Free Festive Fiction 2019 – From the Archives!

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I had planned a festive short story to go out on my site today but various real-life things – a new job for starters – have put paid to those plans, which is a shame. The work in progress I’ve been nibbling at is still coming for sure and I am very excited by it – it’s still untitled, annoyingly, but can be described thusly as a spooky sea shanty, riffing a little, and intentionally so, on a classic sci-fi story from way back when.

I am, however, giving something for Christmas this year – I have made available a ~6,000-word short story I wrote in 2018 as part of my university course, Pandora’s Box. I hope it makes adequate festive reading! (Link at the bottom of the post or in the navigation!)

It’s a good story to revisit – written as part of my Narrative Techniques in Popular Fiction module that I recall enjoying quite a lot. This story was borne out of a great discussion we had in class about science fiction where an extrapolation of a real-world topic or concern.

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The concern I took to extrapolate was one I am legitimately concerned about – government collection of vast amounts of personal data, and the nefarious means by which this data could be used. There’s also a hint of extrapolation against nationalising of private industry. Here’s my premise notes from my University notebook:

The story is set on New Year’s eve, a year after the radical PANDORA group swept to power promising that, after an unfortunate industrial accident that they use to highlight the “callous profiteering” of the gene-modding industry, the “immoral” practise of “buying” genetic enhancements (or screening for flaws and correcting them) to create the ideal human body would be outlawed and the technology used to ostensibly “better humanity”.  This event is called the “nationalisation”.

 Over the course of the preceding year, under the surface, PANDORA uses this technology to screen the population for their perceived enemies who start to disappear after the gene clinics are used to surreptitiously build a gigantic genetic database on the entire population.

How does the story link in?

A breakaway group, Nexus, is rebelling against these practises finagles their way into acquiring the master genetic database code and is able to stop the powers that be from continuing to screen the population. However, confronted with such a pandora’s box of information and possibilities, the tables turn with the breakaway group inevitable becoming just as bad as the revolutionaries before them.

 This piece did well when assessed – scoring 67 marks, 3 marks off a First – and it was another one of my University pieces that garnered comments that it could work as the beginnings of a novel. I’ve pondered it myself, it’s certainly a setting and a premise I think holds legs!

READ THE STORY IN FULL HERE

Looking forward to writing lots more in 2020 – and wishing all of my readers happy holidays!

Book Review – Altered Carbon

Altered_CarbonIt’s a bad sign when a book takes me two weeks to complete. It’s especially troubling if it’s a book I’ve read before. This review took even longer.

Going back to an earlier post, I recently purchased Altered Carbon in paperback form; a number of years ago I ‘d read it on my Kindle. So, approaching the paperback for a re-read, it was going to be plain sailing, right?

Unfortunately, after a pretty crackers first act, Altered Carbon gets stuck in the mud. The first act does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the futuristic world, with a gritty action scene that seems to show the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, meeting a grisly end. But then the twist of the book’s core concept – that of resleeving, where consciousnesses are downloaded to new bodies at will, essentially creating technological immortality – is introduced, and the subtle nuances of how this technology affects and moulds human society is laid bare. Amongst this we are thrown into a murder mystery story with this technological, cyberpunk twist.

For most of the book, though, the actual mystery, the reason the protagonist finds himself where he is, is essentially sidelined. I’m pretty new to reading noir fiction but I’m persevering on the recommendation of a friend and university classmate. Recently I read Sirens which went on a similar detour through the world – that of Manchester’s gritty underbelly – so this is a staple of noir fiction I’m gathering; however, Altered Carbon seemed to be falling into the fatal trap I experienced with Ancillary Justice – I just wasn’t engaged enough with the characters exploring their own issues and backstories which I honestly experienced trouble relating to and keeping up with.

Fundamentally, in Altered Carbon the narrative seemed to veer wildly around (Sirens was more a gentle meander; I saw the context of the exploration of the world and the characters) and ultimately after all this exploration of the characters and the world. We learn a lot about Kovacs’ various foibles – there’s a lot of hints to a deep past, but ultimately I cared not for the character; rather I found myself quite irritated by his self-absorption. I just wanted the plot to remember the reason it existed: the murder mystery with a cyberpunk twist.

Ultimately even the core plot that I was enticed in proved bunkum; the assumption about the mystery made right at the start, that is asserted by the characters couldn’t possibly be what happened… is exactly what happened; it just g gets some grey, amoral window-dressing. I was very disappointed after persisting with the book to find out that the answer had been on page one all along.

Sadly however, the re-read of Altered Carbon made me feel that it was a classic example of an intellectual novel masquerading as genre fiction. Some readers may indeed find the book stimulating – I would agree the concept proved considerably more interesting than the execution belied – but if I had to describe my experience it would be one of tedium and bewilderment. There was a lot of pace – which I usually like in a story – but a lot of it I feel was firing in several different directions at once.

The concept of “sleeving” is very interesting – especially when amalgamated into the elitist/class-based system that this technology is controlled by and accessible to but unfortunately the cast of characters we experience this world with in Altered Carbon just didn’t do the concept justice. Ultimately with Altered Carbon it became a book I liked for its setting and visceral prose but by no means did I love it; the characterisation and plot was just too erratic. The narrative for me seemed to get stuck in gear – the book has an excellent first act, setting up the story to come but instead delivers more on inward-looking character and worldbuilding than propelling that story along, and I left deeply disappointed. There’s cool action sequences (some complain that the use of sex in this book is gratuitous; perhaps so but I found myself feeling nothing either way) but that underpins my concerns and misgivings: light on plot, heavy on action, heavy on backstory… with Altered Carbon your mileage may indeed vary wildly.

Review: Armada (Paperback)

armada-book-cover-329x500I loved Ready Player One. It was absolutely one of the best books that I’ve read in recent times, and I was pretty honoured when one of my closest friends (and his dad) agreed about how awesome it was. What hooked me with Ready Player One was the dystopian setting, the quest set within this fantastical world, some prophetic nods to future virtual reality and some engaging and entertaining characters wrapped up in this layer of 1980s nostalgia that was not just there for the sake of being there, but was integral to the plot, while being unashamedly geeky.

Armada has very few of these qualities, and I feel obliged to state how disappointed I was with Ernest Cline’s second outing.

Armada begins in very much the same vein as its predecessor. Ultimately, Armada lives in the shadow of Ready Player One. A young man, Zach Lightman, who is a massive fan and accomplished player of the titular video game, looks out of his classroom window and sees a fighter from the game over the tops of the trees…

The narrative of Armada was trite to the point it became almost like Painting by Numbers. There didn’t seem to be any surprise to the plot twists and events as the book read like something we’d all seen before. I felt that Cline repeatedly, and irritatingly, used shout-outs to famous science fiction properties not as legitimate plot points (as they were in Ready Player One, where knowledge of 80s pop culture drove the story on) but because there was room, however tiny, to hammer them in. I felt a little insulted to be told, explicitly, about how an event was ‘just like in The Last Starfighter…’ (a film whose plot seemed to have been Xeroxed here). To me, the episode of Futurama wherein videogame characters come to life to attack Earth springs to mind…

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The prose too was pretty juvenile and, while easy to read, I felt it was awkwardly written in a lot of places. There’s a ton of teenage vernacular, to the point where I feel the author was beginning not to reflect gamer culture but to parody it. Perhaps, with the crews wishing that may the Force be with you to each other while preparing for the final epic battle might really be what is said if gamers are entrusted to save the world, but where it was a little endearing The revelation of the Armada game being a collaboration between Richard Garriott, Gabe Newell and other esteemed gaming glitterati, with James Cameron designing all the ships, Peter Jackson and Weta rendering the cut-scenes and John Williams writing the score… this felt so amateur. Such a coalition, naturally working in absolute secrecy in an always-online world, comes across as outlandish. Namedropping these famous gaming icons felt, to me, an awkward and unsuccessful attempt to cover all the bases. It seemed to be an alliance of talent so improbable that my suspension of disbelief was strained to the limit. Even the global financial crisis was – you guessed it – resultant of the secret war preparations. The inclusion of scientific figures such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, again, as pretty undercooked cameos, induced a bit of a cringe on reading. The writing felt disappointingly adolescent; sure, the characters were teenage geek gamers but I felt the prose, at times, unintelligent and, ultimately, Armada read increasingly like the “naff” and “cheesy” sci-fi movies it made reference to. Even the names of the characters: Zack Lightman and his father, Xavier, gave off the impression of trying too hard to arbitrarily give this book a shot in the arm with stereotypical “geek” culture.

The barrage of unconnected 80s pop-culture references would be sure to alienate a younger audience. Was Armada a massive piece of fanservice for those that appreciated the nostalgia of Ready Player One?

Zack Lightman’s character starts out interesting, and we want to learn more about his motives, but I felt the backstory was shovelled in through journals that Zach, naturally, read prior to the book. A core tenet of writing is to show, not tell; I felt these expositionary passages were very much telling, without much showing. But any interest behind the character is quickly swept away once the alien invasion starts. Naturally, the crack team is composed of the Armada leader board that is alluded to throughout the first third of the book, though the real life personas don’t seem to get a terrible amount of development. The ‘romance’ with Lex, a fellow recruit, is forced and severely underdeveloped. Zack is attracted to her because… well, I couldn’t answer that besides she’s hot. Which was disappointing. Zack’s school friends are personified as nothing more than idiot gamers. Their motivations and concerns in the upcoming tragedy are left unexplored. They’re simply extant to be a dopey foil to Zack’s character.

Despite all of that, Armada isn’t terrible. I genuinely wanted to love it like I loved its predecessor. The action sequences are cinematic and deftly crafted, and there are a few strands of moral questions about Earth’s warlike behaviour, even if these tropes (such as the military mind being hell-bent on blasting the aliens) are well cooked.  The idea of using videogames to train troops is a prescient one – the reference to America’s Army – one of the few that apply directly to the plot. But, after seeing how skilfully the references to a pop culture the author clearly loves and a fond affinity for everything geeky that was the very spirit of Ready Player One, I feel Armada doesn’t quite live up to the hype (one modern gaming trope it inadvertently succeeds in). Certainly, I felt, Armada was more Ernest Cline’s “practice run” at an 80s-infused, geeky, video-game themed sci-fi tale before Ready Player One. It is certainly not a worthy successor. Perhaps, with geeky video-game adventure novels, lightning doesn’t strike twice? And if I had to quote a movie, this book is more a disappointing Speed 2: Cruise Control than a sublime Godfather Part II.

Read my previous review of Ready Player One here.

Buy Armada on Amazon UK

Review: A Calculated Life (Kindle Edition)

I’m finding it hard to quite distil what A Calculated Life is actually about without constant referrals to the Amazon blurb. There’s a lot of hints from what I’ve read so far – about a dystopian police state with a “compliant population free of addictions”; very Orwellian, with a tinge of I, Robot, with genetically-engineered “stimulants” being discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens – this sounds excellent and full of promise but unfortunately, after proceeding to about halfway through the book, none of this seems to be tying together.

I recognise that A Calculated Life is certainly a more contemplative book, wherein its challenging and exploring the concepts that hang as core tenets of the universe. What is a “normal” life in this strange world? However, in terms of a story taking place of this universe, I feel the book falls quite flat.

The protagonist is Jayna, who is eventually revealed to be one of the genetically-engineered “simulants” (though it took me until halfway in to finally work this out), who works for predictive agency Mayhew McCline, an agency that predicts with mathematical accuracy economic and social trends, who over the course of the book appears to be challenging her core programming and trying to learn more about the deviations from routine and prediction that makes her human counterparts, well, human. However, I felt that for the most part, until I realised that she was indeed a “simulant”, Jayna was a completely unlikeable protagonist I couldn’t relate to. Her personality seemed scant, and what was there, to me, felt cold and clinical, channelling the tritest of “introverted nerd” stereotypes, emerging into a classic Buzz Killington-esque shell. Her robotic personality, over-analysing every action of her counterparts, certainly seemed too straight-laced and “well-behaved” to be interesting. As I approached the halfway point, I definitely felt that as Jayna was starting to noticeably challenge her findings and, at the same time, her genetic engineering to discover a “normality” that lived outside the world of statistics and models that she’d been entrenched in for so long; however, by this point it felt too late to get invested into the plot. The disconnect between the protagonist and any of the ominous echoes of the setting seemed to be too wide to be bridged by this point.

Anne Charnock’s prose in A Calculated Life is competent and unobtrusive, without needless embellishment. It does, however, certainly personify Jayna’s boring personality; it’s a bit uninspiring, workmanlike and works to support the mundane banality in the early part of the book that focuses (too much) on the minutiae of Jayna’s life. There’s a clear action deficit that permeates through what I’ve read so far; sure, I understand that A Calculated Life is more contemplative and conceptual, but with the characters discussing situations like the housing lottery that causes a lot of angst among the population, and a lot of description of how conformity and routine heavily impacts daily life, there’s no sense of brutality attached to this sense of conformity, which dilutes its dramatic impact. If at most a strongly-worded letter would be sent to those that disobey or otherwise rebel against the “system”, then why would one fear this oppressive state? There seems to be no impact upon the characters, who instead spend pages having meandering conversations that serve little purpose. Whether these relate to Jayna’s emotional inexperience naivety is almost inconsequential when regardless, these contemplative conversations seem to do little to hurry the plot along. Likewise, there’s a clear absence of any perceived conflict that directly impacts the characters and drives them forward, and this proves fatal to the book; for a relatively short piece (200~ pages; 3,000 Kindle locations) it certainly feels, as I’m progressing, to be getting longer and longer.

In terms of plotting, I’d say the plot in A Calculated Life seems to simmer at best. Approaching the halfway point, I felt an impatience for the plot to actually start to move toward the conflict that the mid-point of a book usually displays. Even at this stage, the plot is still carrying out a lot of the “setup” that you expect in, say, the first third; by this point I definitely feel the plot should be moving from exploring the circumstances around which the characters find themselves to how the characters might be directly affected or affecting these circumstances. A death of a colleague at Jayna’s employer, for instance, is established to take place relatively early on but continues to only be a background event, hinted at but still seeming distant and unconnected to the protagonist. Is this a key event? By this point, it should’ve been established one way or the other.

Unfortunately for me, A Calculated Life didn’t do anything for me. The combination of meandering, tepid plot, while glimpsing at a promising concept and setup, with a dry and uninspiring and ultimately boring protagonist proved fatal in maintaining my interest. A Calculated Life is certainly contemplative, although I’d just wish it was more direct in approaching the themes it purports to explore. Some might find this an enjoyable, thought-provoking read; however, while the book is sound conceptually, the execution was underwhelming.

Having trouble sleeping? Buy A Calculated Life on Amazon.co.uk