Spring Tide by Chris Beckett- Author Interview and Book Review

Chris Beckett is an award-winning writer of science-fiction who didn’t set out to be a science-fiction writer.  You may have heard of his book Dark Eden, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award or America City, which was a Radio 2 Book Club choice.

Spring Tide is his latest collection of short stories and although you are likely to find it in the science fiction shelves of your bookshop, it is categorically not science fiction.  His own success in the category has, it seems, meant that it is easier all round just to list it as a science fiction work.  This might mean that people who are ordinarily not attracted to the science fiction shelves do not come across this book, which would be a shame as there is a lot to recommend to all readers.

The book is ‘topped and tailed’ by the stories ‘Cellar’ and ‘Sky’.  In Cellar the main character who lives in a mundane two-up, two-down house discovers a seemingly nebulous cellar.  Room after room after room.  What is it for and where does it end?  It’s a fascinating tale of discovery, obsession and introversion.  Sky sees the protagonist returning from the depths of his own house.

‘The End of Time’ sees angels watching creation.  The ability of light waves to be both waves and particles seems to be linked to the idea of creation vs evolution not being as mutually exclusive as one might think.

A professor’s wife is tormented by a malevolent bird in ‘The Lake’.  The story is like a modern Grimm’s tale, marvellous, bizarre and dark.

There are a lot of ideas and deep thought in all of the stories, no more so than ‘Creation’ which makes the reader consider who it is that creates meaning (nature, the artist, the critic or you?)

Frozen Flame tells the story of a student and his relationship with an older, married woman.  It feels real.  The student’s infatuation leads to him clinging on to the memory with hope for too long whilst life carries on around him.

The Zen like ‘Still Life’ features no humans but there is ‘still life’ in it.  I’ve not read anything quite like it.  It is a picture in words.

‘Rage’ questions western privilege, hypocrisy, foreign aid and extremism.

The story ‘Ooze’, features no humans, like ‘Still Life’ but it does have a simple, impulse-driven sea-dwelling creature.  It is about life and death unvarnished, uncomfortably so when humans’ traditional place at the top of the food chain is reversed.

The eponymous story ‘Spring Tide’ deals with ennui and overfamiliarity in a marriage in which the husband and wife of lost sight of their reasons for being together in the first place.

Overall, this is an excellent short story collection which deserves a wide audience.  If you’ve never been to the science fiction section of your local bookshop, maybe now is the time to brave it.

Author Interview

Spring tide can be found on the Science Fiction shelves at bookshops but many of the stories are not obviously SF.  You’ve commented that SF tends to occupy its own ‘little ghetto’ in bookshops, which could discourage the casual reader.  Do you think SF is the best description of Spring Tide?  There’s a lot there that would appeal to any reader.

I don’t see Spring Tide as SF at all.  I see it as my first published foray outside of the conventions of SF.   Some of the stories in Spring Tide do contain fantastical elements angels, an imaginary city, talking animals, an underground structures and it’s possible that a certain SF sensibility may be detectable in one or two of the others, but I wouldn’t call any of them SF and most are entirely realist.

I think the reason you find it on the SF shelves is simply that I’m known as an SF writer. 

It’s the same with non-SF writers when they do an SF book: the book appears on the ‘general fiction’ shelves rather than the SF ones, because that’s where their readers will look for their work. 

I would certainly like to think Spring Tide would appeal to the general reader, but then I would also like to think that a book like my novel Dark Eden would appeal to an open-minded general reader too.  It’s certainly SF -it’s about people living on a planet with no sun but it’s intended to hold up a kind of mirror to human beings and human society, just as a work of ‘general fiction’ might do.

Over what time span did you write the stories that were included in Spring Tide?  

Most of them were written specifically for the collection over a period of about four months.   But about half a dozen of them had been knocking around for a while in a rough or half-finished state.  The story ‘The Man who Swallowed Himself’ is the oldest, since I wrote an early version of it some twenty years ago.  At the time I couldn’t quite see how to make it work and so I set it aside in a folder I keep for half-finished bits and pieces.  When I came back to it after it had marinated for all that time in my unconscious, it kind of wrote itself. 

Did you have a larger collection of stories that were whittled down to those included?  

I wouldn’t say I whittled down a larger collection to make Spring Tide, but I do have quite a store of half-finished stories, and ideas for stories, which I didn’t include.  Basically I just kept writing until I felt I had enough to make what I felt would be a satisfying collection. 

This is your third collection of short stories following The Turing Test (which won the Edge Hill Short Fiction Award) and The Peacock Cloak.  Are short stories a natural form for your writing? 

I like writing short stories and I think science fiction and the short story form fit well together, but I don’t think I’ve ever (until now) turned out more than about four short stories in a year – usually it’s been more like two.  A short story is a much more intense form of fiction than a full-length novel.   So, for instance, a hundred thousand words-worth of short stories would (for me at least) be a much bigger undertaking than writing a novel of equivalent length.  Once a novel is underway it has its own momentum which drives it forward, but each short story has to be begun anew, with its own fictional world, its own characters, its own themes, its own distinctive voice.

Do you write when an idea occurs or do you have a routine to keep the words flowing?

I do try to write something every day.  I can go for weeks, sometimes even months, during which I know I’ve written nothing of any value.  But it’s important to keep battering away at the wall, because unless you do, you won’t know when that moment finally arrives when the wall suddenly becomes permeable and you’re able to pass through it.  

You’ve said before that your stories are usually about some aspects of your own life.  Frozen Flame, which tells the story of a young man having an intense affair with an older married woman felt real to me.  Is it based on experience?

Well, no, I didn’t have an affair with an older married woman when I was a student.  Part of me is sorry to tell you that because I’m sure I would have found it very exciting.  But then again, maybe it would have messed up my head like it does to the character in the story. 

But nevertheless that story, and pretty well all of the others, draw in one way or another on my own experience.  I suppose how I would describe it is that I take apart my own experience to make building blocks, which I then use, in conjunction with material I’ve picked from elsewhere, to build up into new stories.  The emotions, and the dilemmas that my characters face, mostly come from my own life, at least to some degree.  So do many of the settings.  (I know Bristol pretty well, for instance, where most of that story is set.)  But the situations are new.

Has your work as a social work professional provided inspiration for stories?  Do any of these feature in Spring Tide?

I come from a fairly comfortable middle class background, and I think my experience as a social worker has been invaluable to me in that it has exposed me to aspects of life that many people with my background have never seen.  The thing I’ve written that most obviously reflects my social work experience, however, is my short second novel, Marcher, and it is much less evident, I think, in Spring Tide.

There is one story, however, it’s called The Steps, whose setting isn’t even slightly like the world which I encountered as a social worker, but which would never have been written if I hadn’t done that job. This is one of the stories that have been marinating for quite a while, and was prompted by a very specific question I asked myself in my social work days:  Why does it sometimes happen that adults who are victims of abuse seem oblivious to the fact that something similar is happening to their own children more or less right in front of them, when on the face of it you’d think they’d be (and indeed many are) hypersensitive to that possibility?   The story is set in a stately home, but it is an attempt to answer that question.

I’ve not read anything quite like Still Life before, it’s quite meditative and perhaps the answer to a Zen riddle about what happens when humans are not present.  What prompted you to write that story?  

I think we humans are too self-important.  The world existed before us, and will continue to exist when we are gone.  In all but a tiny little corner of the universe (and even there, a lot of the time), it quietly unfolds without us even now.  I find that to be rather a comforting idea. 

By way of a reminder of this, I thought it would be fun to write a story without any humans or even animals, in it, a story in which the only ‘characters’ were matter and heat and gravity, and the only events were caused by the relationships between them. 

How far do you think you could take that idea? 

It’s a good question.  It never occurred to me to do more than a (very) short story.  But imagine what an achievement it would be if one could write a whole novel like that, and keep it interesting throughout!

One of the stories that, to me, read like a modern-day Arthur C Clarke short story was the Great Sphere.  The tension in the story is caused by unyielding belief systems based on incomplete knowledge.  Your stories and your blog show a nuanced, complex and very balanced view of events.  Would it be fair to say that you think about matters deeply and do not jump to conclusions or subscribe to black and white views?  Do you wrestle with decisions in your own life?

It seems to be a very deeply embedded aspect of my personality that you’ve spotted there.  I dislike black and white views of the world.  If someone expresses a strong view on something and invites me to agree, I always feel a need to present the other side, and I am deeply suspicious of any outlook or philosophy that presents itself as the truth.  I wonder if this comes in part from the fact that my parents had very different outlooks my mother was politically to the left, for instance, my father more to the right and that as I child I badly wanted to reconcile them, or find a position that didn’t involve having to side with one or the other?

The drawback of being like me in this respect is that it is easy to lapse into a kind of relativism that makes it hard to know what you really think about anything. (And you’re absolutely right! That does make decisions hard!)  The idea behind the Great Sphere is that any coherent worldview involves bringing some things into the light, and leaving others in the shadow. 

The story Rage addresses privilege, global inequality and the anger of youth.  Do you feel that there is a lot of unfocused, misdirected or misguided anger in the Western world?

I think a lot of people in the Western world feel (reasonably enough) very indignant about the blatant injustices of the global system, but without fully facing up to the fact that they themselves are beneficiaries of that system.  (This by the way is a big theme in America City also).  And that is what the main character in Rage is wrestling with: the dilemma of middle-class liberals who want to be the good guys, but are also very reluctant to give up the comforts and advantages which they themselves enjoy. 

Something I’ve noticed a lot lately is a rather unattractive self-righteousness rage that is directed by reasonably comfortably off liberal middle-class folk (a category which definitely includes me!) towards poorer people who vote or think in a way that they disapprove of. It seems to me that people in the most educated and/or most intellectual portion of the population often have more modern and progressive views than folk in the least educated and/or least intellectual portion of the population, who are likely to rely on more traditional values.  This make fairly easy for the former to claim the moral high ground.  But I find such claims unattractive and morally spurious, much as I find morally spurious (in Rage) the headmaster Frobisher’s rant about the materialism of the working classes.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a new novel, as yet with no firm title, which draws very loosely on a couple of short stories that appeared in my Peacock Cloak collection: ‘Day 29’ and ‘The Caramel Forest’.  They deal with a human encounter with a form of life that is, by its nature, unknowable. The stories were in part a sort response to reading several books by Eastern European science fiction authors (Solaris, Roadside Picnic, The Snail on the Slope) who seemed to me to have a very different take on science fiction to their British and American counterparts. I think the best way I can describe this new book at the moment is that it’s more about living alongside an unsolvable mystery than it is about treating the mystery as a problem to be solved and fixed.

Chris Beckett’s website can be found at  http://www.chris-beckett.com/

A few signed first editions of Spring Tide are still available in the shops for those with a keen eye!

Spring Tide (Short Stories) – Chris Beckett (Corvus 2017)


Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris 2017)

Think of Saving Private Ryan with space marines set during the 30 years’ war and you’ll have a reasonable impression of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest novella.

The Ironclads are Scions, the sons of the fabulously wealthy and powerful of the world who take part in political and corporate battles dressed in impregnable, heavily armoured suits.

Ironclads is set in a world in which large corporations wage war against each other, corporations fight social democratic countries and the ordinary man or woman lives in a state of feudal penury where a life in the armed services means acting as cannon fodder.

The story follows Sergeant Ted Regan (our narrator) and his small team as they carry out a mission to find the missing cousin of a corporate Scion. Their task involves dealing with political and corporate intrigue, battles with impossible machines and supernatural Finns.

There are some light-hearted moments and I enjoyed a reference to the 1st fighting corps of Ikea. I imagined a large metal suit put together by allen keys and with a nice Billy bookcase mounted on the chest plate.

It’s a slim book and quite an easy read but I left it without strong feelings for the characters or the plot. It just passed by without making much of an impression.

Book Review: Binary System – Eric Brown (Solaris – 2017)

This is an enjoyable sci-fi adventure.  A good tale, but unlikely to convert those not already committed to SF.

Cordelia ‘Delia’ Kemp is a survivor a catastrophic starship explosion which results in her being thrown further from the Earth than anyone has ever been before.

Delia’s only companion is ‘Imp’, an AI implant that acts as counsel, computer and friend.  It’s a great idea, I wished I had an ‘Imp’ to help me out too.

In the first of a series of ‘billions to one’ chances, Delia reaches an inhabited planet that is able to support human life.  It struck me that it is difficult to explain a new idea or form without comparing it to something that already exists.  The inhabitants of the planet are likened to monkeys, locusts and centipedes.

Eric Brown offers a number of expository ‘information dumps’ to quickly fill in the background and provide explanation for what is to come.  Sci-fi readers will be used to this but it can appear quite mechanical and the writing is functional and straightforward.  There are lots of recaps of where the action is and how we got there. Some of the dialogue is a little hackneyed, like it was written for a summer blockbuster action movie.

At one point, Delia has a discussion about emotions with Imp.  One would suspect anyone fitted with AI would have had that exchange with the device a long time previously and it is obvious that the dialogue is for the benefit of the reader’s understanding.

This is a fun adventure/quest story with lots of good ideas if you can get past the outlandish probabilities without thinking too hard about it.

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year 11 – Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris 2017)

You’d have to be very lucky to pick up a  compilation, such as this, and find you liked every story.  Conversely, you’d have to be incredibly unlucky to find that you disliked all of it.

This collection contains some excellent short stories.  It also contains some that, whilst not terrible, undermine the claim to be ‘The best’ of the year.

Some of the stand-out stories include:

  • The Future is Blue by Catheryne M Valente – This is a fantastic tale about a girl with the unlikely name of Tetley Abednego who lives on a floating continent of waste following an environmental disaster caused by the ‘Fuckwits’ i.e. us.  Tetley is widely despised, obscenities are flung her way regularly.  The descriptions of the floating world are vivid.
  • Even the Crumbs Were Delicious by Daryl Gregory – Babes in the Wood meets Philip K Dick in a funny, warm tale.
  • Things with Beards by Sam J Miller – Often dreamlike.  Space creatures deal with issues of equality and social justice.  A story to dwell on and read again.
  • Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson – A high fantasy story concerning war, magic and unimaginable sacrifice in the pursuit of victory.  Simply stunning, a standout in this collection.
  • Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman – Concerns contact with aliens who are sentient but not conscious as “Being aware would just degrade their skill”.  This is an interesting contemplation on how many strive to lose self-awareness.
  • Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley – Eco sci-fi, similar in theme to Catheryne M Valente’s story.  A massive remedial industry exists to prevent rising sea levels.
  • The Visitor from Taured by Ian R MacLeod – A love story in which the multiple universe theory plays a part.  Very well written and poignant.

There are many more stories, some good and some that are average.  The one criticism of this collection is that it feels too long and would have made a tighter, more impressive book with some of the weaker stories omitted.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy are unlikely to feel short-changed if they buy this book.  There are enough great stories to make up for the ones that don’t quite hit the mark.

Book Review: The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories.

The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories – Edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (Solaris 2017)

I love the variety and surprises that short story collections often bring.  I was intrigued by this book which aims to showcase global storytelling and to showcase the djinn (alternatively jinn or genie) as an element of folklore with “immense contemporary” relevance.

The stories are written in a variety of styles.  Classic fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction and ‘weird’ feature amongst others.  Many of the writers bring contemporary issues into focus through a lens of magic.

I’ll highlight a few of the stories that stood out:

The Congregation by Kamila Shamsie – This has a traditional feel and is about a boy, fathered by a jinn, who wishes to feel whole again by being possessed by his jinn brother.  There is a lovely line it where a character says “There is no evil here, only love.  God save us from a world that can’t tell the difference.”

Hurrem and the Djinn by Claire North – Tells a tale of the Sultan’s favourite lady who is believed to be a witch.  It’s about the suspicion and rumour that dogs women of influence and the hatred they face.

Glass Lights by J.Y YangThis is a lovely story of Mena, a Muslim girl who was told by her grandfather that she is a djinn.  Mena quietly helps others without expectations.  It is a tale of everyday life, passing encounters with strangers and the mundanity and randomness of the working day.

A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar – The immigrant experience is writ large in this tale.  We are told that “Nations are great magicians; they pull borders out of hats like knots of silk.  Here, says the wizard nation, here are the terms of a truce: be small, be drab, above all be grateful, and we will let you in.”  This is a prose piece rather than a straightforward story.

Reap by Sami Shah – US based drone operatives spend long shifts watching and analysing a small village in Pakistan.  Through heat signatures and movements they watch a supernatural horror unfold.  Tense and very effective.

Message in a Bottle by K.J. Parker – Witty and mediaeval in style.  Some of the dialogue is a bit too contemporary to fit in comfortably but an excellent story nevertheless.

Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Z. Hossain – Great dystopian sci-fi about the poor and dispossessed.  A Djinn, a cook and a smuggler set up a kitchen and shelter to provide for the poorest.  Well written.  The descriptions of the simple meals cooked made my mouth water.

Somewhere in America by Neil Gaiman – Taken from his novel American Gods.  This is just excellent.  Funny, explicit, moving and empathetic.  It works as a standalone short story.

Overall an engaging, though provoking collection.





Book Review: The Mindworm (Tandem Books – 1967)

The subtitle of this book is ‘A collection of the best science fiction stories’.  If we remove the words ‘the best’, then I would agree.

These stories are fairly old, the collection was first published in 1952.  Styles change, ideas change, society moves on.  Most of this is irretrievably bad with some stories that poke their heads above the gutter like rats before a foray to the bins.

I’ll give you an idea of what we’re dealing with:

‘Not to be opened’ by Roger Flint Young is a ridiculous story about an ego being sent from the future to build weapons to defeat a future dictator.  I really don’t know how this was ever published.  Much of the narrative concerns manufacturing, logistics and the transport of mechanical parts.  Honestly, it’s like the author sat down, put pen to paper and handed it in to the printers.  I can’t believe there was an editor involved let alone any editing by the author himself.

‘The Santa Claus Planet’ by Frank M Robinson is about a planet of primitives, a game of capitalist brinkmanship and has a pay-off line that makes no sense.  Just awful.

‘The Mindworm’ by Cyril Kornbluth is not a terrible tale but displays an old-fashioned carelessly sexist and racist attitude that would not pass muster today.  The story is of a boy affected by radiation who feeds off extremes of emotional stress from others, killing them in the process.

Another story that is not irredeemably dreadful is ‘Process’ by A.E. van Vogt.  It tells the story of survival on the fittest on a grand scale  It is an allegory of the cold war and environmental destruction.

‘Trespass’ by Paul Anderson and Gordon Dickson is inventive and amusing.  It features a time-traveller with an odd but endearing manner of speech trying to fight for his rights to move historical artefacts through time.

The final story, ‘Two Face’ by Frank Belknap Long felt like an insult.  I’d be ashamed if I wrote anything that bad.

I suspect that few people will feel the need to hunt out this book after reading this review but, if you are curious, I will happily let you have my copy.

Book Review:  A Red Sun Also Rises – Mark Hodder (Del Rey 2012)

I stumbled across this book in a pound shop.  The front cover highlights that the author was a winner of the Philip K. Dick award.  Might be a cheap hidden gem, I thought.  Wrong!

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps you may be able to make some useful assumptions based on the establishment that is stocking it.

The cover and the hyperbole on the back suggested a steampunk novel.  The initial tale of a rather weak Victorian country vicar, named Aiden Fleischer, seemed reasonably interesting.  Fliescher takes pity on Clarissa Stark, a lady whose body has been badly damaged in an accident leaving her in constant pain with twisted limbs.  Ms Stark wears very dark, leather bound goggles – one of the few nods to steampunk in the novel.

Fleischer’s fondness for a local young lady, leads to him being blackmailed.  He decides to flee by becoming a missionary and travels with Stark to a remote tropical island. Whilst on the island, Fleischer and Stark fall through an apparent rip in ‘space-time’ to another planet.  I really should have stopped reading there but I carried on like a fool.  

Life is too short to go into too much details but the remainder of the book was filled with some painfully melodramatic and cringeworthy dialogue, aliens with crazy names and a very tenuous grip on understanding their own life-cycle and improbable triple-stage metamorphosis.  

Fleischer undergoes an amazing transformation from a craven man of the cloth to a muscle-bound sword-wielding agnostic warrior.  If this book were ever to be filmed (saints preserve us!) this section would be a montage.

Somehow references to Jack the Ripper are shoehorned into the book, I suspect to remind the reader that it’s set in the Victorian era.

This being nominally steampunk, there is, of course, an airship.  

The plot was needlessly convoluted and when the resolution came I scarcely cared.  My eyes and brain felt tortured by the horror of this ludicrous shambles.  

As a final twis of the knife, the final chapter manages to shunt in a time-lapse, the Second World War and the Bermuda Triangle.  This just left me feeling angry and insulted.

I have read this book so you never have to.  

Book Review – The Caltraps of Time by David I Masson ( Gollancz – 2012)

On initial inspection of this book, I really liked the idea of it.  It’s in the SF Masterworks series, it represents all of the published short stories of a writer I’ve never heard of and it has a great title. (I had no idea what a Caltrap was and had to look it up). It seemed to have forgotten classic written all over it.  However, the proof of the book is in the reading and the initial promise evaporated pretty quickly 

Another reviewer has commented that the SF Masterworks series seems to publish everything, which whilst being a tad unfair does raise an interesting question about quality control and who actually regards the titles in the series as classics.  

In the first story, Traveller’s Rest’ a soldier is relieved from front line duty in some hideous war where no-man’s land appears to be a rip in space-time.  It quickly becomes obvious that time moves faster at the front line than at the rear.  The main characters’ name gets longer the further he gets from the front and the prose also becomes more descriptive.  I quite enjoyed the story even though the pay-off at the end was a bit obvious.  

‘A Two Timer’ tells the story of a man from 1683 who stumbles across a time machine and jumps into 1964.  The use of archaic period English is quite nice but Masson stretches the point of how an Elizabethan would be amazed by 20th century technology a bit thin.  

Masson was clearly interested by language, the introduction points out that he was fascinated by

The functions and effects of phonetic sound patterning.

This interest s clear in ‘Not So Certain’, which is a rather tedious exercise in the study of alien language that is resolved by a punchline that was not with the effort of reading the story.  

Masson’s interest in language means that many of these stories are hard to get to grips with and feel like they were written for his own amusements there than for an audience.  As an example, here is the last line from the story ‘The Transfinite Choice’ (I don’t believe that this can be seen as a spoiler, you’ll see what I mean when you read…)

It was his reality which had been fractionated by infra-hypo-subquark shunt.

Really, it was like trying to read the fitting manual for a gas cooker in a foreign language.

I won’t distract you much further with this review but I will mention the following:

  • Psychosmosis – In my notes I have simply written ‘What?’
  • The Show Must Go On – A SF satire in which the author grumbles about how modern life is rubbish. I suspect it would have been more amusing in the 1970’s.
  • Doctor Fausta- More time travel explained in tortuous fashion and a truly dreadful ‘Bizarro world’ set up.

Whilst I would admire attempts to bring true great works to a wider audience, this volume proves that not everything that is old and has been out of print for a long time is a ‘classic’.  This would have been best forgotten.  Claptrap of Time.  

Book Review – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador -2014)

Extraordinary book alert.  This book has attracted significant critical acclaim and it is easy to see why as it is entrancing from the first scene, which sees a famous Canadian actor (3 times divorced) suffer a heart attack during a staging of King Lear.  

The actor is Arthur Leander, a thoroughly likeable character, despite his multiple relationships, and the person who acts as a touchstone for many other characters in the book.  

Whilst Leander struggles on stage, a former paparazzo and aspiring paramedic called Javeen does his best to resuscitate the actor.  This traumatic event is soon overshadowed by news Javeen receives from a doctor friend who that the recently discovered Georgia Flu is spreading at an exponential rate and killing significantly more people than previous flu strains.  This sets the stage for an apocalyptic event in which the population is decimated and civilisation, as we understand it, comes to an end.  

We are introduced to the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors, who travel between the remnants of towns and villages performing Shakesperian plays for the sparse, but usually appreciating populations.  

The action is taking place around 20 years after the ‘collapse’.  We are introduced to Kirsten, who was a child actor at Arthur Leander’s final stage performance.  Leander handed Kirsten a couple of sci-fi comics about Station Eleven, hence the name of this novel.  

The Travelling Symphony has to hunt for food, fight for scarce resources and set up nightly watches to protect themselves, they are not just a bunch of  artistes.  There is friction within the group but also fierce camaraderie, interdependence and love.  

“But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with.”

“someone … had written “Sartre: He’ll is other people” in pen inside on of the caravans, and someone else had scratched out “other people” and substituted “flutes”.

The lead caravan is labelled The Travelling Symphony – Because survival is insufficient.  Attempting to get to the bottom of what is important in life, what makes it worth living and what seems critical but is in effect inessential, is one of the main themes of this book and it will certainly make readers reflect on their own lives.  

In between the Travelling Symphony narrative, chapters focus on extracts from books and letters, mostly relating to Arthur Leander.  These reveal that, like many of us, characters had been sleepwalking through life, climbing a career ladder that has been leant against the wrong wall.  Prior to the collapse, the characters lacked meaning and joy.  After the collapse, people miss the comforts and convenience of civilisation, life is brutal, but the Symphony help to bring happiness and beauty into the harsh realities of daily life.

Whilst we would all miss running water, lighting, shops, the internet, how many of a us would actually miss the daily alienating grind of modern working life and the corporate bull that accompanies it?  

The Symphony stumble across a settlement controlled by a serene but brutally insane prophet and their fate becomes snarled up in his ‘higher calling.’  Kirsten and several of her friends become separated from the Symphony and must attempt to reconnect at the Museum of Civilisation’, their previously agreed destination, which is where the Prophet is known to have come from and still contains links to the long deceased Arthur Leander.  

This is a phenomenal book.  The story deals with a post apocalyptic world tenderly and realistically.  The characters feel real and we can empathise with what they have lost and their search for the real spark of joy in living.  The bigger themes may lead to some soul-searching within the readers which can only be for the good.  

Highly recommended 

Book Review: Timescape by Gregory Benford (Millennium 2000)

As well as being an award winning writer of SF, Gregory Benford is a Professor of Physics at the University of California.  It is no surprise then, that his own experience and research feed into his work and this book is described as ‘Hard Science Fiction’.

Hard Science Fiction is a rather unappealing name for a sub-genre.  It is somewhat off-putting and suggests that the book will be something that has to be wrestled with to be understood.  The impact of asking someone if they would like to read some Hard SF might be akin to asking them if they’d like to have a go at some hard algebra.  Perhaps people who would like to try hard algebra are also those that like hard SF.  

‘Hard’ can sometimes be shorthand for ‘realistic’, or ‘speculative but based on sound scientific principles’.  

There are two main theatres of action in the book, both are on Earth but are set 30 years apart.  Scientists from the 1990s, where Earth is experiencing a deadly environmental crisis, attempt to send a message to scientists in thee 1960s by means of Tachyons, allied to good old-fashioned Morse code.   The environmental crisis has manifested in the form of enormous ‘blooms’ in the oceans that cause devastation to all other life in the vicinity. 

In the 1990s, a rather uptight British scientist named John Renfrew is struggling to get the World Council to understand his methods and to provide funding.  Renfrew is resentful of privilege and class snobbery and feels his ordinary upbringing is something of a weakness.

In the 1960s, Gordon Bernstein is an assistant professor at the University of California.  We first meet him driving his ’58 Chevy with the Beach Boys playing on the radio.  Could you get a more stereotypical introduction to California, maybe if he was giving a lift to John Kennedy or a soldier on his way to Vietnam.  Bernstein is being tormented by a mysterious source of interference on an experiement his is running involving indium antimonide and nuclear resonance.  Having only a limited education in Physics I did start to ponder whether the Hard SF genre could actually be, well, hard to understand.  I had to simply let the scientific descriptions wash over me and take them as read, it did not affect the understanding or enjoyment of the story.    Does it actually matter if you do not understand the science?  In many SF stories there are underlying scientific MacGuffins, which you are expected to simply accept.  Most will have no basis in science at all.  Therefore, if you can understand the actual science in this book, good for you, if not just carry on reading.

Time travel in a particular form is the aim of the experiment and, as you would expect, there is much discussion of paradoxes.  Handily, the scientists in the book attempt to explain the science to their relatives and friends who, like me, do not have the benefit of a Degree in Physics.

Throughout the book there are themes and side stories of love, infidelity and jealousy.  This injects some human element to the story but it didn’t move the it forward much.  Whilst the attempt was to make the scientists seem more like average guys,  descirptions of their almost blind dedication to solving a problem at the expense of career and relationships somewhat undermines the effect. 

Despite living in the 1990s, the British characters do seem stereotypically 1960s middle-class.  As with many Disney stories, the villain of the piece, to the extent that there is an  antagonist, is British.  Ian Peterson is an upper-class member of the World Council and invetarate womaniser.  He is intelligent and working for the greater good but is an utter cad.  The women in the story see through him quicker than the men but that doesn’t stop them from sleeping with him.  

The text is peppered with scientific theories and I ticked off microuniverses, Seyfert galaxies, Fermat’s last theorem,  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and quantum mechanical supersymmetry.  One day perhaps I will understand them.  Benford tries to get across the aesthetic beauty of science and the satisfaction of solving a problem.  

Progress of transferring information from the 1990s to the 1960s is slow, caused by not having the advantage of the next 30 years of scientific knowledge and a general unwillingness to believe in messages from seeming extra-terrestrial sources.  There is some breakthrough success, which manifests itself in fairly minor ways initially but the tensions and absolute necessity of success is ramped up when the ‘blooms’ of the 1990s start to spread exponentially and find new ways of spreading into the atomospher and other living organisms.  

After laboriously detailing the scientific process over many chapters, the ending comes quickly and seems a bit rushed and hackneyed, full of gushing prose and philosophical meandering.

I started off enjoying this book but the longer it went on the more tedious the descriptions of the science involved became.  There’s nothing wrong with eliciting wonder and curiosity in the reader but this felt like a bludgeon wielded by an author whose knowledge of science will rarely be surpassed by his readers.