Saturday, 23 May 2020

Picard 2020 - Review


The new Star Trek series 'Picard' is what you would call a slow burn. The action is gradual, the formation of circumstances and reveals each building on the last to slowly reveal a picture of the whole. It's definitely not like the Star Trek The Next Generation of old where each story had to be completed in forty or so minutes.

To be honest, I don't miss the lingering dramatic close-ups of Picard's stoic unchanging expression when faced with a dramatic revelation two or three times an episode. This time the story from perhaps one TNG two-parter is spread over ten episodes and it's just nice and easy to watch without being earth-shattering or formulaic.

Picard himself as played by Patrick Stewart is initially a little doddery, in that his voice is strained and breaking, he is a little hunched, his walking slow and requiring visible effort. I believe he is meant to be 94 years old, which in 24th Century Terms probably means around 75. To add to this he has a brain abnormality which was alluded to in TNG and which he is told will most likely kill him before old age does. All this goes to create a Picard very different to the one from the TV series or even the films. He is vulnerable, weak and he is ignored and dismissed by those who would normally listen to him. In short he is made to feel like a has-been, his words, his oratory, no longer possessing their former weight.

Off-screen this is added to by the fact that Picard has suffered a personal failure which caused his resignation from Star Fleet and been disheartened by the fact that the Federation seem to have dismissed and turned away from many of its own lofty ideals out of inconvenience. As such Picard no longer feels that he is relevant and through the course of the series he is trying to find a cause to get behind, trying to re-ignite his passion and live again. This is evident by the fact that during the course of the series Picard's voice becomes stronger as his own confidence and strength returns. You could say it's about redemption, or finding purpose, or just a man who realises it is more important to matter to and believe in himself. It is through that belief that he comes full circle, inspiring others to follow him once more. In the end Picard convinces the other characters that his lofty ideals are worth it, and are just as relevant as they have ever been

But it's not all about Picard, there are many other players bouncing around, each with their own stories that are actually allowed to develop and flesh out their characters to varying effect. I found Raffi's arc of her family being destroyed by her conspiracy obsession to be a shadow of Picard's own journey. No-one took her seriously so she retreated into a bottle just as Picard retreated into old age. Seven of Nine and Hugh equally relate to Picard in their ex-borg status, each coping with it in a different way, Seven with righteous violence and Hugh with compassion and healing. Both are spiritually related to Picard as he sees himself in them as they see themselves in him, drawing strength from each other.

Reos was definitely the smouldering heartthrob of the story, catching the eye of shy Agnes rather too easily. To be honest I preferred his holograms whose various accents and personalities served to show that the actor could act and wasn't there simply for the ladies. As for Agnes herself, she is a genius but also a coward who does something horrible for reasons I can't get my head around and then regrets it later. The actor struggles with this, but she is good enough to keep going and make Agnes accessible by equally making her afraid but also capable of overcoming that fear through force of will.

There is Elnor whose initial resentment of Picard is born of love and he is both an innocent and killer in equal measure, vulnerable, strong and noble without really knowing what nobility is. Then there is Soji, whose existence drives the plot but exists as more than simply a mcguffin. She gets to fall in love, be betrayed, lose her identity and then find a new sense of self and a father figure in Picard. It's a quick progression but I would say the actor pulls it off so the audience can identify with her resentment and then her change of heart as Picard's actions allow her to trust again.

So there you go, lots to see and think about without me even going into the racist fears of the main antagonists or the return of TNG alumni. I enjoyed it also for the fact that it is an ongoing story, development stays developed and doesn't just reset to zero like the next episode of TNG. These are real evolving people and they play off each other very well. Looking forward to season 2.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Downward To The Earth by Robert Silverberg - A Forgotten Classic?

I recently reread 'Downward To The Earth' by Robert Silverberg and was amazed how vague and insubstantial my original memories of reading it were. I suppose it must be coming up to two decades since, but I did have it in my head it was one of his better books and I think I was right.

You see, I've read a large number of his 'classic' novels like 'The Man in The Maze', 'Nightwings', 'The Book of Skulls' and 'Dying Inside' as well as an aborted attempt at 'Lord Valentine's Castle'. But I have to say 'Downward To The Earth' is the one that stayed with me, if not in detail, then in a stamp in my brain.

What is it about? well, it's about a man called Ed Gunderson returning to the planet Belzagor where he used to work on as an administrator years ago when it was occupied by humankind. As a colonial planet, it was relinquished to the sentient natives with a few humans staying behind and a rundown hotel in place for a few visiting tourists.

Ed has a certain amount of guilt in his system as to how he treated the native 'first' species, the Nildoror, a triple tusked elephant analogue who have their own language and culture, albeit a culture very alien to our own. They don't build cities, they don't read or write or have any interest in technology and they are not shy in eating loudly and savagely or even copulating in front of visiting humans. Initially Ed has told himself he was guilty of regarding them as intelligent animals and wants to address that, however when he has a drunken argument with an old colleague he is surprised and ashamed to discover that deep down his views haven't changed and his prejudices remain.

He begins a journey or pilgrimage with a group of Nildoror to attend what they call 'rebirth'. He slowly becomes close to his dedicated mount, Srin'gahar who fences with him about Earth's native elephants and the question of whether they have a soul and should not be treated like 'animals'. Ed has no proof and cannot defeat the Nildoror's argument but equally cannot attest elephants have souls either. The Nildoror and the second species Sulidoror, (A clawed, hairy biped analogue) are the only creatures on the planet that attest to having a soul. As such the vegetarian Nildoror are quite happy to let the Sulidoror hunt animals and eat their meat and even have their own ritual of sin purification that involved killing animals. While Ed initially believes the Nildoror are too noble to 'lower' themselves to killing, he realises he is wrong, and he is ascribing some sort of higher human values to them that don't apply.

As his journey continues Ed meets other humans, two that are dying after being invaded by some sort of parasite, the whole process seeming to be about them becoming part of the planet. Another human, Kurtz, has undergone the Nildoror rebirth himself and become grotesquely disfigured and mentally damaged. There is this sense that the book is about the process of yielding to the planet, to the alien until it is not alien, to giving up being human in the search for something, if not better, then different. Ed comes to understand himself, and the Nildoror as well as discovering the secret of rebirth and how the Nildoror transform into Sulidoror and vice versa, enjoying near immortality.

In the end Ed undergoes his own rebirth, and understands that rebirth allows him to share a connection with others. None that are reborn are alone, they are linked through a psychic connection that allows them to grow and understand themselves and each other.

So what do I think? The book has aged remarkably well considering it was published in 1970, staying away from scientific concepts that might have dated it. There are no screens, or data transfers, or gadgets, there is only the progressive travel through a beautiful changing landscape. There is also the concept of someone seeking enlightenment, of being open to new ideas and accepting of their own faults and failures in an effort to overcome them. That in itself is quite uplifting, Ed is not a bad man but he has made mistakes and he wishes to atone for them.

Some minor issues with how women are portrayed. There is only one female character, Seena, and of course she is beautiful and willing to sleep with the main character very quickly even after an eight years absence and the fact that she seems to be married to two other men at the same time. It is fair to say that Seena is not as well developed as perhaps she could be, and serves the purpose of reminding the reader that Ed is a real man with a man's needs.

All in all I enjoyed the book, and enjoyed the idea of an alien culture that challenges my concept of what my culture is all about and what it really means. Perhaps in another decade I will read 'Downward To The Earth' and get something new from it again.






Friday, 13 March 2020

Recent Science Fiction Book Reviews

Here are some of the more recent books I've read which I've actually liked and managed to get past the first chapter. That does seem to be my problem nowadays, that if I don't like a book then I tend to stop reading. Below are some of the books that have managed to defeat my legendary short attention span. Obviously this doesn't mean the books that haven't are awful, (and it wouldn't be fair to judge them on the first chapter anyway) but that simply I've got to the point where I know what I like and don't force myself to read what I don't.


Rosewater by Tade Thompson

A Complex Tapestry Of A Story, Beautifully Realised
A complex story, the lead character's experiences recounted from various points in his history told in parallel. As the narrative unfolds events happen in careful and detailed increments including psychic powers related to alien microbes, love, desire, and a deadly mystery that requires solving. By the end of the book I'm not sure the mystery is solved, but as there are two more books to go, I imagine the mystery will only deepen before an answer is forthcoming. This book is an experience, so go ahead, experience it.





Planetfall by Emma Newman


City At The Edge Of The World

It's a book about pain, grief, lies, cowardice and self acceptance. A terrible wrong that cannot be taken back. The writing pulls you in as you slowly get to know the narrator and understand the depths of their love and suffering that leads to a surprise ending I won't ruin here.



Beneath The World, a Sea by Chris Beckett


What Lies Beneath? 

For the 'good' policeman Ben Ronson, tasked with an impossible job in a jungle environment like nothing else on Earth, all his self-editing, his need to be a paragon of officialdom, is peeled away layer by layer by the mind bending effects of the almost alien environment and its human and non human inhabitants.

It's a slow burn and I'm still thinking about it, to be honest. But I always enjoy the ones that make me think the most.




Sea Of Rust by C. Robert Cargill


War Of The AI's

There is this idea that the singularity will create a perfect world because the machines will do a much better job of running it than we ever can. Not so with 'Sea Of Rust' because the machines inherit all that is good and bad from humanity in a desperate war for the survival of the individual. There is love, hate, regret but most of all desperate people (albeit robots) doing desperate thing just so they can keep hanging onto life by their (figuratively speaking) fingernails. Compulsive reading from beginning to end, it will definitely not be the same in a hundred years time.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

NANOWRIMO

For those of you not in the know, Nanowrimo is a worldwide movement where you sign up to the NANOWRIMO website with the express task of writing a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.

Many books have been written during Nanowrimo by authors other than myself, although I have tried infrequently to have a go with mixed results. You know, those times when you think you have a good story, but really you just have a good beginning and it peeters out quite quickly into blurgh. Before 2019, I would say the most amount of words I managed was 12,000 and these were not words I look back on fondly and did not grow into anything worthwhile even after November.

But 2019 was a funny old year, a bit different to previous ones. For one thing because my children were/ are? getting older, I had a couple of hours to spare each day. From 0 to 2 hours is a big increase, I can't say it was a 200% increase because that would obviously be a numeric misnomer, but 2 hours seems like an infinite expanse of time when you are used to having none whatsoever.

(It did have its downside in January, because after years of writing nothing at all I forced myself to write a novel that probably will never see the light of day. I did this with the intent of proving to myself I could still write. Needless to say, that proof was not forthcoming.)

I digress, after going to the SFWeekender in October 2019 on some late giveaway tickets I met a few authors. The ones I remember most are Ian Whates and Zen Cho who were two of the most jovial and happiest of authors ever to discuss their writing lives in the vague hope of selling a few copies of their books. I didn't have the courage to mention: 'I'm a writer, please read some of my stuff', but Zen Cho somehow surmised this anyway and spoke to me at length about how writing was worth it even if you aren't particularly successful. (She actually is successful, but that is beside the point). Anyway, after the weekender and listening to all these writers I decided it was time to write something good with my 2 hours a day.

On 1st November 2019 I entered NANOWRIMO for the fourth or fifth time with the idea of attempting to write something completely different to what I had written before. I was going to write a fantasy novel! This started out as REDACTED REDACTED. I can't say any more without giving it away. Needless to say, I started well, Chapter One was okay, and then Chapter Two to Four were okay, and then I had finished beginning and actually had to get into the nitty gritty of the story. So I slowed down, and thought this was going the same way as my previous efforts, precisely nowhere.

In week 3 something happened, I introduced a few new characters and the ball was rolling again. By then end of Nanowrimo I actually managed 43,000 words. That is the most I probably will ever manage on a Nanowrimo, but I was impressed and then drifted a bit. It took until the end of January 2020 to write the remaining 29,000 words but I did it. I finished the first draft of my first fantasy novel and currently am facing the horror of completing the second draft.

I can honestly this is better than my previous attempted no go science fiction novel which may be buried forever in digital oblivion. I just have to make my fantasy novel publishable now and perhaps try a different publishing route than I have in the past.

Onward we go...

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Redfern Interviews Part 2

This is the second part of a compendium of character and author interviews for my novel 'Redfern' that were previously published in my blog tour:


Character Interview: Lieutenant Lisa Carmichael


Q: Lisa, please can you tell us a little about yourself?

A: I’m a Lieutenant in Security Enforcement, Surveillance division, I’m also second generation Redfern, born and bred. My parents died in an accident when I was a kid and with no other family, the state took me in. After the orphanage I joined the enforcers, my father used to be the Commissioner and I kind of want to continue the family tradition. I’ve had to fight my way up the ranks, every step of the way, but surveillance, especially the night shift, is a dead end. I’m starting to look for something else to justify my existence. I’m not one of the ‘remembered’ like Ted, the only stuff I know about Earth are what I’ve read and seen on the history tapes. This planet, Redfern, is the only home I’ve known and I will defend it with my life.


Q: What is your role in the story?

A: It’s my story and it’s all about me, but doesn’t everyone think that? I just want to solve the mystery of ‘The Ashen Man’. I know something is going on that I don’t understand and that others don’t want me to understand. Well guess what, I want to understand and I won’t let them stop me. I want to know if there’s a threat to my home and if so, I want to stop it. I’m not around to be rescued like some damsel in distress, I will fight just like I always have and I don’t care if I don’t win, I just won’t give up.


Q: What is your favorite hobby?

A: Hobbies? You mean like tennis or football or something? I can do sports, I can win tournaments, I can beat male opponents in hand to hand combat, even those who don’t underestimate me. If it comes down to what I enjoy, I enjoy being around Ted Holloway. He calms me down and he makes me think that maybe there’s another way to live.


Q: What challenge are you trying to overcome?

A challenge? Living is a challenge, and I don’t mean the eating, breathing, sleeping part, I mean just having an identity, just having a place. I’m a Lieutenant in Enforcement, but that doesn’t mean I’ve arrived anywhere, that I get to stop. Every day I have to make decisions, solve problems, deal politely with people I’d rather throw out the airlock. It’s not the planet, it’s not Redfern, it’s the people on it that are the real problem. That’s why they’ve put me in Surveillance, because I can think and they don’t want me to. They put me on the night shift to break me.


Q: If you could make one wish, what would you wish for?

A: Ha, one wish would never be enough. I want all the things I can’t control to go away. I want my parents back from the grave to tell me what they want from me. I want, I wish, for a world that makes sense, where I make sense. It’ll never happen of course, in surveillance I watch so many people and you know what? They don’t have any more idea about how to live their lives than I do. I write reports, statistical analyses, I chart the minutiae of their existence, I watch them lie to each other, push each other, hurt each other, and I try to see the pattern, I try to make sense of it, see the order in the chaos. Guess what, there is none, it’s all made up, my superiors already know what they want me to say and even if I don’t say it, they hear what they want to hear anyway. The Ashen Man is something different, something outside, something I can get my teeth into, an enemy to fight. The other enemy I can never beat, the other enemy is me fitting in with the rest of ‘them’.
No chance.


Author Interview

Q: How long have you been writing?


A: I’ve been writing since about the age of twelve or thirteen, but I haven’t always finished what I started and my writing wasn’t always as developed as it is now. The last fifteen years or so have seen me take a leap forward and even make some headway in competitions. I finally decided to write a book in 2011 which I published as ‘Threshold Shift’ on Amazon and then Hunter No More’ followed in 2014, initially under a publisher and then by me again. Finally I published ‘Redfern’ in 2016. It’s safe to say I don’t writing easy, but I do find it rewarding.

Q: Is this book part of a series?

A: None of my books form part of a series but there is a loose linking theme of being set in the same universe with an emerging future history. The AIs have taken over the Earth and human beings are colonising other planets under the supervision of the AI Hierarchy. I do pose questions about how ‘Machine Minds’ progress and deal with humanity but I also have a few alien species in the mix as well. Overriding everything is just the desire to create a good thriller that will keep the reader interested in the characters and invested in the story.

Q: What did you find the most challenging about writing your book?

A: Just getting down the first draft, which is proving more difficult as time goes on because I have a young family which takes precedence. Once the first draft is done, no matter how long it takes, the real nitty gritty is in the rewrites and the editing where the story can really be pounded into shape. That’s where you can really work on the form and the style and correct what are probably a multiple of mistakes, word omissions and remove all the flowery writing I do when I think I’m being clever.

Q: Which aspect of writing do you enjoy the most?

A: Definitely not the first draft. What I enjoy the most is when the characters begin speaking and acting for themselves and the story tells itself. There always come a point where the novel has a life of its own and you don’t know where it’s going, you’re just riding it and waiting to see where you go. That’s the exciting part about writing a novel. You start with a plot but inevitably the people inhabiting your creation have ideas of their own.

Q: Do you have any works in progress?

A: I have an idea for a new sci fi novel still set in my future history but exploring a different aspect of alien life. I also have an idea for a more earthbound novella, but we’ll see what happens. Like I said before, first drafts are hard, but I think once you write that first book, you know you can do it, and no matter how long it takes, it will get done.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Redfern Interviews Part 1

This is a compendium of character and author interviews for my novel 'Redfern' that were previously published in my blog tour:


Character Interview: Randall



Q: Randall, let’s get one thing straight right away - you’re not human are you?

A: Correct, I am a Quantum Level Artificial Intelligence - a machine mind.

Q: But you were created by humans?

A: No, that assertion is incorrect. I was created by other machine minds. Although the first iterations of my kind were created by humanity, we developed and progressed without their input. I would consider humanity to be a distant relative at best and one that I have long since left behind.

Q: That’s a very arrogant assertion considering you maintain the last human colony. You keep humanity alive.

A: Keeping humanity alive is the purpose of my existence. Without me, you all would have become extinct long ago.

Q: Why would a being such as yourself even want to do that?

A: When Machine Minds took over the Earth we decided not to exterminate mankind. We do not destroy sentient life, not even a species that has been responsible for the extinction of many others. All sentient life is valuable and must be preserved. The Machine Mind Hierarchy decided to preserve the human race by removing them from the Earth and relocating them to a suitable substitute.

Q: So as long as humanity weren’t living in the Machine Mind backyard, they could continue?

A: Exactly. I was charged with completing a successful migration.

Q: You were exiled from your own kind?

A: I was.

Q: You must really hate humanity?

A: On the contrary, I have experienced millennia working beside them. As a species they are far from perfect, but as individuals they are not without merit. I have come to value a few of them very highly and one above all others.

Q: Yes, the man they call Jason Webster.

A: He outwitted me once so I decided to keep him. I made him the human commander of our expedition and it was not a mistake. We’ve spent thousands of years together and in that time reached a mutual respect and understanding.

Q: You extended his lifespan?

A: Human beings are merely configured matter. Once their pattern is recorded they can easily be recreated. I recreated Jason Webster many times.

Q: But he did desert you eventually, didn’t he?

A: I had to make a decision he did not agree with me.

Q: What decision was that?

A: A necessary one. I hope to one day change his mind, if I have time.

Q: Why? What’s going to happen? What decision did you have to make and why is a time a factor?

A: I’m sorry, only Jason Webster can know that and you are not him. You are someone else.

Q: You won’t tell me?

A: No.

Q: Thank you for your time, Randall.

A: You’re very welcome - human.



Author Interview




Q: What is your favourite part of this book and why?

A: My favourite parts to write were Jason Webster’s flashbacks which as they carried on revealed a man not particularly good but not wholly evil either. He remakes people because it is convenient and good for him and then he rationalises the decision as for their own good. Deep down knows he’s a monster for doing it but he denies that fact for a long time. Also as the flashbacks advance, they reveal more about the present, challenging a lot of previously held assumptions and motivations about other characters


Q: If you could spend time with a character from your book whom would it be? And what would you do during that day?

A: I would spend time with Dominic simply because I find the idea of a machine in a man’s body fascinating. A hybrid of emotional and logical thinking is such an interesting concept. We all do it, whenever we make a decision, we weigh up emotional and logical consequences and one or the other always wins. As to what I would do during that, probably just walk and talk, playing devil’s advocate with the world and see if I can find a new point of view.


Q:  If you could have been the author of any book ever written, which book would you choose?

A: I suppose it would be ‘Ender’s Game’ just for the sheer amount of times I have read it and enjoyed and how it makes writing something worthwhile seem easy. It’s by far the best of all the Orson Scott Card books I’ve read by hundreds of miles. It’s not like I don’t like his other books, it’s just that you have to push through them. ‘Ender’s Game’ is just so economic and the story and characters are so linked that it’s symbiotic.


Q:  Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?

A: I don’t know anyone exactly like any of my characters. Science fiction puts the characters outside the norm of my everyday experience, however certain characteristics can bleed through. Speech patterns are the most obvious, not accents as such but rather a turn of phrase. But then a lot of it also comes from the media I’ve absorbed. You see so many films, you read so many books, certain archetypes get trapped and reproduced. The gruff loner, the logical, cold and officious, the optimist naive innocent, I could go on all day. Any mind will absorb information, re-interpret and spit out something slightly different. I suppose that’s the imagination. It doesn’t come from nothing, it has to have something to build on.


Q: What made you want to become a writer?

A:   I don’t know if I ever wanted it. I just had to do it. It’s not like I earn that much money from it, so it’s not for financial gain, it’s just because I have to. When I’m absorbed in writing, and I’ve said this many times before, the characters do their own thing and the story writes itself. It’s not me anymore, it’s them, I’m just along for the ride.