Review: The Passengers (Paperback)

The_PassengersOne of the most successful things about The Passengers harkened back to my university days. I recall my lecturer, when discussing effective sci-fi, talked about extrapolating something from the current world into some extreme, and taking the story from there. It’s an approach I find a lot more rewarding than the usual galaxies and asteroids that science fiction is usually, inaccurately, ascribed to.

The Passengers extrapolates a multitude of prescient ideas from 21st century society that make for an engaging, believable and thrilling adventure. It’s a decent mix of ideas also, that may sound disparate but do gel together for a thrilling yarn.

Firstly, the idea of the driverless car – after over a century of innovation with automobiles, finally the human element is dispensed with. This is a technology that’s still in the ascendancy today, but taking strides ever closer to what is predicted in The Passengers. Indeed, one of the backstory threads – that all non-driverless cars have ultimately been outlawed – deals with one of the main teething issues experienced at the cutting edge of this technology – interaction with other cars, and the unpredictability of their human operators.

By removing this unpredictable element of human interaction, driverless cars are portrayed as the holy grail to an efficient personal transport system, largely devoid of the chaos and disorder that comes from having a human behind the wheel. The machinery and artificial intelligence simply runs to a set of rules, though an interesting twist that comes about toward the mid to latter stages of the book is quite what those rules are.

Of course, a decent sci-fi thriller takes an ordinary idea and asks one question: what if…? In The Passengers, this question is posed to be what if the driverless cars that have no manual override get hacked? We begin by following a group of seemingly-normal citizens from a cross-section of society getting in their cars, as Passengers, from therein the fun begins.

But the second societal notion that The Passengers plays with is social media and the mob mentality. Invariably, the “unhackable” cars are hacked, and the fate of the occupants is decided not just by the characters we interact directly with, but by a more intangible influence, that of social media. When lives are at stake, this quickly develops into a full-throated trial by social media with life and death at the hands of tweeters we never meet on an individual level but who only seem to exist as shifting masses, who prove feckless and fickle in the face of the evidence presented to them

This is all good stuff to chew on. But who do we meet as our cast of characters?

The main setting for The Passengers is the members of a supposedly-independent inquest into accidents regarding driverless vehicles, ostensibly to apportion blame. Our protagonist is Libby, a bog-standard everyman hero at first glance, introduced as the “token citizen” in the inquest. She’s forthright, fights for justice… all the characteristics you might expect. Indeed, her characterisation is a little thin, almost bordering on the trite; however the book acknowledges this toward the latter stages when we discover quite why Libby is even in the inquest.

We also have MP Jack Larsson, the antithesis to Libby’s good character – a shady, snide worst-of-the-worst politician, almost a caricature. And the mysterious Hacker, for most of the book an ominous (if slightly cliched) vocal presence throughout proceedings. We’re left to wonder what the Hacker’s motivations are – their initial opening is that they’ve taken control of the eight cars because they can, without making any demands. But this soon evolves into a sick game of life and death, with the participants of the inquest having to decide which occupants to sacrifice for the greater good, according to the rules of the game the Hacker decides to play.

On a conceptual and moral level The Passengers is a fascinating and gripping glance twenty minutes into our future – where autonomous cars are played in a sick game of trial-by-social-media, the purpose of which only becomes clear toward the very end of the novel. This collision of some thought-provoking, prescient social issues – driverless cars, social media power, even the art of spin and how facts are presented – in 2019 gels together well; considerably better than perhaps it might seem.

I’d be remiss to not acknowledge some of the weak points of the narrative and prose that are there – for me they weren’t inherent negatives to my enjoyment of the book. Firstly, the characterisation of the people through which the story primarily takes place through is fairly perfunctory – the characters exist for reasons that the plot needs them to, and we don’t learn a great deal about their personalities beyond tropes. This is fine – indeed, this shares a characteristic, that of the characters existing to help the plot, from one of my favourite technothrillers, Jurassic Park. The Passengers is refreshingly unliterary and plot-centric which results in a pacey, thrilling story that keeps delivering.

However I do feel that the narrative could’ve left the inquest room as a viewpoint more throughout the main thread of the hacked driverless cars – too often the societal impacts of the fast-paced change are merely reported as “thousands of Tweets” or a news report of “massed people”. It felt disconnected and a little subdued -I’d much rather be shown these events rather than be told about them by the social media advisor. But the main meat of the plot takes place over a couple of hours of narrative time so I understand if there’s simply not the space in the briskness of the plot to exit the room containing all the characters we experience the story through – who, conveniently, cannot leave – to adequately build alternate perspectives.

That said, despite a couple of glaring errors (why would Level 5 driverless cars have no manual override to stop the engine at all?) I thoroughly enjoyed The Passengers; to the point where the potential weaknesses were there but ultimately became unimportant in my enjoyment. There’s a great, brisk plot that delivers in spades – a sprinkling of social commentary packaged in an engaging, pacey wrapper – a great, engaging read that makes you think (not too much), and is written in an easy, breezy and slick prose that I really dug quite well. This was another random Waterstones table find that caught my eye – fair to say I’ll be seeking out more of John Marrs’ work on the back of it!

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Book Thoughts: Abandoning eInk for Real Ink

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

In 2011 I got my first and so far only Kindle – a grey Kindle 4 – and it revolutionised how I read. And now it sits begotten and forlorn on my shelf in its battered folio case, surrounded by paperbacks.

Honestly even thinking about this makes me realise how irrational this is. But front and centre I’ll admit now that I am re-converting back to paperbacks, to the degree even that I’m seriously planning to rebuy the books I have on Kindle as physical dead trees.

It’s mad isn’t it?!

Now don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is a fantastic piece of kit, and my Kindle is one of the rare pieces of technology I own that I truly love unconditionally. The eInk display is pretty much paper-like, without the glare of a backlit LCD that is objectively bad for your eyes. Indeed, the eInk is legitimately better paper than paper – features such as dynamic text size, font choice, and even context info and inline dictionary definitions for those tricky words make it objectively more capable than paper.

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A Kindle can contain hundreds of books and not weigh the same as a small car. The battery lasts forever – even on my ancient Kindle 4. It fits in a bag very easily and  the latest Paperwhite versions can even be read in the dark. But the Kindle remains a technological item in that it does run out of battery, it is reliant on WiFi and these niggles can break the experience of reading that a paperback – or other physical book – simply doesn’t need to worry about.

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Largely I’ve found that Kindle books aren’t that much of a saving on traditional paperbacks, so the cost savings are modest. Taking into account, as of time of writing, three popular books sourced from the Top 50 Fiction on amazon.co.uk:

  • The Testaments by Margaret Attwood – Kindle £9.99; Hardback £10 Saving: 0.1%
  • The Holiday by TM Logan – Kindle £2.60; Paperback £6.60 Saving 87%
  • Echo Burning by Lee Child – Kindle £1.99; Paperback £7.99 Saving 75%

I’ve also drilled down into the Top 100 Sci-Fi Fiction:

  • Artemis by Andy Weir – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £8.96 Saving 45%
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson – Kindle £5.99; Paperback £6.87 Saving 13%

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Already it could be said that the potential savings are considerable with a few exceptions; surely savings upward of 33% could be worth the downfalls of the format that I’ll touch on soon. It’s important also to note that there’s a few important caveats on that quick comparison: quite a few of the paperbacks are not discounted; the Kindle editions quite frequently are, heavily so. I’ve been able to find a great deal of mainstream chart books, for instance, the Lee Child Jack Reacher novels, significantly cheaper in physical format outside of traditional bookshops (think: supermarkets). This phenomenon was reflected in a couple of examples that I located of high-profile books being cheaper in paperback than Kindle, or more commonly, where the saving on Kindle was not significant:

  • Killing Floor by Jack Reacher – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £4.50 Expense 10%
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £5.99 Saving 17%

Of course it would be facile of me to disregard totally the trend for ebooks to be cheaper; it’s not a hard and fast rule, but a general trend, and it depends totally upon publisher and offer time. And those savings come at a price nonetheless, it just may not be monetary.

One of the things I’ve found refreshing about my own personal paperback renaissance is the sense that I am owning my books. With Kindle and other ebook platforms, you simply own a licence to access the content via the vendor in question’s storefront or platform – and your books are only readable on that specific platform due to DRM (though there’s millions of free ebook files to be found). Amazon’s infamous instance of remotely deleting 1984 from people’s Kindles is a tart example of the fallacy in this model, arguably. And indeed, what happens if the obscure format becomes unsupported?

And there’s something wholesome and comforting about perusing the shelves of a bookshop and taking punts on recommendations left by the staff, who all love reading themselves. Indeed, some of my favourite reads recently have been ones I’ve taken a punt on after spying a book in a bookshop – Feed by Mira Grant and The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh are two notable recent ones I thoroughly enjoyed.

The fuzziest reason I’ve gone back to physical books is the sheer experience. The feeling, the smell and the sensation of looking at a dead tree with some ink and hallucinating is really rather magical. Quite often when I do use my Kindle these days I have to think if I remembered to charge it recently, whether it was still connected to my WiFi, or whether I’d sent the document I wanted to read on it… with a paperback book I’ve found there’s none of those considerations – one just sits down and opens the book. While over time I have adjusted to a largely digital world and workflow – lord knows, I’d love a typewriter, for romantic reasons; my productivity would crater however – there’s something about the simplicity that comes from an analogue experience that just flows better for me. Again it’s fuzzy, sentimental reasoning, and I have no grudge or ill will towards those who live for their eReaders, but reading should always be a comfortable, personal experience and these days I’m content to bury my head in a well-presented paperback.

But the whole precis of this discussion is that I simply don’t much enjoy the Kindle experience, and that’s a shame – as I recognise the benefits of the Kindle: features like X-ray, the ability to store hundreds, even thousands of books, adjustable text size, font and margins… but it just comes across as a little soulless. So much so that I’m honestly deciding whether to start re-buying my Kindle purchases as paperbacks, a process I’ve already started with the likes of The Fog by James Herbert and One by Conrad Williams. But also series I want to rediscover – I recall reading a fair number of the Lincoln Rhyme books by Jeffrey Deaver and in a weird way they seem less accessible on my Kindle!

I’d be interested to see what people think in the comments! Get to it!

Stock photos by by Caio Resende and Stanislav Kondratiev on Pexels.com; Waterstones Piccadilly (London) from Havwoods.co.uk

Amazon prices correct as of 14th September 2019

Website Update

It’s definitely time for another update! Today I’m going to talk about a couple of projects that are resurgent on the boil once again and that I am really looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into!

This also serves as a good way of checking my own progress in a way so I aim to make these Website Update posts a lot more regularly – though I’d suspect I’ve said this before!

Without any further ado let’s get into what I’m working on currently:

20180706_140550186_iOSThe Thaw – Next Edit

I’m really pleased that this past week I’ve finally bitten the bullet and started on the next edit of my post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw. I last updated the blog regarding this project over a year ago and, by my own admission, it’s sat on my shelf for that time, though some very lovely friends have offered me some great feedback.

I recently, in fact, had a writer-y online call with my good friend and fellow Kingston creative writing alumni Rosie and it really helped me get into my head not only the overall changes I needed to make – she’d sent me some great answers to a feedback questionnaire I’d designed – but also, crucially in my view, how to make a start on the first few chapters. I’d honestly procrastinated because I didn’t know in a way where to even begin but I’ve made a great start on the next edit!

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I do have a variety of exciting plans – I don’t actually intend on doing another self-edit because I feel over-editing it myself is only going to expend time and result in tweaks. I need to bite the big bullet and send this work off to a professional editor, which I intend to do over the autumn for a potential submission to agents – yes, actual agents for publishers – in the new year.

I’ve been building a new writing space at home but while that’s been under construction I’ve tried sincerely to use my local library as a good writing space. It’s really helped me focus, which is very good. It’s definitely a topic I want to dive into more in-depth very soon – I also perused the non-fiction literature section and am working through a couple of books that I borrowed to see if they help me out and already some of the tips I’ve picked up are really paying dividends!

Doctor Who fan-film

IMG_27312_800pxSince 2017 I’ve been working with my friends Mark and Gary on a 25-minute Doctor Who fan-film titled Reverence of the Daleks, with myself acting as Producer and Writer. It’s been a great experience and after a couple of “soft” screenings we’re preparing the film, based on some feedback, for a general online release.

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I’m quite heavily involved at the moment in preparing what we’re calling the Producer’s Cut of the film – working on picture grade, music and tweaking some of the VFX based on the feedback we’ve had so far to form the “final”, ultimate edition of the film.

My friend Mark works as a Media Technician at Esher College in Surrey and every year he puts on a Film Evening of films he and his friends, colleagues and even students have contributed to, and Reverence is going to be the headline event of this year’s Evening, hopefully coming to a venue near you (if you live in South West London!) toward the end of September or October.

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It’s refreshing to be nearly done with this project as it’s taken up a lot of my creative energy, especially when preparing for the first showing – editing the film up until 12:30AM the night before! I’ve tons of other gestating ideas so it’ll be great in a way to have this piece as a bit of an advert for my skills film-wise moving forward.

Other projects at the stage of “worth mentioning”:

  • I’m working on at least one more post in my BookThoughts series from a while ago, so stay tuned on that!
  • I want to start working on some new short stories, including one I’d actually hoped to have done for the festive season last year! I’ve three or four skeletal ideas that I feel merit development!
  • I may be delving into the archives to update (and tidy) my Short Stories section with work from university!

Review: Dogs of War (Paperback)

Dogs_of_WarMaybe I’m just not a dog person.

I picked up Dogs of War recently as a charity shop purchase – I was wary on buying it as I didn’t have a great experience with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time at all. However, it was an inexpensive purchase and the premise of the book seemed intriguing, so I was happy to exchange some coins for it.

A book about biologically augmented dogs (and other creatures, but more on that later) being used in a dystopian near-future to fight humanity’s wars has the potential to be really quite gripping. And indeed, the opening parts to Dogs of War are quite effective as we follow bioform Rex and his cadre of augmented animals as they are used in a war in Campeche, Mexico against the Anarchista rebellion. This purpose is ostensibly that but the conflict quickly becomes the private war of the commander, Murray, who utilises the bioforms to commit a variety of quite brutal war crimes as he is left unchecked. Indeed, any attempt to interfere or provide oversight is met with hostility.

Had Dogs of War stayed in Campeche it would have been a very gripping, atmospheric and gritty book that explored the horrors of humans using augmented animals to fight wars that human soldiers aren’t to be “wasted” on. And indeed there’s plenty of ethical strife for Rex as his augmented intelligence clashes with his literal programming – he obeys his Master – Murray – because he craves the euphoria released by his feedback chip from being a Good Dog; likewise the fear of being a Bad Dog is tantamount in his mind, and there’s plenty of mileage in exploring what happens when Rex is unshackled from that hierarchy and has to make his own decisions.

However only the first quarter of the book takes place in the Mexican battlefield and this is where I feel Dogs of War quickly unravels.

The book pivots to be a political procedural of sorts that focuses on using Rex as a means to bringing Murray to justice and a more wider ethical exploration as to whether the bioforms are things (which can be destroyed) or sentient beings which deserve their own right to coexist alongside humanity.

Even writing that synopsis made me realise that the idea itself isn’t bad; however it is a quite trite and tired narrative thread. And once Dogs of War leaves the gritty battlefield of Mexico and expands to the civilian life of the bioforms – focussing on Rex as he battles with his new-found freedom from his hierarchies – the narrative completely seems to vent of momentum. Rex’s journey seemed immaterial as I felt he was a tool – a thing, if you will – for exploring thematic ideas rather than a solid plot.

To compound the triteness there’s a scene where Rex crumbles when questioned in court when presented with Murray, and the trial of his former Master collapses. I quickly began to be irritated by the stunting of Rex’s character.

There’s parallel narratives, much like Children of Time and the Rex chapters quickly started to bore me, honestly. Rex’s character hasn’t much depth – indeed, underneath the augmentations he’s just a dog, and the battle against his Good Dog/Bad Dog mentality, even when it no longer has any material basis on his actions. Honestly, Rex’s simplistic point-of-view doesn’t do the action portrayed any justice – it’s the narrative style given to Rex’s point-of-view that sells the story short. His perspective and recollection of events is so insulated from the brutal reality that the situations aren’t done justice.

Rex’s point-of-view seems more like a report or log of what happened rather than narrative with any sense of character and the prose of those chapters is too clinical and disconnected to be effective, ultimately. The prose’s insulation from the action it describes bleeds it very quickly of any impact and it becomes a hybrid of a report after-the-fact to a simple running commentary. It’s very tell-y; and the maxim that the author should show, not tell seems to have been purposefully ignored.

I am suddenly much happier. I am moving on all fours, working out where to take cover. Bees is mustering her units. Dragon wakes up and slithers into a stand of trees from where he can get a good shot.

All the not-enemy humans are still running. Some of them will still be in the way. The vehicles are coming very quickly. Already the enemy are shooting. They are only hitting other humans, though: they cannot aim at this range when they are moving.

Honey’s Elephant Gun explodes the lead vehicle. She is pushing through the not-enemy, and I tell her she should stay back to use them as cover.

Dogs of War, Chapter 6, page 47

I feel Dogs of War fails because it’s cramming too many thematic and ethical ponderances into a short book. The final fifth of the book was a race to the finish, ultimately, and I found myself caring less and less for Rex’s point of view. Indeed it was only toward the latter stages of the book that I learned that Rex’s fellow bioforms are not all dogs – he is accompanied by Honey, a bear, Dragon, whose species I never quite nailed down and more ponderously Bees, a literal hivemind of augmented bees that just doesn’t get the weight of attention that such a concept deserves.

Indeed, the character of this group of animals is expressed solely, it seems through the “telepathic texting” that was solely expressed through Rex’s point-of-view chapters. I didn’t quite understand this – were they communicating through aforementioned telepathic texting in real time? How did that work? This confusion just added to the sense of deep disconnect from the characters that Rex’s chapters were.

Ultimately I think Dogs of War worked less as a novel but more as a bit of an indulgence of the author’s desire to explore this well-trodden path of the ethics of utilising augmented animals and determining where the difference between beings and things seems to lie. But more fatally I didn’t come out of it convinced – the plot was ultimately predictable in its denouncement of humanity’s instinct to use its ingenuity to figure out a both more “acceptable”, marketable way of dealing with human problems that remains totally inhumane.

Humanity comes out the bad guy here and unfortunately the limited narrative in Dogs of War just can’t sustain that. Ultimately the themes that drive Dogs of War prove to be an old dog, and there’s no new tricks on show here to speak of.

In Children of Time the narrative enters a stall in the midsection of the book from which it was unable to recover; in Dogs of War the thematic weight behind the narrative forces it out through a puncture in the constraints that kept it taught and once it escapes into atmosphere, it quickly dissipates into nothingness.