Solaris was first published in 1961. It is older than most of its readers, but the story has not aged in the least. It is perhaps because it doesn’t rely on trickery, gadgets and mimicry. Its concept is utterly original and reaches beyond the confines of its sci-fi genre. A psychologist, Kris Kelvin arrives at the space station on the planet of Solaris shortly after one of the scientists based there takes his own life. Immediately upon his arrival, strange things begin to happen. He sees a naked, athletic black woman who cannot possibly be there. Soon, Rheya, his long gone lover, makes an appearance, and will not leave his side. She too cannot be real but all his senses, and his memories, tell him that she is. Two other resident-scientists experience similar … hallucinations? encounters? relationships? It’s difficult to define. This “resurrection” of the long-dead lovers can only be attributed to the planet of Solaris, and more specifically to the ocean that inhabits it. The ocean covers the entire surface of the planet. It appears to be a living, organic form which has evolved to such an extent that it is capable of thinking, creating, understanding and probably penetrating into man’s mind to retrieve his memories and to use them to recreate people from his past. This doesn’t seem entirely innocent – it may be that those “visitors” are spies or even assassins, although they claim to be benign and act innocently enough. They cannot be killed or sent away – they keep coming back. And more importantly their personalities evolve and they are able to form genuine relationships with “their” humans. “Solaris” explores not only the depths of the universe and the diversity of matter/creation, but even more intriguingly the depths of human mind, its secrets, memories and its self-awareness. The book is about the new and unexplored frontiers, our soul being the most remote and the hardest to comprehend. Brilliant, intelligent book!
The Book of Sand starts as a story of two worlds – almost two different dimensions. There is the desert with shifting sands and dunes that are capable of burying whole cities; the nights are haunted by monstrous, blood-thirsty beings who are neither dead nor alive and who don’t seem to have a stable physical form. In that world a group of strangers is thrown together by fate or rather by mysterious design. The group – referred to as Family – travels by day in search of Sarkpont (a holy grail that has the power to end their apocalyptic desert trek). By night they cower in their shuck which is detached and suspended in mid-air to protect them against night-time perils. Spider, possibly of French heritage but that is only implied, is the focal character. We see the Family’s endeavours through his eyes.
In parallel to the desert world, there is the contemporary world of a teenage girl called McKenzie, a science geek, fascinated with sand and desert ,who one day wakes up to find a lizard in her bed. Her world, though seemingly safe and ordinary, begins to undergo a strange transformation. Others can’t see what she is seeing and soon her mental health comes into question.
You know that in time the two worlds will collide or merge in some way. The story leads that way. I found McKenzie’s story unremarkable at first, but soon it absorbed me and at some point took over from the fantastical world of the desert. Although you will have six hundred pages to plough through, this book is worth persevering with. Your time will be well invested.
The Book of Sand is a reflective and mesmerising tale set in a dystopian reality which tests man’s resilience. It is about interdependence and commonality of purpose. It is about togetherness and the intrinsic value each of us represents. All in all, it is an exquisite and thought-provoking story. The ending will take you deep inside yourself, into your past and even your beginning.
The End of Men was already on my kindle (courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley) when I heard an interview with the author on Radio 4. In that interview Christina Sweeney-Baird mentioned that she had made references to The Power when submitting her manuscript. I was disappointed. I didn’t want another book about the male-female reversal of fortunes and about power corrupting women in the same way as it would men. I didn’t want another book where the pronoun he/him would be replaced with she/her. I almost didn’t read The End of Men.
I am so glad that I put aside my reservations and dug into it! Apart from the common denominator of men becoming vulnerable and women holding the balance of survival (and ensuing power) in their hands, The End of Men is nothing like Power. It is incomparably better, in my opinion.
There is subtlety and many different layers of emotions here as Sweeny-Baird explores a world where the male population becomes decimated (literally to the tenth of its original number) and women have to take over the reins. No cheap gloating, primitive vengeance or abuse of power ever enters the page. When the virus attacks their men, women go through what any human being of any gender would: initial disbelief transforms into an instinct of preservation and protectiveness, loss brings on immeasurable grief, the disintegration of the world inspires action, resourcefulness, survival and regeneration. Many women (and one man) narrate/are the protagonists in this book and each of them tells her (or his) own unique story of metamorphosis. The story of Amanda (the doctor who first discovered the virus and identified Patient Zero) and Catherine (the anthropologist who after an unsuccessful attempt at escaping and saving her loved ones, begins to research and record the events and their impact on individual lives) are the two leading threads. But there are many more characters, each with their own reactions to the challenge of the pandemic. There are personal, deeply intimate stories, but also wider events on a larger, geo-political scale tacked in this book. The book reads in places like a factual account – a dramatized real -life occurrence.
The End of Men rings true. Although it is a work of fiction, it touches on the subject of pandemic that changes the world and the traditional male-female roles beyond recognition. As we have all just gone through a life- and society-transforming pandemic, it is easy to believe in this tale and the possibilities it contemplates. But it isn’t just about the pandemic. After WWII in which many men died, women had to take charge of their families, communities, and the future of the world. Women took on new “masculine” careers. This sort of a challenge to the established traditional values of our society is not new. Sweeney-Baird treats it with great sensitivity and insight.
Eighteen-year-old Essie Glass lives in not so distant future, only fifteen years from now, but it is a world transformed by ecological, political and societal breakdown. A couple of years ago her family were killed in a terrorist attack. Essie’s fresh-faced image and her grief were hijacked by right-wing propagandists blaming immigrants and liberals for the atrocity. Two years later, Essie regains control over her beliefs and her direction in life. She joins anti-establishment rebels going by the name Change Here. An environmentally-friendly energy-generating invention falls into their lap. It is an invention that could stall or even reverse the progress of climate change, but forces more powerful and influential than Change Here stand in the way of saving the planet. Short term commercial and political considerations seem to matter more that the survival of humanity. But Essie and her co-conspirators are not easily deterred. Cook has created an assembly of wonderful characters. I loved the way she mapped out Essie’s emotional growth in response to rapid plot developments. I enjoyed Essie’s feistiness and determination, and I rooted for her all the way.
The setting for the story is convincing and disturbingly plausible. Climate change creeps into everyday life and into the landscape. The rise of the authoritarian police state with its corruption, false propaganda and open disregard for basic human rights is shown without exaggeration or hysteria – it is what it is because we have made it possible. But there is also hope and redemption in this story. It is more of a warning than final reckoning.
I had to double-check the date this book was first published. It was in 2017. Already then, the author had the insight of what it may be like when a pandemic strikes: the origins of the virus, the so-called “Bat Fever”, the vaccinations, the quarantine, the panic, the unrest, the control measures, the lies, the whole world falling apart. Tyler’s projections in “Tipping Point” are spot-on! And they will send a cold chill down your spine.
I was swept in the currents of the unfolding catastrophe, following Vicky and Lottie’s escape from the quarantined town of Shipden, their precarious journey to the safe house and Vicky’s desperate search for her partner, Dex. He and other activists belonging to a group called Unicorn have uncovered a sinister plot underpinning the outbreak, thus putting themselves directly in harm’s way.
There are many interlinked threads and subplots in this story with both very personal and intimate themes as well as broader social and political observations. Those are deeply unsettling, firstly because of how probable and imminent they appear to be; and secondly, because of Tyler’s nuanced and realistic characterisation. Every character is astutely observed and so real that I found instant affinity with them. I could easily picture myself in their shoes, experience their fears and think their thoughts.
“Tipping Point” is a crushingly prophetic tale of societal degradation on the one hand and the power of human spirit on the other.
This book is about the First Contact, but not as we know it. I was fascinated by how this concept evolved in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It starts with Kira, a xenobiologist exploring an uncolonized planet, discovering mysterious dust which soon envelops her in a form of an invasive exoskeleton. It is undeniably intelligent but it is also a parasite that uses Kira’s body to come into being and to transport itself. It is able to defend itself against any attempts to examine or destroy it. It can be lethal. In an apparent act of self-defence it kills Kira’s fiancé and her several friends. To start with, this organism appears violent and hostile, and Kira is trapped within it. It can even penetrate her mind and she, in turn, experiences its memories and emotions. Soon the relationship between them begins to transform into something more symbiotic. It isn’t just that Kira has to get used to the creature controlling her. It is also that the creature protects and guides her. This theme of a transforming and transformative relationship between a human and an alien is wonderfully conveyed through characterisation and plot developments.
Another great asset in this book is the prose: it can be fast and action-packed, pacey and dramatic, but it is also lyrical and introspective. A whole universe has been created outside and inside Kira’s fusion with Soft Blade (the alien’s name). This story is a space odyssey both on a macro- and micro scale. The science behind it seems wonderfully real and even though I didn’t follow all of it, it felt credible.
However, there are some disappointments. The story is way too long and too windy. Half of it would be equally effective. I must confess to skipping many sections in the middle as I found them tedious and superfluous. Although the book is classified as sci-fi for adults, I could not shake the impression that it was written with a young reader in mind. The description of Kira’s romantic relationship at the start of the book was too safe, too sugar-coated and too infantile for my liking. The Jellies (hostile aliens) were also a bit cartoonish and stereotypical in their appearance and disposition. Having said that, this is a sci-fi book and it fits well within its genre.
You will need a lot of time to truly be able to indulge in this book and immerse yourself in it, but it will be time well spent.
You open this book and you find yourself in a world that is bizarrely familiar yet utterly outlandish. It feels like the second coming of Animal Farm. Animals (particularly rabbits) are on a collision course with humans, and if you have a shred of humanity in you, you are on the side of the rabbit.
Fforde’s portrayal of our twenty-first century society is spot on. You recognise the characters, the events and the trends: UKARP, a right-wing party led by a PM going by the name of Nigel Smethwick, a TwoLegsGood movement of middle-class reactionaries, the entrenched perceptions of an “unbridled” rabbit infestation/invasion on the green shores of Britain. We are talking rabbits, the little furry animals native to these isles. They were here before us. They fully anthropomorphised in 1965 and continued to multiply in their usual rampant way. The more they started resembling humans the less acceptable and more inconvenient they became. They had to be separated from humans and ghettoised in a new MegaWarren in the depths of Wales.
This story is hilarious. The world Fforde has created (and based on our very reality) is astounding in its every detail, and it is funny because it is so relatable. There is pure observational comedy there that will leave you with a laugh-out-loud bellyache. But this story also hits a nerve. It is a satire about the decline of our society, the loss of what once was a clear moral compass but has now become a murky moral muddle, about the unrestrained rampage of bigotry and intolerance. And about good people caught in the middle of it, scared, suppressed, but hopefully still trying to do what’s right.
The Last Free City is a feast of political intrigue, cunning diplomacy, swordfights and assassinations, love, lust and betrayal – and that’s just for starters!
The story is set in one of the last independent city-republics on a peninsula torn between two expansive kingdoms, that of Emmen and Gammerling. This may be fantasy genre, but the settings have a strong historical flavour of Italy before unification. It’s evident in the names, the architecture and the social hierarchy of the city of Tarantanallos. So despite this being a fantasy novel, you will feel like you’ve travelled back in time. It somehow seems authentic and historically accurate. But there are also touches of sheer imaginary ingenuity by the author who has created a self-contained world in its own right, with its own currency, its law enforcement agency called the Consigli, its ruling elite of Specchio, modes of transport astride gallumphers, and time measured in pursuits and activities. Thus you have the Hour of Evening Repast, the Hour of Secret Deeds, the Hour of Noble Pleasures… And so time flies while you’re having fun doing all sorts good and bad things.
Lord Oricien arrives in Tarantanallos in order to secure the city’s submission to Emmen. Factions of influential elites are formed. Nobody can trust anybody. Fortunes are to be made and lost. Dravadan, one of the most powerful and brutal leaders of the city, works on the alliance and the furtherance of his own interests. His younger brother, Malvazan, nurses his resentments while at the same time polishing his fencing skills so that he can climb the greasy pole of influence despite being the second son. Todarko, a poet and skirt-chaser, tries to ignore politics and follow his heart even though it may lead him into the eye of the political storm. The characters are vibrant, complex and full of surprises. That includes the female characters. They are rich and diverse – from impetuous, through treacherous and manipulative to the most noble ones.
The story is written in elegant prose, full of witticism and laced with brisk, intelligent exchanges. The author attributes the inspiration for Todarko’s sonnets to Shakespeare. There is something distinctly Shakespearean in this story, and it isn’t just in the sonnets. It’s in the language, the vivacity, the settings and the elaborate plot. If you want to lose yourself in a world away from home (especially during lockdown), read this book.
Lorna, a self-confessed agnostic, steps in front of a car and dies. Whether it was an accident or suicide is subject to debate. Lorna wakes up in heaven, but it isn’t heaven in the conventional sense of the word: it is a malfunctioning spacecraft operated by aliens, God being one of them. I found Laidlaw’s concept of heaven fascinating and totally different from my own version of it in Paula Goes to Heaven. Laidlaw’s heaven is scientifically justifiable and would make good sense to many a rational disbeliever.
God, too, isn’t what we have come to expect him to be. He’s a tracksuit-wearing geyser, struggling with his command of the ship and of his crew, especially the irreverent, chain-smoking Irene. He is painted with many humorous touches of the paintbrush, as is his heavenly abode. But the tracksuit doesn’t detract from the fact that he is God: he saved man from self-obliteration by lending his own DNA to us and he keeps a watchful eye over how we progress on earth. He also works in mysterious ways as his reasons for choosing Lorna remain obscure.
Lorna’s life memories are regenerated in heaven: her working class family, her best friend, the flamboyant Suzie, her lovers and the challenging world at large she cared passionately about. She is learning about who she was in life. Laidlaw leads her to a full disclosure with a steady and assured hand.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead isn’t your average sci-fi book. It is much more than that. It is poignant and philosophical. It will make you think.