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Startide Rising - David Brin

The starship Streaker, crewed mostly by dolphins, has discovered what may be evidence of the race that started the whole cycle of uplift throughout the galaxy. Several other alien species, intercepting Streaker's message about the discovery to Earth, pursue the ship determined to seize this evidence for their own benefit. Damaged in an encounter with some of these aliens, the Streaker is forced to land on the planet Kithrup. As the ship prepares to flee again, various different alien fleets blockade the planet, their seizing of the vessel only prevented by their battle with each other. And the planet itself also threatens their survival.

 

This book is a sequel to Sundiver, I was disappointed by the lack of mention of the race discovered on the sun. Surely, that must have had some major impact on Earth. However, this book does lots of things which I really enjoyed. In including viewpoints from several alien races, it fleshed out galactic society and some of the reasons uplift had taken on such a central role. The dolphin crew, particularly the captain Creideiki, are more interesting than their human and simian crew mates largely because the incompleteness of their uplift gives them unique and compelling internal conflicts.

 

Uplift as portrayed here raised a lot of ethical questions for me. For example, it is only certain species of dolphin that are being uplifted. What ultimately happens to the stock that don't make the grade? Are there going to be unaltered stock left in the wild? What relation have they to their sentient kin? At what point does a neo-dolphin cease to be a dolphin at all? You have to be willing to not worry too much about these questions to enjoy the book. Why should the natives of Kithrup be candidates for uplift on a par with dolphins or chimps when the former can build their huts and use weapons.

 

Also there are a lot of viewpoints, so if you prefer a small number of points of view, this book may not be for you. However, I found the aliens' perspectives and the insight into their various psychologies captivating. At the beginning of the book the action on the planet seems a bit detached from the orbiting battle but they collide dramatically the tension ramps up. All in all, it was well worth reading.

Sundiver - David Brin

The Earth has been brought into the galactic fold, but finds itself a pariah because of its dubious pedigree. All the other races in the galaxy have achieved sentience through uplift by older and wiser species. Or so the galactics' propaganda maintains. Common wisdom dictates that it would be impossible for the upstart human species to discover anything not already in the massive galactic library. But with the prospect of sentient life being discovered on the sun that assumption too may be challenged. When Jacob Demwa is invited to take part in the contact mission, things quickly take a sinister turn.

 

This book was not what I expected. It's not about uplift in the way I assumed. It is only in retrospect, having read the first two sequels, that I came to appreciate what it is about. Each book focuses on the travails of a sentient species from Earth. It happens to be humans in Sundiver. In the other books, the species in question must deal with issues around its uplift. Humanity in Sundiver faces the skepticism of their newfound allies because there is no evidence that any guiding intelligence was involved in their uplift.

 

The characters feel a bit flat as does the political background on Earth. There's a lot of clever ideas packed into it, but they're not developed in great detail. On the other hand, the main character Jacob's weird alter ego left me scratching my head. I did enjoy the mystery aspects of it but I preferred the sequels.

Sarah Canary - Karen Joy Fowler

As one of the characters, B.J. Voisard, might describe it, this story is exactly like the quest for the grail, except it takes place in late 19th century America instead of medieval England, and instead of a grail there’s a  mysterious woman with an unknown past who can’t speak, and instead of valiant knights there are a Chinese migrant, a suffragette, and an escapee from an insane asylum on quests to help her. Otherwise, it’s the exact same story.

 

The book is rich in detail and meticulously researched. The SF elements are more of an open question and it isn’t heavy on plot. The writing is excellent but the characters, quirky and memorable, make the book, particularly for me, the aforementioned B.J. Voisard. If you don’t find them engaging, this book really isn’t for you.

City - Clifford D. Simak

This is a series of eight interlinked stories that deal with different generations of the Webster family and their robot servant Jenkins over thousands of years. Beginning the abandonment of the cities due to technological advances, it moves on to exploration of the solar system, the uplift of dogs and other species, the development of mutant humans, and so on. Preceding each story is a note written by intelligent dogs trying to give their canine reader some context about these strange, incanine (hey, made up a word) tales.

 

The notes get a bit stale after a while but the stories themselves are very imaginative and often tongue and cheek. While they are self-contained, each builds on its predecessors. I thought there are some interesting parallels (particularly in the first story) with the way modern technology can isolate us. However, perhaps due to the amount packed into them relative to their length, they can feel a bit rushed and even naive. Often concepts aren't explored in any real depth.

 

The Websters themselves are often little more than names. Even Jenkins only comes into his own in the later stories. The dogs make their appearance in the third tale and they often play a secondary role to the robot and their masters.

 

The fifth story, Paradise, was my favorite because it tied a lot of elements together from the previous stories in a clever way while I liked the fourth story, Desertion, least because I found its premise unconvincing.

February Update: If the Devil is in the detail, then editing can be like an exorcism.

Finishing the 2nd draft of novel codenamed Spaghetti 1 at about 70k words, I immediately started on the 3rd draft. This draft will work through the detail of the story. I have the skeleton but it needs to be fleshed out in a lot of places. The organs are there, but some are too small or too big or in the wrong place.

 

This draft is also about making decisions. I must expunge the narrative scars of ideas that went nowhere. The 2nd draft had a level of ambiguity. For example, two mutually exclusive ideas might have been allow to coexist, I have to now choose, one way or the other. Where there are conundrums in the narrative, I have to solve them as I go along, even if it means taking a few steps backward at times. And of course, any decision can set off an avalanche of new ones. And new ideas are coming, better ideas than before, that must be accommodated in the story as if they had always been part of it.

 

And every detail needs to be carefully indexed so I don't have to wade through pages of  text later, getting that horrible drowning feeling, to confirm I'm not contradicting myself. From dress to character, from motive to tea preference, everything must be made consistent.

 

It's slow. It can be tedious. But is it worth it? Yes. It's fantastic to see the story take shape, the characters come alive, and the blur come into focus.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe - D G Compton

Katherine Mortenhoe has a terminal illness at an age that is extremely rare in her time. This makes her fodder for a voyeuristic reality television show determined to track the final weeks of her life in humiliating detail. Roddie, whose eyes have been replaced with cameras, is the man charged with this task.

 

Written in the mid-seventies, this book is haled for its prescience. It certainly is insightful, if bleak. Even the humor that peppers it is grim. Most of the characters are unlikable except for Roddie's ex-wife, Tracey.  Neither Katherine or Roddie are particularly likable well into the book, but they grew on me as they grew on each other.

 

The narrative view point moves between Roddie's first person and the third person of the other characters (predominantly Katherine). Most of these shifts are highlighted by section break but towards the end, a couple of these are missing, presumably in error.

 

The ending puzzled me. Mulling it over, I've come to the conclusion that the book is less about Katherine than Roddie's rediscovery of his humanity through his relationship with her. He's the only first person viewpoint, he has the first word and the last. At the start, he wants to build a 'continuous' (complete and objective) picture of her, but he (and the reader) are only given glimpses of the connective tissue that binds all the versions of her into a cohesive whole (symbolized for example by the different versions of her name other characters are in the habit of using). In that sense, the original title of the novel, The Sleepless Eye, is more apt.

Greybeard - Brian W. Aldiss

The world is going out with a whimper instead of a bang. The entire human race is pretty much sterile due to a nuclear accident. More large animals, except reindeer have suffered the same fate, while other small animals thrive to the point of being a threat. Civilization despairs and collapses, but after a period of barbarity, the apocalypse mellows into something more genteel if still dangerous. The eponymous hero, Algy Timberlane, and his wife Martha flee the village they have sheltered in for several years on a quest to find something better.

 

They wander through a chaotic world, encountering a host of eccentric characters including the 'physician' Dr Jingadangelow. Many deny the end of the world, putting their faith in ludicrous superstitions. Others turn the surviving remnants of past institutions. But the overall mood is one of resignation.

 

As can be guessed from this, Greybread's journey is more than physical. It's a quest for meaning in an increasingly meaningless world. In a sense, it is the opposite of most apocalyptic stories I've read. Most are really about a new beginning, a fresh start, but this one is about facing the end of everything. Ignoring that emotional journey reduces the novel into a series of random incidents.

 

The flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of the disaster, working chronologically backward, were of variable interest but ultimately fed into this theme. I found the account of the events leading to Algy's father's suicide particularly moving.

 

The ending, though subtly foreshadowed throughout the book, was a bit abrupt. (I can't say any more without spoiling it.) Nonetheless, I enjoyed it.

 

Of Men and Monsters - William Tenn

Humankind has been reduced to intelligent vermin in an Earth ruled by giant alien monsters. Humans live in small communities in burrows in the walls of the invaders’ homes, living on whatever morsels of food and material they can steal. The Human species, subjected to evolutionary pressure, has fragmented and diverged, sometimes radically. Rituals have kept Eric the Only and his tribe alive but now they are about to reach the end of their usefulness. Eric is forced repeatedly to reevaluate his understanding of his world while he struggles to survive against human and monster alike.


In general terms, the concept is reminiscent of the film Fantastic Planet but there’s no attempt at rapprochement between the humans and their persecutors. The monsters are too alien and too dominant for that, the humans reduced to irritating pests that must be subjected to periodic extermination. At the first glance, this novel feels very pulpy, but scratching the surface reveals hidden subtlety. Little details are left unexplained for the reader to ponder. It contains some interesting observations on our knowledge of the world and our blind acceptance of dogma.


Often, the novel has its tongue firmly in its cheek, but it can be quite brutal too. I thought the ending of the story was very apt.

No Escape is now FREE!

 

 

My new fantasy short story, No Escape, is now free on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and other stores.

 

A desperate warrior carries a baby girl across a foreign desert. Although truth and honor are tattooed on his cheeks, Tharo has abandoned both virtues in his quest to protect his charge. But it’s only a matter of time before he fails her. Another man stalks them, a hunter no prey can escape, the dreaded Souldiviner.

The Dragon Waiting - John M. Ford

This book is set in an alternate 15th Century Europe where a pagan Byzantine Empire dominates Europe and Christianity is a minor religion. Except for a rump buffer state, France has been carved up between England and the Byzantines. The empire is infiltrating the Italian city states and is now plotting against their English allies. A magician and a small group of like-minded individuals travel to England to attempt to stymie its plan.

 

Initially the setting struck me as a bit strange in the sense that a lot of the big name political characters and institutions are the same as in our world. Surely, the failure of Christianity to dominate Europe would have a multiplicity of effects, great and small, that would alter history more radically. Then I remembered the vampires and put such thoughts aside.

 

Though short, this novel is challenging. It is very dense and sometimes deliberately opaque on characters’ motivations. Some sentences are knots of meaning, elusive or enigmatic. It’s up to the reader to decode it without the easy cipher of exposition. This made it difficult to bond at first with some of the characters and to sympathize with their aims. The Byzantine Empire may be the ultimate villain, but it spends most of the novel as a distant shadow. A big help in interpreting the text was the fan-made commentary Draco Concordans. (Thanks to the reviewer Niki whose review mentioned it.)

 

I struggled through the first half of the book. I struggled to care. But by the end, I loved it, won over by its rich detail, thriller pace, and memorable images. It’s not an easy read, but if you stick with it, it’s a rewarding one.

The Affirmation - Christopher Priest

Peter Sinclair has broken up with his girlfriend, lost his job, and is miserable. He has moved from London to the country to renovate a house for a family friend while he tries to rebuild his life. He starts to write a book about...

 

Peter Sinclair has won the lottery and left his home city of Jethra to travel across the impossibly vast Dream Archipelago to undergo an operation that makes him immortal. He carries with him a book about a version of himself living in an imaginary city called London...

 

At the start of the book, it appears clear that the first Peter’s world is reality and the other is a wish-fulfilling fiction, but these two worlds merge and interact to the point that initial perception is challenged. What you have here is effectively a rolled cake of two realities then sliced in such a way that you can see the distinct layers but not the swirl.

 

And the jam in between these layers is absolutely packed with scrumptiousness. This book has a lot to say about the nature of creativity, memory, and the perception of reality. Is an imagined London any more real than an imagined Jethra simply because a physical version of the former exists?

 

There are surprises and revelations throughout the book, both stories are engaging, but it’s best to approach the book with dream-like acceptance. Don’t get too hung up on teasing the two threads into something clinically logical, but instead delight in their entwining. The ending is absolutely perfect for the book. It ends like a dream.

New Interview

Today, IndieBRAG has published an interview with me about my writing.

I’m always bemused (and a little worried) when readers say they sympathise with him [Garscap Torp]. I know him too well to like him. I understand the ego that drives him. (To be fair, I put it there.)

You can read the whole interview HERE.

Happy New Year (Hopefully)

January has arrived so it’s time to review 2016 and look forward to what’s coming up this year. Last year struck me as a very long year, probably the longest year of my life. Much was achieved. I published the second part of the Golden Rule Duology, The Unconquered Sun, last February. I also published two short stories, The Fate Healer and The Murder Seat. A third short story, No Escape, will be released on all platforms at some stage next week. (I can’t give an exact date due to the complexity of working through aggregators and so on.)

 

Of course, the published works are but the visible part of my writing endeavours. I wrote 1st drafts of four novels last year. My primary goal this year is to publish the first of these, codenamed somewhat ludicrously Spaghetti 1. Of course means it will have to reach a publishable standard. I should have the 2nd draft completed in the next three weeks.

 

The 2nd draft in many ways is harder than the first, because the blurry half-ideas that drifted in and out of the story on a sporadic stream of consciousness have to be sorted, graded, tossed aside where found to be utter rubbish, polished, and pinned to a cohesive structure. Of course, there are whole sections where the 2nd draft really is another 1st draft.

 

However, at this stage, I feel comfortable saying that the 2nd draft is a massive improvement on the 1st draft. It still needs a lot of work before it’s even ready for beta reading. I want to make it as good as I can before I submit it to the critical eyes of others. There’s no point ignoring your own intuition on plot holes only for these issues to become the focus of others’ critiques. I can’t remember any time where I doubted about a certain issue where that doubt wasn’t later proven to be justified. I want the beta readers to tell me I’m wrong in new and surprising ways!

And The Winning Cover Is...

over on my website:

 

https://photocosm.org/2016/12/20/and-the-winner-is-2/.

It’s by Ivan Cakic (Cakamura Art Studio). For me, he really captured the essence of the story. The face of the main figure is particularly mesmeric.

I can’t wait to hit to the publish button in mid-January. It’ll be available on Amazon, iBooks, B&N, etc. Here’s the blurb.

A desperate warrior carries a baby girl across a foreign desert. Although truth and honor are tattooed on his cheeks, Tharo has abandoned both virtues in his quest to protect his charge. But it’s only a matter of time before he fails her. Another man stalks them, a hunter no prey can escape, the dreaded Souldiviner.

Help Me Choose A Cover! No Escape

I need your help! I have a choice of three covers for my new fantasy short story, No Escape. Please help me choose the best one. Which one is your immediate favorite?

 

https://99designs.ie/contests/poll/8xum15

 

The poll is now closed! Thanks to everyone who participated. Anyone who left their names will be mentioned in the ebook's acknowledgements.

The Parting Gift Is Now Free & The Golden Rule Is Wide.

A Bright Power Rising - Noel Coughlan The Parting Gift - Noel Coughlan
 
A Bright Power Rising & The Unconquered Sun are now available on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. The ebook of The Parting Gift is also free on the same stores.

You can find the links at https://photocosm.org/2016/11/15/the-golden-rule-is-going-wide/

Meanwhile, I am working through the second draft of the LitRPG novel codenamed Spaghetti 1. It's going really well so far. I'm hoping to have the current draft finished around the end of January. Plus I may have another short story ready for release soon so watch this space!