Book Review | ‘Black Holes: The BBC Reith Lectures’ by Stephen Hawking

IMG_9678Fellow space-nerds might be quite excited by reports over the last month of a brave group of scientists trying the capture an image of the supermassive black hole sitting in the centre of our twinkly Milky Way. It’s a thrilling proposition for many reasons, but my excitement was piqued further after reading Stephen Hawking’s Black Holes: The BBC Reith Lectures, with an introduction and commentary by David Shukman.

This slim, pocket-sized volume is easy to read in a lunchtime, but might take weeks or years to really comprehend. It illustrates once again that subtle boundary between physics and philosophy – and that black holes are no exception to the true weirdness of quantum physics. Continue reading Book Review | ‘Black Holes: The BBC Reith Lectures’ by Stephen Hawking

Book Review | ‘The Mandibles’ by Lionel Shriver

27064345In the midst of writing a dystopia of my own, it strikes me on an almost daily basis the degree to which society has come under the thumb of a very fickle dictator: money. Further, money within the context of an inherently unstable and unjust neoliberal capitalist system. For a searing criticism of the failures of this system, flawlessly melded with a scintillating story, I point you in the direction of Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.

The Mandible family has a sizeable fortune, but when a bloodless world war wipes out their millions they, like the rest of America, find themselves out of their homes and on the brink of starvation. Crammed into their poorest relatives’ house, the financial crisis brings out the best in some, and the worst in others. But, as society continues to devolve and culture breaks down, the choices ahead only get tougher. Continue reading Book Review | ‘The Mandibles’ by Lionel Shriver

Book review | ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

farenheitSpoiler alert: This review contains massive plot spoilers about Fahrenheit 451.

In a year when readers seem to be turning to dystopias for sanity, there seemed to be no better time to return to Bradbury’s sometimes overlooked book, Fahrenheit 451.

Named after the alleged temperature at which books burn, the story follows Guy Montag, who lives in a world where books are banned, as they are thought to be the source of discord and unhappiness. As a fireman, it is Montag’s job to burn any books that are found. Yet, unhappy in his marriage and unsatisfied with life, Montag finds the lure of books too much to resist – and once there are books in his house, there is nothing to stop the feared Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department from tracking him down.

Fifty years on from its initial publication, growing post-truth, anti-intellectual sentiments in Western society have given Fahrenheit 451 new relevance, indeed in parts with almost uncanny precognition on Bradbury’s part. Many elements come into play during this book: the frustrating loss that comes with conformism; the borderline madness that comes with rebellion; the senselessness that must, after a certain point of tyranny, accompany political hope. Yet, to me, it is the end which is most pertinent in the current climate. Continue reading Book review | ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August’ by Claire North

llwdacohmndlqsifnpvwI am a great fan of a good bromance and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is all about the ultimate bromance.  It’s a gorgeous, fantastic story of intelligence, friendship and betrayal told through hundreds of years, as one man lives his life over and over again throughout the 20th century.

Like so many novels, it benefits from a lack of spoilers, so I won’t say too much about the plot.  It focuses on one mister Harry August, a man who after his first life, finds that he is born again instead of passing on.  Instead of dying, he finds out that is he an Ouroboros, destined to live the same life over and over again, retaining awareness of every life and living on forever.  Inducted into the Cronus Club, he finds others like him, and fits into a network of communication spanning across the centuries.  But when he receives a message that the end of the world is fast approaching, he is drawn into a web of danger and cunning an attempt to prevent it. Continue reading ‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August’ by Claire North

‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ by M. R. Carey

71z22o5quGL._SL1500_Zombie fiction has become almost unfashionably in vogue this year, but The Girl With All The Gifts changes that, breaking every cliche. It’s got the pseudo-scientific theory and political commentary of World War Z, and is as unputdownable as Sci-Fi blockbuster book of the year, The Martian.

Protagonist, little girl Melanie, is a very special child. Kept in a compound with a group of other children just like her, she waits with excitement for her favourite part of her strictly controlled life, her lessons with the lovely and kind Miss Justineau. But the compound, and her life, are not as safe or regular as they seem, and when tensions rise between her keepers, she is forced to ask questions about who and what she is. Continue reading ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ by M. R. Carey

‘Descent’ by Ken MacLeod

DESCENT-ken-macleodDescent is the story of Ryan and his friends in a near-future world, where Scotland is independent, CCTV sees all and augmented reality is on the rise.  It’s sold as an alien abduction adventure, full of government coverups and conspiracy theories, but it’s actually much subtler than that.

As teenagers, Ryan and his friend Callum are caught up in a bizarre incident that they conclude must have been an alien abduction.  Yet, the story of the abduction, and whether or not it was real or imagined, is secondary for much of the book to Ryan’s experience as a young person in MacLeod’s near-future sandbox.  Ultimately, it’s a story of evolving science, genetic evolution, technology, the fashion of tomorrow, augmented reality – and the political impacts all these technological developments might have on us. Continue reading ‘Descent’ by Ken MacLeod

‘Seeds of Earth’ by Michael Cobley

seeds-of-earth_200x333Until I was in my mid-teens, I lived in Fantasy and largely ignored Science Fiction. Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley is a perfect example of the reasons why I began to pay attention.

Book one of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy, Seeds of the Earth is set some years after humanity was forced to flee from Earth by alien warfare. Three ships of humans were sent out from Earth, one of which landed on Darien after the AI on their ship rebelled against them. Isolated, without knowledge of the fate of Earth or the other two ships, they live alongside the native alien population of Darien, the Uvuvo, with their strange beliefs in the power of nature and the spirit of their planet. Over a century passes before they are contacted by the outside world. The message? Earth is out there still, and things have become political. As a devastating war threatens to erupt across the galaxy, the inhabitants of Darien find themselves in the centre of it, their people and their planet riddled with deadly secrets. Continue reading ‘Seeds of Earth’ by Michael Cobley

‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson

1843549174I have been told by many people that Neal Stephenson is an acquired taste.  To which my response is normally, “Then you should acquire it.”

To me, he’s the height of intellectual science fiction, without taking it into the realms of abstraction as achieved by someone like Gibson, or lending it the academic dryness you quite often find, for example, in the fantasy of Tolkien. I mean, who but Stephenson could possibly come up with a way to make quantum mathematics interesting by comparing it to pink farting dragons?

Having said that, Stephenson does take patience. As with nearly all his books, it took me between one hundred to two hundred pages to get gripped, but after that, the next four hundred just fly by!

Anathem follows Erasmas, a young academic living in a sanctuary of learning, closed off from the public except for one day every ten years. He has an idyllic, secluded life, free of concerns until one day his mentor is expelled from the sanctuary and Erasmas and his friends begin to notice strange lights in the sky. Imparting the intricacies quantum mathematics with his usual narrative dexterity, this is a classic science fiction adventure tour de force from Stephenson. Continue reading ‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson

‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

6a010536b33b69970b0168eb922a64970cIt is a great grievance of mine that Science Fiction and Fantasy are often seen as lesser genres to literary fiction, or that if you write in a literary style you cannot appeal to audiences of these genres.  To me, these views are utterly false.  Thankfully, I think Karen Thompson Walker would probably agree, and neither of these quite popular views seem to have held her back when she created her extraordinary first book, The Age of Miracles.

Set in the near future, The Age of Miracles explores a world in which the planet Earth has begun to slow on it’s axis, and the experience of this by Julia, an American teenager. It’s a fantastically wrought piece, unfolding beautifully and eloquently across the pages. It’s almost oppressively anxious, without directly expressing much fear. The characters emotions are imparted obliquely and concisely, leading up to the final sentence with absolute poetic clarity. This is a book to read if you want to feel human. Continue reading ‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

‘Mockingjay’ – Suzanne Collins

hg3coversmaller-1-568570Named after the hybrid birds which become a symbol of hope and rebellion throughout the trilogy, this last book in The Hunger Games series will not fall short of expectations.

Having destroyed the arena of the 75th Hunger Games, defied the Capitol and escaped, Katniss finds herself as part of the underground community of District 13.  Ruled by President Coin, District 13 is the mysterious last District which was supposedly destroyed by the Capitol when is tried to rebel, the defiant act which caused the instigation of The Hunger Games. Its citizens, however, have learned to live below ground, and now that the other 11 Districts outside the Capitol are rebelling, District 13 has become the backbone of the resistance. Distraught at the fact that Peeta was captured by President Snow at the end of the last games, Katniss is eventually convinced that she must become the ‘Mockingjay’, the symbol around which the rebellion will muster. Followed everywhere by cameras and interviewers and with a retinue including her best friend and possible love-interest Gale Hawthorne, Katniss must learn to fight and be strong despite her misgivings and personal crises. Continue reading ‘Mockingjay’ – Suzanne Collins

‘Catching Fire’ – Suzanne Collins

catching_fire_book_coverThere is always a danger, when you have enjoyed the first book an a series so much, that the sequel is going to be a disappointment.  This was not the case with Catching Fire.  In fact, I would go so far as to say I enjoyed it even more than The Hunger Games.

Having beat the system in the 74th annual Hunger Games of Panem, Katniss Everdeen has returned to District 12 with her fellow victor, Peeta Mellark.  Living in the Victor’s Village, they barely talk to each other, and Katniss has returned to hunting daily with her best friend Gale Hawthorne, outside the boundaries of District 12.  However, as Katniss and Peeta’s Victory Tour commences, President Snow, leader of the overruling Capitol, pays Katniss a threatening visit.  With the lives of her family and friends in danger, Katniss becomes the centre of a political storm brewing across Panem.  Seen as a symbol of rebellion, she is thrown back into The Hunger Games for their 75th year, along with her fellow competitors, all previous victors themselves. Continue reading ‘Catching Fire’ – Suzanne Collins

‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins

The-Hunger-Games-BookThe Hunger Games first came to me during a night of persistent insomnia which I hoped to dispel by reading some charming YA fiction with a predictable love-triangle and the safe knowledge that the good guys would win. Alas, I was awake until gone five in the morning because The Hunger Games is brilliant. I read the whole trilogy over about 48 hours flat, completely gripped by the story and the world.

The novel is set in the post-apocalyptic nation Panem, divided into twelve Districts, of which the first, The Capitol, is in control, and is told from the point of view of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. This first book in the trilogy tracks Katniss’ progress through The Hunger Games, an annual televised death-games involving children aged 12-18, one male and one female, selected at random from each of the twelve Districts. Ultimately, of course, we know Katniss is going to win, or the next two books in the trilogy would be somewhat void, but this doesn’t interfere with the drama of the plot. In order to pander the the Captiol audience’s whims, Katniss strikes up a pretend relationship with the male competitor from her District, Peeta Mellark. As the games continue, the force of their supposed relationship takes on a significance of its own in the outside world and by the end of the book, Katniss has undertaken actions which potentially make her a dangerous opponent to the power of the Capitol. Continue reading ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins

‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell

9780340822784 Read this book. Whether or not you like sci-fi, just sit down and read it.  It supersedes the genre. Read it now, before it’s too late, and before the apathy of our age has infected you.  Because this book will wake you up and make you Feel Things.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s a rhythmic, riddlesome, understated look at the way we effect each other.  It is about reincarnation, but never explicitly, which is where the magic lies, because it can become both literal and metaphorical. The metaphor is strong: we give birth to the world from our actions and our ideas, and we are the children of past actions and ideas. If we do not learn, or act, or speak out, we are indulging in a wheel of destruction which reaches out beyond us, beyond simply ourselves. Continue reading ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell

‘The Adjacent’ by Christopher Priest

gollancz-cover-for-the-adjIf you like novels which spoon-feed story and tie up all the loose ends in the final chapter, don’t read this book. If you want to read something to relax, wind-down and stop using your brain, don’t read this book. If you want to read a couple of pages before bedtime, don’t read this book.

If you like riddles, being gripped and staying up till five in the morning reading, only to find out that you have to bully your sleep-deprived mind into figuring out what the hell just happened, read this book.  The Adjacent has got a lot of flack from critics for this obscureness, but I loved it, and would highly recommend it as a quantum-physics sci-fi mind bender! Continue reading ‘The Adjacent’ by Christopher Priest

‘The Death of Grass’ by John Christopher

I have a bizarre fascination with visions of the apocalypse. From the twisted tales which came out of Byzantium in 600 AD, to the terrifyingly gripping World War Z. Today, I am The Death of Grass by John Christophergoing to sing the praises of an often overlooked, and by many unheard of, book: The Death of Grass by John Christopher.

I should say from the start that John Christopher is not the author’s real name. His real name was Sam Youd but he used a pen-name for his fantasy/sci-fi work, in order that his ‘serious work’ might not be tainted. Whatever my personal thoughts on this practice, his writing in The Death of Grass is at once astute, concise and enthralling.

Set in 1950s/60s England, The Death of Grass is part of the ‘floral apocalypse’ phenomenon which began in the late ’40s with books like Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think. In Christopher’s work, the semi-apocalypse is brought about by a virus affecting all the grass families. That’s lawn, prairie, cereals – in short, as one of of my more cunning friends studying biology said – ‘We’d be f*cked if that actually happened.’ Continue reading ‘The Death of Grass’ by John Christopher