Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi’

‘Synthetic Saints’ by Jason Rolfe

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on April 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

If my reading career has taught me anything, it is that for a book to survive in the current publishing climate, it needs to bring something extraordinary and unique to the reading audience. Jason Rolfe’s bold and experimental novella, Synthetic Saints, certainly caters to this industry requirement. The futuristic text catapults you into a somewhat terrifying version of our future both as a planet and a civilisation in which humans are accompanied by their synthetics, a term used to describe a simulated human, if you will.

The short text follows the journey of protagonist Alex Hargreaves, who is a security specialist for the ISA. After losing communication with a Deep Space Observatory, Alex and his synthetic partner Persephone are sent to investigate what happened to the data analyst, Amanda Hayes, that was in charge of this particular station. We are informed before the novella begins that each data analyst within this kind of position runs their respective observatories alone and that they work on a six-month rotation period. Naturally, the feelings of isolation and depression are over-whelming in such a unique situation thus, Alex makes no secret of the fact that accidental death and suicide are common amongst those who adopt the role. With this startling reality in mind, Alex and Persephone are on a journey to identify which of the above options has occurred this time.

Jason Rolfe Synthetic Saints

Alongside the difficulties faced in his professional life, Alex is also burdened by his personal one. We learn that he once had a wife and a daughter, both of whom are now deceased; due to a memory manipulation program that is mandatory for Alex’s line of work, these are not memories that fade over time but rather stay as fresh now as they were on the days they were made.

To begin with I felt a slight apprehension at reading what appeared to be yet another generic science fiction novella, in which the world has dramatically changed for the worse. However as I delved deeper into the tale I slowly found myself drawn into a truly fascinating scenario which is made all the more enjoyable thanks to the brilliant character of Alex Hargreaves. The emotion that is weaved throughout the consciousness of this individual is over-powering; his thoughts frequently return to the loss of his wife and daughter, memories which he fails to escape, ultimately meaning that we also fail to escape them. As Alex returns to his daughter’s accident and his wife’s suicide, we inevitably feel the pain with him, making this a much more forceful story than I initially anticipated it being.

In addition to his role as the emotionally tortured widower, Alex also adopts the role of detective. Throughout the duration of the novella Alex is constantly discovering clues and deciphering information that ultimately leads us to the complex resolution to the text. After finishing the text, I did feel somewhat inclined to conclude that it what a hybrid of both science fiction and detective fiction; the futuristic nature of the text is integral to our reading of it, therefore it cannot be simply overlooked, but the ‘Whodunit’ principle is also prominent within this text. While on paper the genres may not seem to be soul mates, Rolfe has combined them to create something truly entertaining.

Overall I felt that Synthetic Saints was a thoroughly interesting read and I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for something that offers a more unique take on literary genres.

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‘Holophin’ by Luke Kennard

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on April 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

In Luke Kennard’s debut novella, the Holophin is a tiny, incredibly-powerful, highly-personalised computer. While humanity has forever been developing tools and technology to make life easier – the wheel, the plough, the sail, the loom, the steam engine, the computer, the telephone – in recent decades the drive has also been to make these tools individual, for example the mobile phone as opposed to the household landline. At the same time, those devices are capable of an increasing number of tasks; the mobile takes/makes calls, but also sends messages (texts and emails), takes photos, surfs the web (including social media), keeps a calendar, plans routes, plays games, wakes us up, plays music and videos, writes/edits documents and can probably do far more as well. What’s more, it fits in your pocket and you can take it almost everywhere.

But with a rise in technological capabilities comes a rise in fear of that technology and what it can do to humans. I don’t mean the dangers of radiation from phone masts or handsets – though that probably should be a concern – I mean the fears that technology is becoming increasingly autonomous and has begun to run our lives, that people genuinely believe they can’t live without their smartphones, that civilisation would collapse without wi-fi access and that vast data servers hold swathes of information about every technology user on the planet. The other day I even saw a TV news report claiming that governments – obeying their ‘corporate masters’ – can (indeed, are obliged to) track individuals’ locations to within a hundred metres, using their mobile phone signals.

Maybe those fears are unfounded, but even if we aren’t heading towards a Terminator-style war when the machines finally take over, there’s no denying the increasing presence and ubiquity of technology in the developed world.

Luke Kennard's Holophin reviewed

Luke Kennard’s advert for a Holophin

At the same time, we’re bombarded with adverts for products that offer simple solutions to complicated problems (solutions made possible by advancing technology): combat the signs of ageing with this easy-to-use lotion; become sexually irresistible with this deodorant; buy this game and train your brain to be smarter! Those are just generic ones: the internet and Google can quite easily give each user specific ads based on your previous buying habits, your browser history and subject headings from your email inbox (though some of its choices can still be charmingly bizarre). You can chose to see this as a useful, personalised internet experience, or as technology’s further encroachment into your life.

As if with that in mind, Kennard’s novella opens with an advert for the Holophin, a dolphin-shaped sticker of immense (at least partly autonomous) processing power that promises help with, among other things, ‘weight loss or gain; confidence; alleviation of social anxiety […] happiness; concentration and focus […] insomnia, anti-social behaviour, addictions and phobias’ as well as grief management and self-discipline. On top of all that, the Holophin provides a built-in(to the brain) media centre and personal organiser which can not only arrange meetings with other people’s Holophins, but even attend them for the wearer too. If the creeping dominance of smartphones worries you, the Holophin is your worst nightmare, Kennard’s extrapolation from modern fears and trends. But at least it’s a cute dolphin shape.

The best sci-fi takes our modern-day fears and concerns and puts them in a different context, allowing us to see ourselves from a new angle, without the potentially comforting surrounds of the modern world. We can consider Hatsuka and Max – the young characters in Holophin – with a disinterest that would be much harder when considering our own use of, say, a smartphone. In his first novella, Kennard is able to explore the idea of politely domineering technology as well as looking at how that technology can develop a life of its own and raise rather deeper questions. One of the Holophins has started writing poetry, and another is working on the first Holophin novel – where do we consider these endeavours in the context of art as a means of human expression and creativity? And how much are humans actually limited by their reliance on technology: for example, how much do we now rely on autocorrect and autofill functions when typing, rather than remembering how to spell for ourselves?

As in good sci-fi, the setting here feels contemporary, it could be the early twenty-first century – except for the occasional references to, say, the fact that countries no longer have any meaning and corporations are everything (do you use an iPhone, BlackBerry or Android? a Microsoft computer or an Apple one?); corporations that fight over sales and staff like nations used to fight over resources and territory. There’s a hint of Margaret Attwood’s Oryx & Crake in the grooming of highly intelligent youngsters by powerful, quasi-governmental corporations hungry for technological developments – exposing the idea of nations as just one way of organising people; here, corporations provide schools, and education is paid for by working a shift or two in the factory. Who needs a government when the corporation provides its own housing, security, schools, shops and employment opportunities? The Cadbury brothers would be proud.

The dangers of powerful computers plugged right into the brain become apparent when Hatsuka loses all grip on reality and the novella’s narrative fragments. It’s at this point that Holophin becomes rather less accessible and more of a surreal whirl through fantasy, the subconscious, virtual reality and corporate competition.

Whether you’re left wanting a Holophin of your own probably depends on your attitude to technology’s impact on our lives. Is it an enhancement and a helper, or insidious and a threat? Holophin lets you believe either, but carries a warning that we’re bound to find out one way or the other eventually.

‘This Is The Quickest Way Down’ by Charles Christian

In anthology, Short Stories on May 5, 2012 at 6:18 pm

-Reviewed by Tori Truslow

Small-press speculative fiction is often where the interesting stuff is, so I was intrigued by Proxima, Salt’s new fantasy/sci-fi imprint. One of their first offerings, Charles Christian’s This is the Quickest Way Down, is a collection of “dystopian sci-fi, dark fantasy and urban gothic” fiction that promises to “tread the fine line between the normal and the fantastic, where the unknown lies behind every unopened door and every unread email.” Unfortunately, the collection seems rather to tread the fine line between the banal and the fantastically clichéd, where the “unknown” takes the form of eyeroll-inducing stereotypes.

Take flash fiction piece ‘Already Gone’, which offers a twist straight out of Goosebumps: the protagonists arrive home, bantering about their crazy car ride, only to see a car crash on the news and realise it was them – they’ve been dead all along. Betcha didn’t see that coming.

This is the Quickest Way Down by Charles Christian

Even the less hackneyed stories show a depressing dearth of imagination. In ‘Kastellorizon’, a distant-future tale of space exploration and interstellar war, humanity has penetrated deep space. Yet the narrator refers to “blogs posted over the Net” and “news bulletins coming in over sub-space from CNN and Sky”, suggesting that despite immense advances in space technology, information networks and social media have barely changed since the early years of the internet. Perhaps the book’s constant corporation-namechecking and product placement – I was sick of Starbucks and BlackBerries by page 20 – is supposed to be a comment on the superficiality of modern society, but it felt lazy, especially in the futuristic stories.

Most of the stories are written in a conversational first person mode, padded with jaded observations: “modern life sucks. We all have bills to pay and we all have our price,” the narrator of ‘Waiting for my Mocha to Cool’ tells us; a few pages later: “modern life sucks, but people always get what’s coming to them.” If the fantastical elements were more engaging, or the narrators less myopic, this style might have been tolerable, but I found it grating.

My biggest problem with This is the Quickest Way Down, however, is the women. From the goth chick who (surprise!) turns out to be a demon to the “hot chick” dressed as an alien who (surprise!) turns out to be an actual alien, they are often one-dimensional and uniformly sexualised. Sure, the male narrators are one-dimensional too – self-confessedly so, in several cases – but they aren’t used as objects or plot devices first, characters second. This is a book that sets the tone on page 1 with a blowjob, delivered by a woman described as “emotionally sterile, empty, unlived-in”, and goes on to present a stream of female stereotypes, filtered through a relentless male gaze. Diet-obsessed women notable for their “amply filled pairs of designer jeans sashaying their way across my eyeline”, weepy suicidal women, clingy women, femmes fatales. By about halfway through I was ready to quit, but kept going, forlornly searching for some – any – redeeming quality.

Then I read the title story. ‘This is the Quickest Way Down’ gives us a “cute Asian chick”, who catches the eye of a student at a party. A scant three pages, this one offers up some fetishised exotica – “with my brain now packing a suitcase for an imminent trip to Karma Sutraville and my brain trying to remember some tips I once read in an article about tantric sex, I slip one hand beneath her choli” – before the big reveal. Surprise! She’s the goddess Kali, who apparently has nothing better to do than hang around a British university town and butcher people. Playing straight into colonial stereotypes, this story has no apparent purpose other than to titillate and scare: the Orientalist nightmare-sex-fantasy, alive and well. This is the low point, but it doesn’t get all that much better.

‘The Hot Chick’ is, I suspect, trying to be a clever role-reversal story. Our hero is a “C-list science fiction writer” who makes extra bucks writing sci-fi porn, and attends sci-fi conventions for the female fans – women who lead dull lives, for whom science fiction is an escape, “who are so grateful when a fully-grown adult member of the opposite sex pays them a few compliments and takes an interest in their costumes and characters, that after a couple of drinks or six they are happy to act out some of their fantasies in the comfort of a king-size hotel bed.”

The twist here is that he meets a sexy blue-skinned alien and, assuming she’s in costume, jumps into bed with her; turns out she was secretly filming him for a porn channel back in her own galaxy. But if the narrator feels exploited it’s not made anything of, and his own exploitative attitude towards women goes unexamined. As for the descriptions of female fans, let’s just say that as an attendee of sci-fi conventions, it wasn’t the aliens in this story that tested my suspension of disbelief.

Ultimately, This is the Quickest Way Down failed me as a reader but it also failed on its own terms. It claims to “nudge” the everyday into the weird, then offers ‘weird’ elements that are so predictable as to have no effect. Proxima calls it “daring”. I guess Proxima is not the answer to my search for thoughtful small-press British sci-fi.