Bill & Ted’s Triumphant Return – Brian Lynch

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The aspiring musicians Bill and Ted are the protagonists of two classic sci-fi comedies released around the time I was born. Something like a combination of Wayne’s World and Doctor Who, the films revolve around Bill and Ted using a time-travelling phone booth to guarantee their destiny as messianic rockstars who establish a bizarre future utopia. They’re great fun, though the bit where their evil robot doppelgangers open their skin seriously freaked me out as a kid. Last year Bill and Ted returned in Boom Studios’ comic called, er, Bill and Ted’s Triumphant Return.

Written by Brian Lynch, the main story begins after the conclusion of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Bill and Ted are having trouble writing their second song, so they decide to visit their future utopia to plagiarize themselves. (I have no idea how ethical that is…) They get sidetracked when they encounter a younger version of someone who tried to murder them, and he’s so pathetic that they befriend him. From there, the duo have to deal with parallel timelines, depressed Martian scientists and a tyrannical society where all forms of music have been banned.

It’s a fun story. It builds from the concepts and characters introduced in the original film, but takes them in new directions that seem inevitable in hindsight.

There’s also a few short stories at the end. My favourite was one about Dante irritating the Bill and Ted version of death, but the Ryan North’s story about robots being affected by email spam was also excellent.

The art was bright and colourful, suiting the cartoony feel of the original series.

If Bill & Ted mean anything to you, you’ll enjoy to this comic. Now I need to go watch the originals.

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The Massacre of Mankind – Stephen Baxter

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The cover of Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind does such a good job telling you what the book is about that I don’t think I really need to describe the premise.

The aliens are back two decades after their original invasion attempt was foiled by Earth’s bacteria. Honestly I’m not that surprised that a species capable of decent spaceflight could find a way around germs. Mankind has also changed. The British have reverse-engineered Martian tech and tested it on Russian soldiers during a very different 1914 war. This time round, strange beings on Jupiter take an interest in the Martians’ war , and events escalate in a direction neither side could anticipate.

Baxter has form on fiction inspired by H.G. Wells. He wrote a sequel to The Time Machine, The Time Ships, which honestly I enjoyed more than this book, although admittedly time travel has more potential to be mind-blowing than alien invasions. I’m trying to think of another Wells novel that he could do a sequel for, to form a complete trilogy. Maybe Baxter could take on Island of Doctor Moreau next.

This was a fun book. The global military conflict against an otherworldly foe reminded me of World War Z, and you don’t need to be familiar with the source material to enjoy it.

Foundation’s Resolve – Stephen Collings

Stephen Colling’s Foundation’s Resolve is a brilliant fan-written conclusion to a classic science fiction series that has desperately needed one for decades.

In my opinion, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga was all over the map in terms of quality. I’m mainly interested in it because in the later books Asimov incorporates elements from his Robots and Empire books, fusing them into one massive timeline. This vast fictional history, combined with the fact that I read the last Foundation book over a decade ago, gave me a huge sense of anticipation when I learned that Foundation’s Resolve existed. Before I’ll tell you how the story gratified my anticipation, I’ll give you a little context about Asimov’s universe.

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As a galactic empire totters on the precipice of chaos, the scholar Hari Seldon establishes an academic colony with the official aim of preserving their knowledge in the ultimate encyclopaedia, but in truth is intended to dramatically shorten the oncoming dark age by sewing the seeds of the next empire. Using psychohistory, a science that produces uncannily accurate prophecies from vast amounts of sociological data, Seldon records a series of holographic briefings instructing the Foundation’s leaders on how to respond to the inevitable crises that will define future history while positioning their community as the dominant force in the galaxy.

Although the original Foundation trilogy had a fascinating premise, the characters and writing never felt alive to me. (If you liked it, you should know there’s a radio adaption.) I prefer the two Foundation books Asimov wrote much later, Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth.

After the intuitive politician Trevize and the historian Golan are exiled from the Foundation over a political dispute, they search for the mythical Second Foundation and later Earth. Along the way they meet a planet-sized hivemind called Gaia, who plans to absorb all humanity before expanding into Galaxia, and pick up Fallom, a young hermaphrodite from the isolationist world Solaria. That odd planet featured in one of Asimov’s earlier novels, and it’s these little nods to his previous works that make these later books so gratifying, that thrill of recognition. The greatest thrill comes at the conclusion, where the party encounters R. Daneel in Earth’s moon. Rising from his humble beginnings as a robotic detective in the Elijah Bailey stories, Daneel has been inspired by his idiosyncratic understanding of the robotic laws to protect mankind by secretly manipulating its history. He’s been at it since before the days of Seldon. Daneel confesses he needs Fallom’s brain to continue functioning. That’s where Asimov ends.

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And that’s where Stephen Collings starts.

His main narrative thread explores what happens after the Trevize’s fateful meeting with Daneel, with the events leading up to robot’s neurosurgery being intercut with exposition. Exposition is far from a bad thing here, taking the form of robots explaining the true history of the galaxy to humans, and it’s pleasurable to read the way Collings ties up several loose ends by invoking different elements of Asimov’s work. Collings shows he understands how thrilling recognition really can be by including robotic characters from the unpopular Second Foundation Trilogy; Ludovik Trema, Yan Zorma, as well as Dors Venabli, Seldon’s wife/bodyguard from the prequels. Although I’d only encountered Dors before, the others were introduced well enough for me to understand enough of their past to understand their present actions. By the standards of Asimov robots, their arguments against Daneel’s paternalism towards humanity and his insistence on a brain transplant were credible.

The other plot thread concerned Foundation mayor Harlo Branno picking a fight with the Second Foundation and Gaia. I didn’t actually remember Branno from the original books, and her portion of the narrative wasn’t particularly memorable either. I liked the character development of the Hamish woman befriended by one of the Foundation officers in the original books, and I thought the alternation between the plot threads was expertly paced.

After Collings gives us closure for Trevize’s story and Daneel’s operation, he thrusts the rest of the galaxy into an unstable political situation with an even worse threat waiting in the wings. I like this uncertainty, it leaves room for a sequel and makes it clear that Galaxia is not inevitable. One day I want to read a story where the Seldon plan finally blossoms into a second empire, but even then, those aliens from Blind Alley would show up and ruins things for everyone.

The only criticism I have of this story is the format. On FanFiction.net it’s not divided properly into chapters. And that’s really an incredibly minor complaint, the real problem here is that this story hasn’t been published as a paperback novel with gloriously gaudy cover art, complete with the author’s name written in shining silver letters, with a bunch of quotes from credible reviewers saying how great it is and at least one reference to a prestigious science fiction award on the back cover. As things stand, I recommend copying the story’s url into this site, downloading the result and modifying with Calibre until it looks right on your phone, tablet or Ereader. That may sound difficult, but trust me, this story is worth it.

Everyone who loves the Foundation series must read Foundation’s Resolve.

 

The Medusa Chronicles – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds

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I don’t have a detailed memory of what happened in Meeting with Medusa, which should be concerning because The Medusa Chronicles is a sequel to that classic story. It was about an astronaut crashing a hot air balloon into Jupiter, where he encounters gaseous life forms and living kites, and a talking chimp might also have been involved. On this blog I’m always saying ‘this story will only make sense if you’ve read the ones before’, but surprisingly The Medusa Chronicles works well as a standalone novel.

The impressively named adventurer Howard Falcon, transformed into a cyborg after his Jupiter experience, frequently finds himself the negotiator between humanity and sentient Machines. That’s not too surprising, considering the whole cyborg thing and that he mentored Adam, first Machine to gain self-awareness. Surprising is one way to describe some of the events Falcon is involved in over the course of his functionally immortal lifespan, like the planetary conflict between Earth and the other human worlds, the aggressively aloof development of Machine civilization, and the inevitable returns to Jupiter. Although at times Falcon’s experiences feel like a string of short stories connected only by a common setting and cast, the tense relationship between mankind and the machines that would replace it ensured that The Medusa Chronicles read like a proper novel.

I like artificial intelligences with a sense of humour. Dry wit can humanise a robot, even though that shouldn’t make sense, and Adam has a little bit of that going on. Early on during the Machine rebellion he angrily refers to Falcon as ‘dad’, suggesting a sort of robotic adolescence that I hope didn’t have a sexual component. Towards the end Adam says something quite profound: ‘When I consider humanity, I cannot help but laugh’. If Einstein or the Da Lai Lama said that, people would be smugly parroting the quote so often they’d have trouble breathing. It’d be plastered all over Facebook, complete with a picture of whoever said to ensure that the viewer knew the source was famous. To see a robot with such profound sensibilities is really impressive – it really explodes the dull soulless robot cliche. And why shouldn’t a robot produce such thoughtful utterances? We’ve already got a random Deepak Chopra quote generator, so it doesn’t seem implausible. Adam shows that robots don’t need to be flat characters, and they’re generally better if they’re not.

As a sequel to a 1971 story, The Medusa Chronicles initially features a setting far more utopian than I’m used to seeing in contemporary science fiction. I’m talking harmonious one-world government born from a Soviet/American alliance, world peace and apparently no worries about the environment. References to other Clarke works, like space elevators and black obelisks, provide further nostalgic verisimilitude. Human civilization eventually devolves into the sort of militaristic dystopia Baxter wrote about in his Xeelee sequence, but the happy Arthur C. Clarke future is fascinating to read about while it survives. Reynolds and Baxter make it work by situating the Medusa Chronicle’s future in an alternate timeline where the two Cold War rivals cooperated to deflect an asteroid in the late sixties. I hope the Medusa Chronicles kickstarts a craze of contemporary sci-fi authors writing in the worlds of their iconic predecessors.

The only bad thing I have to say about this book isn’t even that bad – the chapters are very short. Some are as long as three pages. I don’t understand this at all. The authors could’ve save a lot of trees if they’d combined the shorter chapters.

If you’ve been following this blog for while, you’ve probably already guessed that I’m going to recommend this book. For science fiction fans, obviously, but in particular I think that this would be a great read for anyone who idolizes Arthur C. Clarke. At the same time, it works even if you have no idea who never read that guy. Now I need to some solo Alastair Reynolds…

 

Obelisk – Stephen Baxter

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Seventeen stories from Stephen Baxter, covering previously unseen incidents from his Proxima-Ultima sequence, events from alternative histories, and miscellaneous sci-fi moments from the near future.

All good stuff, although some of the alternative histories were bogged down by necessary exposition. My favourite story from this was the one about the time-travelling rats, although the creepy story about a small boy wandering around after the apocalypse stuck with me.

What really surprised me was all the romance. The first story had a couple fall in love after literally crashing into each other in the Martian sky, in another a royal governess flirted with a high-ranking soldier, and divorced dad protagonist of the rat story was visibly attracted to his daughter’s science teacher. That’s a far happier ending than I expect for Baxter characters. I’m not complaining, it’s just a bit weird.

Still, Obelisk is full of great science fiction, so if that’s what you need right now, check it out.

The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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The Long Cosmos is easily the best book in the whole Long Earth saga.

The premise of the series is that in the near future, people learn how to step into parallel Earths. None of these other worlds have humans on them, although they do have exotic new hominids with fantasy names like elves and trolls. This moves the focus away from speculating about historical what-ifs and onto encounters with bizarre animals, geography and the impact that all this extra space has on humanity. The Long Earth series is what you’d get if you mixed Sliders with David Attenborough. Lots of dramatic stuff went down in the previous four books, including Yellowstone erupting, an expedition across parallel Marses, the emergence of a typically patronising posthuman subspecies and an alien invasion of an alternate Earth, but the Long Cosmos tops them all with an interstellar message instructing mankind how to build a computer the size of a continent.

Speculative fiction that about travelling usually ends up presenting a series of increasingly cool and mind-blowing ideas. The one from The Long Cosmos that really stuck with me was the gigantic forest, with trees the size of skyscrapers supported by helium. Their reproduction strategy involves spreading seeds when they inevitably explode during bushfires. I also amazed by the sentient islands that sampled life while moving between worlds, and that ridiculously large computer.

The Long Cosmos felt more coherent and less disjointed than the previous books in the series. I can’t explain why I feel this way. Maybe it was because the plotlines felt more related, and came to a satisfactory conclusion?

What really intrigues me about the Long Earth series are the pop culture references. Two of the main protagonists watch the Blues Brothers, the Tim Allen comedy Galaxy Quest is mentioned far more often then you’d expect, and the interstellar signal plot draws from Contact. There’s also a nun who really, really likes Jim Steinman. At first I though there were so many of these references because this would’ve been the first time in a long while Pratchett could directly invoke them , without forcing them into a fantasy context. But after reading another Baxter book, where a cyborg remembers Cloudy with the Chance of Meatballs as a beloved childhood classic, I’m thinking he was also responsible. Either way, I need to see Galaxy Quest.

The Long Cosmos’ genre means that it feels more like a Baxter book than a Pratchett one, although there is a fair bit of whimsy about. And I really don’t think it would make much sense without reading the rest of the series. Look at it this way – if you’re a fan of these authors and you’ve never heard of the Long Earth before, today’s your lucky day.

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Lungbarrow – Marc Platt

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Doctor Who is unique in managing to run for more than half a century without a continuity reboot or freezing into a status quo. While there is a definite formula, a Caucasian man warping throughout spacetime in a blue box, the cast changes frequently enough that the franchise seems regularly renews itself. Compare this to earlier heroes like Superman, who are older than the Doctor but always gets rebooted into the same scenario every decade or so. When I’m reading a story about an iconic American superhero I’m confident I’ll be able to orient myself through the familiar side characters. Doctor Who stories set in eras I’m unfamiliar with are much more confusing.

Lungbarrow is set in one such era, being the Seventh Doctor’s final adventure before the 1996 TV movie. After being called back to his homeworld Gallifrey, the Doctor lands in the universe’s awkwardest family reunion. This novel is particularly controversial for its revelations about the Doctor’s past, Time Lord reproduction and history, although these tantalising facts are no longer considered canon. There are cameos from Romana (now Gallifreyan President) and the two K9s, and the only thing that really threw me off were unfamiliar companions. The setting, the ancient sunken family home of Lungbarrow, was brilliantly imagined, complete with giant sentient furniture, wooden servants and bizarre board games.

I enjoyed Lungbarrow, but I would have gotten a lot more from it if I’d read previous books in the series. It must’ve been great fun being a Doctor Who fan in the nineties, with so many of these books about. I remember when I was kid, hanging around in the local library, were there’d be all these Doctor Who books in the teenage section. Read this one if you’re curious about Time Lord biology, but I don’t think it stands well alone.

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