Speculative Fiction Reviews since 2012

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80 Days

In the last couple of days, I’ve been arrested in Berlin, kissed a man in New Orleans, joined a small Russian invasion force of India, been captured by pirates, cultists and mutineering sailors, and travelled around the world twice. 80 Days is a smartphone game developed by Inkle based on the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. As Passpartout, ever-loyal valet to Phineas Fogg, you must choose the destinations and methods of completing Fogg’s wager

The game plays out as a choose-your-own-adventure. Text scrolls along the the screen and you are given an option. There is no way of telling which option is better, will lead to what. Instead, you select your response and more text fills in. Maybe it is simply teasing the captain of the West Africa Squadron for his admiration of the Captain of the airship you are flying on, or perhaps it is helping a ‘toymaker’ in Northern India rebel against the British. Whatever the stakes, there is a story to be told – and as you are directly affected in the achieving, or not, of your goal, then you care.

The script is excellent. Passpartout – you – are sufficiently world-weary and bitter to be amusing, and yet hold absolute loyalty to your master. The world is a Steampunk one, with airships and mechanical elephants and voodoo birds, but nonetheless is fully realised. It holds to the late 18th Century attitudes, quietly judges them and invites you to join in.

There’s other parts to the game to – money is made buying and selling things in the market, there is a health costfor Fogg associated with travelling, but these are sideshows. I’m here for the story, and boy what a story. Over 500,000 words of script, random, every changing, always exciting, For a commute, 80 Days is perfect. For a couple of quid, you’d be stupid not to buy it.



Well, this morning was a slap in the face.

I mean, seriously, Robin Williams? He’s a bundle of fun, a ball if energy, always bouncing from place to place, always over the top, centre of attention, awkward and erudite and blessed with being funny.

Then I thought about it a bit more, about why this morning I didn’t want to get up, why I spent my morning watching clips of Aladdin and his stand up and laughing and the crying and the laughing again. Robin Williams has always reminded me of me. Yes I’m not funny, but the rest? Me.

It’s hard to admit publicly sometimes that you’re scared of yourself. I was going to post today about Nine Worlds, about how much fun I had. About how included I felt, about how proud I was to have helped, in my own small way. About Macarenas and Sharknados and people who make me smile.

I’ll save that for tomorrow.

Often, if you see me and I act the fool, if I bounce around and am overloud and I underthink – it’s an act. It’s not a conscious act, but it’s an act. I’m fucking terrified of how people perceive me. I know I’m naturally socially stupid at time – I have aspergers, at least mildly. So I play it up. I dressed in a ridiculous Sharknado costume at nine worlds, at least in part to show off: when people responded I was ecstatic, but until I wore it, and people enjoyed it, I built it up beforehand to try and make the inevitable failure (in my head) more palatable. If people knew I was trying they wouldn’t judge, wouldn’t comment negatively.

I recognise this as one of the biggest parts of my depression. Fear. I want to write. I make no secret of it. I’m not bad at it, but I’m terrified of it, so I do it … pretty much never. I lie. I make up reasons why I haven’t done things, when the reality is I’m scared if failing, of being judged, of my personal fears becoming public fears becoming public condemnation. And then I’m caught out and I’ve made it worse.

I read my twitter stream this morning, and I saw a lot of discussion of depression. Bringing that up is fantastic. Something as terrible as suicide shouldn’t be the thing to do it.

I walked to the tube this morning, to go to work, and all I wanted to do was go back to bed and cry. I wrote this on my phone, between home and work, and had to stop twice, three times, as my eyesight blurred, and I had to control myself. I see a lot of myself in Robin Williams persona. I see the precipice I find myself walking along sometimes. I’m lucky. I have people who care. They don’t understand, often, but they care. When I’m feeling shit, I’ll take it out on them and slowly, slowly, I’ll come around to the root of it and the switch will flip and they will hold me or make me tea, or just let me rant and uglycry and it will make it a little bit better.

I don’t make any supposition on the cause of today’s news. I don’t think anyone can know. I’ve seen depression first hand in others – my mum, my best friend – and in myself. It’s a shit thing. Truly, unbearably shit. I scare myself thinking sometimes: not just the big what-if, but the small things like what I was talking about above. The social failures, the falsities, the days when I watch my empty email inbox and flip between it and the OCD spreadsheet I’ve got of all the jobs I’ve applied for since graduating, and think ‘What the fuck do I have to do, it must be me’ even as the rational voice tells me it’s just the market and the industry and Jesus Christ you’re doing a fucking internship right now someone must like you. Even then, when you find out it’s because someone in front of you dropped out you question yourself again, and again, and again, until you find yourself questioning whether your suitable capable worthy worth-fucking-while, and it expands from job to life itself and you just want to sit down and cry.

That’s jobs. I do the same with love, with friends, with the things I enjoy: refereeing, writing, reading, my friends, my girlfriend, those people at Nine Worlds who in my heart are my friends and I worry are not, am I doing enough here, there, am I annoying, am I overbearing, am I am I am I

And now I’m nearly at work. And I’ll put on my happy face. I’ll smile, crack bad jokes, ask too many questions, try too hard. I hope I’ll make people slightly happier. But inside? Inside will sometimes suck.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

So you know when you hear about a book, like, literally everywhere, and you’re, like, “OMG I have to get this, it must be amazing?” Yes, I’m look at you, The Miniaturist. There are two results off this. The first is that I get to read some historical fiction. I don’t mix well with historical fiction, unless it’s massively bigged up. Frankly, it’s because I know little-to-nothing about it. Hilary Mantel and Bernard Cornwall as a kid is the limit of my knowledge. And I know that Henry is going to dissolve the monasteries, damn it, and that the British win at Agincourt. However, because it’s massively bigged up, when it isn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread, I’m so much more disappointed than I should be. I’ve read reviews calling Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist a masterpiece. Lest the hype be getting to you, rest assured, it’s not. But, I’m not being harsh, I promise. What The Miniaturist is is one of the best debuts I’ve read in recent years, and, what’s more, a really good entry into historical literature.

Like many good stories, we start with change: in this case, Petronella “Nella” Oortman, with a good name and no money, has become Petronella Brandt, married to a wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She enters his cold house, with his cold sister and strange servants: one a black man (black! He’s fascinating to Nella, so exotic, with his hair “like wool”) and the other a cocksure girl who’s perhaps a little too familiar. Brandt doesn’t touch her. Instead, he locks himself away with his maps and charts and sales, and Nella is left confused, lost in a world so different from her country life, without even the surety of sex and a child that she expects even as she fears it. Continue reading

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Holes at the Arcola Theatre

American band Explosions in the Sky’s second album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, had the unfortunate release date, given their name, of September 4th 2001. I imagine that buying that CD in shops a couple of weeks after release would have garnered you a lot of funny looks. Similarly, Holes, a new play at the Arcola Theatre, must be ruing its dates, and the quirks of fate around it.

I went to see Holes (of no relation to the book) a couple of Wednesdays ago (the 16th July). At a basic level, Holes follows the four survivors of a plane crash – suspected to be caused by either a bomb or being shot down – as they struggle to survive on a tropical island. MH17 came down the day after. The play is funny, extremely funny for the first act; Tom Basden’s script is a funny and biting satire of consumerism and popular culture. But, I can’t imagine myself laughing as hard, or taking as much pleasure in the first act, had I been to see it a day or two later. Yes, the plane crash framing device is both implausible and slightly hackneyed, but it works well for the small cast to attack consumer society. At one point, Gus (a resplendent Mathew Baynton) and Erin (Sharon Singh, in her first professional role), try and find what books are left on the island. They only find copies of Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars, and, oddly, Jamie’s Fifteen Minute Meals. A proliferation of reading has died, they are saying, and with it individuality. Continue reading

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Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge & No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

In Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, twelve year-old Triss wakes up in a hospital, with a fracturing memory of what has happened before. Slowly, she pieces together that she was in the ‘Grimmer,’ some kind of lake or river, and came back home dripping wet and ill. In a fantastically deliberate confusing opening we slowly learn the truth: that Triss is a ‘Besider’, a race of fairy-like creatures with a penchant for deals and a fury to those who break them. She is a simulacra, a doll made of twigs and leaves, a replacement for the real Triss, as revenge for her father, Piers Crescent. Piers made some dodgy dealings with head-Besider The Architect, and then broke his promises. The Architect got angry, and kidnapped his daughter. Not-Triss and her ‘sister’, Pen, must overcome Pen’s hatred of her sister and get her back.

No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe follows Laurence Walker’s attempts to become President of the USA. By all accounts he’s got every chance of winning – in fact more than every chance. Walker is the titular Good Man, with a loving family, a good military record, solid political capital. He’s favoured by Democrat bigwigs, has the support of the current administration, and, most importantly, ClearVista thinks he’s going to win. This is a world where everyone uses ClearVista, a deep data mining algorithm, to predict everything from which car to buy to what job to apply for – to who will win the Presidential election. But there are some things that ClearVista can’t predict, like the drowning of Walker’s young son, and the impact it will have on the family, the Presidential election, and the good man himself.

Cuckoo Song and No Harm Can Come to a Good Man couldn’t be two more different books (well they probably could, but I’m making a point here). But there’s a reason for reviewing them together, and not least because I read them both recently – we’ll get to that below. Continue reading

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Above and below – Agency in Above by Isla Morley & The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks


Above by Isla Morley and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks came to me at roughly the same point, from husband and wife team Anne Perry and Jared Shurin. Jared’s review of Brooks’ book made me buy that, while Anne sent me Above as part of the (neglected on my part) Hodderscape review project. In a case for trusting the reviews of people you know, The Bunker Diary is utterly fantastic while Above.. isn’t.

Both stories are broadly similar. Bastard kidnaps protagonist. Protagonist fights for survival. Both books follow that fight in powerful ways. Brooks’ Linus becomes the centrepoint of a group of 6, all taken by a mysterious kidnapper, for a mysterious purpose. He seems to be playing some kind of psychological game, taking an old man, a heroine junkie, a little kid, a drifter, a powerful executive, a fat estate-agent type. It’s the interplay between these six that really makes Brooks’ novel. The kidnapping sets the scene, gives an overarching villain, but it is the interpersonal relationships that make it. Continue reading


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