Book Review: Scarlet Traces – An Anthology Based on War of the Worlds. Edited by Ian Edginton

Collections of short stories are a mainstay of science fiction; they come in many guises; year’s bests, newcomers, stories based on a theme (apocalyptic, military SF etc), translations and anthologies inspired by past greats.

This collection of stories falls into the last category as all stories are inspired by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and, more specifically, how the events of that book affected life in Britain, at the turn of the 20th Century, after the failure of the Martian invasion.

War of the Worlds arose from a discussion Wells had with his brother Frank about the impact of British imperialism on indigenous Tasmanians. Invasion literature was popular at the time and Wells work can be seen as a commentary on evolutionary theory (Wells was taught by T.H. Huxley, a major advocate of Darwinism), British Imperialism and Victorian fears and prejudices.

Ian Edginton, the editor of this collection, was attracted by the lack of hero in the original book. The protagonist was an unnamed ‘everyman’. As Edginton points out, the protagonist ‘had a day job’.

Edginton has previously written a comic book, called Scarlet Traces, in which Martian technology was ‘reverse engineered’ to serve the British Empire.

The first story is by Stephen Baxter, whose own book ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ was released in 2017 as a sequel to War of the Worlds. Baxter’s story is entitled ‘Going up the blue’, which is a reference to the blue gel that soldiers are immersed in to protect them and provide oxygen in flight to Mars. The British Empire is taking the fight to Mars in a show of jingoism and hubris. The main protagonists are two women, Diane Simms and Bea Currie; the viewpoint switches between Operation Stumps, a battle with the Martians and a future in which the outcome of the battle is examined and a sinister secret revealed.

‘Something sweet in the superstitions’ by I.N.J. Culbard is a well constructed tale of an American door-to-door salesman hawking knock-off Martian technology. Trying to escape his past he seems only to succeed in losing his pride.

‘The Martian Waste Land’ by Adam Roberts features T.S Eliot, who is told by the government that he is in demand with the Martians. He is also told that his modernist poetry could literally be lethal to the Martians and is asked to carry out a recital for the greater good of the Empire. However, there is a case of mistaken identity. Roberts story is farcical and funny.

Emma Beeby is a comic-book writer and author. Her story, ‘The Menagerie’ is an exciting tale about a young Scottish girl, Coira and her toddler brother, Brodie. Their parents run a pub and are fighting English oppression of Scotland at night. Coira has made toys and other gadgets out of found Martian technology, some of it still dangerous. Coira’s relationship with her little brother is touching. Beeby crams in a lot of action in a limited environment.

‘Voice for a Generation’ by Nathan Duck, takes as it’s theme the Martian invasion of Venus that was hinted at in War of the Worlds. Wilf is a Venusian boy whose family of refugees is living in Birmingham in 1967. Wilf and his family experience prejudice and racism. Wilf also feels stifled by the expectations of his family which severely limit his ambitions. This has the feel of a 1960’s ‘kitchen sink’ drama.

Mark Morris’ ‘Spitting Blood’ is a gothic horror featuring ‘Dune’ like giant worms as well as flesh-eating zombies.

‘The Mechanical Marionette Mob’ by Maura McHugh (that’s some serious alliteration!) tells the story of Belsa who operates a mechanical puppet show with her associate Waldo. Belsa is highly talented in the use of Martian technology for making robots and prosthetic limbs. Waldo’s respect and love for Belsa is, he feels, not reciprocated. Belsa is approached by a lady called Gisela and her associate Eldon who wishes to get Belsa’s help in making life-like robots as playthings for rich clients. Belsa refuses and both she and Waldo are put in mortal danger. As well as War of the Worlds, this story also takes in the vivisectionist themes of Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. This is a multi-faceted and absorbing story.

This is a good collection of stories in which the writers have clearly had fun and addressed issues that might have followed the Martian invasion of Britain. Many of the themes still seem current, such as alienation caused by modern technology, discrimination and fear of outsiders. This is a recommended read.

Scarlet Traces is released by Abaddon Books in September.

Book Review: The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man – by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris 2019)

Dave Hutchinson has written the critically acclaimed Europe sequence of books. Whilst this story may have a title that makes it sound like a reboot of a lesser known Marvel super-hero, it is an intriguing slow-burning mystery that has a spectacular ending, which I won’t ruin for potential readers.

Alex Dolan is a Scottish born tech-journalist living in Boston. The slow death of traditional journalism in the free Information Age has hit him hard and he is struggling to make a living. Financial salvation is offered by Stan Clayton, the world’s fifth richest person. Clayton has something of the ‘Elon Musk’ spirit about him; entrepreneurial, seeking to push the boundaries of technology and looking to inspire people with tales of wonder.

Clayton has purchased large parts of Iowa on which he has built a particle super-collider. He wants Dolan to write some articles and a book about the project. Dolan is offered the freedom to write what he wants but he is stubborn; Clayton’s wealth and the promise of a large pay-packet don’t impress him. Reluctantly, Dolan agrees to at least consider the offer and to look around the town of Sioux Falls, a town that had fallen on hard times before Clayton started investing heavily in the area. Dolan meets a number of locals, some tell him to get away while he can, others cannot see why he would turn down Clayton’s offer, which involves salary, a line of credit to buy essentials and a house.

Whilst he is mulling the offer, Dolan is staying in a very plush hotel suite. Whilst there, he hears a strange scrabbling knock at the door, which leads to a visit from the police. Dolan wonders what has happened in the past to make the police interested in such a mundane occurrence. There are other sporadic reports of strange sightings in Sioux Falls but little in the way of detail. The previous occupants of Dolan’s house left in a hurry, leaving lots of their possessions in the basement. Dolan tracks them down and they mention they had a visitation, although it’s not clear whether this was real or imagined.

Dolan’s research takes him on and around the site of the super-collider, where he spots Larry Day, a scientific genius but an unstable and dangerous personality. Day likes to push boundaries without thoughts about potential consequences.

During a barbecue he has arranged for friends and neighbours, Dolan’s house catches fire. Whilst evacuating the house, Dolan sees a man made of static. A number of other unfortunate incidents add to the mystery of what is actually happening in Sioux Falls. Dolan believes that Larry Day may have the answer. He attempts to confront him at the super-collider just as an experiment is taking place. And then things become ……weird, and riveting.

After a measured and slow-paced meander that feels as though it will end with a whodunnit/whatdunnit explanation, the book goes somewhere I was not expecting it to. It’s a fantastic turn and makes the book feel unusual. I was reminded of some Philip K Dick novels in which he took the floor from under you when your expectations may have been set.

This is a great science fiction book and well worth reading.

Book Review: Growing Pains by Mike Shooter

The two sub-headings of this book is ‘Making Sense of Childhood’ and ‘A Psychiatrist’s Story’. In essence, it is a mix of the writer’s professional and (to a lesser extent) personal autobiography, a series of case studies of children and young people that he has helped in his career and a personal plea for the kind of multi-disciplinary approach to helping young people with psychiatric issues that the writer believes gives real results.

Dr Mike Shooter CBE was President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and specialises in treating children and adolescents. We must believe, therefore, that he knows what he is talking about but as it is told from his viewpoint only, it’s unclear to the reader what alternative perspectives might be on offer. Certainly, his beliefs in the importance of listening closely to the children to determine the underlying cause of their issues and working with a team of specialists in a variety of fields to help them manage and sometimes overcome their personal and psychiatric problems seem sensible and convincing; but a non-specialist would not know of any alternative views.

Dr Shooter feels that it is too easy for medical professionals to label a child’s problem as a particular syndrome for treatment with drugs. He notes that some families prefer a diagnosis like this as having a medical condition carries less of a stigma and removes some of their own responsibility for dealing with it.

The chapters in the book are a series of case studies from Dr Shooter’s career; each one highlighting an issue or theme (e.g the nature of adolescence, anorexia, cultural differences, peer group pressure & aggression). The stories of the children and adolescents Dr Shooter has helped are told with compassion and a lack of sensationalism. His description seem to indicate that he is able to determine the root of a child’s particular issue quite easily but it must surely have been more difficult in reality but, perhaps, that approach is just for the sake of brevity.

Very little is said about the actual methods used for helping the children to overcome and/or manage their particular issues. Whilst the stories are moving and sad, one cases study follows another, follows another. It starts to feel formulaic and, unfortunately, monotonous. The words of patients and their families are quoted but in many cases they feel like they are ‘paraphrased’ as they seem to be too polished and too perfect to ring true.

Dr Mike Shooter is to be admired for his compassion and his long commitment to helping children and adolescents. His message of listening to the children rather than rushing into a diagnosis seems important. However, as a book, it is not a compelling read.

Growing Pains is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (by Deepa Anappara)

I was provided with an uncorrected advance proof copy provided for review purposes.

This book is not what you might expect from the title alone. Sounds like it could be a fun, feel-good, adventure story doesn’t it? It isn’t. Djinn and the Purple Line are not key to the story and are really quite peripheral.

The story focuses on Jai, his sister Runu and their parents who live in a tiny one-room shanty dwelling in a settlement that is at risk at being bulldozed at any moment. Despite the poverty, the family own a TV and mobile phones. Jai thinks the TV is the best thing they own and loves true-life detective and cop shows with their focus on lurid and shocking crimes.

A neighbour’s son, who is Jai’s classmate, goes missing and this sets the scene for the remainder of the book. Jai decides to act as detective to find out what is going on.

There are funny elements in this and, at first, it felt like this was going to follow the template of Slumdog Millionaire. Certainly the themes you might expect to find in a book set in an Indian city are there; prejudice, extreme poverty, inequality between the sexes, police and government corruption and a pretty harsh existence for poor children.

There follows a series of other children and adolescents who go missing without trace, causing rising alarm, fear and suspicion between neighbours, Hindus and Muslims.

The story is largely from Jai’s viewpoint, but his sister, Runu’s, life seems far more interesting and poignant. Runu has dreams and ambitions for her future but knows she will end up being seen as just another disappointing daughter and wife.

It becomes clear that there will be no redemption or happy ending for this story and this is reinforced near the end when Runu goes missing. The popular media is criticised for being shallow, overlooking the human suffering whilst focusing on the salacious and shocking elements of the disappearances. Criticising tabloid media for doing stories that sell seems pointless, regardless of how much we might not like it.

The writing itself is descriptive and helps to build up a picture of the slums and the life of those who live in them. There are many Indian words used that are unfamiliar. I had to assume what a number of them meant from the context of the sentence they featured in. It’s not a major problem but it can be a bit confusing if you don’t want to be checking meanings on Google translate every few minutes.

Deepa Anappara tells a very important story about the number of children and young people who go missing every day in India and are never heard from again. However, I got this message from the short author biography on the inside cover at the back of the book. This book could easily have been edited down to a shorter, more focused story. many elements seem irrelevant and not particularly interesting from a scene-building point of view.

In summary, despite the importance of the message, the book itself is just ‘ok’. You may love it but it’s not one I will be telling people they must read at the first opportunity.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is due to be published by Chatto & Windus in January 2020.