Friday, 22 June 2012

Review: Mindjammer by Sarah Newton



If role playing were a boy, Sarah Newton would be the smart girlfriend that was ever so slightly too good for him.  The evidence I point to for this is her first novel, Mindjammer, a heady mixture of action, crunchy science fiction elements and that perennial cyberpunk or transhuman question: what does human mean?

The narrative is a thick, detailed piece of hugely advanced science fiction, that's almost William Gibson like in the intensity of the ideas it introduces; certainly I haven't felt so overwhelmed by concepts since I first read Neuromancer, and I don't consider myself to be a stranger to odd ideas.  The setting that Ms Newton has created is full of technological marvels, ranging from what might be considered digital telepathy to implants that allow the characters to think their way online or enhance their reflexes; essentially they are in complete control of their biology and capable to correct any fluctuations that arise if they need to (so they can willfully boost or suppress adrenaline for instance).  In addition, as memories are stored in the Mindscape (a sort of internet that's connected by minds rather than terminals), allowing a sort of resurrection for the deceased who can be stored in inanimate objects like guns or spaceships and operate them.  The plot follows this point, asking in a way what makes the memories of  dead person, if they can learn and adapt, any different to the mind a living person.  In fact it suggests that a virtual existence, unfettered by the restraints of the flesh may be a purer way to exist; so much so that it seduces one of the protagonists.

The downside of the novel's intensity is that I found it a little difficult to reconnect with the book when I came back to it after a little break and had to remind myself what things like P-Suits were and what some of other the terms the book uses meant.  I imagine that if I'd kept up with it that wouldn't have been an issue though.

The pace is often frenetic, characters are busy doing things, rather than thinking about them and most parts of the novel lead to combat of some form or another.  It's to the author's credit that she makes these fights inventive and entertaining, rather than just another bump in the road.  She has clearly thought through the repercussions of her setting and the applications of the technology she's furnished it with.

I should say that from the first this is a gamer's novel, it reads like a campaign in places; which isn't a criticism given that the source material is an RPG.  It shows in the characters too, to an extent, the team is constructed very much the way a gaming group often is; you have Clay, the thinker, Stark the guy who went for all the combat modifications he could and a mysterious hole in his memories, Lyra, an advanced techno thief and Max who acts as a sort of wheelman come schmoozer.  This doesn't hurt the narrative of the novel but it's an interesting choice to make, especially when it's revealed that two of the characters are criminals working off their misdeeds by doing the Commonality's dirty work (the Commonality being the big, galactic government of the piece) in a rather Suicide Squad like fashion.   So effectively is this done that Stark's amnesia starts to look suspicious - if the others are criminals, could he be and what could be so heinous that his mind would be wiped.  As such the revelation of his true nature at the end of the novel is almost a let down; I felt that a lot more could have been done with the character.

The villains are an interesting bunch, ranging from a Servalan-esque dominatrix in charge of a secret project to a sadistic digital godhead with lofty ambitions.  In between is a patsy who seemingly keeps doing heel turns from ally to enemy and back again in a fashion that doesn't entirely work, but is still entertaining to read.
This aside the only complaint thing that niggled is that the end does feel a little like a Deus Ex Machina, even if it's one we see being established.  I appreciate that by this point in the book the stakes are so high and the vista so broad that the only plausible action is the arrival of a fleet of space ships but at the same time it felt as if the final victory was snatched from the protagonists' grasp in favour of an NPC getting the glory.

All in all though, I'd say that Ms Newton has a bright future ahead of her and science fiction may have a new star just forming in its firmament.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

A Slight Diversion

My wife's blog has gone live, as has her Etsy shop.  Please visit and support her.

http://emiliaetherheart.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/this-is-how-it-begins.html?showComment=1339338753098#c6148168233714400345

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Why Apocalypse?

A little while ago I asked my Facebook friends for suggestions for Post-apocalyptic media to read, watch and play.  Thanks to their suggestions I compiled quite a large list (which I’ve recreated here) so that I could make my way through them and review them like the hideous reading, reviewing nerd I am.  So far I’ve made barely a dent on it, I’m still reading the books I own and the local library has remained quite unmolested by my demands for mutants, psionic powers and people generally suffering in the wake of various forms of apocalypses be they nuclear, alien, bacterial, zombie or more prosaic, like the world running out of oil or the environment changing so much that plants are difficult to propagate.

I suppose the question is why I would choose to do such a thing, especially in a world that’s pretty bleak at present.  Surely these vistas of horrific, twisted worlds are the last things that anyone would want to read especially for pleasure? 

Well yes… and no.  The chief reason for my adopting the genre wholesale as it were, is that with my growing focus on writing I’ve decided to restrict what I read, shying away from urban fantasy, steampunk and vampire literature (though in truth I don’t read that much vampire stuff anyway; and at the time I hadn’t realised how much A Fatal Thirst was a Post-apocalyptic novel and I’m reluctant to change course now, I’m far too much of a flibberty jibbet at the best of times and I’m trying to stick to my guns over something at least). 

Anyway, I found myself in a position where I was casting about for something to read and I didn’t want to go out of genre too much.  I also didn’t want to end up plumping for Medieval, high fantasy, as most a great deal of it leaves me cold these days or for space opera, which somehow I just don’t click with a lot of the time (I don’t really enjoy military SF and a lot of space opera seems to use that as its default setting).  Post-apocalypse fiction seemed to suit the sort of thing I was looking for, it is still Fantastika but at the same time it’s wildly divergent so there was no chance of getting bogged down in one vision, there doesn’t seem to be a Tolkien like figure casting their shadow over the sub-genre (if there can even be said to be genre in the first place) and as a result it feels a lot more individual. 

The last thing was that I had the mad idea that delving into one genre would allow me to be more analytical and measured in my reading, to allow me to look for trends and truisms that can be applied across the board (if such things exist) as well as reading for pleasure.

Curiously many of the novels I’ve read so far aren’t actually that depressing, there is darkness and unpleasantness but their basic premise is often that “change is good” rather than fantasy or space opera that so frequently seem to cling to a sort of orthodoxy, preserving the status quo, for fear that it will be overthrown (why else would so many dark lords be replaced by good kings, rather than by republics?).  These novels positively revel in the fact that the only constant is change, that the old world will be swept away and replaced by something new and, usually, better.  They show us that in the end the tears; the frustration are worth it and that a new life in a new world is possible.  Isn’t that an uplifting message?  Isn’t that better than “no matter what you do, the bastards will win in the end?”

One thing that I would like to do is come up with a tag for the Post-apoc reviews, a way of identifying them to the reader, especially as I’d like to crossover what I’m doing to the Hastur’s Hamster gaming blog for the gaming side of things.

The list is as follows:

Okay, as Kristi Jones said I should do the list of this, here goes...

Books I own/are owned by Eve:
  • Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (read - will review soon)
  • Greybeard by Brian Aldiss (read)
  • The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (read)
  • Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (read... well more listened to as BBC4 Extra had an unabridged version of it recently)
  • The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (read)
  • Demon Download by Jack Yeovi (read) - these should be in the recommended section too as Ian Crichton mentioned them.
  • Krokodil Tears by Jack Yeovil (can't remember if I've read this)
  • Route 666 by Jack Yeovil
  • The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Baciglupi - this should be in the suggested by friends bit too as Mavis recommended it.
  • World War Z by Max Brooks
  • Zombie Apocalypse by Steve Jones and a bunch of other reprobates
  • The Wraeththu series by Storm Constantine - which I've not read for over 10 years (and don't remember that fondly to be honest)
  • 20th Century Boys - anime series with a constructed apocalypse, which I'm a mite obsessed with.

Books I've read but don't own:
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Books suggest be friends on Facebook:
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (suggested by Eve Weaver)
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (suggested by Cara McKee) - on the strength of that I probalbly should include Maul by Tricia Sullivan as that's pretty much the flipside of Handmaid.
  • Night's Dawn by Peter F Hamilton (suggested by Mavis)
  • Zima Blue by Alistair Reynolds (suggested by Kristi Jones)
  • Pure by Julianna Baggot (suggested by Kristi Jones)
  • Reading the Stones by Sherrie Tepper (suggested by Linzi Cooke)
  • The Postman by David Brin (suggested by Kristi Jones)
  • I am Legend  by Richard Matheson (suggested by Kristi Jones)
  • The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk (suggested by Kristi Jones)
  • The Last Airship by ? (suggested by Rich Blackett)
  • Survivalist by Jerry Ahern (suggested by Rich Blackett - and yes, the cover's total cheese)
  • Brother in the Land by Robert E Swindells (suggested by Cara McKee)
  • The Bed-Sitting Room by Milligan (suggested by Martin Kingston)
  • Swan Song by Robert MacCammon (suggested by Raven Dane)
  • Domain by James Herbert
  • Under the Dome by Stephen King (both suggested by Jackie Clewlow)
  • Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling (suggested by J Rob't Harrison
  • Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller (suggested by Pookie UK)
  • Death of Grass by John Christopher (suggested by Pookie UK)
  • Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling (suggested by Pookie UK)
  • Nausica - anime (suggested by Kristi Jones - I own the first couple of volumes somewhere...)
Fillum and TeeVee:
  • Hardware
  • Mad Max series (Darren Chadwick seems a mite obsessed with this)
  • Escape from New York
  • Escape from LA
  • Akira
  • Nausica
  • Gilgamesh (anime series)
  • Wolf's Rain (anime series)
  • Burst Angel (anime series)
  • The Tribe (TV series from New Zealand from the '90s - I don't own it but it was defnitely post apocalypse)
  • No Escape? (Eve says that the culture on the island is post apoc even if the fillum doesn't come from that genre)
I suppose there's the Postman, Water World and the fillum version of I am Legend...

RPGs and games people have suggested
  • Dark Future (rules only)
  • Atomic Highway (I own this one)
  • Airship Pirates (I own this one too)
  • Twilight 2000
  • Dark Conspiracy
  • Fallout games for the PC
which were mostly suggested by Stu Ball, Rich Blackett and Rob Smith... I think Gamma World's meant to be classic isn't it?  I think Sarah Newton's a big fan of that world.  I'm trying to avoid Rifts - it looked fascinating when I was a kid and saw the adverts in American comicbooks but these days it fills me with fear - way too much kitchen sink.

This is the list as it stands, feel free to suggest more books, films and games for me to look at.  I fancy taking a long tour through this sort of thing and there'll probably be much in the way of d'oh moments and hopefully later on some written stuff, analysing the stuff I've seen and read (for instance comparing western and Japanese apocalypses and their aftermaths - aside from "fewer big robots in western stuff).

"Status Update"

It’s been a long time since I did anything other than review books, or comment on other people’s thoughts on this blog.  In fact it may be that I’ve never done anything but that… to be honest, I forget.  In any case I thought it was time to do something that brought people up to date vis-a-vis my own work: so welcome to “all about me”.

First, the big scary news; I’ve been diagnosed as having a hernia, which isn’t exactly pleasing.  There are four ways of getting one and as I’m not too overweight or pregnant (that would be a modern miracle, wouldn’t it?) it must be down to one of the other three.  I’m choosing to think it’s down to the moving heavy furniture option, simply because that sounds more gallant and noble.  I’m not in too much pain, far less than I expected to be in actually (it aches at times but nothing more than that and long may that continue), and I’ve opted to have it operated on rather than wander about with a metaphorical Sword of Damocles hanging over my head.  Hopefully the operation will be soon, quick and sorted in the next few months.

One of the results it’s produced in me (aside from telling people that I can’t do heavy lifting and ending my glamorous life as a champion weight lifter, obviously*) is that it’s made me more determined to succeed as a writer and get to live the life I want, writing professionally as a novelist (please oh please).  Partly as a result of that I’ve started looking into undertaking a part time MA in Writing, Creative or otherwise, as a way to boost my skills and knowledge and hopefully make new contacts that I can call on to make myself a success.  Whilst I don’t really relish the idea of working and studying at the same time, I keep coming back to the fact that it feels as if writing is the only thing I’m actually any good at and if I don’t try to be a success, then I know that when I reach my dotage (if I do reach it) I’ll look back and wonder what this living malarkey was all for.  So far I’m getting very positive feedback from the speculative emails I’ve sent out to universities.  I think sending samples of my work helped; I know it did with one of the more local universities, if only because they mentioned it in their reply.  The main issue I have is finding referees to support my application.  I don’t tend to share my writing with work colleagues that much and finding someone who can say that I can work at postgraduate level is proving to be a challenge.  I’m sure that I’ll get there and make it work though.

On the actual writing front I’m extremely fortunate to have had a story accepted by the Last Line for their third Asylum anthology, Lost Souls of the Asylum, which is wonderful on a couple of fronts.  Partly I’m glad to have got it written because the idea for the story had been knocking around for over a decade – I first conceived it when I was living in Southport but hadn’t got around to writing it before; its good to have pulled it out of the attic and sent off to a bright shiny home for other people (to hopefully) enjoy.  The other brilliant (or should that be splendid?) thing about being part of the Asylum project is that it’s given me the opportunity to work with Arkwright from the Last Line, a man who is a formidably good editor and immensely knowledgeable about the Victorian period.  I feel that his input made the short story a stronger piece overall and would like to thank him for his patience and skill in pushing it to new heights.

The Last Line has also launched Cogzine, a small paper based ‘zine that’s a real attempt to reach back to a pre-internet age, creating a place for writers, artists and musicians to have their voices heard, especially when they’re starting out.  It’s so important for this sort of venture to be fostered and encouraged so that new talent can have the space to grow and mature before going onto be published elsewhere and I urge you to support it, if you can. 

Whilst I don’t consider myself to be exactly new to writing anymore, after a short conversation with Arkwright on that Facebook I whipped up an “urban steampunk” piece about an angel stranded in London and have submitted another piece in a similar vein which I think has been approved.  It’s an interesting publication to write for, pieces have to be a maximum of 500 words, which is a challenge in itself (this blog post alone proves my tendency to tend towards verbosity), and what I’m trying to do feels like I’m almost forging new territory, creating a steampunk that’s not as bound to the Victorian age but combines the genre with elements of urban fantasy in modern London.  I’m hoping to get a piece into most of the issues of the ‘zine, and to slowly build up something greater than the sum of its parts but the main thing is always to create accessible pieces that people enjoy.

In addition I’m trying to write short stories for collections now, starting with a pair of stories for different Alchemy Gothic collections.  The first is a collection of Ancient Wonders and I’ve ended up, without meaning to, writing a sort of sequel to a Lovecraftian piece I wrote a few years ago.  Whilst the tone is different and I’ve added new elements the theme of an artifact that’s connected to the pre-human world is so strong in both pieces that I felt it would be foolish not to exploit it.  The second collection is a Pulp Adventurer anthology and I’m quite looking forward to creating my own weird vigilante and coming up with a nice alternate universe for him or her to play in.  In the meantime I’m hoping to finish some more stories from my own immense back catalogue of stories to write and get them sent out, in the hopes of building my reputation up a bit.

A Fatal Thirst, which I’m still hoping is going to be my first completed novel, is still going on despite my procrastination and worrying over it.  I think I’m heading towards the denouement; it’s just a case of making everything make sense with it and getting all the bits and pieces sorted out to make it a comprehensive and comprehensible piece of fiction.  I’ve learnt a great deal from writing it, from the importance of planning out what you want to put on the page to the need to have a space to write in where distractions, whether in the form of technology or people and pets are at a minimum.  The spare room is slowly turning into my work space and I feel like things are starting to come together.  I just need the weather to behave and it to be warm enough to work in there now.  As ever the big obstacle to my success is my tendency to self-sabotage or to plan things so sloppily that everything has to be rethought in quick succession.

I’m hoping to get several sequels out of the Fatal Thirst setting and to establish my Faerie Noir books, urban fantasy that at the moment is set in San Francisco but which I might be trying to bring back to London because ultimately I know London at lot better than I know San Francisco (which is err, not at all).  Even though it means losing a few bits and pieces from what I’ve already established I think the core of the book would stay the same but I’ll have to have a think and see what comes out of it.

Other than that I’ve signed up with Angry Robot to be part of the Robot Army, their volunteer reviewers (see the badge at the veeery bottom of the blog), so you can definitely expect to see more reviews and probably quite a few from their authors.  My wife (Emilia Etherheart – who’s now in the process of opening an Etsy shop so if you like her stuff then go and purchase to your heart’s content) and I already own quite a few of their books so I may be plundering the collection to provide a load of reviews for that.  The Post-apocalyptic reviews will continue (and I really must put together a piece to explain that side of things mustn’t I?) and I’m hoping to get some essays, or analytical blog pieces at least, out of my reading.  Aside from that there are some other books that I’m reading where I’ve kinda, sorta, promised reviews to the authors so you can expect to see those soon.

So, lots of things going on, a hard but, hopefully fulfilling, path ahead; and nothing to do but start climbing.  The view from the top will be lovely.

*Sarcasm: I’m the poor schmuck who gets sand kicked in his face in the Charles Atlas ads, not the beach body beefcake.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The WindUp Girl: a review


A recent novel, only coming out in 2009, the WindUp Girl is a biopunk novel that posits a triple apocalypse, first that the oil runs out, second global warming will make the seas rise dramatically and thirdly that the natural world comes under attack from genetically engineered viruses and organisms designed by humans to be more “efficient”, or more human friendly, if you prefer with predictably disastrous results.  This has led to a situation where wide spread devastation has swept the world, in a wave that’s led to a long contraction, a period with little trade or communication that is largely kept a mystery.  We know that it has toppled China completely as a world power, or possibly even a place where people can live (at which point it must have been something significant given the size of China), but mysteriously left the USA, or perhaps more accurately American biogenetic engineering companies, in a position of strength; something I can only ascribe to the fact the author is American.  The novel takes place in Thailand during a new wave of trade and exploration and there’s an inference that it’s the last of the world’s nations to resist the new Expansion.

The plot essentially follows two overlapping paths, first following an Agri corp agent who’s trying to locate Thailand’s seed bank in order to harvest its genetics and the second following Emiko, the WindUp Girl of the book’s title, an artificially created human who’s been made in Japan to make up for the Japanese labour shortage and who finds herself in Thailand, forced into prostitution and dreaming of freedom and respect.  Around these plots other characters move, in particularly Hong Sek, a Chinese business man reduced to working for the Agri corp agent’s cover company whose own schemes to restore his family’s wealth and status are at odds with his employers and a pair of Thai White Shirts, essentially environmental “purity cops”, one of who’s overzealousness threatens to bring the Kingdom down in anarchy, whilst the other harbours a much darker secret.  A wide canvas is used, to take the story from a few incidents to a grand guignol of chaos and revolution.

It’s a well realised novel, with a lot of interesting ideas, especially in terms of the curious mixture of advanced and antiquated technology portrayed and the ways that the biogenetic technology is put to work.  The fact that the world is post oil is explored quite deftly, with spring generated power and methane burners being the norm, or genetically engineered animals, developed for greater strength and endurance if technology fails to deliver or is simply too expensive.  A lot of thought, too, has been put into the split between rich and poor and the inevitable tensions that would arise in a world where food itself is under threat, reflecting the nagging anxiety over GM crops and corporations like Monsato and the ever spreading deserts and rising temperatures which are affecting the planet now.

I found it a little bit tasteless in places, the treatment that Emiko is put through as part of her job in the sex club seemed inhumanly cruel and frankly unnecessary to relate in so much detail, especially in the later scenes, we know that her life is horrible and she is forced to do horrible things without having to read about it in such detail, and there are a few plot holes that don’t get cleared up. 

That aside the other issue, for me, was that the author comes across as quite culturally myopic, painting in broad strokes in a way that could be seen as quite insulting.  Thailand is more or less boiled down to lady boys, prostitution, monarchy, kickboxing and Buddhism; anything else really seems to be a garnish.  Japan does not fare much better, we’re told that lack of population growth leads to the creation of the WindUps, artificial servants and that even in the 23rd Century Japan is isolationist and clings to its traditions, hence the ambassador indulging in a tea ceremony.  Again, these are current concerns, there’s very little in the way of projection into the future here which is a shame.  Whilst this kind of shorthand is understandable to an extent, and the WindUp Girl is by no means the worst offender, it still feels lazy and needlessly uninformed.

The Chrysalids and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham: a review

The Chrysalids is a golden oldie from the 1950s and one of my favourite books, I’m afraid if you’re looking for an unbiased view it might be best to look elsewhere.  That said I’ll try to step back and be objective rather than simply type, ‘it’s chuffing brilliant, why haven’t you read it?’ over and over again.  It’s very concisely written and well put together, the kind of book you could read in an afternoon.

Written in the 1950s, atomic energy and warfare casts a long shadow over the book, even though the apocalypse is kept something of a mystery for most of the book, referred to as ‘the Tribulation’ and seen as God ordained as a punishment for man’s wickedness.  Later it is revealed, albeit by means of show rather than tell with Wyndham making references to patches where the ground is covered by acres of black glass of the variety that is certainly a popular image of one of the effects of a nuclear explosion, that the culprit of the devastation is almost certainly a nuclear war.

The novel manages to reflect both the hopes and fears that have been foisted onto nuclear energy, that it will both elevate humanity to great heights but also cast us down into great depths.  The book is the first one of this series of reviews that touches on what seems so familiar about the fantastic elements of post apocalypse fiction, the idea that whatever causes the apocalypse also seriously mutates human genetics, creating strange, warped humans and animals whether in body, mind or both.  There is an extent that I can only suppose that pictures of the effects of the explosions at Nagasaki and Hiroshima on new born babies were in circulation and this informed the shape of the survivors of Wyndham’s Tribulation.  It ties too, in with the 1950s atomic obsession, wherein radiation could be the cause of everything from giant lizards, giant women to people who shoot beams out of their eyes.

With this in place we stumble onto the other aspect of the Chrysalids: paranoia.  The residents of Waknuk (in the remains of Canada if my geography serves), are obsessed with the true shape and with mutation in general, rooting it out, destroying it wherever they can, policing their gene pools, their livestock and crops in order to keep the strains pure and prevent pollution.  This closed-mindedness spreads to animals who have been selectively bred as well; a team of ‘great horses’ are viewed by suspicion by the protagonist’s father who makes it a long time ambition to have them destroyed despite assurances that they are safe (to reflect how little the people in the novel appreciate the idea of biodiversity, it is revealed that the self-same character ordered a batch of kittens to be destroyed as well, because they were born without tails; it only coming to light later on that Manx cats had existed in the time before the Tribulation).  Adding to this is the mantra the church uses to instil the idea of the ‘proper form’ into the people.  Whilst Wyndham doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it, it’s hard not to feel that there’s a strong sense of the kind of indoctrination and emphasis that must have been common to the 1950s with regards to Communism or homosexuality.  It makes the society that the people of Waknuk live in seem very oppressive and insular.

This also reminds me of the Warhammer setting’s mutant hunters and the Empire/Imperium’s own preoccupation with the “true form”.  There almost seems to be a clear link between Wyndham’s novel and the doctrines and catechism surrounding the human form and the way the Games Workshop deals with mutation in its products.

With regards to the plot, it revolves around a small group of young people who possess psychic abilities, and for a time exist in the plain sight, unnoticed in their difference by the rest of the people in the area.  The narrator struggles with the difference that he has inside him, trying to square it with the doctrine that his father (the kitten killer, incidentally) is so determined to uphold.  Inevitably things go downhill once they hit puberty and the secret leaks out, forcing most of them to flee, into the Fringes, areas where there’s still a great deal of mutation to contend with.

The upshot of the novel seems to be that humanity is on the way out, sooner or later attempts to maintain the old image will fall apart and the old iteration of the human race will be at an end, replaced with a different number of human races.

In contrast Day of the Triffids is set during the apocalypse and is a much murkier affair; the details of the cause of humanity’s downfall are still a mystery even though they happen much more closely to the events of the book.  The question of whether the cause of the blindness, the green flashes, is meteors or a form of orbiting weaponry, or something else entirely, is never resolved but in truth this scarcely detracts from the story (though it does suggest a plot hole), the action centres on the protagonist, Bill to such a great extent that the bigger picture is largely irrelevant to the story and only imposes itself at the very end of the novel when we start to see the way that humanity is starting to organise itself and attempt to rebuild.

The story follows Bill, a biochemist who specialises in triffids, as he explores and attempts to survive the brave new world he’s been thrust into.  He is our protagonist, but attracts to himself figures that are in many ways more interesting than himself, Josella an archetypical good girl who wrote a racy book to earn money before the novel’s events and who rather regrets it, and Coker, a rather more radical figure who first appears when he abducts a number of sighted people in an effort to attempt a more socialist approach to species survival.  Ultimately this is a doomed experiment that ends in disaster when plague comes.  Perhaps one of the most interesting and horrifying aspects of Triffids is seeing how humanity has to discard so many of its old ideas as the reality of the situation becomes apparent and begin to develop new ones, even if none of the new ways seem that revolutionary to the modern reader.  In many respects Bill is a rather dull figure, he does practical things and can be seen as a leader but in comparison to the other characters he seems rather drab and uninteresting.  This may have been intentional, in an effort to make him more of an everyman or it may be a consequence of Wyndham’s style of writing.

A friend of mine, Stephen Cowley (from Stormy Port Games), observed that Triffids is very much a zombie story, which rings true.  My wife, who hijacks the blog occasionally as Emilia Etherheart (her sky pirate, steampunk persona hence ‘hijack’), made the point that Wyndham’s opening, of the hospitalised man emerging to discover a devastated world crops up time and again in zombie and disaster films and comics to the extent that it’s become a cliché.  Again this rings true, but with Wyndham’s novel there’s the question of which group are the zombies?  In many respects the triffids fill the role, relentlessly pursuing the poor struggling humans but by the same token those same people, reduced to shuffling hordes by their unnatural blindness are driven fear and their lower urges, particularly at the start of the novel, and must also qualify as that most noxious breed of undead as civilisation is forgotten and they descend into confusion, panic and violence. 

The triffids themselves are the most curious part of the novel; Wyndham evidently thought about them a lot, working out how to make them strange and threatening but not altogether too powerful.  They have an obvious disadvantage in Britain in that they are only capable of a peculiar, three legged walk and have a diet not suited to temperate regions of the world.  They are nonetheless somewhat cypher like, serving as both the chief threat to humanity, disease and starvation aside, and a sort of maguffin that simply seems to exist to drive the plot.  Their motives are never explained, nor are their true origins.  They could be invading aliens or, as Bill asserts, a weird strain of plant that’s been developed in the USSR (personally I’d tie the ideas together and link them to the Tunguska event of 1908 but that’s the writer in me talking, not the reviewer), we’re simply never told in the same way that we’re never told how they escape the nurseries and plantations they’ve been grown on (this last is particularly vexing in some respects because there’s a specific mention of triffids being tied to metal stakes but the free triffids don’t seem to be dragging stakes behind them.  The other problem of course is how do the triffids know that humans will be blind and vulnerable, how do they know to attack; it’s something that the suggestion that the plants might have a hive like intelligence almost but doesn’t quite answer.

Day of the Triffids is a more adult; less hopeful book than the Chrysalids, one where humanity has been beaten and now faces a long slog back to the top of the food chain.  If the crisis had been caused by a nuclear war then it could almost be a prequel to the Chrysalids but it clearly isn’t.  Whilst there is hope for the young people as they are either whisked off to Sealand or determined to make their own way there, the end of Triffids offers only the option of holding the line and trying to find a way to destroy the aberrant plants.

An interesting aspect of both these novels is that for the time Wyndham is quite progressive in terms of sexual equality.  In The Chrysalids for instance the women seem a lot more practical than our protagonist and Petra, our hero’s younger sister is a more powerful telepath than any of the others, capable of contacting somebody on the other side of the world; whilst in Day of the Triffids we see Susan, a young girl rescued by Bill, blossom into a highly practical young woman, the antithesis of a rather supine form of feminity that Coker complains so bitterly about at an earlier point in the novel.  It is a rather sharp contrast to the expectations levelled on women to be simple brood mares, by the group that Bill and Josella discover at the university where the blind women would be reduced to little more than incubators for the next generation.  Given the period he was writing in, this sentiment seems both subversive and invigorating.

All in all these novels lived up to my expectations and provoked questions for me about Wyndham’s role in shaping the clichés and tropes associated with Post-apocalyptic fiction, simply because his novels have pre-dated any of the other books I’ve reviewed so far.