldeman’s 2005 novel “Old Twentieth”. Since the cover art and the premise looked fairly interesting, I decided to take a look at it.

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

This is the 2006 Ace (US) paperback edition of “Old Twentieth” that I read.

The novel begins in 1915, where a soldier in Gallipoli called Jacob is mortally wounded by a Turkish shell. As he dies, someone shows him a series of pictures….

We then flash forward to the distant future. Jacob is hundreds of years old, because an immortality pill was developed in the past. However, the fact that the pill was initially only available to the wealthy sparked an Earth-wide civil war, which ended with the immortal 3% of the population using bio-weapons to get rid of the 97%. In the centuries that followed, Earth rebuilt itself from a post-apocalyptic ruin and civilisation returned.

However, there were still worries about how long Earth would last. So, after a probe finds another habitable planet, eight hundred people decide to take the 1000 year voyage in a group of five spaceships. To stave off boredom during the voyage and to help the crew emotionally, one of the ships has a virtual reality machine that can realistically simulate many parts of Earth’s history. Jacob is part of the team that maintains the machine and sorts out errors in the program.

For the first few years of the voyage, everything goes well. Life on board the ship is pleasant and Jacob even falls in love with another member of the crew too. However, all of this starts to unravel when someone using the VR machine suddenly and mysteriously dies whilst still plugged in…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly atmospheric, intelligent and compelling sci-fi story that is reminiscent of films like “The Thirteenth Floor” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the TV show “Bablyon 5” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World“. Even so, it can be a little bit on the slow-paced side of things, not to mention that it is also a far cry from the light-hearted adventure of Haldeman’s “The Accidental Time Machine” too.

Although there are some moments of humour and some rather utopian moments (which are perhaps a satire of “Star Trek”) during the story, this is very much a bleak and dystopian story. On the plus side, it contains some brilliantly chilling and grotesque moments of sci-fi horror but, for the most part, it is a rather melancholy story. It’s a very intelligent, atmospheric and compelling novel, but it isn’t exactly a “feel good” novel.

One interesting thing about the novel’s VR segments is that they are deliberately grim and dystopian, with the grittiness of history being contrasted with the seemingly utopian world of the future (this even extends to some of the deliberately dated descriptions used in the “history” segments). This also allows the story to include some extra worldbuilding and emotional depth since, in a world where people are immortal, realistic simulations of things like disease and death evoke a different reaction than they would do if the characters experiencing them were mortal.

Thematically, this book is fairly complex. In addition to dealing with history, war, capitalism, anarchy, death, psychology and other such heavy topics, it is also a book about virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the meaning of life too. There’s lots of fairly interesting subtle stuff too, such as how a lot of the VR history segments in the early parts of the story deal with the Spanish Flu, which parallels the use of bio-weapons in the novel’s backstory. Or how the narrator’s surname is Brewer, which links into a comment that a character makes about him later in the story.

But, one slightly annoying thing about this book is that it could have been a really brilliant satire of moral panics and it possibly is to some limited extent. Even so, this novel mostly goes down a more serious and dystopian route, with the “dangerous” VR machine being a source of horror and a source of moral lectures from a few of the more curmudgeonly characters (where it is likened to alcoholism, drugs etc..). Still, this novel does pose the question of whether joy and escapism is an integral part of the meaning of life, with the alternative to using the machine being 1000 years of repetitive boredom on a spaceship.

In terms of the characters, they’re ok I guess. The narrator gets a reasonable amount of characterisation, but the side-characters often seem a little bit stylised or under-developed. Although there is a possible in-universe explanation for this, the very slight lack of characterisation can make some of the characters seem a little bit generic and/or annoying. Likewise, it’s kind of annoying that the only bi character (Kate) in the novel is possibly something of a stereotype too.

In terms of the writing, the novel is mostly narrated from a first-person perspective, with a few brief third-person backstory segments. The writing style is fairly descriptive, but readable, which helps to add a lot of atmosphere to the story – albeit at the cost of slightly slower-paced storytelling. Even so, the writing in this novel is kind of like a slightly updated version of more classic sci-fi narration.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At 285 pages in length, it never really feels too long and it manages to pack quite a bit of storytelling into a reasonable amount of pages. On the other hand, whilst this novel does become more and more compelling as it goes along, the pacing is a little bit on the slow side of things. Yes, this adds atmosphere and suspense. But, on the other hand, a faster pace would have made this story even better.

Still, the novel has a rather dramatic ending though. However, if you’ve seen a fair number of sci-fi movies/TV shows, then it might be at least slightly predictable. Even so, it’s a reasonably clever way to end the story nonetheless.

All in all, this is a compelling, intelligent, atmospheric and suspenseful sci-fi novel. Yes, it’s slow-paced, a bit depressing and it possibly needs a bit more characterisation, but it is still a reasonably good novel. Even so, I enjoyed Haldeman’s “The Accidental Time Machine” slightly more than this novel.

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

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Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Perchance To Dream” By Howard Weinstein (Novel)

Well, since the weather was still fairly hot, I was still in the mood for something fairly short and relaxing to read. And, after looking through some of the various “Star Trek” novels I accumulated in 2010-13 (when I went through a phase of reading them), I eventually settled on one from 1991 called “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Perchance To Dream” by Howard Weinstein.

Like with the other “Star Trek” novels I’ve reviewed during the past month, this novel tells a self-contained spin-off story that can theoretically be read on it’s own. However, you’ll probably get more out of this novel if you’ve seen at least a few episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” before reading it.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Perchance To Dream”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1991 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Perchance To Dream” that I read.

The novel begins on the USS Enterprise, which is stationed near an uninhabited planet called Domarus Four. Dr. Crusher is not in a good mood, not only have Starfleet asked her to transport several patients to a medical facility (rather than ask her to treat them), but her teenage son Wesley is on a training mission on Domarus Four with Data, Troi and two other cadets.

Down on the planet’s surface, the cadets are collecting geological samples and occasionally having arguments with each other. Even so, the training mission seems to have been something of a success. But, when their shuttle lifts off from the planet, they are caught in the strong tractor beam of a spaceship that accuses them of trespassing on a planet claimed by the Teniran Echelon.

Luckily, the Enterprise notices this on sensors and goes to intercept the ship, hoping to negotiate the shuttle’s release before it is destroyed by the tractor beam. However, during discussions with the Teniran captain, Arit, a mysterious glowing energy field appears in space and the shuttle suddenly disappears…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like with the other “Star Trek” novels I’ve read recently, it’s kind of like a “lost” episode of the TV show – but with a lot more atmosphere, depth and character to it. In addition to this, the novel is not only a fairly quick read but it also contains some fairly good characterisation too 🙂

Although this novel doesn’t really contain any fast-paced action scenes, it still manages to remain compelling thanks to some clever use of suspense, drama and characterisation. Most of this is done through the use of several plot threads that focus on different groups of characters and the fact that both the Enterprise and the Tenirans find themselves at the mercy of mysterious beings that can teleport them to unknown places at will. In other words, this is a thriller novel but it isn’t an action-thriller novel, if this makes sense.

Likewise, the novel really excels when it comes to characterisation and character-based drama too. Although the teen angst drama between the immature cadets does get a little bit annoying at times, the story also includes lots of scenes focusing on the rest of the Enterprise’s crew, some scenes involving the mysterious beings and quite a few well-written scenes that focus on the Teniran ship’s crew too.

Whilst I don’t want to spoil too much, the Tenirans are a really interesting and surprisingly sympathetic group of characters, who are unsure about what to do and have also been affected by their people’s history too. Likewise, there’s also some characterisation and drama between the mysterious beings surrounding the planet too.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting too. The main themes of the story are probably parenthood, the effects of history, communication, insecurity and death. Although these themes are explored a bit, they mostly serve to add a bit of extra depth and drama to the events of the story – which works fairly well.

In the utopian tradition of “Star Trek”, this is a surprisingly uplifting novel where there aren’t really any “villains” – just different groups of characters who misunderstand each other. All three groups of characters (the Enterprise’s crew, the Tenirans and the mysterious beings) are all shown to have benevolent goals that come into conflict with each other. Likewise, each group also has their own share of uncertainties, insecurities and disagreements which help to keep the story compelling too.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a way that is “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace, whilst also allowing for lots of descriptions and characterisation too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent 🙂 At a gloriously efficient 240 pages in length, the story never feels too long (and it’ll probably take you as long to read it as it would to watch just 2-4 episodes of the TV show 🙂 ). Likewise, the novel’s pacing is really good too – with lots of suspense and character-based drama ensuring that it remains compelling throughout.

In terms of how this twenty-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, there are a couple of bits that seem mildly dated (not to mention a historical error in a later part of the novel, when Data says that Europeans first travelled to North America in the 19th century) but, for the most part, this novel has aged really well. Thanks to the great characterisation and the futuristic setting, this story still holds up fairly well when read today.

All in all, this is a compelling and dramatic “Star Trek: The Next Generation” novel. Not only does reading it feel like watching a “lost” episode of the TV show, but there’s also a good amount of characterisation too.

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

Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror” By Diane Duane (Novel)

Well, after abandoning the novel I’d originally planned to read today since I really didn’t enjoy the first forty pages, I needed to find a better book… and quick!

Luckily, I’d been to Portchester the day before preparing this review and I’d found a few interesting books in the charity shops there. One of those books was a hardback copy of Diane Duane’s 1993 novel “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror”.

According to a note at the beginning of the book, this original spin-off story takes place during the same time period as the fourth season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (mostly because of a few brief references to Picard’s history with the Borg). Still, although this is a new self-contained story, it is worth being familiar with the characters from “Star Trek: TNG” and/or one or two parts of “Star Trek” mythology (eg: the mirror universe) before reading this book.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1993 Simon & Schuster (UK) hardback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror” that I read.

The novel begins with the USS Enterprise waiting in an empty region of space. Captain Picard is painting a picture of France when he receives a report that a ship owned by a spacefaring people called the Lalairu is approaching the USS Enterprise for a rendezvous. The ship has been carrying a dolphin-like Starfleet navigation expert called Hwiii, who has been conducting scientific studies of the area.

However, shortly after Hwiii joins the Enterprise’s crew, the captain of the Lalairu vessel gives Picard a cryptic warning about something dangerous in the area before leaving very quickly. A while later, the Enterprise experiences some kind of weird spacial distortion before the security systems alert the crew to an intruder. When the intruder is caught, it turns out to be a crew member called Ensign Stewart. The only problem is that, according to the ship’s computers, Ensign Stewart is asleep in his quarters.

After some medical tests, the captured intruder turns out to be a slightly different copy of Ensign Stewart. He freezes with terror when Counsellor Troi tries to talk to him and it soon becomes obvious that the Enterprise has found itself in a cruel dystopian parallel universe. Not only that, an “evil” version of the USS Enterprise is also nearby too. Needless to say, it isn’t long before the “good” Enterprise’s crew begin to hatch a plan to infiltrate the evil version of their ship and stop it from destroying them….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it is fairly slow to start, it becomes a lot more compelling and atmospheric as it continues. Imagine a slower-paced two-part episode of the TV show, but with more depth, atmosphere and drama – and this will give you a good impression of what this story is like.

The “mirror universe” (an alternate timeline containing an evil dystopian version of Starfleet) is an absolutely fascinating part of the series’ mythology and it’s a shame that it never appeared in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV show. So, it is absolutely awesome to see a novel that rectifies this mistake 🙂

In addition to seeing both chillingly evil versions of familiar characters and an atmospheric dystopian version of the Enterprise, this novel also delves into some of the mirror universe’s backstory in addition to exploring issues like morality, loyalty, colonialism etc… too. Likewise, the interactions between the “good” and “evil” versions of familiar characters also allow for lots of drama too.

And, yes, this is more of a suspense-filled spy drama novel than anything else. It is the kind of novel that is more compelling than thrilling, if this makes sense. In other words, if you’re expecting a fast-paced action-thriller novel, then you’re going to be disappointed. But, if you want a grippingly suspenseful dystopian spy story that is filled with compelling drama and science fiction, then you’ll enjoy this one 🙂

Another interesting thing about this novel is that it is a lot more high brow than I’d expected. Yes, the show itself contains some high brow moments, but this novel turns them up to eleven. In addition to lots of complicated scientific lectures and some fairly formal narration, there are numerous high brow cultural references too.

For example, when the Enterprise’s translator finds it difficult to translate the irregular grammar of the Lalairu’s language, the novel jokingly likens this to the experimental writings of James Joyce and Anthony Burgess. Likewise, there’s also a two-page scene that quotes a large portion of an altered Shakespeare play. Even so, if you don’t get all of the high brow references (I didn’t get the opera, poetry and Greek mythology ones), then there’s usually enough contextual information for them still to make sense.

In terms of the characters, they’re really well-written. The main characters are reasonably true to the TV show, with the novel also adding a bit of extra depth to them too. And, although the story mostly focuses on Picard, Troi and La Forge, most of the other characters also get a decent amount of characterisation too. Likewise, their interactions with their evil twins also allows for a lot of extra character-based drama too. In addition to this, Hwiii is an absolutely brilliant new character too – and, although he only appears during a few scenes, he adds some extra humour, sophistication and drama to the story too.

In terms of the writing, it’s fairly good. As I mentioned earlier, the novel’s third-person narration is fairly formal and descriptive (and is a little bit like a literary novel). Although this does slow the story down a bit and might take you a little while to get used to, it really helps to add a lot of extra atmosphere and depth to the story.

In terms of length and pacing, this story is ok. At 337 pages in length, the novel feels slightly on the long side, although not too much so. The novel starts fairly slowly, although the pace picks up slightly later. As I mentioned earlier, this story is more compelling than thrilling – so, expect a more moderately-paced, but gripping, story.

In terms of how this twenty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. This is mostly thanks to the story’s futuristic setting, not to mention that most of the technology still just about seems futuristic (eg: 512 terabyte storage devices, computers with 19 processing cores etc..). However, a brief “historical” reference to an opera house riot in 2002 seems a little bit silly when read today. Likewise, whilst the story itself remains compelling to this day, the more formal and “literary” writing style may seem out of place when compared to modern expectations about TV show spin-off novels.

All in all, this is an atmospheric, suspenseful and compelling novel that “Star Trek: TNG” fans will enjoy 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit slow-paced, a bit formal and perhaps a little bit too high brow. But, if you stick with it, then you will be rewarded with something that is not only like a “lost” episode of the TV show, but is also a bit richer, deeper and more compelling too.

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

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 🙂

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.