science fiction

The Testimony – James Smythe

51xmaBhFtNLTitle – The Testimony

Author – James Smythe

Published – 2012

Genre – Science fiction (see below)

My first issue in writing this review has been trying to decide what genre to describe the book. I know that pigeonholing something with a specific genre isn’t important, but it does provide a clue about what to expect from a book. So thriller – maybe, apocalyptic – sort of, sci-fi – ish, speculative fiction – perhaps. I can say definitively, though, that this isn’t crime fiction.

The book is set in our world, as we would recognise it, but slightly in the future – the clue is that Obama was the American president a couple of terms prior to the events taking place. The story is told, and I’m quoting the blurb here as ‘synchronous events told by multiple voices’. Everyone (with few exceptions) experiences the same unexplained phenomenon. This is the start of ‘The Broadcast’, initially a noise like static which has no obvious source. The unintelligible noise is followed by a voice – but who is it speaking? The premise is that different people, cultures, religions react differently to this voice and have opposing views about its origin. The dividing question is whether or not this is the voice of God. Which makes this sound perhaps a more worthy and dull story than it is.

As the accounts follow from, initially, 26 characters who are a mix of of ages, sexes, cultures, beliefs, locations and occupations there are also a range of reactions to and experiences of the aftermath of the noise and voice. From a British MP to a nun in Rome, from an American schoolgirl to Indian doctor. Whilst individuals reach their own conclusions about the meaning, if any, of the voice, a terrorist promises to punish ‘false believers’. Unrest brought about by the voice is compounded by bombs exploding and an unexplained illness.The combination of events leads to a situation akin to something apocalyptic.

I have to confess that the different voices that all appear in quick succession in the opening and their conversational style took me a while to grasp. The disadvantage of involving such a lot of disparate points of view is that it takes a while to move the plot forward. As the book progresses however, the number of contributors falls until there is a smaller number of core characters left at the end.

I don’t read a huge amount of sci fi (that’s what I’m calling this now) but it seems to be the best genre for exploring issues and this touches on questions about what is religion and what happens if people are forced to confront their beliefs in a more tangible, physical way.

The story is all about the individuals’ experience and their perception of events which provides insight into the events but is still a very personal perspective. Perhaps, though, this isn’t in the book’s favour because this limits the reader’s understanding of the global scale of what is taking place.

All the characters have own way of dealing with the events – religion, science, sceptic, believer and they all seem credible but perhaps in having so many people the book loses something at the heart of it. This was an enjoyable read that raised some interesting scenarios.

I bought this book. You can see other points of view at Reader Dad and For Winter’s Nights.

Amped – Daniel H. Wilson

Title – Amped

Author – Daniel H Wilson

Published – 2012

Genre – Science Fiction

This is the second fiction title by Wilson and was sent to me by the lovely folk at Simon & Schuster. As a big fan of his debut fiction title Robopocalypse I was looking forward to another sci-fi / thriller and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Owen Gray has an implant. His implant is to control his epilepsy, but for others it could be to control their prosthetic limbs, help them see via retinal implants or just help those less able to concentrate, making them faster, smarter. But not everyone sees the advance of science as such a good thing, and resentment grows towards these amplified humans – or “Amps”.

The book opens at the moment when the US Supreme Court rules that Amps aren’t protected by the same laws as “Pure” humans. So they can’t have a job, own or rent a house, and “normal” people are quick to take advantage of this opportunity. The ruling creates a class of outcasts and soon groups of Amps begin to congregate together, believing there is safety in numbers, while at the same time the Pure Human Citizen’s Council rallies against the Amps.

Gray soon discovers that his is no ordinary implant and that the doctor who conducted the surgery (his father) may have used a device that can help him do a whole lot more than he ever imagined. Unfortunately an explosion prevents him finding out more and he has to make a run for it. His escape from the world he knows to the trailer park of Eden brings him into contact with Lyle Crosby, one of the few remaining elite Amped soldiers, who is being hunted by the police. Crosby, a violent and unpredictable man, seems to be the self-appointed leader of the Amp movement and Gray must to decide whether or not to become involved with Crosby and what, if anything, he should do to help Amps.

The book is certainly thought-provoking, touching on themes about the treatment of those who are different from ourselves, and brought to mind the behaviour of people post 9/11 with parallels to be drawn with the treatment of terror suspects in the US. As if that’s not enough there is also the issue of the power man may have to engineer “improvements” to the human body.

Don’t let this put you off! It is still a well-paced, engaging thriller, although there are some quite gory scenes. Unlike Robopocalype this sticks with just a single main plotline, and doesn’t suffer for it. I am a big fan of Wilson’s writing style and found this a very easy read that didn’t get bogged down in the detail of the science behind the fiction.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Wilson’s next offering will be!

Score – 4/5

Robopocalypse – Daniel H. Wilson

Title – Robopocalypse

Author – Daniel H Wilson

Published – 2011

Genre – Science Fiction

Robopocalypse is a book that starts at the end, in fact twenty minutes after then end of the war between humans and robots. The action isn’t all over, though, and there are a few tense moments while we meet some of the members of “Brightboy”. Our narrator is Cormac Wallace – the current ‘sarge’ in charge of the Brightboy squad. In the moments after the end of the war they have discovered a mysterious object just a short distance from the lair of the architect of the robot uprising. Despite the squad’s concerns the box isn’t hostile, in fact it’s the ‘black box’ of the whole war – recordings, video and audio, images and conversations, which were made during the course of the war. And here we go back to the beginning, to the start of the robot uprising as Cormac decides to transcribe what he refers to as the hero archive. 

So 10 pages in and the book takes us to the very start of the rebellion. The transcription is used as a device to tell the reader key events from the first moment that “Rob” started to take control and the first fatality he claimed through to the end and back to where we started. Cormac is the constant thread in the story as he introduces each chapter and puts it into context. This gives the sequence of events that lead up to the war and introduces a series of key characters who play vital roles in the battle against the robots. Some of them are recurring and some only have the chance to appear once.

 The story is a really easy read and I thought the author had a very enjoyable writing style. Finding out that he has a Ph.D. in robotics made me worry that there would be too much technical detail – but there were no lengthy descriptions and I never felt that I couldn’t picture what was happening. In fact the book would have been pretty similar with aliens, or zombies, but the use of robots and the author’s expertise should perhaps serve as a warning that this is the more realistic scenario to worry about. 

I particularly liked the sense of humour too. For example, when faced with robots killing people inNew York cityone couple consider trying to escape for the relative safety of the countryside. The response is “We’ve never even gone camping.” How many books and movies have people leaving suburbia for the country as if they’ve been studying survival skills for just such an occasion?

 And I’m still puzzling over what seems like a chance remark, but I think is the premise on which the book hangs. When there is the first flicker of intelligent life from the man-made “Archos” it becomes clear that the scientist initiating the project had provided it with vast amounts of data. Yet Archos says “I sense that my records of human history have been heavily edited” and the scientist replies that “we don’t want you to get the wrong impression of us”. At the end of the book Archos says “…humanity learns true lessons only in cataclysm. Humankind is a species born in battle, defined by war.” What was left out, and if it hadn’t been left out would the rebellion have started, or would Archos have not come into existence? I’d be interested to know if this really is a critical aspect of the story. 

Archos isn’t an enemy hell-bent on destruction; it tries to learn from nature and its actions in removing humans, either by killing or interring in labour camps begin to show positive signs for the earth. But then it starts to “modify” people and combine human and robots. 

If I have any criticism of the book it’s perhaps that the idea of the transcription of the archive is a great device for telling the story, but when the story is then told in the first person by the various characters it doesn’t feel consistent.

 I found this a very easy and enjoyable read. I’ve seen on the web that Steven Spielberg is planning to direct the film of Robopocalpyse – that’s one movie I won’t want to miss! But I hope he chooses a title that’s easier to say.

Score – 4/5 (although if I indulged in 1/2 marks I’d go for 4½!)