In-between all these reviews, and my complaining of stories falling short of my overly picky expectations here and there, let's give this a break. Here is a treat instead, in the shape of a link to and a recommendation for a short story by Ian McDonald, called Some Strange Desire.
It concerns the machinations of a subspecies, a variant of humanity, two chromosomes apart, living alongside us. They are gender-fluid, able to change quickly and as desired. They work as prostitutes, as they require human haploid cells they acquire during sexual intercourse, to allow their extended life span. But there are threats to them, now, both from within their own making, and from the outside.
And I suspect I've told you too much already, just to whet your appetites. The cultural background Ian wrote for this is part Jewish, part West-African/Haitian Voodoo, and part Witchcraft, and it's utterly fascinating.
The story was originally published in Omni Magazine, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. The illustration is by Robert K. J. Killheffer.
It was not what I expected to find when I picked up this book by Alastair Reynolds - I was looking forward to some large-scale space opera, or maybe some far-future hard SF. But not quasi-Steampunk YA, somehow…
But do come back - Revenger is an enjoyable and engaging read, with a story that stays with you, set in an immersive and fascinating world. Solar system. Universe. Or, as the blurb has it: "Revenger is a science fiction adventure story set in the rubble of our solar system in the dark, distant future - a tale of space pirates, buried treasure and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazard and single-minded heroism ... and of vengeance."
But let’s start at the beginning - we see Adrana and Arafura Ness, together with their father, at a function in the Hall of History at the Chamber of Commerce. We witness a confrontation with Dr Morcenx, the creepy family physician, before the two sisters abscond - first to Neural Alley, where they are being told that they have special talents, after which they hire on a Spaceship as Bone Readers. All to get away from Dr Morcenx (who prefers his charges to remain young/underage, and advocates the use of drugs to achieve this…) but also to earn the kind of money to turn the family’s fortunes.
I found this to be a story of contrasts - on the one hand you have the quasi-Victorian setting with the Hall of History, the guilds, the seedy back-alleys with mysterious stalls and shops; and on the other hand you get space flight, sentient robots etc. And no, I do not think that he really was playing for the the Steampunk effect, but the first part of the book reminded me of nothing as much as of Philip Reeve’s Larklight (although Revenger is not blighted by a romantic undertow which made parts of Larklight such a drag to read).
The story is set, as much as I can tell, in our Solar System, but literally millions of years down the line. Earth has been shattered, and, by someone (not necessarily human) rebuilt into a large number of different worlds of various shapes and sizes. Some, like Mazarile where the story starts, have a ‘swallower’ (read black hole) at their centre to adjust gravity. This Congregation of worlds has seen many Occupations (by humans) before they vanished again, only leaving behind their artefacts and treasures in Baubles - some kind of shielded Asteroids within stasis fields. So we are talking cycles of high-tech civilisations, over the span of millions of years. There are hints of interstellar flight, as the occupations must start somewhere, and returners are a possibility. There are also several kinds of Aliens extant, during the current occupation they run the human banking system, for some reason.
“Don’t be silly Bob”, said Mo, “everybody knows Vampires don’t exist!”. Well, with that very first sentence the topic of the book is well and truly established…
Charles Stross is a British writer living in Scotland. He’s the author of some 25 novels now, plus short story collections, omnibus editions, novellas, novelettes, and various other things in various formats and length. He has won a number of Awards, including the Prometheus and the Hugo. The Rhesus Chart is the fifth book in the Laundry files series, which deals with the going-ons at a fictitious (?) secret government agency dealing with supernatural threats to the realm. It also is written as a ‘jumping-on’ point, for those who have neither read the whole series, nor are planning to in the near future, but want to be part of the fun. Me, I would recommend you start at the beginning, and get all the entertainment…
The book kicks off with the above authoritative statement by Mo, as part of a domestic arguments between her and Bob Howard, the main protagonist of the series so far. Things are definitely going downhill in this household of two secret agents. And it foreshadows (as the first third of this book is very prone to do) that he failed to save their marriage. Heavy stuff, from the word go! The book then starts into who they are, the Laundry, what they do, the whole “Magic is a branch of applied mathematics” which underpins this universe. There are several of these info-dumps, mostly as explanations by Bob for the report he’s writing (and which you’re reading); these will definitely make it possible for you to start with this book, even if you’ll miss some of the background, for obvious reasons.
What I normally post here are things which are a bit more polished, a bit more finished and together that this, but this thread on Imgur by user Looked4LoveInAlderaanPlaces (terrible, terrible pun mate) called Nature, You Scary is really rather neat.
It all stems from a suggestion to come up with a scenario where aliens invade earth, effortlessly wipe out human defences, only to run into major issues from the local wildlife.
Or, to give you the suggested tag line:
They were expecting military resistance. They weren't counting on bears.
It's written in individual short bits, by different authors, in slightly differing styles, with no editing to hold it together or clean up the style (or the typos, for that matter), but it's hugely entertaining, and well worth reading.
The title itself is part of an Internet meme, and so is the picture on the right. Isn't this just the cutest little alien?
Dr Olesya Turkina is a Senior Research Fellow at the State Russian Museum, and the Head of an MA Programme at St Petersburg State University. She has a long list of exhibitions and publications to her name, including a large number on the topic of Space Exploration.
Soviet Space Dogs, the book at hand, is a curious mix of academic paper and popular treaty on the subject - (mainly) of the Soviet research programme of training and sending dogs into space to determine the feasibility of sending humans. The book is structured into six parts:
An Introduction to the topic to set the scene; Unknown Heroes, which provides some background on the personalities, their theories, practical developments, fictional accounts, and of course the ever-present politics behind the development of space-flying capabilities. The Heart of Laika, which focuses on the this specific flight – at once the most famous, and the most infamous flight (as it was the only one without any provision for the recovery of the passenger in the whole series of flights) Belka and Strelka: Space's First Pop Stars – the 2nd successful orbiting flight, and the international fame of its crew (and their offspring!) Paradise Lost, which briefly touches on the Bion programme (a topic worth several books in itself, I reckon), which moved on from dogs to monkeys and other creatures, which was at the end run in conjunction with the US, and was only canceled due to pressure from the public opinion regarding what these flights meant for and did to their involuntary passengers. Plus we get a Chronological list of dog flights – all 42 which are known, including dogs flown, rocket, altitude, duration (for orbital flights), and the outcome of the flight for the dogs
“Being smart has served homo sapiens well, enabling us to colonise the Earth and even sprinkle our technology lightly across the Solar System, but beetles, crocodiles, and horseshoe crabs have enjoyed much longer success, and all without feeling the need to build nuclear weapons or pump the atmosphere full of greenhouse gas. Intelligence may be useful to have but it comes with a self-destructive downside and it certainly isn’t the only way to dominate a planetary biosphere.”
Paradox starts with a chapter titled Fermi Paradox: An Introduction, by Marek Kukula and Rob Edwards. For those not familiar with the concept, the Fermi Paradox (named after Enrico Fermi from the Los Angeles National Laboratories) essentially points out that, given the number of solar systems out there, the statistical frequency of planets in those etc - the universe should be teeming with life, and thus, evolving from it, intelligent life. The basic premise was later expanded upon by Frank Drake in his famous equation, trying to quantify the question. But, we know that this is not the case, or not as far as we can observe. Thus, as the cover posits - Where is everybody?
For this nifty collection Ian Whates, writer and editor (and head honcho at Newcon Press) has assembled a fascinating list of contributors - scientists, scientists who write, writers who write Science Fiction - who in turn provided him (and us) with a fascinating variety of approaches, expanding on the various proposed answers to the paradox in a highly entertaining (and frequently enlightening) manner.
“Our enduring contribution to the shared cultural heritage of the Milky Way could amount to little more than a brief pulse of twentieth century TV and Radio.”