A British Sci-Fi master, Alastair Reynolds has produced another awe-inspiring epic tale. Loosely connected to the author’s earlier Poseidon’s Children, his latest work reads as a stand-alone novel. On The Steel Breeze intertwines two stories, set light years apart and is crafted with consummate skill, resulting in a brilliant hard sci-fi novel.
An epic vision of our journey into deep space.
Hundreds of years from now mankind will finally inherit the stars. A fleet of holoships is heading towards the nearest habitable planet at 15% the speed of light. In massive asteroids turned into ships, tens of millions of people are heading towards a new home. A home that bears signs of an ancient alien civilisation.
No-one knows what they will find when they get there in 90 years. But the main problem is that the ships will have to break the laws of physics to be able to stop. And the research into ways to stop risk the ships themselves. Has mankind squandered the utopia of years past?
A mutilated body in Crawley. Another killer on the loose. The prime suspect is one Robert Weil; an associate of the twisted magician known as the Faceless Man? Or just a common or garden serial killer?
Before PC Peter Grant can get his head round the case a town planner going under a tube train and a stolen grimoire are adding to his case-load.
So far so London.
But then Peter gets word of something very odd happening in Elephant and Castle, on an housing estate designed by a nutter, built by charlatans and inhabited by the truly desperate.
Is there a connection?
And if there is, why oh why did it have to be South of the River?
Released today, Ben Aaronovitch’s latest offering, Broken Homes, continues in the same rich vein of his brilliant supernatural crime series. Writing about his native London, Aaronovitch has crafted a novel that renders the city in a very different light.
Peter Higgins debut novel is a fascinating blend of detective novel, alternate history, sci-fi and fantasy and he kindly took the time to answer a few questions about his work.
Could you explain a little bit about Wolfhound Century to those who haven’t yet read the book?
It’s a thriller set in a world that draws heavily on early 20th century Russia and central Europe: there are marching crowds, modernist artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries, a continental war, state police that murder their own citizens. A lot of the action takes place in a city that resembles St Petersburg in that period, though with elements from places like Berlin, Prague and Vienna as well. But it’s also a world of giants and sentient rain and immense alien creatures that fall from the sky.
This is your debut novel, what has the process been like getting here?
I started out writing short stories for science fiction and fantasy magazines. At the back of my mind, though, I was itching to write novels. I thought, and still think, that a really brilliant science fiction or fantasy short story is one of the absolute genre pinnacles, but I found I was doing more and more background research for my stories, and it began to feel that 5000 words just wasn’t enough for the kind of thing I wanted to do. So when I got a story accepted in Asimov’s Science Fiction, I decided it was time to take the plunge and have a go at a novel. It was a big step into the dark – I took eighteen months off work to concentrate on writing full time – and ended up with Wolfhound Century.
Your novel takes place in an amazing setting – what drew you to this idea of an alternative Russia?
I’m a child of the Cold War. From an early age I absorbed a sense of Russia as a deep and mysterious, dangerous and inaccessible Other Place. There was the nuclear threat and the massed tanks on the frontier and espionage and all that, but there was also another side of Russia that was everywhere and very visible at the time. The way I remember it, books by writers like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak were very prominent in bookshops and libraries. I became aware of Russian music, Russian art, the huge role the USSR played in defeating Hitler. There was a feeling, which I internalized almost unconsciously, that Russia was a place where everything was heightened: art, literature, revolution, war, grinding oppression, bureaucracy. Russia mattered. It also had the dark scary glamour of inaccessibility: Russia at that time was on the other side of a frontier, through the looking glass, reachable only through story and imagination, without any of the prosaic dullness of the abroad that you could actually go to on family holidays or school trips.
As it happened, though, I didn’t start with the intention of writing about Russia at all. I was working on a story with a northern, forested setting: wide plains of grass and tundra, wintry Baltic shores, giants and trolls, and I was thinking about the Teutonic Knights and the Northern Crusade. But it was only when it struck me that this was also the place of the Russian revolution and the Eastern Front that the whole thing exploded into life for me: I felt I’d touched on a much deeper vein of emotional and thematic importance. And I realized I could write it as a thriller, and I was away …
You seem to have settled your narrative in a time where modernism and ‘the modern’ was the future (and ruled by the Russian Futurists), a time that is now antiquated – what attracted you to using that time frame?
There was a huge excitement in that period – roughly, the first couple of decades of the 20th Century – particularly in Europe, I think, when it seemed like everything, absolutely everything, could be different. There was a feeling that all the old certainties were all wrong, the past could be jettisoned, and humanity was going somewhere new. There was new technology, new art, new literature, new forms of thought. Freud. Revolutionary communism. Non-Newtonian physics. Atonality in music. Non-Euclidean geometry in architecture. There were attempts to develop forms of art and politics that would dissolve and escape from national boundaries. Practical ideas for space flight began to emerge. Anything and everything was possible. It was an utterly astonishing period of creativity, absolutely teeming with possible futures.
In Wolfhound Century I’ve tried to catch the atmosphere of that modernist explosion of possibilities and set it in the context of the other side of those times: the oppressive surveillance regimes, the human suffering of that dark history. The book itself sometimes makes use of modernist techniques of writing – twisted, skewed fragments of allusion and bits of poetry and popular culture, sliding between genres, and so on. It’s a way of getting at one of the themes of that period, the struggle between the full potential of human perception and breadth of consciousness on the one hand, and on the other the attempts of a totalitarian state to impose uniformity of thought and compliance with collective norms: the clash between an autonomous ‘I’ and an oppressive ‘We’.
The novel features an interesting blend of fantasy and alternative history, reinterpreting the sci-fi elements in the story as pseudo-religious theories – how did this unique blend come about?
I’ve mentioned the way the early 20th century absolutely seethed with possible alternate futures. When we look back on that period now, our view is very much coloured by our knowledge of what came afterwards: catastrophic wars; oppressive governments exterminating their own citizens by the million. And those totalitarian states (of whatever ideology) clothed themselves with the pseudo-religious rhetoric of historical inevitability and eternal permanence.
But I feel it’s really important to remember that what actually happened in the 1930s and 1940s – Stalin, Hitler – wasn’t inevitable, any more than it was permanent. It could easily, even accidentally, have been otherwise. Wolfhound Century aims to recover that sense of undecideness, of many possibilities still in play, the flux and struggle between different potential futures. You look at the bleak lives of the workers, the struggles of the dissident artists, the dispossessed former aristocrats, the excluded minorities, and you feel that their lives are probably only going to get worse. But not necessarily. The totalitarian state is powerful, but it’s not all powerful. The dead hand of history is not – quite – inevitable. There are other forces at play.
So in a way, I guess, Wolfhound Century walks a line between alternate history and fantasy. If it is alternate history, it’s not the kind where the world is like ours except for one change, one divergence: it’s a world where much is different, and things exist which are shadows or impossibilities in our world. Some of what’s there is recognizable, and reflects or resonates with the historical, but I’m more interested in the ideas, the atmospheric details, the art and stories and struggles of the period, rather than familiar events or real geographies.
A number of your characters are fascinating, including Vissarion Lom, a hard-boiled detective type, yet one firmly entrenched in the religious/political framework of the story – did you set out to re-imagine the crime detective in a fantasy epic?
Yes. Absolutely. I really like the way you’ve put that. One of my biggest influences as a writer is Gene Wolfe, and in particular The Book of the New Sun. In my own mind there’s a connection between Gene Wolfe’s Severian, exile from the torturers guild, and Vissarion, exile from the state security police.
There’s an implication throughout Wolfhound Century that more is at stake in Lom’s struggle against the forces lined up against him than simply solving a crime or stopping a killer: it’s about reaching for an alternative future, even if it’s a future you can only glimpse and you’re not sure how real it is or how to get there. The overall conception is that Wolfhound Century is the first part of a three-part series, and if you dig below the surface there’s a quest-story structure. Each book will be a thriller in its own right, but overall they build into one story arc that owes a lot to the fantasy trilogy tradition: though it isn’t a structure limited to fantasy and sci-fi, le Carré’s Karla trilogy is in there somewhere too.
There also seems to be a clash between the sci-fi, space-faring (evil) elements and the fantasy, nature (good) elements in the novel – without giving too much away, what is the sub-text here?
Wow, that’s a great question!
It’s always struck me that the sudden emergence of extreme totalitarian regimes like the Nazis, the Fascists and the full-on cult of Stalin was – apart from anything else you could say about them – very weird. The absolutism, the blind devotion and passive fear, the stark and unmistakeable imagery, the way they turned people from individuals into particles in a mass, the transformation of cruelty into a kind of oblivious managerial efficiency: underneath the awfulness, it’s also very odd. Really quite alien. These systems seem to have come from nowhere, emerged fully formed as a radically new way of organising people and society, and then – with equal suddenness – just disappeared again.
This sense of weirdness and alienness has always been part of the image of Nazism – the associations with occultism, the idea they were inventing flying saucers and super-weapons, and so on – and in very different forms it also turns up in responses to Lenin and Stalin: say, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or the sleek dehumanising visuals of some Constructivist and Suprematist art.
In Wolfhound Century I’ve used sci-fi tropes and images to catch that feeling of weirdness and alienness – wrongness, queasiness, out-of-scale-ness – about the regime in power. And in writing about the things that totalitarian and collectivist ideologies suppress and exclude – the full range of emotions and sympathetic perceptiveness, the richness and mythic quality of the unconscious, the ability to notice and value the natural world and what’s at the margins of perception – I’ve tended to edge more into fantasy.
In the end, though, I wouldn’t actually say that Wolfhound Century enacts a conflict between sci-fi and fantasy. I wouldn’t want to separate out the strands that neatly, either in my book or in the genre(s) more generally. For one thing, you can find mythic perceptiveness and concern with the magical boundaries of consciousness in the core science fiction tradition – say, Ray Bradbury, or the first Star Wars trilogy – and there’s plenty of core fantasy that doesn’t have it at all.
Hannu Rajaniemi praised you for your style and language and you also begin your novel with a quote from the poet Osip Mandelstam – has poetry had an influence on your work and, if so , how?
That’s another great question! Yes, poetry’s a big beast out there in the undergrowth when I’m writing. Apart from Russian writers like Mandelstam, Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, and German poets like Rilke and Brecht, who are pretty direct presences in Wolfhound Century, I’ve been very much influenced by, for example, Ted Hughes and T S Eliot, and above all Peter Redgrove (particularly The Wedding At Nether Powers and Doctor Faust’s Sea-Spiral Spirit, and his prose book about consciousness, The Black Goddess). There’s also a thread of what might be called ‘intense prose’: the kind of exact, intense writing I love in writers like Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter. I owe a big debt to them. Dickens, too, in some of his darker, more intense passages, like the opening of Bleak House.
I’ve tried to make Wolfhound Century as linguistically alive, interesting and adventurous as I can. I see that as part of what’s possible in fiction, part of the range of ways of writing, part of the ground to cover. It’s more than just linguistic: it’s about intense, direct, complex perception, and pushing language into fresh territory to get at that. Thematically, it’s the opposite of the collective cultural norms the dictators sought to impose.
It’s important to Wolfhound Century, though, that the style doesn’t overwhelm the story. The poetic register is part of what’s available, but it’s not the only colour on the palate. I haven’t talked about thrillers much in this interview, but I’ve tried to make the style and language as good as I can within that genre, too. Wolfhound Century is also in a tradition that would include John Buchan and Graham Greene, as well as later books like Fatherland, Gorky Park and First Blood. I love the way an excellent thriller takes you straight into the story and keeps you gripped there, racing along. The most important thing about each paragraph is that it makes you want to read the next one.
The novel ends with a few storylines left unanswered, can we expect a sequel?
For sure. The next part of the trilogy, Truth and Fear, is coming out early in 2014.
Gavin Smith’s work has garnered some astounding and well deserved praise and he is fast becoming a big name in Sci-Fi. His stand-alone novel, The Age of Scorpio, continues to prove just how imaginative and thrilling a writer he is in this fast-paced epic novel.
Of all the captains based out of Arclight only Eldon Sloper was desperate enough to agree to a salvage job in Red Space. And now he and his crew are living to regret his desperation.
In Red Space the rules are different. Some things work, others don’t. Best to stick close to the Church beacons. Don’t get lost.
Because there’s something wrong about Red Space. Something beyond rational. Something vampyric . . .
Long after The Loss mankind is different. We touch the world via neunonics. We are machines, we are animals, we are hybrids. But some things never change. A Killer is paid to kill, a Thief will steal countless lives. A Clone will find insanity, an Innocent a new horror. The Church knows we have kept our sins.
A thrilling fantasy epic packed full of action, humour and intriguing characters, Gateway of the Saviours continues to prove A.J. Dalton’s worth as one of fantasy’s top authors.
The first battle against the Saviours has been won – but a greater enemy awaits.
Jillan and his companions have won the battle of Godsend, and an uneasy peace has settled on their remote corner of the Empire. But the Saviours cannot allow such resistance to go unpunished, and embark on a series of punitive assaults on the few who have rejected their reign. With his friends scattered and his reason for fighting taken away from him, Jillan is faced with new and terrible decisions to make.
Tasked by the God of Mayhem to find the location of Haven, the source of all power in the world, Jillan embarks on a new journey, terrifingly aware that he leaves his hometown undefended. Unsure of his fellow travellers, barely in control of his magic, tied to a destiny he is only beginning to understand, things have never seemed bleaker.
And in another realm, at another time, on another planet, the Declension watch. Their servants, the Saviours, have failed. The God of Mayhem is loose. A young boy with remarkable powers is on his way to Haven, where he may find a way to destroy them. A renegade member of their race is rampaging through their realms.
Everything is going to plan.
Elves: Beyond the Mists of Katura by James Barclay
Author of a number of epic fantasy sagas, James Barclay has created another riveting series with his Elves trilogy. In the final installment, will peace prevail or will hatred be allowed to win?
Thousands of years ago the elves were enslaved by the Wytch Lords. Murdered in their thousands, worked to death in slave gangs and divided against themselves, the wounds inflicted by man run deep – and elves have very long memories. Two of them – Auum and Takaar – led the rise against their enslavers, and united their people against men in order to free their nation. Now Calaius is at peace…but that doesn’t mean their nation is safe.
Men need their help.
The Wytch Lords have rallied, men’s magic has grown more powerful, and their politics have become altogether more dangerous. Especially now: one of the mages has created a spell, called Dawnthief, which has the potential to destroy all living things on the planet. All four magical colleges are fighting to seize it and, in the background, the Wytch Lords have schemes of their own. Schemes which involve crushing the elven nation for good. Whoever seizes the spell, it places the elves in tremendous danger. But can Auum and Takaar overcome their differences and work together to save Calaius? And even if they can, is it not already too late…?
Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin
First published 25 years ago, Tuf Voyaging is a sci-fi mash-up that deals with ecological issues whilst keeping its tongue firmly in its cheek. Available once again in the UK, this is a classic and well worth the read.
Haviland Tuf is an honest space-trader (one of the few), and he likes cats. So how is it that, despite being up against the worst villains in the universe, he has become the proud owner of the last working seedship, pride of Earth’s Ecological Engineering Corps?
We’ll leave that aside for now – just be thankful that the most powerful weapon in space is in good hands, hands which now control cellular material for thousands of outlandish creatures.
With his unique equipment and powerful spacecraft, Tuf is set to tackle the myriad problems that human settlers have created during their colonisation of far flung worlds. Hosts of hostile monsters, a population addicted to procreation, a dictator who is willing to unleash plagues to get his own way – and all that stands between the colonists and disaster is Tuf’s ingenuity, and his reputation as an honest dealer in a universe of rogues…
A wonderfully crafted novel from one of Sci-Fi’s longstanding authors, Mann has produced a cast of characters and a world of brilliantly imaginative proportions in this ecological, hard SF thriller.
Something has gone wrong on the planet of Paradise.
The human settlers – farmers and scientists – are finding that their crops won’t grow and their lives are becoming more and more dangerous. The indigenous plant life – never entirely safe – is changing in unpredictable ways, and the imported plantings wither and die. And so the order is given – Paradise will be abandoned. All personnel will be removed and reassigned. And all human presence on the planet will be disestablished.
Not all agree with the decision. There are some who believe that Paradise has more to offer the human race. That the planet is not finished with the intruders, and that the risks of staying are outweighed by the possible rewards. And so the leader of the research team and one of the demolition workers set off on a journey across the planet. Along the way they will encounter the last of the near-mythical Dendron, the vicious Reapers and the deadly Tattersall Weeds as they embark on an adventure which will bring them closer to nature, to each other and, eventually, to Paradise.
In the debut novel DREAMS AND SHADOWS, screenwriter and noted film critic C. Robert Cargill takes us beyond the veil, through the lives of Ewan and Colby, young men whose spirits have been enmeshed with the otherworld from a young age.
In one rehearsed motion, he swapped the contents of his bag for the child in the crib. Then he was off, vaulting over the balcony, soaring blindly out into the night below without pausing to admire his own handiwork.
Dithers sailed seventeen stories down, his outstretched arm catching the trunk of a tree, swinging him, spiralling around, leaving a candy-cane stratch in the bark.
Described as part Neil Gaiman, part Guillermo Del Torro, part William Burroughs the novel follows the boys from their star-crossed adolescences to their haunted adulthoods. Cargill’s tour-de-force takes us inside the Limestone Kingdom, a parallel universe where whisky-swilling genies and foul-mouthed wizards argue over the state of the metaphysical realm. Having left the spirit world and returned to the human world, Ewan and Colby discover that the creatures from this previous life have not forgotten them, and that fate can never be sidestepped.
Cargill has created a supernatural culture that all too eerily resembles our own. Set in a richly imagined and constructed world, complete with its own richly detailed history and mythology, DREAMS AND SHADOWS is a deeply engaging story about two extraordinary boys becoming men.