VIRTUAL GIRL by Amy Thomson

11 06 2014

Virtual Girl coverThis book was published in 1993. In the last twenty years, the world of Artificial Intelligence has without doubt made advances that would have seemed unimaginable then, but that is not the point. The technological side of this story, like that of many of the best SF books (call them Speculative Fantasy rather than pure Science Fiction) is simply a prop on which the human story is based. And of course even the purists rarely, if ever, get their future science right.

I said “a human story” and it is a very human story, but it is also the story of a humanoid. For the question posed here is: when (not if) we can make computers, Artificial Intelligences, conscious and self-aware, will they be “people” in their own right? Will owning them be tantamount to slavery.

But let me be quite clear about this: Virtual Girl is not the story of a machine, it is the story of a girl who at one year old, has suddenly to become a young woman and take control of her own life, albeit life on the street. In many ways the ultimate outsider, for AI has been banned and she has been created illegally by an MIT drop-out, a loner who wants the perfect companion, she proves to be the most human person in the dystopian world of this book.

SF at its very best.





THE COURT OF THE MIDNIGHT KING by Freda Warrington

1 05 2014

King Richard III

Having always been one for the bad guy, I found Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time not only to my taste but totally convincing. It was the first book on this subject that I read. Tey’s police inspector, Alan Grant, laid up in bed, becomes intrigued by the anomalies in the received version of the murder of the princes in the Tower at the hands of their uncle, Richard III, and proceeds to investigate. Her title comes from the saying “Truth is the daughter of time,” and indeed it does seem to be.

Next, I came across Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason, a romantic novel based on the life of Richard and his relationship with the original Nut-Brown Maiden, the girl who becomes the mother of his illegitimate daughter, Katherine Plantagenet.

Midnight King

This may seem irrelevant in a review of a book by Freda Warrington, but these three writers have a great deal in common – a fact that Freda Warrington seems to acknowledge when she quotes Rosemary Hawley Jarman at the front of her book: “Richard is gone from us, yet his name fascinates every tongue.”

The Court of the Midnight King is the alternative universe version of the Richard III story. Here in the fifteenth century things are not what they were in our fifteenth century; almost, but not quite. For a start, the Old Religion, the religion of the Earth Mother, is flourishing and still generally accepted. They even have a motherlodge in London, though the Church is at war with it and hopes (in return for giving its support – God’s support – to the Lancastrian faction) to have goddess-worship outlawed as soon as the Lancastrians reclaim the throne. But this hatred is not reciprocated: for the daughters of Auset there is Blue Mother Mary as well as Dark Mother Auset, the Blue Virgin as well as the Dark Mother.

Our heroine, Katherine (Kate), is born into the thick of this. Eleanor, Lady Lytton, her mother, is a priestess and keeper of a shrine, and later becomes Mater Superior. Here is Kate’s initiation:

The celebrants danced in a slow circle, parting to let Eleanor and Martha through. Together they led Katherine into Briganta’s cave: the Caudron Hollow.

The night became a blue funnel, turning slowly about them. Inside the cave, they knelt before the statue, the weather-worn and primal form of the Black Mother. There Eleanor offered up perfumed oil for blessing. She slipped Kate’s gown from her shoulders, dipped her finger and annointed Katherine upon her forehead, palms and breast. A cross contained within a circle, for the elements. A serpent crowned with a crescent, for the Goddess. A pentagram, the footprint of the Queen of Sheba, for wisdom.

‘Great Mother of Darkness, we call your blessing upon Katherine our daughter. Let her go out into the world in safety. Let her walk in wisdom. Pour over her the light of your protection. Open to her your mysteries.’

This too is a love story, the story of Kate and Richard, played out not only against the background of the machinations of Warwick the Kingmaker and the Woodville clan, the tragedy of Edward IV (“The Sun In Splendour”) and the princes in the Tower, all so familiar to us, but more importantly against a background of nature-myticism and earth-magic which may have been there, but if it was has been written out of history, like the good side of Richard of Gloucester, Richard III.

Both these authors (and perhaps all three) seem to have fallen in love with their protagonist.

The quotation from We Speak No Treason, above, continues: Richard is gone from us, yet his name fascinates every tongue. A thorn bush received his crown, and on a humble beast his corpse was carried, yet a beast as lowly bore Our Saviour into Jerusalem. Did they not think on this? When they flung my liege lord over his poor mount? [...] O Richard, is there a place for me beside you, above the stars?

Oh indeed, indeed. This was no ordinary event. When Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd 1485, the great gate of time clanged shut on the Middle Ages.

And as for Freda Warrington, one of the peculiarities of The Court of the Midnight King is the present-day narrator who appears for a couple of pages as a kind of Greek Chorus or interlude every fifty pages or so: and this narrator actually begins to communicate with and meet face to face the characters who inhabit that alternative universe, that world she has created in her novel. Here is the first contact. She first quotes Shakespeare:

For never yet one hour in his bed
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep 

There’s no innocence about him. He looks fully self-aware, even self-mocking. He comes not to plead mitigation, but to challenge me. I can never truly know him, but he wants to watch me try, to watch me imagining I grasp the truth only to see it slide away again. I open my arms to the challenge, to him.

Without a word he kisses me, lies down and folds himself around me and into me, like a velvet cloak.

A character in search of an author – and he certainly found her.





SHADE by Emily Devenport

23 03 2014

Shade cover

Shade, the runaway daughter of a long-gone father and an absentee mother – Mom’s a concert pianist, one of the best on Earth – who stowed away on a spaceship in light-years-distant California two years ago and now survives among the other Deadtowners living out of garbage bins on the multi-cultural (hah!) planet of Z’taruh. Why “hah!”? There are various different intelligent species – the Q’rin, the Lirri, and the Aesopians, among others – but not much culture, unless you count combat sports like fighting to the death no-holds-barred, and rat-fights, like cock-fights or dog-fights, but between giant marsh-rats and again always to the death. Oh, and not much sign of intelligence, either.

The only ones she likes are the Aesopians.

Early in the book, she is with a mixed group of assorted humans and sub-humans when somebody calls the Aesopians “ugly bastards” and says they were “made out of household pets”.

‘The Aesopians made themselves,’ I said. God knows why I bothered.
He glared at me. ‘Shut up, bitch.’
‘No one knows what they originally looked like,’ I lectured. ‘They worshipped animals for thousands of years. When their technology was advanced enough, they started playing with their genes, trying to imitate the characteristics of their gods.’
‘Who the fuck cares?’
‘They were more successful than they could have dreamed. Soon the different animal-types could not interbreed. Powerful families began to gain control, and war broke out between the groups. Lion, bear, elephant and wolf stuck together against horse, eagle and cobra. The wars lasted hundreds of years and ravaged the planet. The survivors were thrown into a dark age.’
‘Jezus, somebody shut her up!’

But in Deadtown the mix is rather different. Babies, Scarbabies, Skids, Ragnir vets, G-workers, tinkers, dogs. One big, ugly family, all incestuous and diseased. But all better than the thing I was sitting next to.

The thing she was sitting next to was a Lirri.

Knossos, an Aesopian elephant man, and the only person on the planet – indeed in the entire universe – that she has any time for, tells her:

‘Listen. Whether someone is your friend or your enemy does not depend on the shape of his body or the place he was born.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I know.’
And I did. Wasn’t I standing there with the elephant man, respecting him more than I did myself and wishing I could follow him back into hiding?

The book is studded with one-liners you just want to quote, like:

Lately I got the feeling that the people I thought I knew never really existed.

and

‘How old did you think I was?’ she asked.
‘Eighteen. Nineteen.’
She hugged me like it was some big compliment. It wasn’t. Arrested development isn’t anything to be proud of.

and

Making music and painting pictures are two of the three things humans do best. Guess what the third is. No, I’m not telling you.

and, talking about war, Knossos tells her: ‘Where there is no conflict, there is no life.’

And what about this? She was looking for Snag, a Q’rin, so she went to the morning rat-fights … Sure enough, he was there by late morning, all bright-eyed about watching his favourite kind of meal hop around and bleed. Remind you of Spain?





ARALORN: MASQUES & WOLFSBANE by Patricia Briggs

22 02 2014

Aralorn cover

Two early works by Patricia Briggs (of Mercy Thompson fame), or rather a very early work and a later sequel featuring the same cast of characters in the same alternative fantasy universe.

“Wolf” is a great wolf which Aralorn saves from death in a pit full of spiked stakes in the prologue to the first story, Masques. But Wolf turns out to be a shape-shifter, and the only son of the evil sorcerer who is holding the country in thrall.

It is hard to say much about this book without spoiling it for you, but I loved Aralorn and identified with her immediately. Patricia Briggs describes Masques as bearing all the signs of an early work by an author still learning her craft, as opposed to Wolfsbane, the sequel, written twenty years later. Maybe so,  but I saw little difference. She is still there in that world, still totally at home in it, still completely familiar with each character and scene.

Now I would like a third story, please. Make it a trilogy, Patricia!





Two more good ones from Kindle …

16 12 2013

I love these free downloads from Amazon Kindle!

The Muse of Violence by Bruce Hartman

Muse of Violence cover

The narrator is the leader of a writers’ group who tells a tale reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (“And Then There Were None”). It all begins with Jackie, a young woman who collects married men. They have to be married. The only married man Jackie is not interested in is her husband, who, according to a story she reads to the group, is a pathetic little wimp called Larry.

The following week, Eleanor, an older woman, reads a story she has written in which a wife follows the young blonde seducer of her husband and … Only Jackie is not there to hear it. Why not? It turns out that she has already been murdered, and the story Eleanor told is remarkably similar to what actually happened to Jackie.

Could Eleanor have murdered her? She seems to have a foolproof alibi, but the narrator is not convinced.

And so it continues. Read your story, meet your maker.

Excellent and gripping. And there is someone in the writers’ group for every reader to identify with – always important to me. I identified in this case not with the narrator, who would be most people’s choice, I imagine, but with Caroline, whose viewpoint we also get from time to time. The extracts from her diary make her in effect a second narrator, and I have to say I would have preferred rather more of her and rather less of him.

Nomad by J L Bryan

NOMAD-by-JL-Bryan

 

A teenage child soldier from a future dystopia finds herself inexplicably in this world dressed in the ragged remains of what she had obviously been wearing there/then, and clutching a backpack containing wads of dollars and strange clothes clearly intended for a large man.

And a gun. A gun from the future that she knows how to assemble and operate, though she has no idea how she knows.

She lost her memory in the time-jump, but gradually comes to the realisation that she is here to asassinate the young man, at present a student at Yale, who is destined to become the tyrant responsible for creating the hellish world in which she grew up.

Without him that will never happen.

Or will it?

And another thing. What will happen to her if the world she comes from no longer exists? Will she become a time-nomad, with no world of her own to return to?

That question, so well handled in this book, led me to another question. Isn’t that what happens to all of us? The world we grew up in no longer exists. As James Munro puts it in his poem Fin de Millennium:

You take the high road,
you take the low road,
you take the bloody motorway:
but I was in Scotland ‘afore ye …

And in Ireland. And England. Roads were narrow then,
the high with low stone walls, the low with hedges,
blossom, finches, trains were grimy,
dog-end-filled and stopped at every village station,
bells ringing, whistles blowing, steam and
hats and skirts all blowing; time:
the whistles and the bells fell silent, cigarettes
were antisocial, steam and stations uncommercial,
girls wore jeans, wore strings, wore …

Then was another world. You’d be an alien there.

In Andalusia I sat down and wept;
in Casablanca I remembered then, remembered
cold, grey seas and grassy dunes, the grey-green marshes
and the silence of the north
(a far-off bird, a summer insect,
breaking waves upon a distant beach: a lamb calling).

Catch a plane! Go home! they said. A plane?
I’d need a time machine.





SISTERHOOD OF DUNE by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

29 09 2013

Sisterhood coverA friend of mine was reading this the other day and of course I grabbed it – well, I let her finish reading it first – because I saw at once that not only was it a new Dune story I hadn’t come across before but that it appeared to fill the last great gap in the Dune prequel sequence: the gap between the three “Legends of Dune” books (The Butlerian Jihad, The Machine Crusade and The Battle of Corrin) and the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy (House Atreides, House Harkonnen and House Corrino): how did the situation at the end of The Battle of Corrin give rise to the very different situation which marks the opening of House Atreides?

This book, Sisterhood of Dune, goes halfway to answering the question. Don’t be put off by that. It is another great story (or rather cluster of stories) and essential reading for all those Dune addicts who, like me, can’t get enough of it. There is a whole new cast of authentic Dune universe characters, most of whom you either love or hate and several I identified with immediately; but, as I say, while it does show in exquisite detail how things developed following the defeat of Erasmus and Omnius and the “thinking machines”, it does not bring us anywhere near knowing how Baron Vladimir Harkonnen came to hold Arrakis and Duke Paulus Atreides, father of Leto and grandfather of Paul, came to be the ruler of Caladan. And, despite the title, the Sisterhood never go anywhere near nor indeed do they seem to have any connection (yet) with the desert world known as Arrakis or Dune.

Sisterhood of Dune

Apparently a new book is due out in March 2014, provisionally entitled “Mentats of Dune”. Please, let that be the direct sequel to Sisterhood of Dune. I’ve never been one for fan-fiction, but if it isn’t, I shall start writing that sequel myself!





Half-a-Dozen from among the Kindle Frees

21 08 2013

Half a Dozen recommended ebooks selected from among the many I have downloaded FREE from Amazon Kindle.

I often download free books from Amazon these days. (I am sent a list every day of books which are on offer.) However, I read very few of them right through to the end. What I think of as the illiterate ones I delete from my Kindle Reader after the first few lines. (I say illiterate rather than unedited because I know many of these books have come straight from the hands of the author to the Kindle download lists, but anyone claiming to be an author should be literate, should be able to edit his or her own work.) If I get past those first few lines, the story has to grab me. Then it has to hold me. Many of these writers start well, then become careless or boring. However, there are always a few gems. Here are some I really enjoyed and that you can safely download.

Kindle11. BY UNKNOWN MEANS

Doug Giacobbe

High adventure around Nassau, fast moving with great characterisation. James Bond country, but here only the bad guy is British.

The good guys are US Customs officers and officers of the US Navy. The bad guys, drug-smugglers. And the hero himself, fired from the Customs Service for being over-zealous in the pursuit of his duty, and not being one to give up, continues that pursuit in his own boat until he gets both the bad guy and the beautiful undercover agent who is posing as the bad guy’s amazon bodyguard. Great stuff.

Kindle22. OMEGA DOG

James Rush

Another fast-moving adventure set in the States. A hitman is targeting a group of apparently unrelated people, among them Beth, a conscientious young doctor. And the only person she trusts to protect her is ex-marine, ex-cop, Joseph Venn, the very man the police believe to be the hired assassin.

But Venn is working secretly for someone in the highest echelons of the American government …

Kindle4Kindle33. TIME OF DEATH

and

4. THE PEEPER

both by Ellis Vidler

Time of Death features the McGuire Women, a family of psychics. Alex, the youngest of them, is being targeted by a killer, either because of something she saw, or because of something she didn’t see except with her mind’s eye, for Alex is an artist and sometimes she finds herself producing automatic drawing (like automatic writing) depicting scenes of pain and death.

The other book, The Peeper, you simply must read. The Peeping Tom turns out to be – no, I’m not going to tell you. Let’s just say that in this book Ellis Vidler turns all our prejudices on their head.

Kindle55. THE FERAL SPY

Joyce Weaver

Very British, this one. A dotty old lady is arrested for shop-lifting. It transpires that she and her companion are living in dire poverty – and I mean starvation and exposure – in the derelict ruin of what was once the stately home belonging to her family. But how did they come to be in this state? And who – and what – were they, once, before most of these patronising young people were born?

Kindle66. THE MIST ON BRONTË MOOR

Aviva Orr

A time-slip story which turns into a truly fascinating glimpse of life at Haworth on the Yorkshire Moors when the Brontës were teenagers. You really feel you are there with Heather Jane Bell, the unhappy 21st-century girl who suddenly finds herself in a weird other world.  And the two she gets on best with are Emily, who befriends her, and Patrick Branwell, with whom she falls in love.

She had never heard of the Brontës, so it is not a form of wish-fulfilment.

(Look at that name, and don’t tell me time-travellers can’t affect the time they visit! But she doesn’t manage to save poor Patrick from himself …)








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