Monsters are always lonely

gardens of the sunGardens of the Sun
by Paul McAuley

This is a sequel to The Quiet War, a space opera that Tim encouraged me to read last summer. Then a few months later he started bugging me to read the sequel, so he could discuss the pair without accidentally spoiling the plot for me, because he couldn’t entirely remember which events happened in which book! It’s actually a trilogy, but neither of us has read part three yet. My review does contain spoilers for The Quiet War, because this book is very much an immediate continuation of events in that book.

I actually preferred this to the first book, as I felt the politics and philosophical debates were more varied, with more views and nuances depicted. Naturally the themes are largely the same: genetic modification; human responsibility for our planet and our fellow man; the endless possibilities of science and whether we should always pursue every avenue; diplomacy; whether good and evil are inherent or a product of circumstances and therefore variable; freedom; love, family and parenting. Just a few small things then!

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Summer reads in brief

Well, it’s sure not summer anymore, but in my defence it still felt like summer until last week when I finished the last of these books, so I figure that counts!

The Quiet War

The Quiet War
by Paul McAuley

I’d been intending for a while to read one of McAuley’s novels, having really liked short stories of his I had come across, and this was Tim’s recommendation. It’s a book about war, and the politics leading up to war, which isn’t my favourite subject matter, but I tried to put that to one side. The book is set in a future post global warming with human settlements throughout the solar system. These “Outers” make surgical changes to themselves to suit the very different environments in which they live and are also supporters of science for science’s sake. The Earthlings, meanwhile, have turned to science to regenerate their planet but heavily restrict the science that can be done. There is ongoing tension that many believe is inevitably going to become war. War is prodded along by surreptitious activities on both sides. Chapters alternate between following various key characters in this space opera, though the reasons why they are key is clearer in some cases than others. There are beautiful descriptions of moving through space – McAuley manages to combine poetic language with scientific accuracy (or believability in the case of science/tech we don’t currently have). I loved the characters, even those who were thoroughly nasty. However, I did find the gradual build-up of political tensions in the first half of the book a little too slow.

“Jupiter’s fat disc dominated the black sky. Stars were flung with careless extravagance everywhere else, thousands of them, hard untwinkling lights of every colour.”

Published 2008 by Gollancz.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

by Tim Maughan

I picked up this book about a thousand years ago at BristolCon, where I bought it from the author after hearing him speak in one of the sessions and thinking he sounded interesting. It was a good call and this is by some way the best self-published work I’ve yet read. It’s made up of three linked short stories set in a future where virtual reality software and gaming are the centre of the economy. Not being much of a gamer myself, this isn’t an obvious appeal for me but I found it really enjoyable. Maughan paints a believable but very different vision of the future. The book starts in Bristol, very much rooted in the local graffiti culture, and works outward from there.

“He skulked around the city in the early hours, darting under robotic surveillance cameras with a ninja-like bandanna over his face and a clanking knapsack full of car-repair spray cans on his back, his hands stained with multicoloured rainbows.”

Published 2011 by Tim Maughan Books.

Source: Bought direct from the author at BristolCon.

Improper Stories
by Saki

This collection of short stories are both separate and linked, as there are some recurring characters and clear recurring themes. They’re comic pieces set in upper class England in the very early 20th century and are very much comedy of manners a la P G Wodehouse or Dorothy Parker. The action tends to be slight; really it’s all about the drawing room conversations, about the character who shocks or outwits the rest. The opening story is about two children on a train whose governess is trying and failing to entertain them with moral tales. A stranger in their carriage shuts them up with a silly and morally outrageous tale, delighting the children and shocking the governess. That’s the whole story, and a typical example. I found them very funny to begin with but to be honest, the same joke over and over wore a little thin, even spacing out reading them to one or two per week.

“Her letter of thanks for the gift of a tiger-claw brooch was a model of repressed emotions. The luncheon-party she declined; there are limits beyond which repressed emotions become dangerous.”

Originally published between 1904 and 1914.
This collection published 2010 by Daunt Books.

Source: Amazon.

Little Friday review

Little Lost Robot
by Paul McAuley

This is actually a short story, not a novel, that Tim had been trying to get me to read for some time. It was first published in Interzone, which has been home to some excellent science fiction, so I finally gave it a go.

The story begins impersonally, describing the “superbad big space robot” as it travels through the universe, fulfilling its killing mission. Gradually it becomes more and more personal. The machine has four “subselves”, programs I suppose, that run it together, in collaboration. They repair damage, formulate tactics, arm weapons and discuss their next move. Over time the robot has taken a lot of damage, including to its memory, and this is where it gets interesting.

It’s such a short story that I’d rather not give away much more than that. I found myself a little doubtful that I would like the story at first. It was a robot at war, described distantly and with reverence. But the story slowly zeroes in on the robot’s Librarian subself, imbuing it with something approximating personality, self-doubt, humanity even. It’s a very cleverly written and structured piece and toward the end I definitely felt warmth for this cold space warrior.

It probably helps, reading this, to have some familiarity with computing terminology. The robot uses a combination of strictly mechanistic terms (time periods in teraseconds, rather than being broken down into years) and oddly human terms (anger, loneliness, tenderness).

The story wasn’t what I expected. The title suggested to me something cute and sweet, maybe Wall-E-like and, though there are similarities, that’s not what this is. This is the super-efficient soldier slowly revealing his inner humanity and it’s definitely touching, but it’s not cute.

Published 2008 in Interzone 217. You can read it here or listen to it here.

Nominated for the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction 2008.