Thursday, 26 January 2017

Book Review | The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

It has been 14 years since the Martians invaded England. The world has moved on, always watching the skies but content that we know how to defeat the Martian menace. Machinery looted from the abandoned capsules and war-machines has led to technological leaps forward. The Martians are vulnerable to earth germs. The Army is prepared.

So when the signs of launches on Mars are seen, there seems little reason to worry. Unless you listen to one man, Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells' book. He is sure that the Martians have learned, adapted, understood their defeat.

He is right.

Thrust into the chaos of a new invasion, a journalist—sister-in-law to Walter Jenkins—must survive, escape and report on the war, for the massacre of mankind has begun.


The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, but still, in The War of the Worlds, they came: they came, in aluminium cylinders the size of ships; they conquered, with their towering tripods and hellish heat rays; and then, believe it or not, they were beaten—by bacteria!

So the story goes. But the story's not over—not now that the estate of H. G. Wells has authorised a superb sequel by science fiction stalwart Stephen Baxter which, while overlong, turns the terrific tale Wells told in his time into the foundation of something greater.

The Massacre of Mankind takes place a decade and change since the aliens' initial invasion, and though the Martians may have been beaten, it would be foolishness in the first to conclude that they're completely defeated. As Baxter has it, all we did was knock out the scouts. And it seems that those scouts served their purpose perfectly, because when the bad guys come back, they come back bigger, and better. Add to that the fact that they've adapted; I dare say no mere microbe is going to be their undoing on this day.

We puny humans have learned a few lessons too. From studying the artifacts abandoned by the Martians in the aftermath of the First War, we've developed better weapons, and managed to manufacture a few meatier materials. Alas, our advancement has made us arrogant. We've begun to believe we have the beating of our technological betters, when in truth the shoe's on the other foot:
Many had believed that England would not be subject to a second Martian attack, but enough had believed it possible, and enough more had feared it, that the authorities had been compelled to prepare. The result had been a reconfiguring of our military and economy, of our international relationships, and a coarsening of the fabric of our society. All this had delivered a much more effective home army, and when the attack had finally come, the mobilisation, after years of planning and preparation, had been fast and effective. 
But as a result of that promptness of mobilisation a little less than half the new British Army, as measured in numbers of regular troops and front-line materiel, was destroyed in the first minutes of the assault—most of the lost troops leaving no trace. (p.67)
So it begins—again: another war that brings people as a species to its knees. But Baxter's is a wider and worldlier war than Wells'. No deus ex machina "like the bacteria which had slain the Martians in '07" (p.402) nips this narrative in the bud, thus The Massacre of Mankind occurs over a period of years; nor is the carnage confined this time to Surrey and its surroundings. In the fast-escalating last act, we're treated to chapters set in Melbourne and Manhattan, among others, as the menace from Mars eventually spreads—though why it takes our interstellar oppressors so long to look beyond the borders of little Britain is perhaps the plot's most conspicuous contrivance.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Book Review | Defender by G. X. Todd

In a world where long drinks are in short supply, a stranger listens to the voice in his head telling him to buy a lemonade from the girl sitting on a dusty road.

The moment locks them together.

Here and now it's dangerous to listen to your inner voice. Those who do, keep it quiet.

These voices have purpose.

And when Pilgrim meets Lacey, there is a reason. He just doesn't know it yet.


Long seen though they've been as the preserve of the precocious, or the last hope of the lonely, imaginary friends are ten-a-penny in Defender.

G. X. Todd's remarkably readable dystopian debut posits a planet Earth ravaged by unfathomable cataclysm. On the one hand, survivors are scant; on the other, theories about how it happened aren't. "To get it over and done with, he quickly ticked off the points on his fingers as he listed them. 'Biological attack, poisoning, after-effects of dementia vaccines, aliens, subliminal and/or psychological warfare, chemical agents in the water supply, the mystical forces of sea tides and the moon. And, my personal favourite, some kind of Rapture-type event.'" (p.101)

But the cause of this apocalypse isn't the point of Todd's text—the first of four in a series starting here. Instead, she's interested in the effect: namely the voices people started hearing in their heads. Defender's protagonist Pilgrim has one; he calls it, of all things, Voice. That said, he's a rarity these days, because most of the folks who ended up with imaginary friends are dead.

Whether they're symptomatic of a mass auditory hallucination or something more... well. "That's the million-dollar question," (p.254) one Todd isn't inclined to answer—at least, not in this novel—but it's safe today to say that these imaginary friends mightn't be entirely made up. Nor, indeed, are they terribly friendly. Many pushed the people who heard them into murder and suicide, hence the paltry population of Defender's North America. Pilgrim, for his part, has come to something of an understanding with the who-knows-what he hosts:
Any sense of peace he ever hoped to achieve would only be an illusion, for Voice was always with him and always would be. He was demon and angel and conscience wrapped up in one, and there was no escaping him. (p.10)
To wit, when Voice urges Pilgrim to offer the girl selling lemonade from a stand by the side of the road a ride, it's easier for our hero to hear her out than to start a subconscious squabble there'd be no stopping.

Lacey seems harmless enough in any event. Sixteen years old, she's been raised in blissful ignorance in a farm off the beaten track by her Gran, but now that her Gran is gone, the farm has fallen fallow, and she knows she needs to move on. What she wants is to get to her sister's in Vicksburg. It's been years since they saw one another, but Lacey believes her sister is a survivor; that together, they could turn their little lives into something worthwhile.

Taking on a passenger goes against everything that's kept Pilgrim alive—if not well—since everything went to hell, but for some mysterious reason, Voice won't take no for an answer, so Lacey packs a rucksack, sit in the pillion position, and off they pop.

That's how the adventures of Lacey and Pilgrim begin—and that might well be how they end as well, because unbeknownst to them, they're on a collision course with a monster of a man called Charles Dumont: a creepy country bumpkin who's tasked his gun-toting gang to round up any and all of the survivors they come across—especially those that have been "blessed" with imaginary friends.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book Review | Babylon's Ashes by James S. A. Corey

A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood.

The Free Navy—a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships—has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinantefor a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.

But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante's problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.


The Expanse made a tremendous first impression, and the next novels in the blockbuster space opera Leviathan Wakes started went from strength to strength, knocking the overarching first contact narrative out of the park at the same time as remaining satisfyingly self-contained. But then there was a wobble—a wobble of opportunity squandered that nearly drove this reader from the series. It fell, finally, to Nemesis Games to right not a sinking ship, but one that was at least listing.

I was delighted that it did. By contracting as opposed to expanding—by firmly and finely focusing on the characters that had been at its heart from the start—Nemesis Games recaptured the intimate magic that The Expanse's latter chapters lacked, and although it didn't address the presence of the protomolecule, something dramatic did actually happen in book five: something that completely changed the state of play across the Milky Way.
The Belt had finally shrugged off the yoke of the inner planets. They had Medina Station at the heart of the ring gates, they had the only functioning navy in the solar system, and they had the gratitude of millions of Belters. In the long term, it was the greatest statement of independence and freedom the human race had ever made. (p.18)
Said statement came at a cost, of course. You don't just get to declare that you're done with the people who've been keeping you and run off with their resources—not now and not in this near-future milieu. If no one's listening, you have to force the issue. You might even have to fight for that right.

Unfortunately for a huge hunk of humanity—for the folks who've made their homes on Earth and Mars and the Moon—the Free Navy didn't care about collateral damage when they conspired to fire asteroid fragments at the planet their oppressors were arranged around:
There had been thirty billion people on the overcrowded Earth, dependent on a vast network of machinery to keep them fed and hydrated and not drowning in their own waste. A third of those, by the more pessimistic estimates, had already died. Holden had seen a few seconds of a report discussing how the death count in Western Europe was being done by assaying atmospheric changes. How much methane and cadaverine were in the air let them guess how many people were rotting in the ruined streets and cities. That was the scale of the disaster. (p.33)
Essentially, it's the end of the world as we know it, and Marcos Inaros, the man behind it, feels fine.