Book review: Space Captain Smith by Toby Frost


Space Captain Smith is an almost successful science fantasy romp, set in a 25th-century universe where the British Empire has expanded to the stars and faces enemies both alien and human. The author has a gift for one liners and puns and, since I’m a sucker for both, as well as steam punk futurologies, it should have been a winner. Where it fails is quite interesting. Firstly, Frost proves utterly incapable of avoiding an approaching pun – something I’d normally applaud, but here there’s just too many one liners. Secondly, a lot of the jokes involve contemporary references, and even though the jokes are good, they jerk the reader right out of the world of the book. And thirdly, I don’t think Frost has thought through his future universe carefully enough. There’s no sense of space travel involving anything other than getting into a ship on one planet and then emerging on another, nor any depth to the history and cultures of the other peoples and civilisations – in contrast with Philip Reeves’s on-the-face-of-it similar triology, Larklight. Larklight also has a space-faring British Empire and excellent jokes, but the world is much more believable, the joking more disciplined, and the Victorian references deeper. In fact, if you’re looking for a purely enjoyable read involving stalwart Victorian heroes in space, try Larklight.

Book review: The Lost Fleet: Courageous by Jack Campbell


Rule no.2 of military SF: don’t do romance. (Rule no.1 is guns, lots of guns, or failing that vast battle fleets burning beneath the unforgiving stars.) Unfortunately, Campbell breaks this rule, with much of the book being filled by an angsty and frankly unlikely affair between Commander of the Fleet Geary and on-board, hard-as-nails politician Rione. The whole thing is made more icky by my impression of both characters as being in their fifties or sixties (Geary in fact is probably 140 or so, but most of that time has been spent in stasis), so my imagination is faced with the distinctly unpleasant images of wrinkly sex. No one reading military SF should have such awful images flashing into his mind; we are here for guns, bowel-spilling violence, stiff-jawed valour and, well, more guns. The only fluids spilled should be red. Thankfully, Campbell fulfills rule no.1, in its thousands of spaceships subvariety, and does so well. As a former naval officer, Campbell has thought through the implications of space warfare better than almost any writer, which shows in the battle scenes. So, for the next volume, less romance, more war, please.

Book review: Skios by Michael Frayn


As a genre, farce is the most rigidly deterministic of all literary forms, with consequences, farcical ones naturally, following ineluctably from actions. One of the key strengths of farce is that we, the audience or the reader, know what is going to happen but the characters don’t, so in the end the audience or reader is almost reduced to viewing the action through your fingers, so awful has the embarrassment become. Michael Frayn first became known for ‘Noises Off’, a farce that since its first performance in 1980 continues to be revived and performed.

But Frayn later went on to write ‘Copenhagen’, for me the best play about science ever written. In ‘Copenhagen’ he takes a mysterious incident in the lives of Niels Bohr and Werner von Heisenberg as the starting point for an investigation into the ramifications of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. For according to this view, quantum mechanics does not provide an objective description of the real world but rather deals with the various probabilities inherent in a situation – any possibility contained within a wave function may become real. This is the polar opposite of farcical determinism.

So what does Frayn do when he comes to write a new, post-‘Copenhagen’ farce? He writes a probabilistic collision with farcical determinism. And you know what: it almost works.

Book review: The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell


OK, it’s time to come clean: military SF is my chick lit, my mummy porn, my go-to reading when I want rest, relaxation and vast numbers of aliens and/or spaceships blasted into green goo or expanding clouds of plasma. This is my first venture into Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series: it might best be summed as ships of the line, blasting merry hell out of each other but in 3d and with relativistic time effects thrown in for good measure, and fewer interactions with the natives. In fact, and in distinction to the Warhammer 40k universe which has been my main source of military SF so far, there are no aliens at all, just humans blasting away at each other in vast battle fleets. This is just as pleasing, though: Warhammer 40k has big guys with bigger guns, the Lost Fleet has ordinary sized men with huge fleets of spaceships: it’s Space Marines versus Navy, grunts with guns against hard admiral action and I just love it all to bits. So, if you love destruction visited upon tens of thousands, but in a noble and virtuous manner, then this is the book for you! And, what’s more, it’s the first in a series of six! I am there!

Book review: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida


My eldest son has Asperger’s syndrome and, while not locked into wordlessness in the same way the author was when he was little, he shares some of the behaviours described in this book, most notably the one on the cover: he jumps. He also intersperses that with bouncing up and down on a large gym ball, and running up and down corridors. And, you know what, I’d never asked him why he did these things. He just did them. Naoki Higashida, though, gives reasons for why he jumps, and flaps his hand in front of his face, and many other things, and while my son probably wouldn’t give exactly the same answers (I’m going to ask him though!), the fact that there are answers, intriguing, beguiling, authentic answers, is akin to revelatory. Repeated actions, day in, day out, week after week, year after year, with the accompanying soundtrack of hisses and squeaks, can become – to me at least – teeth gratingly irritating. What Naoki makes clear, and what I should have known but had lost sight of, is that it is so much harder for my son. Patience, prudence, fortitude.

Old-fashioned words and old-fashioned virtues, but this book makes it clear that these are the key attributes needed by those caring for children with ASC (autism spectrum conditions). Naoki’s voice, individual and inquiring, comes through as a far more genuine reflection of ASC children than books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – it should be! Indeed the intense self-reflection displayed in this book brought to mind some comments of my own son, when he remarked, in intense frustration, “That’s another theory down the drain.” It turned out that, like an experimental scientist, he formed hypotheses about people’s behaviour and emotions, and then tested them out against observation, and he did this again and again and again. The strain of such constant testing needs hardly be stated.

In short, as a short, impressionistic account of what the ASC mind is like in childhood, this book is the best I have read. If you have an ASC child, or know one, you should read it. Your child’s answers will not be the same, his questions might well be different, but, ah, to know there are answers…

Book review: Deeply Odd by Dean Koontz


** spoiler alert ** Of all the best-selling authors I’ve read, Koontz is the most uneven. Sometimes – for instance in the first volume of this series, Odd Thomas – he can be quite brilliant, taking your breath away with the audacity of his switchbacks and reveals. At other times – say, the second volume, Forever Odd – he can be by-the-numbers ordinary. But even at his worst, Koontz retains a priceless gift, and one that many ‘better’ writers do not match: the ability to make you want to read on, to find out what happens next, to turn the page. Now, as the series has gone on, it has shifted from being about one young man, Odd Thomas, with paranormal abilities to seemingly preparing for the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ! Ambitious, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, a corollary of that is that Odd (it’s written in the first person) spends more time telling the reader about the moral and spiritual decline of contemporary society. Even though I largely agree with this view, it gets tiresome after a while. Besides, it would be better shown than said.

However, once the story kicks in – children abducted by a satanic cult – Koontz’s turbocharger revs up as well, and I flew through the last third of the book. On the positive side, while Koontz’s religiosity can seem a little treacly for my tastes, he sometimes comes up with startlingly vivid insights into the moral and spiritual life, ones which I have tried to take on board. Also on the positive side, it is a book undoubtedly written for the good – and that is no small thing in itself. It’s as if Charles Williams, Inkling, was reborn as a Californian, with less theology but more jokes! So, no classic, but a further step towards – I think – the New Jerusalem!

Book review: Shieldwall by Justin Hill

Shieldwall is, I think, the best evocation of late Anglo-Saxon England that I’ve read. It’s the turn of the second millennium and England is cursed with probably the worst king it has ever suffered – Ethelred – and also, strangely but equally, the country is cursed with a people that are too faithful to their unworthy king. Despite Ethelred’s cowardice, duplicity and treachery, they stick with him through everything. Hill does a fine job of showing the reader how intertwined the House of Cerdic, the kings of Wessex, had become with the very idea of England, so that, despite Ethelred’s manifest incapacity as king, no one attempted to depose him. The author shows us an England that is still strong in its bones, in the deep layers of its society, but with its sinews wasting away before the depredations of the Danes and the treachery of some of the English nobility. Although at times a difficult read, there is perhaps no more apt Anglo-Saxon era to write of, for their poetry is suffused with regret, with the passing of things and the transience of life, and this is the history of the eventide of a culture and civilisation.

The only real drawback to the story is that it is almost too painful to read, but the author draws the reader along with prose that’s muscular and, often, stamped out with the alliterative metre of Anglo-Saxon verse. It might be an easier read for someone unfamiliar with the history of the period, but for me, knowing what was coming next, meant that there were days when I couldn’t bring myself to pick the book up and read further. As the first part of the Conquest trilogy, I suspect things are not going to get better! However, I will wait for volumes two and three with mingled eagerness and trepidation.

My only real criticism is that the paperback edition I read had a surprising number of proofreading errors. For the next edition it might be worth going over the text again. Otherwise, an enthralling, if painful, read.

Book review: Before Scotland by Alistair Moffat

The problem with prehistory is that there is no history. That is, there are no stories, no names, none of the usual hooks upon which we hang our understanding to enlighten, entertain and help us remember to guide us through the greater part of human existence. All there are, are mute remains and although these can be eloquent in their own way, notably the village excavated at Skara Brae in Orkney, yet they are essentially still silent about the men, women and children who once lived. So, it’s a measure of Moffat’s achievement here that he makes the silent people before Scotland existed come alive, at least as far as is possible, and without entering into speculation and fantasy. He does this through a disciplined use of ethnographic parallels and examples drawn from Scotland’s historic past which, he believes, were continuations of pre-historic practices. The writing is lively and entertaining throughout, the text studded with fascinating little boxes giving insights into other parts of the world apart from Scotland, and the book taught me a great deal about prehistory in general, not just that of Scotland. Recommended.