Monday, 2 December 2013

Stargate SG-1 Classic Fun & Speculative Crossover Episodes

Stargate SG-1 used to be one of my very favourite TV series, but I haven't seen it for years and only got as far as series six. I then fell behind and never got around to watching the rest. Now I've got a Love Film Instant subscription, and they've got all of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis on there. Happy days! Since it has been so long I decided to re-watch some of the old stuff, starting with the feature length pilot, Children of the Gods.

For those of you who somehow missed Stargate SG-1 (where were you?), it follows on from the 1994 film Stargate, starring Kurt Russell & James Spader. Thousands of years ago, aliens visited Earth, specifically ancient Egypt, via a Stargate. They were nasty guys who kidnapped lots of people and seeded the galaxy with them (so they could later come and use their descendants as slaves). The Stargate on Earth was then buried by some intelligent Egyptians who realised that this would stop nasty baddies coming through and enslaving/kidnapping them. Cue thousands of years later when it is rediscovered and ends up in American hands. They get it working, and in the film find it opens a wormhole to another world.

At the start of the TV series they realise it doesn't just link to one world, but thousands of worlds across the galaxy, you just need to dial the right address. This opens up a lot of potential storylines, as evidenced by more than 200 episodes of SG-1, plus over 100 episodes of Stargate Atlantis, and then there's Stargate Universe & TV movies...

It's great to be getting back into Stargate SG-1, I've been meaning to for years. Since first watching SG-1 however, I've watched  a lot more TV, and my tastes have broadened out of sci-fi into all sorts of other genres. Re-watching SG-1 got me thinking about possible crossovers with other series. As there were doctors operating on someone with an alien parasite in them, this got me thinking of Greys Anatomy, House etc. I also reckon that a lot of the artifacts recovered by the SG-1 team end up in Warehouse 13.What really gets me excited though is a crossover between Stargate SG-1 and The West Wing... I mean come on there's lots of politics that crops up throughout SG-1. General Hammond is always on the phone with the President, and there's various Presidential advisors that crop up from time to time. In fact I'm sure there's a major thread in series 6 with the President in several episodes. It would be great chuck these two great series together...

Agree? Disagree? What crossovers would you love to see?

Saturday, 30 November 2013

'Kings of Air and Steam' - a Steampunk Pick up and Deliver Game

I haven't posted anything about board gaming for a while, so here's a review of a game I played last week.

Kings of Air and Steam is a pick up and deliver that first appeared on Kickstarter, which I played at my board gaming club last week. It has a steampunk type them - you use airships to travel around the world picking up resources from factories, transporting them from factories to depots. The depots are on rail lines which allow you to ship resources to cities where they are in demand.

I've not played many pick up and deliver games before, so I don't know whether this is a common approach, but each round has give movement phases in it. At the start of the round, each player secretly plans out his moves in advance. This takes a lot of thinking, as while the first move or two might be quite easy, the later moves are much more problematic. Why? Well by the time you get to the later moves in the round, there's a good chance that other players have already beaten you to a factory and stolen the goods from under your nose, forcing a quick rethink (the pre-planned moves you made at the start of the round dictate how many spaces you have to move in that movement phase, but not in what direction, so allows limited last minute changes of plan). That's just the basic rules of course, there's lots more too it than that, and multiple routes to winning, but that's the gist. Once you get the basics of movement etc you really get into the game very quickly.

The board is hexed based and really beautiful. The pieces are good quality, including chunky plastic airships. Overall a very good build quality.

The game took about 90-120 minutes with four players, and everyone was playing for the first time (although the Neil whose game it was had read through the rules a couple of times and is very good at explaining games even when he hasn't played before. I'd definitely play this again, and give it 8.5/10. It's ranked 835 on BoardGameGeek which to me seems a bit harsh, I'd definitely rate this higher than that. Of course I haven't played many pick up and deliver games before, there may be much better ones out there which is why this hasn't got as good a rating. If anyone's got any recommendations for better Pick up and Deliver games, do let me know!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

'Proxima' by Stephen Baxter

I discovered this book in my local library shortly after reading a couple of favourable reviews so had to pick it up. I used to read a lot of Stephen Baxter's books, and was particularly fond of his Xeelee series, but some of his later books I wasn't as keen on so not read any of his for a few years. This caught my eye because it is proper science fiction set in the future (he's written quite a few quasi-historical sf novels which I'm not always as keen on).

There are two plots two the book. The main one is about a small group of colonists who are basically deported from the solar system and abandoned on a world around the giant star Proxima Centauri as part of a hands off colonization effort (the authorities hope they'll breed and develop a colony outpost without them having to do anything much). The second plot is set in the Solar System and is about a futuristic Cold War between the Chinese and the United Nations. There are colonies on Mars, Mercury, the moon and one or two asteroids so it is not just about Earth. Oh and its the late 22nd century just in case you were wondering.

One of the really interesting things about this book is the colony planet Per Ardua, as it is christened, around Proxima Centauri. This is a so called 'exo-planet' similar to one of the hundreds that astronomers have discovered over the last few years. It is much larger than Earth, the planet is stationery around its star so one side is in permanent daylight, the other in permanent night. The topography, terrain and climate of the planet is very different from Earth - it shows Stephen Baxter's creative imagination as well as his scientific background.

I really enjoyed this book and it felt like Stephen Baxter is back to his best. It is imaginative, but plausible. The world of Per Ardua, and the general setup in the solar system is very interesting and well conceived. The plot is good, and the characters are decent too.

After reading, I skimmed through a few of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It generally gets favourable opinion, but with a few criticisms. I thought I'd give my take on these.

Blurb doesn't match the book - apparently there were some problems with an initial description, but my copy was fine. It did talk about billion year old secrets and galactic threats, though all you get of these is hints towards the end. I guess this will be picked up in book 2.

Too much like a Dan Dare comic strip - I don't see the problem with this. Yes it has some action in it, but this is well balanced by the other elements in what is a really well rounded novel.

'The bad guys were paper mache who melted when given a good talking to' - this one they may have a point with, I'm struggling to think of any real bad guys/gals/aliens, and the ones there were did just disappear far too quick. But this didn't seem like a problem at the time, and if anything the environment on Per Ardua was the enemy.

Overall, if you like your science fiction to be plausible with a good plot, great world building & dark hints of cosmic danger, then I really recommend this book. If you enjoyed any of Baxter's early books, you should enjoy this. 9/10.

Friday, 8 November 2013

SF authors anagrams quiz

I tried creating a proper multiple choice quiz earlier on General SF & Fantasy Fiction earlier, and any eagle eyed followers who were on Google Plus over lunchtime (UK time) might have spotted a quiz going up. It was a fine quiz, except for the fact that no matter how well you did, it would give you a score of zero. Ooops. I used a free service called Quizbox and there doesn't appear to be any useful help feature or FAQ that might cover this problem. So I'm going to try again with a different service, or maybe even code it myself. However for now, here's a short anagrams quiz. All of scrambled phrases below are anagrams of well known science fiction and fantasy authors. Feel free to post any answers you get in the comments below. Here goes.

1. Inherent Boiler
2. Biz Filterer
3. A merging terror
4. Character lurk
5. A basin mink
6. Discard off milk
7. A mosaic visa
8. Echoed mist
9. Sulk, alien guru
10. Mad of serenity
11. Rink jolter
12. Hob-nob rib!
13. Filched porker
14. Fancy men farce
15. Insane trophy

Shouldn't be too difficult, I'll post the answers in a day or two.

Shouldn't be too difficult, I'll post the answers in a day or two. In the meantime, if you want more SF quizzing fun, check out my Science Fiction & Fantasy quiz book, available on the Kindle store now.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

'Ships of My Fathers' by Dan Thompson - review

I recently asked over on Google Plus for recommendations for an 'indie' self-published science fiction book to read. I had various suggestions, several of which I intend to have a go at, but the one that most attracted me was this book, 'Ships of My Fathers' by Dan Thompson, which was recommended by Nathan Lowell (who himself is a quite well established self-published author I've now realised, and his books look rather good so you'll be hearing more from me about his books before long I think). Incidentally, the title may seem a bit of a strange one (too many plurals?), but a couple of chapters in and it makes perfect sense! Before I get into the review, my biggest reservation about self published books is the editing - other books I've experienced have been shocking, lots of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors etc. This book has none of those. It reads completely like a book published by a major publisher. Congrats to the author and their copyeditor, you've restored my faith in self-published indie books!

Michael Fletcher worked on his father's starship when, aged 17, he was suddenly orphaned after his father died in an accident. His father left him his starship, but he can't captain it until he's turned 18 and been able to pass his captain's his exam. Unfortunately, he learns that he was adopted, until he turns 18 he is under the guardianship of an Uncle he didn't know he had, and there are family secrets that need to be uncovered...

The story is a relatively simple one of family secrets, space travel and a little bit of piracy. It doesn't bore you with tonnes of descriptions, biographies, historical backplot etc, instead getting right down to the story. One thing I really liked though is that it goes into a lot more detail (without becoming boring) about life on board a starship, how it works and what people's jobs are. There's also quite a bit about how starships travel faster than light - it covers this much better than most sci-fi books which just stick with 'go to warp speed'... I was curious to know more about

The book is approximately 300 pages, and is the first in a planned series. The storyline in this book comes to a satisfactory conclusion so you don't need to read any more books, but there's enough unresolved plot hooks in there to make you want to read more. The quality of the writing (and editing) is very good - the book really flows, and there are no silly errors or clumsy writing to jar you out of the story.

Have now looked at Dan Thompson's other book, 'Beneath the Sky' the story of which is really, really interesting. A generation ship travelling for hundreds of years to the nearest star gets overtaken by a faster than light ship. What will be waiting for them when they reach their destination. Billed as being like the pilgrims on the Mayflower journeying to the new world, only to land in modern day Boston. Definitely high on my to be read list!

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Film review - Star Trek: Into Darkness

I finally got around to watching the new Star Trek film earlier in the week, and it's a really good one, up there with The Voyage Home & First Contact for best Star Trek film. One of the things I really love about these new Star Trek films is the cast. I mean, there's a much sexier version of Uhuru, there's the classic geekiness of Simon Pegg as Scotty and the slightly nervous geek factor of Anton Yelchin as a Chekov, and this film has got the actor of the moment, Benedict Cumberbatch as bad guy Khan.

What's interesting about this film is that its a sort of re-make of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I say sort of because it is only loosely similar. There's a bad guy called Khan who lived hundreds of years in the past, but was cryogenically frozen. In the original Star Trek series, after being woken, he was exiled by Kirk after attempting to steal the Enterprise. Years later he escapes and goes after Kirk to extract his revenge, hence the 'Wrath of Khan'. In the new film he's had no prior dealings with Kirk, so doesn't have a vendetta against the Enterprise or its captain but is merely pursuing his own agenda. In fact, at a couple of points you are questioning whether he really is the bad guy, then you remember he's called Khan... In the hands of another actor, this might detract from the role, but Cumberbatch plays it very well.

The ending of the film is quite different too, but again superficially similar. If you've seen the original film and remember what happened, you'll be wondering if history will repeat itself. I won't spoil it by saying any more, except that the the Tribble is the clue...

I've heard that you would enjoy the film more if you re-watched Wrath of Khan first. I didn't, and loved the new film. I am tempted to go back and watch Wrath of Khan again now though...

I'll give it 9/10. A thoroughly enjoyable film that I'd watch again.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Old Farts Go to War... a review of 'Old Man's War' by John Scalzi

I don't really like military science fiction. Or at least it doesn't really appeal to me, I probably haven't read enough to really pass judgement. I just think that while military concerns play an important part in a lot of science fiction, particularly space based science fiction, it is just one of many facets of a good story. That said, I've been hearing a lot about Scalzi recently and I enjoyed his Hugo award winning 'Redshirts', so thought I should give it a go.

In Old Man's War, the only way for most people to get off earth and explore the galaxy is to join the army - the Colonial Defence Force (CDF). However the CDF doesn't take recruits until their 75th birthday. Everyone knows the Colonial Union and the CDF have much more advanced technology than Earth, including some sort of rejuvination treatments for the elderly. They much have, because what use would aching, arthritis ridden geriatrics be in an army?

The book follows John Perry and his new found friends (the "old farts" as they christen themselves) as he joins the CDF and leaves Earth behind. He gets his training, and then is sent on a series of assignments round the galaxy against various different unusual and horrific aliens (one alien race sent its celebrity chefs with its invasion force to explain how best to cook and eat humans).

The book is fairly short and is an easy read. As I suspected, it does concentrate on the military aspect, and you are left wondering about the politics of the galaxy, what life is like for colonists, what the motivations of the aliens are like etc etc. However the characters, particularly Perry, are appealing and Scalzi writes in an easy, fun style with lots of humour and subtle jokes scattered throughout. In the hands of another author this novel would probably be quite boring, but Scalzi makes it a really fun read.

If you enjoyed this book, as I did, there are several sequels that continue the story and also continue following the main character John Perry. The next one is 'The Ghost Brigades'.

I'd give this book 8/10.

Monday, 28 October 2013

My favourite SF author blogs

There's nothing I like more than discovering new favourite authors, but an added bonus is discovering great SF authors who blog as well. If I like an author's books, I usually find that I'm interested in what else they've got to say as well, both about their writing, science fiction and other stuff too. And it's even better if they post regularly, 'cos then I keep coming back for more. Here are some of the my favourites.

Alastair Reynolds blog, Approaching Pavonis, is a mixture of posts about his writing, science fiction, science and various other bits and pieces. He usually posts once or twice a week with interesting, well thought out pieces. He used to be a research astronomer before taking up writing full time, which means he knows what he's talking about, and he writes cracking hard SF and space opera. Oh and he's British too, like me :)

Hugh Howey hit the headlines last year when his self-published novel Wool, became a runaway success. Traditional publishers queued up to sign him up to a deal to publish Wool and its sequels, Shift & Dust. They're really amazingly good, Wool & Shift are two of the best books I've read this year. He blogs on his own website, posting several times a week about his books and experiences of being a bestselling author (being hitherto self-published, Howey's clearly enjoying his new found status as a major writer and his enthusiasm is infectious).

David Brin is a veteran blogger and social media enthusiast. He posts on his blog, Contrary Brin, most days. He posts a lot about science and politics as well as occasional science fiction posts. I particularly like his 'science snippets' style posts where he links to and summarises a lot of science news and posts in journals, the blogosphere etc. Not being American, some of the American politics posts are lost on me, but still interesting.

Last but by no means least is John Scalzi. He's even more of a prolific blogger than David Brin, blogging daily on his blog 'Whatever' for many years (he's been blogging since 1998). I'It's a mixed bag of just about anything from the looks of things - I've only just started following it - but good for a daily read. And although I've only read a couple of his books so far I really like his writing, so his blogs shouldn't be any different.

If I find any more good sci-fi author blogs I'll post them here, and if anyone has any they can recommend do let me know.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Homesteading to the Stars

Just taken out a trial subscription to 'Analog Science Fiction & Fact' magazine on the Kindle store - here in the UK it is £1.99 a month which I think is an excellent price. I do think it is great that we can get sci-fi short story magazines on the Kindle store and would love to see some stats on whether subscriber numbers are up because of it...

Photo courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Centre

Anyway back to the magazine. I haven't read any of the short stories yet, but was immediately drawn to the 'fact' part of the magazine, in this case a single article by Arlan Andrews Snr entitled 'Homesteading to the Stars: Colony vs Crew'. This is a fascinating look at an some of the design & planning aspects of a multi-generational colony or 'ark' ship to another star system. The article doesn't look at the physics or other technical details of how the ships might work but more about the cultural, economic and sociological factors. The author suggests that a group of hollowed out asteroids (either natural or artifical) travel together. This provides multiple redundancies in case one suffers an accident, but allows different asteroid-ships to have different specialities and could also have different habitats and weather systems so people from one ship could vacation on another ship. A number of other points were:

  • The colony ships would maintain communication links with Earth system for messages, entertainment, sharing science knowledge etc. 
  • The colonists could work on research projects and other activities that would improve scientific knowledge and provide value en-route to help payback the costs of the ship launch etc.
  • The colonists would work on a large project that would take a significant proportion of the voyage - creation of a world-let that would form a home for them to move to when it was ready and as a backup in case the colony world in the new star system turns out to be unsuitable. Most importantly though it would provide colonists with a common purpose, a raison d'etre, a focus, something to do to keep them busy etc.
There's lots more in the 4,000 word article - I strongly recommend buying the magazine and reading the article. I'd pay the £1.99 subscription each month just for 1 article like this one.

I'll be revisiting the topic of space colonies and ark ships in the near future as I'm very interested in this, both the science fiction and the - somewhat speculative - science fact.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Review of 'Shift' by Hugh Howey (it's amazing)

'Shift' is the sequel to the phenomenally successful novel 'Wool' and the second in Hugh Howey's Silo Trilogy. You can read my review of Wool here, but by way of a brief recap, in the near future humans live in a large underground 'silo' (think of a cylindrical 150 storey tower block buried in the ground). How they got there is a mystery but the very air outside is poisonous and as far as they are aware they are the only people left of mankind. They don't know much about 'before' only occasional picture books, strange stories handed down through the generations and the like.

In a desperate attempt to avoid any spoilers for Wool, I'll just say that Shift is a prequel that 'catches up' by the end of the book with the events in Wool. Shift is divided into three parts, or 'Shifts'.The first part of the book is a real futuristic rip-roaring thriller set initially in the mid 21st century, in a world not unlike ours today. You learn some of how the world of Wool and the Silo comes about. The end of the world scenario here is one of the scariest I've ever come about, and is definitely plausible. I've heard people say that you don't need to have read Wool to read this, and while as far as it goes this is true, you are going to get so much more out of it for having read Wool first. So please, please don't go straight into Shift. The second and third parts move forward in time and start to catch up with 'Wool'. By the end of Shift you are at exactly the same time as you are at the end of Wool (in fact I think the same conversation happens in each but I'd have to go back and check). Now normally, I don't like this kind of setup, i.e. knowing what's going to happen, but Shift isn't like that at all. They are two very, very different stories, and knowing roughly when the book ends doesn't mean you have any idea 'how' it ends or what happens to all the characters in Shift. The main characters in Wool don't appear until the final pages of Shift. One of the minor characters in Wool - Solo - has a big role in part 3 of Shift, but this is really good and fills in this characters story which I was really wanting to learn more about when I was reading Wool.

What I'm trying to say - badly - is that Shift just really works, so, so well, despite the fact that the whole prequel/catch-up mechanism shouldn't really work, not in my mind anyway. The first half of the book is in my mind (and in the opinion of some other reviewers) better than the second half, but that doesn't detract from the book at all. The first half of this book is the best fiction writing I've read this year and I've read at least 30 books so far. In fact overall I think the only book that's rivalling this year is its predecessor. Just like Wool, I'm giving this 5 stars on Goodreads. Can't wait to read Dust, which comes out in hardback next week in the UK (already out in paperback in the US), but actually is already out in the Kindle store - whoop!

Board Gaming Update - Dungeon Petz, Runewars and Fleet

This is kind of a catch up post, as there's several new games I've played recently to talk about - new games to me anyway.

Dungeon Petz (ranked 110 on is a 2011 game by renowned board game designer Vlaada Chvatil (of games like Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert & Through the Ages). It is a sort of sequel or companion to his earlier game 'Dungeon Lords'. Both Dungeon Lords and Dungeon Petz effectively reverse the dungeon crawler genre. Rather than be a hero exploring dungeons, killing monsters, collecting treasure etc, you are the bad guy responsible for setting up a Dungeon so that would be adventurers and heroes can venture in. In Dungeon Lords you are the Dungeon master, in Dungeon Petz you are a pet shop owner, except your pets aren't cute fluffy rabbits and hamsters, but various types of monsters! You have to hatch baby monsters, feed them, clean out their cage, entertain them and so on. Think The Sims Pets, but a board game and not quite so cute... Dungeon Petz is a smaller game than Dungeon Lords, with more of a comic element, but it is very fun. I've only played one game so far, and there was quite a bit of a learning curve, with a lot of bits and pieces and rules to learn. After a round or two you start to get the hang of it, and by the middle of the game you've really got a handle on what is going on. I'm looking forward to playing again when I get the chance. Rating it an 8 on BoardGameGeek at the moment, but has the potential to go higher than that after multiple plays.

Runewars (ranked 51 on BGG) is a big game in every sense of the word as it is a long game - 4 to 5 hours - is quite a complex game with lots of bits and pieces, and comes in an absolutely huge box. It is fantasy adventure board game. You start off by taking it in turns to lay out the large terrain hexes that make up the game board. You then start off with your own territory, and set out to expand, conquer new territories and pick up runes. The object of the game is to be the first player to control six territories containing Dragon Runes.

The game takes place over a number of years and in each year there are four seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter. You have a number of action cards, and get to pick one in each season. You can't usually play the same action card more than once per year. There's also secondary events that happen in each season - some are fixed and take place each season, but others are more random, and you don't know what you are going to get. If after 7 years no one has got to 7 Dragon Runes, the player with the most runes wins the game.

What I really like about this game is that despite being a big, complex game with quite a few rules and lots of components, at heart you simply get to choose one action each season, so four actions in total in a year. This means that there isn't much downtime. You quickly get the hang of the game too. The first couple of years the emphasis is more on exploring until you meet other players in the middle of the game board. When they do come about the battles resolve quite quickly and simply which is really good, though the outcome isn't always quite what you'd expect - the way the battle mechanic works, even if you've got lots of really powerful troops you can end up fleeing from some relatively small imps! You also get hero adventurers that get to move and possibly resolve a quest once per year - early on these are quite an important part of the game, but towards the end they get a bit redundant which is a shame (you run out of quest cards to complete about half way through). Overall though this is a great epic fantasy game, and one that I'm really eager to play again. I'm rating this a 9 on Board Game Geek, though only with the right group of people.

Fleet (492 on BGG) is a small-ish card game which I believe started out life as a Kickstarter Game. In it, you acquire fishing licences for different types of fish, which allow you to buy different kinds of fishing boats and go fishing to get fish. You get victory points for your fishing licences, boats and the amount of fish you manage to harvest. There's also some extra fishing licences that allow you to get bonus points.

As with many other card games, the currency in the game is the cards, although it is not always one card for one coin, different cards are worth either 1, 2 or 3 coins. The coin values are in inverse proportions to the victory points you get for them. At the start of the game you've got to make sure you get enough money to be able to buy the licences and boats you need to get going, and each boat needs a captain which costs money too.

Overall this is a nice little card game that probably take about an hour to play with four people. Admittedly part of what I liked about it was that we played two games and I won both, but there was a lot else to like as well. The theme wasn't just pasted on, it did actually feel like I was managing fleets of fishing boats which was a big success. At heart it is an economic game as it managing your money so you've got enough to buy the good cards later on in the game, but there's a lot of uncertainty too as you never know when the good cards are going to come up in the game. Some of the iconography and rules attached to the different licences got a bit confusing in places, and if you play a lot of games you might get a bit bored of it, but these are the only downsides I could think of. A good, fun card game, giving it a 7 on BoardGameGeek.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Review of 'Wool' by Hugh Howey

My review of Wool, originally posted on Goodreads earlier in the year. Posting now in anticipation of reviewing the sequel 'Shift' very soon.

Only a few months ago I hadn't heard of this book, or the author. Then I listened to an interview with him on 'Geek's Guide to the Galaxy' podcast, then it was chosen as the Sword & Laser book of the month, following which I decided to give it a read. In the indie book community at least, it has received a lot of hype, thousands of glowing reviews. Would it live up to its reputation?

First of all a word on how it is put together. Hugh Howey wrote these as a series of linked novellas, and when he wrote the first I don't think he had any idea that he'd write the rest, or that it would be so popular. The first 'book' is in fact a short story, and would work well as a standalone short story. There are five books in total making up the 'Wool Omnibus', each getting progressively longer.

Wool revolves around the 'silo', a subterranean structure of about 150 floors, completely sealed off from the outside world which incidentally is deadly poisonous such that no one can survive outside. There's quite a bit of world building and backplot developing in the early books, which is really quite fascinating. The story really starts to get going around book 3 when it becomes a gripping page turner.

Overall, I thought this was a fabulous book, really quite different to anything else I've read. It is a fascinating world, and a good story too. There are two sequels to Wool, 'Shift' which is mostly a prequel I'm told, and the forthcoming 'Dust' which wraps up the story.

Incidentally - this book works really well for an online book club, as you can have separate threads to discuss each of the five 'books', with no risk of spoilers for the later books.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

'Redshirts' by John Scalzi

Redshirts is  a relatively short novel by American science fiction author John Scalzi, best known for his 'Old Man's War' military science fiction novel and its sequels. The book is about 300 pages, but the last 80 or so pages actually form three 'codas', linked short stories that add extra content to the book. The book won the 2013 Hugo Award, arguably science fiction's greatest accolade, but reader reviews on Amazon are decidedly mixed and some think a book as light and frothy as this shouldn't have won a Hugo.

Redshirts follows a group of junior Ensigns on a starship, the flagship of the United Union fleet. The main character, Andrew Dahl, is a new crew member who gradually realises that being an Ensign or 'redshirt' on the ship is a very dangerous occupation, as people keep dying horrible, meaningless missions on a seemingly endless stream of away missions. Senior officers never die however... What is going on?

The book starts off as a spoof on Star Trek - even referencing it in a couple of places. It gradually develops a rather interesting storyline. It's also rather funny, I laughed out loud in a few places, and quoted several bits to my wife - much to her delight! I read a few reviews of this on Amazon before picking it up, the most helpful of which said something along the lines of: 'If you read the first couple of chapters and think it is a really badly written story, then persevere. It intentionally starts out like this, and is an important part of the story.' Good advice, because this is exactly what happens.

A final note about the 'codas' at the end of the book. I got to about page 220 and went 'huh?'. The story had ended and what were these things at the end. Should I read on? I actually googled it and found a blog post from the author explaining about them. I did read them. The first was quite interesting, but not spectacular. The final two were shorter, and really good. The first coda adds a funny, interesting perspective. The other two add quite a touching, emotive and thought provoking element to the book and round off the whole thing nicely.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. It a good story that had me hooked, it was very funny and also touching towards the end. While I see why some people complained, I feel it is a worthy winner of the Hugo Award, and am going to give it 9/10.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Classic Science Fiction TV - Crime Traveller

Crime Traveller was a 1997 British science fiction crime drama produced by the BBC, and created & written by Anthony Horowitz, prolific novelist and tv writer (most famous for his Alex Rider children's books and for creating the hit historical drama Foyles War).

Crime Traveller starred Michael French as police detective Jeff Slade, and Chloe Annett as a Holly Turner, a police scientist. Slade discovers that Holly has a working time machine built by her late father, and the two team up to use it to solve crimes. The workings of the time machine were quite clever - it would send someone - Slade - back in time but for a random amount of time, it could be a day or two or it could just be a few minutes. Slade has to use whatever time he is randomly allotted to try and solve the crime at hand, but he must get back to the time machine before the present (i.e. the time he started out) or he gets caught in an infinity loop and is lost forever. This adds quite a bit of edge of the seat drama to each episode - will he get back in time? Though secretly know he always will.

I liked this show because it was a clever concept, and the stories were all rather good. I also liked the problems they had coming up with explanations as to how they solved the crime that didn't involve time travel, to satisfy their boss Grisham, excellently played by Sue Johnston, who starts to get a bit suspicious after a while.

Unfortunately despite getting over 8 million regular viewers, the show was cancelled after one season due to management changes at the BBC. It may seem a little dated now, but is still fun to watch, or re-watch if you were fortunate enough to catch it first time!

Crime Traveller: The Complete Series on Amazon UK

Crime Traveller: Complete Series on

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Patrick Leigh Fermor's final book

Patrick Leigh Fermor is considered by many to be one of the English Language's finest travel writers, and he was a real old school adventurer. In the early 1930/31, aged 18, he upped and left home after deciding to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople... thousands of miles. This involved walking through pre second world war Europe, a contintent with one foot in the past, one in the future. It was a fascinating time, and Leigh Fermor is an excellent chronicler of it, as well as an extremely intelligent, erudite scholar and writer.

Later, during the war he become a war hero, working behind enemy lines in occupied Crete, during which he orchestrated the kidnapping of the German commander of Crete (dramatised in the film 'Ill Met by Moonlight' where Leigh Fermor is played by Dirk Bogarde), and later become a writer.

In 1977 he published an account of the first part of his journey in 'A Time of Gifts', considered one of the best travel books of all time. It is not to everyone's taste but it is well worth checking out. There's more packed into this slim book than in 10 lesser books.  In 1986 he published part two, 'Between the Woods and the Water' finished it with 'To Be Concluded'. However the author went through a long period of writers block and it never quite happened. He died in 2011 aged 96, but now finally, the third and final book of his journey has been published. All the words are his own, it has just benefited from editing and polishing as well as introduction by his biographer Artemis Cooper and acclaimed travel Colin Thubron. I can't wait to read it.

If you want to read more about Patrick Leigh Fermor, check out his obituary, or read the recent article from the Telegraph about his final book including extracts.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Breaking all the rules of blogging

Ask anyone who is anyone in the online world, and they'll tell you that to have a successful blog, you've got to pick a good niche and burrow down. People don't want a mash up blog of this, that & the other. Well I've started lots of blogs over the years, picking a niche related to whatever I'm most into at the time. And you know what? It never works. After a few posts it just sort of peters out. I'm just not that sort of person that sticks on one topic or interest forever. A lot of my interests are kind of related, and most appeal to the same sorts of people but its still going to be a bit of a hodge podge. This is what I'm expecting to write about:

SF & Fantasy
Board Gaming
Science & Tech
Misc other stuff

I wanted to have tabs across the top for each of these areas, with a 'misc' catchall. Unfortunately it appears blogger doesn't do that, at least not easily. So instead once I get going I'm going to have a tag cloud which will link to the different sorts of posts.

I'll also over time be using this blog to pull in other content I've written over the years on other blogs, article sites etc, so the best stuff at least is all in one place.

Am I going to get thousands of people reading? Nope? Am I going to have fun? I hope so!

Edit: Just discovered the 'import/export blog' function, so I've imported some of my recent blogs here. So there's a few posts up already.

Friday, 21 June 2013

'Redemption Ark' by Alastair Reynolds

Redemption Ark is the sequel to 'Revelation Space' and the second book in the Revelation Space trilogy. There are actually five books in the Revelation Space universe, but the other two are standalone novels that don't add substantially to the overall story arc. So if you haven't already, start with Revelation Space. You could read this book on its own, but you'll get a lot more from it if you read them in order.

Humanity is teetering on the brink. The Inhibitors have been awoken, and their cold machine sentience starts the process of wiping out the human race. They've sanitized the galaxy of intelligent life countless times before in the billions of years since their creation, and they will do it countless times again. Can anything stop them?

This book, as with Reynolds other books, is part space opera and part Hard SF. It is set a few years after the events of Revelation Space; there are some overlapping characters, but a cast of new characters as well. The story starts slowly, and the first quarter of the book takes time setting the scene, introducing new characters and backplot. The last 10-15% of the book is also quite rushed, almost as much happens in the epilogue as in the rest of the book. Still, these are minor points in what was an extremely good book. It's got great characters it is easy to care about, a cracking plot and a real sense of wonder about it.

I'm really starting to like Alastair Reynolds stuff, after just two books and one short story. Inevitable comparisons can be made to Peter F Hamilton's epic space operas. Reynolds books, so far at least, are darker and a bit stranger along with being more tightly focused. Each book seems to be focused on at most several sets of characters. Peter F Hamilton, in contrast, fills his books with countless different groups of characters on many diverse worlds. Given the effective lack of faster than light travel/communication in Reynolds book, it is always going to be this way. It does make Alastair Reynolds books easier to keep up with and remember what is going on!

Overall I'm giving this book 8/10. Not perfect by any means, but pretty damn good nonetheless. Roll on Absolution Gap (book 3/3 in the trilogy).

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Kindle Daily Deal

I've been getting the 'Kindle Daily Deal' email for about six months now. One book each day is 99p. Most of them aren't much to get excited about, but this week they've had an SF & Fantasy Daily deal as well. Too bad I didn't realise this until day 6 of 7, but I've now bought the book two days in a row. First there's the 'Mammoth Book of SF Wars' by Ian Watson & Ian Whates. Military SF isn't really my thing, but for 99p I thought I might as well give it a try - I got the Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic Fiction on a similar deal a few months ago, and read quite a few good stories from that one so far. Will keep you posted.

The other book I bought is 'Dark Eden' by Chris Beckett. It's the story of a group of people on an alien world - the descendents of two survivors of a ship sent from Earth. It's a planet that is completely dark, the only light comes from luminous trees in one valley which all the colonists huddle together. They're all waiting and hoping that Earth will send a ship to rescue them, but it's been 160 years and there's still no sign of anyone. One young man, John Redlantern is determined to stop just surviving and actual make this alien world a home, and wants to set off to explore.

It sounds a really interesting book, so on the basis of the 99p price, some good Amazon/Goodreads reviews and the description I decided to go for it. I'll post the review when I'm done.

I'm also going to try and keep more of an eye on SF & Fantasy deals on Kindle UK, and post them on here when I find them.

'Way Station' by Clifford D Simak

I read this while on holiday in Shropshire. Pastoral SF is the ideal book to read while staying in a country holiday cottage on a farm in rural Shropshire, England! Anyway, here's the review.

"They don't make 'em like they used to" is an apt phrasing fitting many different things, not the least of which is science fiction. Way Station was written in the 1960s, and I can't imagine a book anything like it being written today. I don't think we have anyone like Clifford D Simak writing science fiction today though.

Simak writes 'pastoral sf', a heady mix of technology, philosophy, and a love of backwoods America. He is equally at home describing the beautiful countryside, or the sound of skylarks on a spring day as he is imagining strange aliens, advanced technology and weird science.

Way Station centres around Enoch Wallace, an American Civil War veteran, living in backwoods America, who meets an alien one day and is asked to be the keeper of a Galactic 'waystation' for travellers journeying between the stars. As it is not a part of the Galactic community, Earth is off-limits but is a necessary stopping place (like a rest area service station on the motorway or interstate I guess!) Enoch meets many strange creatures and wonderful things, but keeps his feet firmly on the ground of mother Earth. Things stay this way for more than a century with Enoch barely aging. Eventually though, someone's bound to notice...

Way Station isn't a long book, but fits quite a lot in. We learn a bit about the strange - and some not so strange - aliens that Enoch Wallace meets as they travel through his station, and find out something of what he has learned about the galactic community. We get a bit of philosophical musings, and Enoch's worries about the state of humankind, as Earth teeters on the brink of nuclear war (this was written in the 1960s, so at that time nuclear war was a very real and dangerous threat). Slowly though, Enoch's century of peace and quiet is shattered as a crisis builds both on Earth and out in the galaxy too.

Not everyone will love this book. If you like your science fiction full of nasty aliens with big guns, or hot bosom babes with lots of sex in it, you are going to be sorely disappointed and very bored! But if you like experiencing a sense of wonder, a little adventure and aren't a bit put off by the slightly dated historical backdrop and old fashioned technology, you might just enjoy this. It is a classic of golden age science fiction and well worth the reading. I'm giving this 9/10, and will be reading more by Clifford D. Simak soon.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Off on holiday!

I'm off on holiday today, I've now got 10 days off work, and a week in a country cottage in Shropshire. I'm sure my four year old daughter won't let me read that much, but I'm hoping to get a bit more reading in than I normally do. No internet to distract me, apart from anything I call up on my phone. I'm leaving work and other work-like projects completely behind too, which will be really nice.

I'm currently reading 'Way Station' by Clifford D. Simak, a classic from the 1950s, set in backwoods America about a rural man who secretly runs an inter-galactic 'Way Station' for travellers from the stars who are passing through. Someone from the American intelligence agency discovers something suspicious is going on, as the man hasn't aged in over a century... It is described as 'pastoral sf', along with most of Simak's other works. Is good so far!

The other book I'm hoping to read is 'Redemption Ark' by Alastair Reynolds. It's the sequel to 'Revelation Space', and really ramps up the story as humanity is at risk of extinction from the return of the Inhibitors. I've got a few other things on my Kindle too, in case I finish those.

Also working on an author guide to Peter F. Hamilton's books - nearly done but that will have to wait until I get back.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Greg Egan & Hard SF

I recently put in a request on Sword & Laser for some recommendations for great SF short stories and authors. One of the suggestions was Greg Egan, an Australian author of 'hard SF'. Now up until this point I'd probably have said I wasn't a fan of hard SF. Wikipedia has this to say about Egan, which doesn't make things any better:

"He specialises in hard science fiction stories with mathematical and quantum ontology themes, including the nature of consciousness."

Err okay. I'm not even sure what ontology is. (Dictionary: the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such - okay, could be interesting...)

However, and perhaps because the newest word in my vocabulary is the sort of thing I find interesting, I decided to give him a go. It turns out that he has quite a few short stories available  for free on his website. I selected 'Crystal Nights'. It was quite a long story, about 10,000 words and was about a computer scientist and entrepreneur who is trying to create artificial intelligence. Not a new topic perhaps, but an interesting take on it. There wasn't a huge amount of what I'd call hard science in there, I found it quite easy to follow the story.

So maybe I do like hard science fiction after all. I'll be reading more Greg Egan, and hard SF generally.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Three Apolcalyptic Short Stories.

I was going to call these post-apocalyptic stories, but all are set just shortly before the apocalypse, so apocalyptic is more of an appropriate title in this instance. All three are from 'The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF' edited by Mike Ashley. This was a 99p purchase, part of last year's '12 Days of Kindle' offers. It's sat on my Kindle since, and have finally decided to dive in. I'll be reviewing more stories from this anthology in the next few weeks, but here's the first batch.

'Sleepover' by Alastair Reynolds
This story comes hot on the heals of having my first Alastair Reynolds book, Revelation Space (read my review of it here). It's quite a long short story , heading into the novella category (it took about an hour to read, so I'd estimate about 15,000 words). A billionaire inventor and businessman is put into cryogenic suspension in the mid-21st century, along with about 200,000 others, awaiting the day when medical science can make them live indefinitely which they are led to believe won't be far off. More than a century later, he is woken, but the world is far from the one he was expecting...

Okay, so this is quite a cliched idea that has been used and over-used many times before, but don't let that put you off, this is very different from any other stories with this plot device that you may have read. The future world is brilliantly conceived, it is a great concept, with a proper story and characterisation. It feels like a much longer story than it actually is, which is all credit to the author.

'Fermi and Frost' by Frederick Pohl
Frederick Pohl is one of the masters of science fiction's Golden Age. I've read his classic novel, 'Gateway', before, but this is the first time I've read one of his short stories. It's set in presumably the 1960s, when nuclear war commences between the USA & the USSR. Almost all of the world is destroyed, and more than 99% of the population die within the first few months. This story is set in one of the last pockets of survival, and it is not the place you are probably expecting.

This story is on the shortlist of the best short stories I've ever read (admittedly, so far I've not read many - I'm still at the start of my journey through the world of SF short stories). It is quite haunting and evocative, not lessened in any way by the fact that the probability of nuclear war is (for now) thankfully quite a remote one today. It is unusual in science fiction as being something of a 'what if' tale. It probably came quite close to actually happening once or twice. As well as telling a great story, it outlines one of the big theories of science and cosmology very simply and well. A fabulous short story.

'The Last Sunset' by Geoffrey A. Landis
Compared to the previous two short stories, this is quite small and small scale (or as small scale as the end of the world can be). It is a very touching and emotional tale about a young astronomer who discovers that the world is about to end within hours. It's a short short, at a guess I'd say less than 2,000 words, so quick to read and well worth it. I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil it, but it is definitely worth reading.

'Revelation Space' by Alastair Reynolds

As a fan of Peter F Hamilton (and having run out of his novels to read - get writing Peter), Revelation Space has been on my to be read list for a while with Alastair Reynolds in my mind as the other big British science fiction writing epic space opera. Finally, I get around to it.

Revelation Space is a standalone novel, but is the first of five books (thus far) in the 'Revelation Space Universe', with a few linked short stories too. Revelation Space follows Dan Sylveste, a scientist, archeologist and quite a politically controversial figure. He is obsessed with a long extinct alien race called the Amarantin, convinced that there is something strange and unexplained about their extinction, and is drawn to their home-world, Resurgem, to do some digging literally. Unfortunately before he manages to reveal the secret, there is a coup, and he is thrown in jail... Throw in a reluctant assassin, strange alien forces and a starship the size of a city, and you've got the making of a great novel.

Revelation Space is set in the 23rd century, and is a little darker in tone than many space operas, but is by no means dystopic. There are very few surviving alien races, and those that are known about are elusive and mysterious. The universe and its laws are also more convincing than many space operas - no faster than light travel for one thing, probably stemming from Reynolds' previous job as a physicist.

So what did I think? Well obviously I really enjoyed it, giving it 5 stars. It was quite a slow book to get going, only becoming truly gripping towards the end. But the world building was fantastic, the characters well rounded, and plenty of hooks and mysteries to keep you interested - pretty much all of which were resolved/answered by the end while still leaving plenty of scope for new books.

I read recently Frederick Pohl's description of what makes a good science fiction novel, which he sets out as a series of questions. I thought I'd consider them here as part of this review.

Does the story tell me something worth knowing, that I had not known before, about the relationship between man and technology? - Yes it does. Humans have evolved and altered themselves in many ways, a few of which are described in detail here, others hinted at.

Does it enlighten me on some area of science where I had been in the dark? Yes and no. There's a lot of hard science in here, how much of that I've retained is questionable as the story always took precedence over the science, but there's a lot to learn in this book.

Does it open a new horizon for my thinking? Does it lead me to think new kinds of thoughts, that I would not otherwise perhaps have thought at all? - Yes it does, some truly galaxy spanning thoughts, and an interesting and plausible possible answer to one of science and cosmology's greatest mysteries. If that don't hook you, I don't know what will!

Does it suggest possibilities about the alternative possible future courses my world can take? - Yes. It offers a convincing possible future for humankind (though not specifically Earth, which I'm not sure was ever mentioned).

Does it illuminate events and trends of today, by showing me where they may lead tomorrow? - Yes, does that.

Does it give me a fresh and objective point of view on my own world and culture, perhaps by letting me see it through the eyes of a different kind of creature entirely, from a planet light-years away? - While the book is mostly told from a human point of view, it does kind of do this, yeah.

Overall a great book, I think I've discovered a new favourite author and can't wait to read more...