Book Review: ‘The Martian Diaries Volume 1 – The day of the Martians’ by H.E. Wilburson

The Day of the Martians by H.E. Wilburson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘The Martian Diaries’ books draw upon the rich seam of Victorian science fiction tradition to address the question: After the ending of the original ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells (and I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, for those of you who’ve not yet read it), what happened next?

‘The Martian Diaries Volume 1 – The Day of the Martians’ opens with a new Martian invasion looming, with the invaders now wise to the cause of their setback twenty or so (earth) years previously.

The author’s introduction to the novella explains the sparseness of scenes is deliberate: the work is also available as an audiobook, and as such is geared for audio rendition, with the words accompanied with sound effects and music to immerse the reader in the setting, and lend atmosphere.

However the prose, written In journal form by the main character, to me lacks neither, freeing the reader to be swept along in the action. There is no need to know what the interiors look like – with the exception of an abandoned tea-room, and pair of blue curtains.

The battle scenes are vivid, the reminiscences poignant and the reflections of H.G. Wells’ work – such as the calm felt when hearing a passing train – bring a wry smile. There is, in short, atmosphere a-plenty.

The style is authentic to the year – 1913 – with that slightly stuffy but nevertheless descriptive wording of the turn of last century. The characters are true to the originals, with one gratifying bit of character growth: Laura, the journalist’s wife, is something of what today would be called an environmentalist, and one of her scientific insights as a result is crucial to the plot. The allusions, with the invasion imminent, to the war that we but not the characters here know would break out the following year, bring a heightened sense of ominousness for the reader.

We even have a nod to H.G. Wells’ philosophy. Leaving aside the outcome of the battle, the reader is asked to wonder, regarding the nature of the weapon used on the Martian invaders: can you trust humans with a thing of such power?



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Book Review: ‘Another Now’ by Yanis Varoufakis

Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present by Yanis Varoufakis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2025 idealistic tech whizz-kid Costa, in the course of developing the ultimate Virtual Reality machine, stumbles upon a portal into an alternative present-day in which the financial crash of 2008 gave rise, not to the enrichment of the banking sector as it did in our timeline, but to its total demise and the transformation of the world economy into something approaching a dynamic but egalitarian utopia.

Land and utilities are collectivised, companies are assessed (and annually vetted on pain of dissolution) for their contribution to the public good, and everyone receives a savings pot at birth and a basic income throughout life.

Delighted at his find, but terrified that his VR creation may fall into commercial hands and be used to render everyone an impoverished addict (instead of the noble purpose for which he intends it), Costa invites two trusted friends, former financier Eva and Anarchist firebrand Iris, to share in what he has found.

In scenes reminiscent of Dialogues from Plato, the three friends correspond with their counterparts in the ‘Other Now’ through the data-limited portal. Their questions on how the other economy is run, together with how it came about, are answered with a realistic sequence of events depicting its foundations and early days, and a full explanation of all its workings. The history struck a chord because the same mechanism has come into play just recently – a year after this book was written!

The ‘Other Now’ is a fully-fleshed-out, detailed scenario written by a professional: Yanis Varoufakis is a Professor of Economics and was the Syriza government’s Minister of Finance in Greece in 2015.

It’s worth noting that the book’s jacket identifies it as ‘Economics’ – not ‘Science Fiction’.

The reading is heavy going at times if you’re not an Economics or Politics enthusiast. It’s also difficult to be able to tell – again if you’re not well-up on economic or political history – whether events could unfold like this in real life without either being overpowered by our present Establishment, or else veering off in some other path. But as an economics not-quite-ignoramus, and someone who has taken a small but active part in politics, I can at least say that it is self-consistent, and not beyond the bounds of the possible.

At this point the reader may pause and think, well that’s that then – here’s our (Plato-style) Ideal economy in which everybody gets to realise something of their true selves without the threat of immiseration with which we, in ‘Our Now’, constantly have to deal.

But there’s a flaw, spotted by Iris. Perhaps some of society’s problems are insoluble – at least by Economics alone…

I loved this book. I love the way it draws upon everything from Greek philosophy and myth (disclaimer: no prior knowledge of these is assumed – everything is beautifully explained) through present-day political economy to my own Alma Mater the University of Sussex – and literally in the years that I was there!

I particularly love the twist in the closing chapters. I kick myself now, that I didn’t see it coming. But drawing on the tale of Gyges’ Ring and the question of what you would do if you had ultimate power (and what the result would in turn do to you), it asks, ‘Would you step into a world in which you had absolute power – all bar the power to leave?’




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Book Review: ‘2084 – The End of Days’ by Derek Beaugarde

2084 The End of Days by Derek Beaugarde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


An All-American farm-boy is steering a spaceship home to Earth from Mars while daydreaming about his wife – specifically, sex with his wife. As openings to sci-fi novels go, that’s about as clichéd as you can get, guys – but after this, it begins to get interesting.

We meet two hung-over Scotsmen (complete with cans of Irn-Bru) sitting on the computer-hack of the century, their Israeli victim; hot-shot journalist Jill and her errant ‘boyfriend’ Khan; East-coast high-flying geneticist Marcie (and her terrible mistake); Lex the NASA control operative with an alcohol problem, his boss, and a Yorkshireman who wishes he wasn’t in Scotland.

All this before the pivot-point where we get to find out what the comet will do…

The comet – named after the unfortunate operative whose computer was hacked – is due to strike in 2084, three years from the opening scenes. The dreadful truth is revealed – to the reader and a small group of the main characters (“What are we going to need the money for now, anyway?”), right at the mid-point of the action.

Scenes are expertly interwoven as the tension rises: who will break to the unsuspecting billions of planet Earth the secret of what will happen? Can it be avoided? And how will everyone react once the cat’s out of the bag?

I particularly love the well-drawn characters with their complicated lives and motivations – the women’s more so than the men’s, just like in our times! – and the way each scene reveals a new twist even though, as in a classic Greek tragedy, you know what’s going to happen in the end.

The psychological effect upon the few people ‘in the know’ is realistically portrayed. There are touching scenes reminiscent of Neville Chute’s ‘On the Beach’.

There are some clever name-choices, too: An American President with middle name Spengler, and in a Biblical twist two police officers called Adams and Evans.

Strange to say, I found this an optimistic read, but to reveal why would spoil it for you. I highly recommend it to those who like the classic sci-fi/space canon (Azimov, etc) but with a wider, and deeper, variety of characters caught up in the action – and a clever take on our current times.

And our All-American farm-boy? He’s still steering his spaceship home, dreaming the same dream – but this time, it matters.





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Book Review: ‘Darker Than Blue – This Mortal Coil’ by Lawrence G. Taylor

Darker than Blue – This Mortal Coil by Lawrence G. Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’ve given this story 4 stars out of 5 but fully appreciate that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. For a start, anyone who subscribes to the idea that ‘show, don’t tell’ makes for a better read needs to run screaming for the exits right now.

The story tells, in almost the same way that the Bible does. Reading it is like reading a parable or a myth, but one recounted by a fascinating unreliable witness – a reflection of the injured mental state of the main character, Boy Blue.

The parallels to our troubled times as looked at from Black people’s point of view are so obvious it’s almost painful. Some people may find this aspect a little laboured, but for others it may be just what’s needed.

The deliberately-imperfect English proves a poignant reflection of the fractured nature of Boy Blue’s thought processes as he struggles to come to terms with the injustice of it all. Like some of the writing of James Joyce it’s not supposed to make sense, at least not in the conventional meaning of the phrase. The author, after all, describes it as an experimental work.

In the turn of events, I’m reminded of elements from ‘The Shock Doctrine’, then ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and to a certain extent ‘A Handmaid’s Tale.’

The aspect that appealed to me the most? We are left to ponder the eventual fate of the island. It’s a Mystery – almost like the entire tale.




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The interview that vanished into space

This author interview, in which Mike Chapman asks me some of the best questions Ive ever been asked, fell off the air – possibly swallowed by a Black Hole. It took place shortly before The Evening Lands was due to be published so, for the curious, I have reproduced it here.

Now read on…

Could you tell us a little about your first book ‘The Price of Time’?

The plot grows from the main character’s discovery that she has – not a Guardian Angel, but a Guardian Devil. I’m not religious but the idea came to me through thinking how lucky I have been in life, where so many others have not.

Basically, things keep trying to kill me, but failing! My main character – Verity Player – is in a way my caricature. She, too, has had a string of lucky escapes in life.

When she comes face-to-face with her evil Guardian Stan ‘Satanic’ Mills, she ascribes her lifelong good luck to him.

But such luck has a price. A keen environmental campaigner, Verity has long ago worked out that one simple convention – one ‘custom’ to which we all subscribe – is the force that lurks behind humanity’s apparent headlong rush to destruction.

Now she finds out Mills is its creator.

He intends to let humanity destroy itself and the world while he sits back to watch.  And Verity’s incessant questions as she struggles to find a way to stop Mills’ plan in its tracks land her in further trouble: he tricks her into wagering her most prized possession – her Conscience – on success in striking the first blow against his plan before the clock strikes New Year…

That’s a really interesting idea and it’s quite unlike anything I’ve heard before! It strikes me as having fascinating overtones of old morality tales and of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

Someone said it had shades of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ as a matter of fact! And in a way I suppose it has a moral point: where does our urge to do harm – even if it’s not for immediate personal gain – come from? Why does a person whose wealth is already all but immeasurably vast continue, as if desperate, to scrabble for more? What, even though we’re a social species, causes our empathy sometimes to take a back seat or appear absent altogether?

I came across what appeared to be the common denominator. It’s the thing that gives StanMills his power.

Do you think that this empathy failure is something that humanity can overcome?

If we can bring ourselves to accept that lack of empathy constitutes a problem – including for those who suffer from that lack – rather than a trait that accompanies success, and then act upon this knowledge, then yes I think we stand a chance. We evolved to have empathy, and for a reason: as hunter-gatherers we needed to work together in order to survive. Now once again we need to work together on a massive scale, as the recent IPCC report has spelled out in its stark terms. We need to take our empathy to the next level. Physically we can’t evolve fast enough for this, but there are other ways to ‘evolve’.

If you’ve heard of the Dunbar Number – the number of individuals someone is capable of knowing well – for a human being it’s about 150. I find it encouraging that the number of countries at the United Nations is not far over that.

What made you choose to pursue traditional publishing as a route to tell your story, rather than self-publishing?

I think self-publishing works better for people who are natural entrepreneurs – who know all the business ‘tricks’ and can ‘network like a boss’. That’s not quite me. I love to take part in events – my first book-signing was a great success considering I was a complete unknown – but I’m not a natural ‘organiser’ of such things.

In addition, a traditional publisher will be able to get copies into bookshops where the sort of folk who like my story will be browsing.

Having said all that, if what’s on offer from these publishers isn’t suitable, then I’m happy to go the self-published route again.

What sort of people do you think will enjoy your stories?

There’s a generation of people who grew up with science and the environment movement and who – even with mortgages, families, jobs, insurance and all the rest of it – never lost the curiosity and idealism that is every child’s birthright. We’re still out there, looking for answers, and we relate to heroines and heroes like us who are doing the same.

What do you think is at the core of writing good speculative fiction?

A story isn’t a story without relationships that change and progress. Even the opening chapters of ‘The Martian’ with our hero stranded incommunicado millions of miles from home describe relationships: with his former crew who abandoned him, with the unforgiving landscape in which he finds himself, and with his country via the real potatoes brought for Thanksgiving.

On top of this, good speculative fiction needs a ‘premise’ – a ‘what if..?’ that climbs into your mind and stays there asking questions – possibly for the rest of your life. The unfolding dimensions in ‘The Three Body Problem’, plus the relationship between the two civilisations mirroring China’s with the West, for example, or the challenge to the entire nature of perceived reality in ‘The Matrix’…

And of course, all fiction should ideally have you wondering ‘what’s going to happen next..?’ as you turn the pages, all the way through to the end!

I was reading a newspaper article today about how the author felt that cyberpunk as a speculative genre was stagnating because it has nothing new to say about society. Do you think that speculative fiction – that a fantastical world – needs to have a message?

It perhaps needn’t, but it often does have a message, and that’s why it appeals so much to me. As for cyberpunk: like all speculative fiction genres, the fact the ‘obvious’ plots will have already been written up by now just appeals to people like me as a challenge!

Society is moving and changing all the time – our problems are evolving: look at Brexit, Trump and what happened in Brazil. New settings, new characters and new viewpoints can bring whole new ‘variations on a theme’ even if some of the plot elements have appeared elsewhere before.

Which authors are an inspiration to you?

I enjoyed Isaac Azimov’s short stories for their ideas – I used to read them in pockets of spare time during A-levels. I’d put the book down after each tale with a ‘Wow, yes: what if that could happen?’, ‘What would I have done?’ or ‘How can we prevent that disaster..?’ I recall in particular one in which a hyper-slow-motion film of an atomic bomb revealed the face of the Devil. At the height – or depths depending on your point of view – of the Cold War, that really left an impression! I also relished Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Neville Chute…

More recently I enjoyed Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ series, and ‘The Radleys’ (which is set just down the road from where I live!), as well as David Mitchell’s ‘The Bone Clocks’ and Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’.

But very few women have crossed my reading path, either as authors or characters. I recall disappointment at having to ‘be a boy’ most times I stepped into a story or watched a film, but as a left-hander you get used to things being ‘built for someone else’ and just get on with it. Oh but imagine how thrilled I was to meet Douglas Adams and discover – yes – he was my fellow leftie!

If you had to pick just one book or short story – a sort of Desert Island books – which would it be?

Assuming it’s a fiction book, I’d go for ‘The Three Body Problem’. I’ve read it once but I feel that that’s probably not enough to do it justice and I’ve likely missed a lot of subtleties. If I were limited to a short story I think I’d pick E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ which is as germane today as when it was written over 100 years ago. It predicted universal mains electricity, the internet, and our complete inability to deal with their possible sudden absence…

Would you say that environmentalism is a key component of your work?

There’s an environmental angle to ‘The Price of Time’, but it’s not the usual one: not energy, or pollution, or global warming – although these all get a mention as Verity’s battle against Mills’ plan darkens towards midwinter. The story turns more upon the things that lurk hidden in our culture – in people’s minds – that make us want to do that damage, or at the very least render us indifferent to it.

In the wake of the Banking crisis, the Panama Papers and other high-rolling scandals I began to wonder: what sort of people are we dealing with here?  That’s how that ‘common denominator’ I mentioned earlier crystallised. What if their antics are all the result of irrational fear – the fear of losing what they have and ‘falling behind’ which Oliver James, in his book ‘Affluenza’, so forensically analyses? What – I turned it into a ‘who’ – stokes that irrational fear?

‘The Evening Lands’ moves on from this and delves into other pressures that face us, particularly in our jobs. The plot was inspired by my reading about Milgram’s obedience experiments as a teen: why would anyone – anyone who hadn’t been literally forced into it – obey cruel orders?  This basic question spawned others: why is so much of the work we do at present useless, or outright harmful? Why, to take things to the extreme, would anyone torture someone – particularly as time after time it’s been shown that softer techniques are more effective for getting information, and in the long run History shows that mistreatment only galvanises the other side?

All of this meant quite a bit of research, some of which I’ve put up on my blog. I even took a brief internet course on P.E.A.C.E., the interviewing technique developed by the police force in the U.K. and (I’m reasonably certain) once used upon me, as a crime victim, in its early days.

Erm, we’ve moved on a bit from the environment haven’t we…

Yep! That’s such a rich answer that I’m struggling to pick the next follow-up question out of the possibilities! With the Milgram experiment, banking crisis and all the other high profile law-breaking that’s come to light in recent years, do you feel then that people are fundamentally good but can be driven by fear?

I think yes – that sums up how I feel about people in general: fundamentally good – ‘a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet’. But that goodness can slip away if people are put in certain types of fear – for example fear of being ‘left-out’ of a social group.

The BBC once ran a series on the unhappy childhoods of top business people and it was a real eye-opener for me. A childhood without unconditional love is absolutely a place of fear, and as Stan Mills puts it when taunting Verity with the latest newspaper headlines, ‘Eton, Harrow; rich and elite, (are) cradles of so much of the country’s irrational fear…’ and these places go on to generate what he refers to as ‘his people’. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that fear of falling forces them to climb to the top, where they can do the most damage.

You’ve been described as a keen physicist. Any particular field?

My Ph.D. investigated the effect of weather conditions on microwave transmissions beyond the horizon: basically either they bend round the curvature of the earth or scatter from air turbulence or rain. It taught me a lot about the weather! After that, I spent about 20 years in research on quite a variety of projects, most involving electromagnetic waves in one way or another – everything from the magnetic fields in motors to communications with satellites.

Other projects included signal processing. One – echo cancellation – took as its starting point a matrix inversion method developed in France in 1795 – yes you read that right! I imagined the mathematician – Gaspard Riche, Baron de Prony – hiding in his garret doing candle-lit calculations as people were rioting in the streets below…

There are plenty of signal processing and wave metaphors in my stories now. People even say my writing looks like waves.

What attracted you to physics as a discipline?

You could say I came for the space travel, stayed for the beauty.

At the age of six I was living in the USA. At that time Americans were in the final throes of the race to put a man on the moon before the Russians, who’d already pipped them to the post on several fronts including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. The whole USA was space nuts, especially us kids.

The views of Earth from space left a lifelong impression on all of us especially as, at the time, voyages to other planets were being seriously touted.

That vision faded, but then along came Physics into my life, which began to let me into the secrets of how it all works.

 A simple (just one frequency, or pitch if youre listening to it) wave, I learned, has so many hidden properties. For example a plot of its gradient – its slope – would reproduce a wave of identical shape, only shifted along. Plot the rate at which that gradient changes and you’re back to the original wave, only inverted: how perfect is that?

The human ear performs complex maths, with waves, and has only recently in historical terms been out-paced by computers. An object can resonate and be heard, or felt, without the quiet wave that drives it being perceptible. Waves, if something like a surface or a wall pins down their boundaries, blossom into elaborate patterns that can be used to describe anything from the ‘tone’ of a Stradivarius to the shape of an atom.

Even our thoughts travel as waves in our brains. But which comes first: the abstract thought, or the physical wave..?

I think this may be the most philosophical this interview series has ever gone! As fascinating as this has been, I think we need to wrap up. If people want to interact with you online, what’s the best way to do that?

My website lives at:

www.cspillardwriter.co.uk

It has links to a list of free-to-read short stories, and sites where you can buy ‘The Price of Time’ and ‘The Evening Lands’.

The ‘contact’ page sends an email straight to me. I’m also on Twitter: @CandiSpillard.

Finally, thank you for the chance to be interviewed like this – and for asking such marvellous questions!

Book Review: ‘Downtime Shift’ by Robert Holding

Downtime Shift by Robert Holding


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Downtime Shift’ has a great premise: agents of the 29th century are sent back in time – a whole number of turns from ‘Point Time’ round a ‘loop’ of some 800 years to ‘Down Time’ (our own time) – to steer their past events in order to tweak their present-day, perfect civilisation, a civilisation completely overseen by the EYE, a vast and complex AI.

We meet Evelyn in the prologue which alludes to her intense training preparing her to take her place as one of these agents: a ‘Shifty’. It is implied that she was somehow ‘surplus to requirements’ in her pre-training life, but this is never fully explained.

Tension builds slowly as one is led to wonder what the motives of Psychologist Dr Janeen Hellander are: does she not want Evelyn to complete the task assigned her? And if she doesn’t – if she’s a saboteur – will General Tarran McAndre find out?

We get a lot of Evelyn’s inner world – the account of her meditation at the close of chapter 1 is particularly evocative, as are many of the landscape descriptions throughout. The landscape, it turns out, in a way has its own secrets…

What made the story drag a little for me was the lack of much conflict or suspense after that. Everything just seemed to go off too well, with hardly any obstacles or surprises for the two main characters.

There was plenty of psychological to-ing and fro-ing, with different characters ‘squaring up’ to each other for lack of trust, feeling-out for each other’s weaknesses. In many of these encounters the reader is made to hop between the characters’ points of view, which not only makes the narrative hard to follow but also destroys the tension – if you know what both are thinking, you know what the outcome will be – and worse, you are not properly ‘in’ the mind of either.

The dearth of dialogue ‘tags’ or small beats during the long exchanges of conversation made the logic hard to follow at times, and a programme (‘Echo’) is mentioned only once throughout – we never get to find out what it is.

The story, at its heart, is a lively and futuristic exploration of two questions in ethics: the classic ‘trolley problem’ – should you deliberately kill in order to save a greater number of lives? – and the more contemporary question of to what extent we should allow Artificial Intelligence to take over our lives, even if it is for the common good.

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Book Review: Babel

Babel by Gill James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the second book in a Young Adult trilogy with an exciting ‘premise’: in a fractious interplanetary empire the Peace Child is half-negotiator, half-hostage. With an interesting twist on the classic ‘prophecy/chosen one’ narrative, we meet Kaleem and wonder, what will he be called upon to do, and will he be able to deliver?

The story opens with a ritual euthanasia (‘Switch-off’) whose Master of Ceremonies, although evidently quite experienced with his role in a practice which appears to have been customary for some time, is nevertheless haunted with guilt.

Only in the story’s closing chapters do we find out why.

The cultural background has some reflections of our own world, including culture shock – we meet young women who are dealing with the differences between progressive planet Zandra and more ‘traditionalist’ planet earth (‘Terrestra’). One point that puzzled me and which was never fully explained was the agonising over why they ‘had to teach’ somebody from Terrestra ‘about there not being a God’, when this didn’t seem particularly necessary.

We get to meet the two main characters very much ‘from the inside’, with plenty of inner monologue of their thoughts and plans and, in a nice ‘nothing-ever-changes’-type touch, Rozia’s diary. Her notes seem a little soppy at first, but we soon see her true character. The portrayal of awkward teenage love is particularly realistic.

Although many of the earlier chapters end with wrap-ups, there are still some good points of tension:

What was Kaleem’s mother’s involvement with the immiserated and resentful ‘Z Zone’?

Will Kaleem’s antagonist succeed in raising the population there against him?

And will Kaleem succeed in reconciling the freedom-embracing, impoverished but life-loving people of the Z Zone with the more ‘civilised’, complacent, and even a little selfish (through having had life too easy), people of the Normal Zone?

An interestingly prescient aspect of the plot is the source of the movement against ‘Switch-Off’ in the Normal Zone. No spoilers, but they wouldn’t have been ‘the usual suspects’ for radical thinking when the book was written, back in 2011.

The story confronts the reader with a moral dilemma – ‘Switch-Off’ vs. letting people fall ill and die naturally. The premise is that the fight against illness will sharpen people’s minds and empathy, and indeed the medics’ expertise in dealing with imperfection, for example when people get injured, or have to deal with new diseases such as the ‘Starlight Fever’ mentioned as an incident in the past in the opening chapter.

My one criticism would be that the prose is uninspiring – there’s too much “he was anxious” “she was relieved”, “there was something bad going on and he had no idea what it was,” and the like, when better and more immersive expressions could easily be found. And we never get convinced of why ‘Switch-Off’ is so dreadful that it must be stopped – other than its being the only way of reconciling Z-Zone with the rest of Terrestra.

‘Babel’ is a very Moral tale – bordering on too moral (depending upon your point of view). The choice of name for the population management programme particularly jarred, at least with me.

However, in the end the ‘Chosen One’ trope gets a nice twist, and we are left wanting to know what happens in the next book of the trilogy.



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The Evening Lands – cover reveal

The good people of Rhetoric Askew, based collectively in California, Oklahoma and Florida, have battled Fire, Riot and Pestilence to craft this amazing cover design for The Evening Lands.

What more can I say?

We have yet to name a date for publication but it is close – so damned near now!