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Artemis (SF) - Andy Weir ****

It's impossible to read Artemis and not be reminded of that one-time SF great, Robert A. Heinlein. Not only was what was arguably Heinlein's best book also set on a Moon colony (more on that later), he had a penchant for feisty young female lead characters who were very intelligent but do not make conventional use of their abilities (think anything from Podkayne of Mars to Friday) - a perfect match for the central character of Andy Weir's new novel, Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara.

Artemis is set on a permanent Moon colony of around 2,000 inhabitants. Its bubble habitats are set up a short train ride from the Apollo 11 landing site, which reflects the colony's main source of income - tourism. Jazz makes her living apparently as a porter, moving goods around the colony, but in reality as a smuggler. This brings her into contact with others who will involve her in something far bigger, with drastic consequences.

Told in the first person by Jazz, this is a fairly conventional space …

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

The Future Was Here - Jimmy Maher ***

I discovered the field of Platform Studies with Super Power, Spoony Bards and Silverware on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and couldn't resist the earlier entry in the same series, The Future Was Here, which examines the Commodore Amiga.

I had an Amiga 500 at home at the same time as working with IBM PCs at work, so this was a fascinating trip into the past for me. Unlike Dominic Arsenault in the SNES title, Jimmy Maher chooses to focus far more on the technology, plus a fair amount on the culture, but doesn't give the same business insights. We are repeatedly told how disastrous the Commodore management was (though occasionally this is is presented as a biased view from the Amiga fans), but don't get a feel for what was happening at the Commodore end. This story is driven by the technology, those who created the technology and those who used it.

Apart from anything else, it was interesting to discover the US viewpoint. Apparently, the US end tried to positi…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…

Blowfish's Oceanopaedia - Tom Hird ***

There's always the worry with books that could be classified as 'nature' that they don't really contain any science - they end up more like tourist guides of the natural world. This is fine if that's what you're looking for, but not doing the popular science job. Thankfully, Tom Hird's Blowfish's Oceanopedia is significantly more than a 'isn't nature wonderful?' book - though Hird's boundless enthusiasm for his topic does occasionally take us into 'gee whizz, wow' mode.

Unless you are already a marine biologist (which I certainly am not), you will indubitably learn a lot reading through Hird's collection of bite-sized oceanic and fishy facts. We begin with some information on the sea itself, the nature of waves and the like, then move on to the main course of the assorted denizens of the deep. I certainly had plenty of 'Oh, really? I didn't know that,' moments.

Unfortunately, though, there is a big drawback from the…

A History of the Future - Peter Bowler ***

Having just read What's Next, a book of futurology, it was quite interesting to move onto a book about futurology - specifically futurology in the first half of the twentieth century before it became such a recognised entity in its own right.

It's interesting that in the subtitle, Peter Bowler chooses H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov to bracket the periods he is covering, as both are better known as science fiction writers than for their non-fiction. Although Bowler does bring in a number of 'straight' writers on the future, he doesn't draw a hard line between science fiction and futurology, which makes a lot of sense. As he points out, while there have always been SF writers who go way beyond extrapolation to the near future - think, for example, E. E. 'Doc' Smith's wide ranging space operas or Asimov's Foundation series - there has equally always been plenty of science fiction where we are dealing with the near future and science/technology that is bas…

The Algebraist (SF) - Iain Banks ***

One of Iain Banks' chunkier science fiction works, The Algebraist (published in 2004) sprawls over 534 pages. It's a space opera on a grand scale: although it focuses on one solar system, it has the same kind of grand galactic span as Asmov's Foundation series.

The main character, Fassin Taak, is a kind of academic who spends his time dipping into the system's gas giant, where incredibly ancient beings called Dwellers are part of a galaxy-wide civilisation that has lasted 10 billion years. Dealing with them is frustrating and slow - but Fassin discovers hints of a remarkable secret.

At the same time we have an evil despot setting out to conquer Fassin's home system and a bureaucratic and autocratic civilisation which is attempting to oppose the despot. So there's plenty going on.

I did enjoy the book on the whole but it seemed to have three problems. The least important was that the despot, the Archimandrite Luseferous, was straight out of central casting's ev…

What's Next - Jim Al-Khalili (Ed.) ***

There's a certain kind of book that's popular with academic publishers, where you collect together a set of essays on a topic from different contributors. Most of the contents are usually rather dull, but the odd one shines out. I assume it's a cheap way for publishers to get material, but it's rarely highly readable. This is just such a book, but from a mainstream source and packaged with a shiny foil-bedecked cover as if it were a fun pop sci jaunt through the subject of the future. Just look at that title with it's provocative tagline 'Even scientists can't predict the future... or can they?'

The whole idea of futurology - attempting to extrapolate how we and our technology will develop in the future - is doomed to failure. Everyone gets most of it wrong, and it's impossible to pick out the gems from the dross. You only have to look back at Alvin Toffler's Future Shock with its impressive disaster of an attempt to predict the year 2000, which …

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Sea of Rust (SF) - Robert Cargill ****

Although the Pixar movie Wall-E has demonstrated it's possible to tell a story effectively with robots as the protagonists, this was achieved using dollops of gooey anthropomorphism. What Robert Cargill achieves is far harder - to give us an engaging novel where all of humanity is dead and the only intelligence is artificial without playing the 'they're just like people, really' card too heavily.

I say 'too heavily' because I think it's fair to say that there is still an unlikely level of human-like behaviour here. Robots speak to each other in English when they could achieve vastly richer high bandwidth audio communication. And most robots appear to have gender. (Even Cargill occasionally slips up on this, at least once calling the same machine 'he' and 'it'.) We're told the use of gender is because when AIs first broke free it was decided that no robot would have to be called 'It' anymore - but there seems no logical reason why …

Super Power, Spoony Bards and Silverware - Dominic Arsenault ***

This quirkily-titled exploration of the rise and fall of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) scores three stars as a general popular science title - if, like me, you sit at the intersection of being interested in computing, gaming and business it's a solid four stars.

Once I had got over a few sniggers at the idea that game studies/platform studies could be an academic discipline, about which you can write a serious academic work with Harvard referencing and everything, I found this a genuinely fascinating book. I was never a SNES user - I made the transition from an earlier console (Mattel's Intellivision) to a Commodore 64, Amiga and then PCs for gaming - but it was impossible to be unaware of it during its heyday from the late 80s.

It seems that the SNES is generally looked back on with awe by those who were fans at the time, but Dominic Arsenault brings a more balanced view, pointing out the technical and business limitations of the product - all driven by a busin…