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REVIEW: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

UnknownWhat would you buy if you won the lottery? For Robinette Broadhead, protagonist of Gateway, the answer is adventure and escape, and the chance to make even more money. He wants to get away from a short, dirty life spent mining shale, so he buys a one-way ticket to the eponymous space station , which is an ancient artefact filled with thousands of abandoned spaceships.

Little is known about the alien builders of Gateway – a mysterious race dubbed the “Heechee” – but humanity has figured out how to start up their abandoned spaceships; and now a thriving gold rush is afoot as volunteers ride these ships into the unknown, seeking their fortunes. A ride on a Gateway ship is the ultimate gamble: The controls are unfathomable; the ships follow preset courses of unpredictable length; and your chances of returning alive are only one-in-three. Some crews simply vanish, never to be seen again; some come back with their blood smeared all over the cabin walls by unimaginable forces; and others starve because their food and water runs out before the ship returns to base. But of course, there are always a few gamblers who think they can beat the system, and the potential rewards are huge, as returning pilots are handsomely paid for new discoveries.

At the start of the book, Robinette (or “Bob”) is back on Earth again, years after his time on Gateway, having apparently survived his experiences and made his fortune. His story is presented to us through a series of exchanges with his robot psychiatrist, Sigfrid. Chapters alternate between their discussions on Earth and Robinette’s first-person account of his life on Gateway, through which we – like Sigfrid – begin slowly to piece together the truth of what happened on his fateful final flight.

The trouble is, Bob isn’t a very reliable narrator, and there are some things he doesn’t want to talk about. Sometimes he’s downright evasive. All we know for sure is that he suffers from a crippling sense of shame. Bob seems to despise himself, and it’s not just survivor’s guilt. He seems to hate himself for some of the sexual choices he’s made. For him, sex seems bundled up with guilt and self-loathing, and a deep resentment of his feminine-sounding first name. Since making his fortune, he’s been throwing himself into hedonistic romps with bimbos as a way to suppress his misery. But does that misery derive from his suppressed homosexuality, or from something deeper? And what happened to Klara, the woman he ostensibly fell in love with?

As Bob slowly recounts his tale, Pohl brings the echoing corridors of the Gateway station to life, painting a brittle portrait of men and women suffering from the psychological stress of living in a claustrophobic and potentially-lethal alien environment. Memos and personal ads dot the narrative, adding flavour. When not out risking their lives in space, the denizens of Gateway throw themselves into sexual experimentation and gambling. They are obsessed with games of chance: and none more so than Bob. His very presence on the station has come as the result of a lucky lottery win. Life, Pohl seems to be telling us, is all about chance and coincidence. We may have free will, but only to the extent that we get to decide how we’re going to respond to the hand we’ve been dealt. Luck alone decides if we’ll be wealthy or poor, if we’ll live or die.

Gateway deserves its reputation as a classic (the year following its publication, it won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell awards, and has since been reprinted as part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series). The plot zips along at an agreeable rate, but it is the central figure of Bob who keeps us turning the pages. We view the marvels of the universe through the eyes of a flawed everyman, and we root for him to succeed, despite already knowing that (on some levels) he does; and we feel his discomfort as he squirms ever closer to revealing the events of his final trip, and the decision he has been forced to make. We know something terrible happened to him, and Pohl cleverly uses our trepidation to draw us unstoppably onwards. Like watching a car crash in slow motion, we’re wincing in anticipation of what we may discover but, at the same time, we dare not look away. Even though he’s flawed and sometimes makes bad decisions, we’ve come to like Bob, and we’re worried what he might have done.

This review originally appeared in SFX magazine.

REVIEW: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

41kLB4yxvuL._UY250_‘The Stainless Steel Rat’ is the nom-de-guerre of interstellar conman and criminal, ‘Slippery’ Jim DiGriz, whose life is a lone battle waged against conformity and boredom. In a galaxy so civilised that 99.9% of criminal tendencies are caught and cured in childhood, only somebody extremely smart and extremely larcenous can survive beyond the law, using bank robbery and confidence tricks to generate the excitement he craves. As DiGriz says at the start of the book, “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a stainless steel rat – and it is the greatest experience in the galaxy if you can get away with it.”

While DiGriz is a criminal in the eyes of society at large, he sees himself as a benefactor of mankind, and a protester against its stifling laws and surveillance. He, and a handful of men like him, keep the police in business; they give the newspapers something to write about; and the citizens something juicy to read over their breakfast tables. In his own eyes, he is a Robin Hood figure with a strict code of personal morals. He steals only from banks, governments and large corporations, and holds human life sacred. Crime for him is a form of social protest, as well as a kind of intellectual extreme sport.

This knockabout novel began life as a ‘fix-up’, comprising a couple of previously-published short stories. It tells the tale of how Slippery Jim goes from being a lone criminal grafting away on the fringes of society, to star field agent for the top secret ‘Special Corps’ – an elite law enforcement agency with staff recruited from the best of the criminal underworld.

When one of DiGriz’s operations goes wrong, the Corps pull him in and offer him a job. Then they turn him loose against a very different sort of criminal: a homicidal mastermind intent on building a battleship and carving out an empire.

The story is told in the first person by DiGriz himself, which lets us get inside his head and enjoy (and sympathise with) his crooked view of the world. Intelligent, wry and self-important, Slippery Jim makes for an engaging and amusing narrator, and Harrison keeps the action moving by using short chapters, each ending on a page-turning cliff-hanger – a trick I’ve picked up and used in my own work. He never lets our anti-hero rest on his laurels. As soon and Di Griz thinks he’s got everything figured out, Harrison pulls the rug from under him. Some of the coincidences and surprises in the plot are a little contrived, but the whole thing is done with such energy and brio that it sweeps you along before you have time to question it.

As the original short story was written in the late 1960s, some of the technology seems dated. Computers still require punch cards, for instance. But these lapses don’t detract from the story’s frenetic pace, and can be explained by the fact that galactic society is recovering from an event referred to only as ‘The Breakdown’, when many planets reverted to medieval levels of technology, and are only now being slowly rediscovered and brought back into ‘The League of Planets’.

In fact, this discrepancy in available technology from one planet to another gives DiGriz considerable room for manoeuvre, as his pursuit of the piratical mastermind (whose identity I won’t reveal here), leads him to infiltrate a recently re-contacted feudal society, where the locals don’t stand a chance against his knowledge of high-tech chicanery, and he’s able to pass himself off as a minor nobleman.

Part of the fun of reading this book is the knowledge that, however bad things get and however many setbacks he suffers, Slippery Jim is going to emerge triumphant at the end. He might be a criminal in the eyes of society, but he’s on the side of the angels when it comes to righting wrongs and standing up for the little guy.

While The Stainless Steel Rat eventually went on to spawn eleven sequels (the latest, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns was published in 2010), this first novel is the best of the bunch, with DiGriz at the height of his powers, relying on his wits and crooked intelligence to get him through a series of tough scrapes.

This review originally appeared in SFX magazine.

REVIEW: Nova by Samuel Delany

UnknownWritten when the author was in his late twenties, Nova is a swaggering, heady smash-up of gritty space opera and serious literary ambition. I first discovered it in 2001, when Gollancz reissued it as part of their ‘SF Masterworks’ series, and it’s a curious beast of a book, inhabiting as it does the largely unmapped spaces where pulp excitement coexists with scholarly discussion, and each benefits from the presence of the other.

Set a thousand years into the future, the book tells the story of Lorq Von Ray, last scion of a powerful and rich dynasty, and his quest to harvest the rare mineral illyrion from the core of an imploding sun. He believes a cargo hold filled with illyrion will be enough to tip the balance of power between Earth and the quasi-independent Pleiades Federation.

The narrative acquires its ‘scholarly’ qualities through the speculations of the crewmembers Lorq chooses to accompany him on his quest. They are a crew of storytellers, each one representing a different approach to the art. The gypsy, Mouse, has his musical syrinx (an instrument capable of producing effects across the entire sensory spectrum), which he uses to sing songs and create moods; the fortune-teller, Tyÿ, uses her deck of Tarot cards to construct a meaningful narrative from events around her; and Katin, the aspiring novelist, can only relate to the world through the theories of literature and history that he constantly formulates.

As readers, these three characters are our interpreters. As the events of the story unfold, they are on hand to explain the significance of each.

Katin is particularly prone to verbalising the symbolism he sees around him. He wants to be a novelist but has yet to find a subject he deems worthy of his intellect and talent. Instead, he spends all his time pontificating about the nature of novels, recording endless notes to himself—notes we suspect he will never get around to making use of.

Katin provides us with a rather pompous view of the narrative as great art whereas, when Tyÿ reads the Tarot for Lorq, she interprets his quest (and the role of each crewmember) using the archetypal symbols on her cards, thereby highlighting the mythical context of the story for us. But, of all the characters, it is Mouse who seems closest to the vision of a traditional storyteller. Unencumbered by a need to interpret anything as other than what it is, he simply plays the old songs and tells the old stories, using his instrument to create all the fireworks and effects of mood and wonder that Katin could achieve in written form, if only he could stop theorising and actually commit words to paper.

Like Mouse, Delany produces a few fireworks of his own. Characters begin a line of dialogue in one chapter, and end it in another. The action leaps back and forth in time, taking us back to Lorq’s childhood and adolescence in order to show us the resentments and rivalries driving his quest, reminding us how incidents from our formative years can warp and twist the courses of our lives.

There are no clean surfaces in this book. Everything and everyone has been used, over and over again. Even the interiors of Von Ray’s spaceship are covered in graffiti from former crews. In this respect, Nova can be seen as a forerunner of subsequent “used” futures, and the spinal sockets that the characters use to jack into and operate machinery seem to anticipate the machine/body interfaces of Cyberpunk, 18 years before the appearance of Neuromancer.

The influence of Nova can be seen in the works of later practitioners of the space opera sub-genre, notably in Use Of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1990) and books by other writers identified with the ‘New Space Opera’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was certainly a key influence on my own foray into the genre, The Recollection (Solaris, 2011).

The physics of Nova might be a bit iffy now (especially the vaguely described process which allows a ship to dive into an “imploding” nova and emerge unscathed at the other side), but that doesn’t detract from the grandeur of Delany’s vision, nor the ambition of the novel—a novel which reminds us of a time, not so long ago, when the universe was a place of unknown wonderment, and where anything might have been possible.

This article originally appeared in SFX magazine.

2016 Seiun Awards Shortlist

元_C01A01I’m delighted to discover my novel Ack-Ack Macaque on the shortlist for the 2016 Seiun Awards.

The novel was published in Japan last year by Tokyo Sogensha, and translated by Kazuyo Misumi.

The Seiun Awards are overseen by the Federation of Science Fiction Fan Groups of Japan, and presented each year at the annual Japan Science Fiction Convention.

Ack-Ack Macaque has been nominated in the ‘Best Translated Novel’ category.

The winner will be decided by a vote of attendees at this year’s convention, and will be announced on July 9th.

Further information, and the complete shortlists for each category, can be found on the award’s Wikipedia page.

Distant Galaxies Colliding

The new episode of the StarShipSofa podcast features a short story by yours truly, narrated by Katherine Inskip.

The story’s called ‘Distant Galaxies Colliding’, and I  wrote it back in 2006. It’s achingly romantic. I hope you enjoy it.

Listen here.

Ride The Blue Horse

The BSFA Awards will be announced this weekend at EasterCon in Manchester. You can read my shortlisted story below. If you’re attending the event, I hope to see you there. 

2015-11-11-Igor-Trepeshchenok-Barnimages-13-1024x685RIDE THE BLUE HORSE

By Gareth L. Powell

WE WERE breaking into shipping containers the day we found the blue horse.

My friend Dan had convinced me we should give it a shot. The stacks were dangerous, but since getting the sack from the call centre, we were desperate.

“I heard of a guy two towns over,” Dan said, rocking back and forth on his heels in the call centre parking lot, “who cracked a container of canned fruit. Peaches, cherries, and mandarins – stuff you just don’t see any more. It made him rich.”

“How rich?”

“Rich enough to leave town.”

*

We had to walk to the freight yard, and it took us the whole day. Heat shimmered off the empty road. The place had been abandoned since we were kids. With the big ships gone, it just hadn’t been economical to keep open. And once the port authority stopped dredging, it only took a couple of years for silt to choke the harbour. All that was left now were these rusting container stacks, and the wiry little green fireworks of grass that had smashed their way up through the shattered tarmac.

The perimeter fence had been broken down in several places.

“Are you sure there’s going to be anything left?” I said.

Dan gave me one of his looks. He was still wearing his call centre clothes, dark jeans with a white shirt and black tie, and his top button was undone.

“Look at the size of this place. It’s about a bazillion square kilometres. There are literally thousands of crates.” He stepped through the fence with the sprightly confidence of a door-to-door evangelist. “The ones at the edges may have been looted, but I’ll bet you there’s still plenty of good shit further in.”

“You’d better be right.”

“Of course I am.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Now come on, Spelman, let’s hustle.”

*

As it turned out, he was right. But we had to open six crates before we found her.

The first three were full of plasma TVs, electric kettles, and other unusable junk. The fourth was empty, and the fifth strewn with the discarded rags of a shipment of long-forgotten immigrants.

At that point, I was ready to give up for the night. The sun had gone down and the sky was ripening towards the colour of a day-old bruise. Dan convinced me to continue.

“Just one more.” He slapped the side of the next container in line and the metal made a deep booming sound. “Come on,” he said, “I’ve got a great feeling about this one.”

*

Unfortunately, Dan injured himself as we were prying off the lock. The crowbar slipped, and the end of it gashed his palm.

“Goddammit!”

“Are you okay?”

“Just peachy.” I watched him suck the wound. Thankfully, it didn’t seem deep. We both knew we didn’t have enough money to get him a tetanus shot.

With his hand still in his mouth, he kicked the door.

“Get this sucker open, Spelman.”

“Yes, sir.” I stooped to retrieve the fallen crow bar, and carefully popped the lock.

The door opened on rusty hinges.

“What have we got?”

I frowned into the gloom.

“Some jerry cans and kit bags… and something wrapped in a tarpaulin. I think it might be a car.”

Dan pushed past me.

“Well, there’s no need to sound so disheartened.”

He crouched in front of the covered vehicle and pulled at the edge of its shroud.

“Voila!”

The cloth came away and he stood there like a conjuror awaiting the applause of the crowd. I looked at what he had uncovered.

“Pretty car.”

“Pretty?” He dropped the edge of the tarpaulin and walked around to the driver’s door. His fingertips brushed the blue-painted bodywork. “You don’t even know what this is, do you, Spelman?”

“Nope.”

He shook his head sadly, as if disappointed in me.

“It’s a 1960s Ford Mustang with a V8 engine and four-speed manual gearbox.” Dan was quite the student of classic Americana. Plus, his dad had once owned a garage out near the Interstate. He opened the door and slid behind the wheel. “And the keys are in the ignition.”

I walked over and kicked one of the jerry cans. The dull thump told me it was full. I unscrewed the lid.

“This is petrol. And these bags are full of camping supplies and dehydrated ration packs.”

Dan was beside me in an instant.

“Put all of it in the trunk.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You think it’s worth something?”

“Are you kidding?”

He helped me load the car, and then we both climbed in.

“You know what this is?” He gave the steering wheel an affectionate pat. “It’s somebody’s cache. It’s their end-of-the-world back-up plan, only they never came back for it.” He laughed. “Just imagine for a moment, some wannabe Mad Max trapped in a departure lounge in Washington or Buenos Aires, knowing the planet’s going to hell but being unable to reach all the gear he’s so carefully squirrelled away.”

He pulled a pair of sunglasses from the glove box, and admired himself in the rearview mirror.

“So,” I said, “how much do you think we can sell it for?”

He looked aghast.

“Where’s your imagination, Spelman? This might be the last functional car in America. Do you know how far a blue horse like this could get us on a full tank of gas? At least two or three hundred miles. And then we’ve got the refills in the trunk.”

“And when they run out, then what?”

“And then we’ve got all this neat camping gear, and these rations. I’ll bet they’re super tasty. They’ll keep us going until we find someplace.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I could feel warm, sticky blood soaking through my t-shirt. “We can hit the road right now, and never come back to this ungrateful crap-hole.”

My skin prickled the way it did before a thunderstorm.

“Not… ever?”

“Nope.” He lit the headlights and we blinked against their sudden brilliance.

“One question.” I fastened my seatbelt. “Do you actually know how to drive?”

He turned the key in the ignition. The engine coughed twice, and then bellowed. The metal walls amplified the sound. I caught a whiff of carbon monoxide. Dan released the parking brake.

“No, I can’t say I do.” With his bloodied hand, he crunched the gearstick into first and eased up the clutch. We began to roll forwards. “But really, how hard can it be?”

 

© Gareth L. Powell, 2015.
First published on Medium.com, July 2015
Image courtesy of Barn Images.

 

Sci-Fi-London 48 Hour Flash Fiction Challenge 2016

I’m pleased to announce that, as part of the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, I will be serving as a judge for the Sci-Fi-London 48 Hour Flash Fiction Challenge 2016.

The challenge starts on 2nd April, when contestants will be given a prompt to kickstart their stories, and ends on the 4th April, by which time all finished stories (maximum 1500 words) have to have been submitted.

Entry is free. To take part, simply visit the Sci-Fi-London website and follow the instructions here.

New Cover: Ack-Ack Macaque Second Edition

I’m pleased to be able to reveal the cover for the second edition of Ack-Ack Macaque. The picture’s the same, but there’s a new quote and a badge to highlight the fact it won the BSFA in 2013.

FC-BC (ACK ACK MACAQUE) UK B reprint

In addition, the inside of the book features a new flyleaf with some pretty amazing quotes from some pretty amazing people.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 14.37.04

These new paperback editions will be available shortly via all good book retailers.

Monkey Music

The Boy From Space are a groovy indie electro band from the South of England. They will be releasing their new EP on the the 6th May, and the title track is a song based on my Ack-Ack Macaque novels!

You can listen to the song online here.

I contributed some of the lyrics, and particularly like the ones about flying in Zeppelins and biting people in the face.

The EP features the Electro Space Monkey Punk of ‘Macaque Attack’, the electro synth EDM of ‘Fashion Shoot Reject’, the Motown inspired pop of ‘Bring It Back’ and a smashing remix of ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Work’ by the Rodeo Terrorists.

Eastercon Schedule

If you’re going to Mancunicon next week, you’ll be able to catch me on the following panels.

1). That Which We Call Reality, By Any Other Name …
Saturday 20:30 – 21:30, Presidential Suite (Hilton Deansgate)

In many speculative stories, reality is stubbornly stable: a lot of readers love their worldbuilding to be consistent. But in an important strand of the field, which includes the work of writers such as Carol Emshwiller, Philip K. Dick, and Kelly Link, reality is something more subjective, contested, arguable. What is the appeal of such stories, for readers and writers, and how do they achieve their effects? Do they contain distinctive types of characters or narratives? And can we identify differences of approach or effect depending on whether a given writer’s starting point is literary experimentation, philosophical enquiry, or scientific exploration?

With: Andrew M Butler, Gareth L. Powell, Christopher Priest, Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan

*

2). How High is Your Brow?
Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, Room 8&9 (Hilton Deansgate)

Science fiction and fantasy have long had a tumultuous relationship with the world of “highbrow” art. There are divides in funding, attention, and prestige between artforms deemed (by some) to be “serious” and those deemed to be “popular”, and it sometimes seems that never the twain shall meet. What would science-fictional high culture look like? (SF opera?) How are discussions about “high” art shaped by social class and background? How do we, as science fiction readers and writers, challenge the divide? In what ways do we find ourselves reinforcing it? Can we just ignore it — and why, or why not?

With: Peter Harrow, Trevor Hoyle, Pauline Morgan, Gareth L. Powell, Simon Morden