Sunday 31 July 2011

Cultural Reflections: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Finally got round to reading Surface Detail, the latest Culture novel by Iain ‘Optional M.’ Banks. It’s the seventh novel to feature the Culture (well, the ninth if you include the novella State of the Art and the sneaky Inversions), and one I’ve been meaning to buy for a while. Banks is one of the finest authors in Britain, science fiction or otherwise, and his Culture sequence is a universe I particularly enjoy visiting. Good thing, too - Surface Detail makes few concessions for someone new to the Culture. If that includes you, then here goes: the Culture is an apparently benevolent, hedonistic super-society that has existed from the distant past and will exist far into our future, populated by various interbreeding humanoid species (or ‘pan-humans’) and a vast array of sentient artificial intelligences known as Minds. They span the Galaxy, which they share with sundry other space-faring civilisations of varying levels of sophistication, promoting a fa├žade of diplomatic integrity and righteousness while interfering left, right and centre in secret.

Surface Detail expands the universe of the Culture, introducing a variety of new alien civilisations and exploring in some detail the nature of their sophisticated virtual realities. Central to the novel is the idea of an artificially created Hell: the Culture, and its peers, can copy and store a living being’s mind, restoring it after the individual’s death, either to a newly grown body or a virtual afterlife. It follows that some, less salubrious civilisations will not only create heavenly versions of cyber-afterlife, but hellish ones too. Depressingly, this is probably right. Although belief in a literal Hell has diminished among the various religions of the world over recent years, it certainly persists in some fundamentalist quarters. Some people genuinely believe that the threat of eternal suffering is all that can keep our sinful species on the straight and narrow.

This is also the view of the Pavulean civilisation, who have created a particularly loathsome Dante-esque virtual hell. We follow the suffering of Prin and Chay, two Pavuleans who bravely, or foolishly, infiltrated Hell to bring back the truth of its existence, only to find escape very difficult indeed. These sequences are, in some cases, extremely distressing, Banks presenting us with some truly abominable punishments. It’s easy to forget that Prin and Chay are two trunk-bearing quadrupeds. Why Banks decided to tell the Hellish scenes from an elephant’s point of view I’m not sure; perhaps it’s easier for a reader to stomach if the victim isn’t exactly human.

Monday 25 July 2011

REVIEW: Skaldenland by James Mortimore

“Physics with extra romance.” 

That’s a phrase used by a character in Skaldenland to describe music, but it’s a pretty good summation of the whole story. James Mortimore, the author previously known as Jim Mortimore and known best for his Doctor Who novels, has created an original work that draws heavily on Norse mythology, but also touches on esoteric physics and astrophysics, along with the power of words and music, to create an epic picture of the end of the world. It’s a departure for publishers Obverse Books, whose previous publications have been anthologies of short stories and novellas, and is hopefully only the first of many.

For all its epic ambitions, Skaldenland starts small, with young siblings Brun and Chad on holiday in the country. Brun is an aspiring author; younger Chad is conscious that he lacks any particular talents. Both are, however, possessed of the most incredible turn of phrase. They’re a likeable pair, particularly Chad, the protagonist, but you have to be able to accept these two kids talking to each other in Shakespeare quotes, snatches of poetry and distinctly old-fashioned aphorisms. Chad comes out with phrases like “Her words are to fiction as fiction is to fact. Additional strata, extra space for the meaning to unfold into.” But then, he also says things like “Cool bananas!” so it’s not all grand wordplay. Still, the dialogue and prose style together lend the novel a poetic feel.

Sunday 24 July 2011

REVIEW: Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts

A short story anthology from Obverse Books
Edited by Stuart Douglas and Lawrence Miles
Faction Paradox has had, rather aptly, a long and fairly tortuous history. Beginning as a mention in Lawrence Miles’s New Adventure Christmas on a Rational Planet, they developed into a fully-fledged adversarial organisation in the BBC’s eighth Doctor novels, before Miles ripped them free of the Whoniverse and took them into worlds their own. Having fuelled novels by Mad Norwegian Press and Random Static, audio series by both BBV Productions and Magic Bullet, and a sadly short-lived comic series by Image, the Faction are now in the hands of Obverse Books.

A Romance in Twelve Parts is, in Obverse tradition, an anthology of short fiction, set within the vast universe that is the Spiral Politic. The universe is in the thrall of War, between the Great Houses (read: the Time Lords, only far more impressive than they’ve ever been in Doctor Who or Gallifrey) and the Enemy (read: whomever you like, frankly). While these two sides battle over the right to construct history according to their own essential needs, the Faction skulk on the sidelines, causing as much trouble as they can. They don’t care too much who wins the War, as long as there’s some kind of history left to pervert afterwards. What’s so appealing about this shared universe is that it requires little to no knowledge of other Faction Paradox materials to enjoy any one release; the individual stories are linked, often tenuously, only by the universe in which they occur (those that do occur, many stories telling of things that never actually took place, retroactively speaking). Indeed, the Faction don’t appear in every story of the anthology, although their insidious presence is felt throughout. More overt a theme is, once again in Obverse tradition, the power of story and narrative. History is our ongoing story, after all, and we are writing it all the time. Fear those who choose to go back and rewrite the details.


Good morning, afternoon, evening or night.

My name is Daniel Tessier. If you've deliberately come looking for this, you presumably either know me personally, or have previously read my reviews or occasional fiction. With crushing inevitability, I have decided to start my own blog. This is mostly due to the upcoming closure of The History of the Doctor, the review site run by Mr E. G. Wolverson, which has hosted the vast majority of my work until now. The site will continue to exist for the forseeable, with all our reviews and features archived.

You probably know what to expect from this blog by now - reviews and musings on books, movies and TV shows that I have recently enjoyed (or not enjoyed, if I'm feeling disagreeable); general ramblings on things I find interesting. Much of it will be related to Doctor Who, but not all. I do have a few other interests. There may even be some material on myself, if and when I actually get up to anything interesting. Plus, hopefully, some fiction, when I feel creative.

If you enjoy it, please let me know. If you don't, keep it to yourself. I'm fragile, you know.