Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson

"A conspiracy of angels and puppies"

In honour of International Pixel-Stained Techno-Peasant's Day (which serves to remind people that there is an online marketplace for work, and publishing content for online rates, or even free, doesn't damage the market - it just makes it bigger) here are a handful of book reviews I wrote for SFX, way back when.

There’s a tradition in British science fiction of the cosy catastrophe. In these tales the world ends with a whimper, not a bang. With Kairos, James Tiptree award winner Gywneth Jones gives us her version of the great British disaster novel. Originally published in 1988, this is the 1995 rewrite of Jones’ third adult science fiction novel.

It’s the day after tomorrow, and Britain is dropping out of the first world into the third. Somewhere out there the Third World War is being fought, but no one really seems to care. The police are out of control, and the underclass are struggling to survive. BREAKTHRU, a right wing religious group, thinks it has the answer: a new drug, Kairos. Unlike most psychedelics this one can really change the world, rewriting reality through a miracle of quantum physics. Now, with Kairos, BREAKTHRU plans to rebuild the world in its own image. But too many different people have taken the drug, and the world is starting to fall apart at the seams.

In Jones’ home town of Brighton a group of drop outs and anarchists find themselves caught up in a conspiracy of angels and puppies. Otto Murray, her son Candide and her estranged lover Sandy Brize must each journey across a fractured England under a fractal sun, pursued by BREAKTHRU’s gilded apocalyptic children, seeking both each other and Candide’s kidnapped dog. Finally in an abandoned research laboratory near Coventry Sandy must confront the power of the Kairos she’s taken, and attempt to knit the tattered world back together again.

Kairos is one of those brave novels that transcends the boundaries between science fiction and mainstream. The science fiction reader can delight in the broken Britain as an obvious homage to Michael Moorcock’s seminal Jerry Cornelius tales and M. John Harrison’s The Committed Men, whilst the literature student can deconstruct Kairos as a guide to the mental geography of England after Thatcher. Jones’ novels are never easy reads, but her powerful prose and dramatic bleak landscapes mean that Kairos rewards the effort it demands.

The Bloody Red Baron

In February 1918 the fates of nations hung in the balance. The Allied powers faced Germany across a tattered no mans land, knowing that Russia had left the war, and now all Germany’s might was ready for the final push. But this isn’t the world we know, where flesh and blood died in the stinking mud. Here the quick and the undead will decide the fate of nations, man and vampire fighting alongside each other in the trenches, whilst a very bloody Red Baron rules the skies.

Kim Newman, Britain’s master of high weirdness, has embroidered his vampire tapestry once before with Anno Dracula, a tale of revolution and murder in a Victorian London where the Prince Consort just happens to be one Vlad Dracula. The Bloody Red Baron is a welcome return to this unusual alternate world (where historical characters mix with those lovingly stolen from popular fiction), 30 years on. After the revolution, Dracula has fled to Germany, and now wages war on his rationalist Western foes.

The key to victory may lie hidden in the Chateau du Malinbois, home of the fabled Richthofen Flying Circus. It is here that diabolical experiments have created something new and dangerous, something that is making mincemeat of the allied aces that make up the Condor Squadron - among them a certain Bigglesworth.

This is not your traditional alternate history, nor is it a pot-boiler vampire slasher. Newman seizes both genres firmly by the scruff of the neck, and bangs their heads together, to give us this thoroughly enjoyable romp. Each short chapter is folded around an exquisite vignette - Dr Moreau dissecting vampires in the trenches, Edgar Allen Poe allied with Franz Kafka against the might of the German bureaucracy, a vampire Winston Churchill drinking the blood of a Madeira-sozzled rabbit - a series of set pieces that build slowly into a climactic dawn patrol over the Western front.

The Bloody Red Baron is a thoroughly enjoyable read, a blood soaked page turner that keeps you laughing as you play spot the character with Kim Newman. “All Quiet On the Western Front” was never this much fun…


Raul Endymion is about to die - again. Sealed in an orbiting box, waiting for the quantum flicker that will kill him, he’s passing the time by telling us his story. It’s a tale of messiahs, of endless chases, of fallen worlds and a river that snakes across the stars. It’s also Dan Simmons’ long awaited sequel to the award winning Hyperion Cantos (a single novel published in two separate volumes: Hyperion and Fall Of Hyperion).

One of the defining SF novels of the late 80s, the Hyperion Cantos built itself on the foundations of Keats’ epic poetry, combining it with a twist of The Canterbury Tales and a leavening of space opera. A motley crew of pilgrims braved the barely tamed world of Hyperion, hoping to face the fabled Shrike, only to discover the AI-planned end of all things. Its two volumes ended with the fall of a star spanning civilisation - and the salvation of the human race. Five years later Simmons is ready to reveal what happened next.

It’s nearly three hundred years later, and it’s time for Raul’s first (unjust) execution. Saved at the last minute, he finds himself in turn about to save the messiah. But the messiah is an eleven year old girl, who’s not yet ready for the task, and the armies of a repressive neo-Catholic theocracy are waiting to manipulate her. Raul must help Aenea flee across the stars, and seek lost Old Earth along the star-hopping river Tethys. As they cross ocean, desert, forest and sea, they are pursued by a duty-bound soldier-priest trying hard not to doubt the necessity of his mission, yet ready to risk repeated deaths for his masters’ cause. Each new world brings Raul and Aenea closer to the truth behind the theocratic Pax, and Father-Captain De Soya closer to scepticism.

There’s an epic quality to Simmons’ prose that adds to Endymion’s simple chase plot. As we follow Aenea across the worlds, hints and clues help us realise that this is the stuff of myth and legend, where mortals are caught up in struggles between capricious gods. But this time the gods are of our own making, and Raul and Aenea might just be able to make a difference.

Endymion is full of enduring images: burning orbital forests, urbane starships, death on a duck hunt, a dying poet living out his last days in the ruins of his youthful dreams. Simmons’ evocative descriptions catch all the nuances of his chosen tomorrow. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, Simmons’ writes paragraphs that force you to re-read them again and again, until you’ve overdosed on some of the best writing in modern SF - this is a book to prove to the sceptic that the best science fiction is as good as the best mainstream works.

Like its predecessors Endymion is only part of a larger work. Four hundred pages of running away leave us on the threshold of discovery. We’re almost ready to tie the threads together, when we run out of book. Even so, the ending is right. Our heroes are safe, and Simmons is somewhere out there grinning, promising us more story, hinting at new adventures just round the corner. Like addicts we’ll be waiting for him to deliver. As long as it isn’t another 5 years…

These days I regularly have my journalism published online - you'll find all my pieces for The Guardian on their website, along with work at The Register and IT Pro.

It's probably interesting to note that online writing pays better than paper these days, at least for technology journalism. This is not a zero sum game - it's creating a market where there wasn't one before.

Anyway, enjoy.
Tags: reviews, sfx, writing
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