Klingons on the Starboard Bow… 

armadacover…or something.

Ernest Cline’s Armada is a preposterous, porously plotted, pop-culture checking, piece of protracted nonsense. It’s also good fun in a silly sort of way. I think I last felt like this when reading The Da Vinci Code

I enjoyed Ready Player One, though I found it a bit repetitive, because it simultaneously managed to be fresh and nostalgic. RP1‘s fresh originality would be difficult to mange second time, and whilst Cline almost pulls it off, ultimately he falls short, often mistaking throwing in a quote from a film with character development.

The biggest difference between the two novels is the depth of the geekiness. In RP1 it feels embedded into the fabric of the story (mostly because it is; the book is about hidden secrets in computer games, placed there by a gaming geek), but in Armada they feel sprayed on. Earth is trundling along as normal, when suddenly alien spacecraft appear. Alien spacecraft from a fictional computer game. That in a nutshell might be the problem. The main point of reference is made up and all the geekyness is bolted on to it.

The story itself  is a sort of Ender’s Game, Last Starfighter mash-up. It’s entertaining enough but not very solid. It’s not helped by the fact that similar themes are addressed, with a whole lot more meaning added, in TL Costa’s excellent Playing Tyler. If you only read one of these novels make sure it’s Playing Tyler.

It’s difficult to say much more without giving lots away. Perhaps everything is deliberately kept light, and veneer thin, in keeping with the source material; Space Invaders doesn’t have much of a back-story. It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time explaining how the premises behind computer games rarely make sense. As his book is predicated on a computer game that is meant to be real, the reader spends a lot of time thinking ‘but this doesn’t make sense’, for all the reasons the author lined up.

Ultimately it does just about make sense, but it isn’t terribly convincing. One can’t really help shake the feeling the entire story is a MacGuffin. The story is pacey, the reference spotting good fun, but Armada is destined to be little more than geeky beach read, forgotten before the flight home.

Tracks of Our Lives – ‘The Versions of Us’ By Laura Barnett

VersionsParallel universes are a mainstay of science fiction, but increasingly they seems to be creeping into the mainstream. Jo Walton, Claire North and Kate Atkinson have all produced phenomenal Sliding Doors novels that have (to a greater or lesser) degree have wormed their way into the nation’s consciousnesses. The latest arrival in the literary parallel universe corner is The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. This has been pushed heavily, being a Waterstones book of the month and has been riding high in the charts.

The Versions of Us is a reality three-way that has very little science and large amounts of human interaction. At first I struggled. I was expecting cleverly dovetailed realities or a little science fictional trickery a la Walton or Atkinson, but there is nothing at all.  The book is pretty much three separate stories with chapters that interleave. The action branches out from a single incident, and we watch as three differing realities unfold.

As this is a story about ‘true-love’, and in two of the realities this love is thwarted, once by chance and the other by painful decision, I found myself settling on one particular narrative as the one I was rooting for. Barnett however is cleverer than that. Borrowing the idea that the “course of true love never did run smooth”, she demonstrates how things might go wrong even when you’ve found the person of your dreams, and how adversity might bring out the best in some, whilst overwhelming others.

Whilst there is little interaction between the narrative strands, as the novel progresses, we build up a deeper picture of its characters. In a conventional novel we tend to only see the players from one angle. We follow them through one story. Here Barnett builds a three dimensional picture by showing how her creations might react to similar situations in differing circumstances. As the novel builds to its conclusion it becomes increasingly satisfying. Upon finishing I was bereft that there as no more to read.

This book is perhaps not good fare for worriers or those not satisfied with their lot. It’s hard not to read The Versions of Us and wonder if it may have been possible to end up somewhere else. You may find yourself pondering missed opportunities and unexpected forks in the road. The flip side to this is that the book can be seen as empowering. You may not be where you want to be, you may have a talent that is being wasted, but it’s still with you. It’s never too late to apply yourself and change things around.

Whilst this is essentially a romantic novel, Barnett has a pragmatic view towards romance. This is not a tale of lovers destined to be together at all costs. It shows that there are many paths to happiness and that human beings desire companionship above all else. Wherever you are, there’s almost certainly somebody nearby waiting for you.

Whilst there was little of the literary trickery I was expecting, The Versions of Us is no less an accomplishment than the other novels I’ve mentioned here. It’s layering and juxtaposition of real-lives builds into a solid rendering of love, loss, happiness and the ability of the human spirit to keep moving forward. It’s a novel that contrives to be more than the sum of its parts. Each of the three stories is interesting enough, but in weaving them together Barnett has created something special and well worth reading.

Many Thanks to Rebecca at Weidenfeld and Nicolson for sending me a copy of this book. 


Dark Matters ‘Way Down Dark’ by James Smythe


This review appeared as part of a larger piece published on Geekdad on 12.7.2015

“There’s One Truth on Australia. You Fight or You Die”

If Katniss Everdeen somehow wandered into Hugh Howey’s Wool, the result might be something like Way Down Dark. The Australia is a ship, meandering through space in search of a home. On the brink of destruction, Earth sent out huge survival spaceships. The last hope of mankind, searching for new homes. The Australia is still looking. Like most sealed systems that contain humans, things have gone badly wrong. Life support is barely functioning, food is scarce, and Australia‘s inhabitants have started cannibalizing their own ship. Stairwells have been ripped out and their precious metal used for defenses or weapons.

Two things the Australia has in abundance are anger and fear. The ship has divided into factions. Some with agendas, some simply trying to eke out an existence until they can finally find a planet to call home. All fear the “Lows,” the gang that holds the bottom sections of the ship, an ever-expanding gang that threatens to plunge the Australia into anarchy.

Way Down Dark is a brutal book. It opens with lead character Chan having to kill her mother. If there is a line where Young Adult fiction becomes merely fiction, this book sits directly on it. It is simply an excellent story with a teenage protagonist.

The Australia is two steps away from anarchy. In this kill-or-be-killed world, superstition and reputation are everything. In order to build hers, Chan must build her own legend–be prepared to carry out the unthinkable. On her own, with few friends, she must do whatever she can to survive. But what good is living if you do nothing with your life? In a riff on the “with great power comes great responsibility” motif, Chan feels obliged to use her relative freedom to try to emancipate other denizens of Australia. She has no real power, but, on Australia, the ability to self-govern is power enough. Almost single-handedly she tries to hold back the tide of Lows. It leads her all over the ship, hunting the missing and rescuing the stolen. She’s a white cowboy wandering the confines of a tin can steeped in darkness.

This being a James Smythe novel, all is not what it seems. The story has unexpected depths. The reader anticipates there’s something more, but the characters have no idea. With each new piece of information she acquires, Chan has to assimilate it into her world view. Chan’s is a dark transition from adolescent to adult, but it mirrors the real world as she gradually learns things she took for granted aren’t quite as simple as she had imagined. Chan’s nemesis throughout the novel is her dark inversion, Rex. Rex too has earned the right to self-govern, but her grip on life is brutal and sadistic. With it she drags the Lows to her bidding. It’s not difficult to imagine that Chan could easily be Rex.

Like most Smythe novels, the book is heavily steeped in faith. Not in a supreme being, although religious faith does feature, but the simple human faith that things will get better. The ship will arrive. The Lows will be stopped. There will be a reprieve from the horror of life on board Australia. Once again, Smythe probes the limits and questions the wisdom of such faith.

Way Down Dark is the opening book in a trilogy and it is left wide open after several twisting turns. This is not for the faint of heart. The squalor and brutality of life on the Australia makes for breathless reading. Characterization is excellent, with several strong females taking center stage. Smythe has created an intriguing sealed dystopia, which will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Like many of these novels, the reader is left wondering why humans can’t just get along and work together to survive. You’d hope the anarchy of the Australia could only be fiction, but it doesn’t take much convincing to see that Smythe has probably called it right.

Smythe has a strong loyal fanbase, of which I am one. I was predisposed to liking this novel, but I think Way Down Dark will bring him to the attention of more readers. Short, punchy, and gripping from first page until last, Way Down Dark makes an excellent entry point into the splendid works of James Smythe.

Over the years I have received review copies of all the books mentioned here. JP Smythe’s Way Down Dark was sent to me by its UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. James can be found on Twitter as @Jpsmythe and excellent literary-geek fun can be had @hodderscape and also www.hodderscape.co.uk. 

‘The Just City’ by Jo Walton

TheJustCity_coverA new Jo Walton is something to be celebrated. Her last two novels have been very special indeed. Among Others and My Real Children are two of the books I have loved the most since starting this blog.

I had some initial trepidation about Walton’s latest. It’s essentially a thought experiment about Plato, and I don’t know very much about Plato. A bored Apollo and Athena decide to set up a city that is run by the precepts of Plato’s The Republic.  They do so in ancient Greece, inviting several famous philosophers and thinkers from throughout history and even future history (though there a host more who don’t get invited). They are placed on an isolated island, which is significant in a small but entertaining way.

Athena also brings in some robots to help with the menial tasks. Robots. Hmmm, my sense of unease went up another notch. Next they need to populate the island, not just with great brains of ageing thinkers, but also some bright young things that can be brought up in Plato’s enlightened manner. Having done so they unleash their experiment and see how Plato’s Republic might have gone down. Needless to say it turns out to be a total shambles, filled with egos, sexual appetites and slavery. Clearly Plato had never watched When Harry Met Sally.  Thinking about life is not the same as living life.

The society generated is heavily male dominated and Walton picks this apart in the name of womanhood, making many valid points. Despite being poles apart, the female characters here are reminiscent of those in Among Others and My Real Children. There are moments when the book feels like it’s about to burst into life, but much as it pains me to admit it, it never really gets going. Not for me anyway.  The beauty of Others and Children, is that they are other-worldly, yet fresh and real. This feels too much like a contrivance to make a few points.  

This is more a thought experiment than a narrative; a vanity project, even. The central question in the novel turns out to be whether the AI that sits behind the robots means they have Free Will and therefore, whether they are in fact being treated as slaves. There’s some discussion, between the ancient and modern philosophers as to whether slavery is bad (yes it is). This discussion is interesting, as is the wider unposed question as to whether society always relies on indenture in some form to propagate a philosophical, inquiring culture. Unfortunately, the set up with the robots, that allows Walton to hold this discussion, feels very arbitrary.

I suspect that if you know more about history of philosophy than I, particularly about the Greek philosophers and their central tenets you would probably find much greater depths to The Just City. Yet, if compared to the accessibility of Walton’s previous two novels, which can picked up an enjoyed by almost anybody (I know this as I’ve recommended them to all sorts of people with great success), her latest offering would seem to have a narrow scope.

As an avid Jo Walton fan it’s painful to admit that I didn’t particularly enjoy her latest offering. Walton is a great writer but this one for me is little more than Okay. It says in Walton’s author bio that she hopes to write a book a year, so hopefully it won’t be too long before I find another book to fall in love with. A quick bit of searching for an image for this piece revealed that there is already a sequel ‘The Philosopher Kings’ available. Whilst the end of Just City is a little vague, I hadn’t particularly noticed the need for another volume. Indicative perhaps that I wasn’t paying enough attention. 

Many thanks to Grace at Corsair for sending me this book.