On thinking cosmically

403px-CarolynThis interview was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 50.

A sci-fi–fantasy blend about a mysterious woman with a multiverse to save, C.J. Cherryh’s first book was published in 1976. Since then, she has won numerous awards and delighted readers with more than 60 books. Her latest, Protector, the second installment of the fifth Foreigner trilogy, is expected in April. She talked to COSMOS reviews editor Rivqa Rafael about the genre and how she writes it. Continue reading

Bring Mars to life

Waking Mars
Developed by Tiger Style Games (2012), for PC, Mac and LinuxiPhone and iPad and Android devices

This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 50.

It’s a refreshing change to play a game that doesn’t involve killing things.

In Waking Mars, the objective is just the opposite – instead of slaying everything you come across, you must bring an ecosystem to life in order to progress.

Players control Liang, a softly spoken jet-packing scientist (aided remotely by ART, an AI unit, and tech expert Amani) as he explores a cavern on Mars where signs of life have been discovered. To safely exit the caves and do his research, Liang must help the ecosystem along. Each lifeform has an encyclopaedia entry in the game journal that is filled in as discoveries are made.

The soundtrack and graphics, while not flashy (this is an indie game, after all), fit the story perfectly. The mechanics of the game are easy to master and the interface is simple (even on computer, there’s only a slot for one saved game). As such, seasoned gamers may find this offering too simple at first – but they may still enjoy the delightful premise and unfolding science-based story, and strategy becomes more important as you progress. Casual gamers and those playing on phones and tablets will find little to complain about with Waking Mars.

Waking Mars from Tiger Style on Vimeo.

Behind the veil

By Jo Anderton (2012), Angry Robot
This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 50.

It took some time to convince me that Jo Anderton’s trilogy, The Veiled Worlds, was science fiction rather than fantasy.

With its heavy steampunk elements, the story’s sophisticated science can often be mistaken for magic – Arthur C. Clarke’s third law in action, perhaps.

Second in the series, Suited continues the story of Tanyana, once an elite architect of ‘pions’, particles that hold her world together and can be shaped into – well, anything – by those with skill. But a suspicious accident robs Tanyana of her gifts, and forces her to become a collector of ‘debris’.

Debris seems to be the antimatter to pions’ matter, pulling the universe apart with devastating results if not contained. In Suited, Tanyana begins to uncover the mysteries of how these particles and her special debris-collecting suit work, and who caused her accident and why – all while navigating trust, betrayal, unexpected news and even love.

Anderton’s take on steampunk is truly unique, with an Eastern European setting rather than the now-overused British backdrop, and tech of her own invention instead of clock gears and corsets. Add a sympathetic character with some big decisions on her plate, and a fast-paced writing style, and you have some great new sci-fi for your bedside table.

Off-world reading

abe-coverAnywhere but Earth
edited by Keith Stevenson, Coeur De Lion, 2011
This review was originally published on COSMOS Online.

If – or when – humans get to space on a regular basis, what will it hold for us? Adventure, cooperation with interesting aliens – or terror? Anywhere But Earth is a hefty enough anthology to consider the possibilities fairly thoroughly.

Contrary to many preconceptions about the genre of science fiction, there’s some beautiful writing in the collection – prime examples are the rhythmic beauty of Liz Argall’s “Maia Blue is Going Home” and Margo Lanagan’s disturbingly sensual “Yon Hornéd Moon”. But there are also some weaker stories present that if culled would have yielded a stronger anthology. Some had interesting premises but failed on execution, with the many that succeeded on both fronts emphasising the others’ shortcomings.

It’s telling that many of the stories have a military theme. In C.J. Paget’s “Pink Ice in the Jovian Rings”, women are space soldiers because of their smaller mass, like jockeys. The nightmare they’re caught in drives home the horror of war, regardless of setting. In William R.D. Wood’s “Deuteronomy”, robots searching for signs of humans, who’ve slaughtered each other to extinction, have a similar message. Taken together, the thesis could be that conflict is inevitable wherever humans go. Certainly, few stories have positive predictions for humanity, with the first story, Calie Voorhis’s “Murmer”, being a possible exception.

Other dystopian themes abound. Cloning in sci-fi can be an excellent lens through which to examine the nature of humanity, and Brendan Duffy’s “Space Girl Blues”, featuring cloned soldiers and a clever twist in the tail, makes full use of this without becoming earnest. Kim Westwood’s “By Any Other Name” tackles similar quandary, but in a grim setting where torture leaves the narrator’s father “a carapace of his former self” in a Big Brother-esque government’s desperate bid to rewrite history and claim humanity. Richard Harland’s “An Exhibition of the Plague” and Jason Nahrung’s “Messiah on the Rock” suggest that disease (and religion, in the latter’s case) will still have a powerful effect on our psyches in the far future. And Simon Petrie’s “Hatchway” is a nail-biting thriller about gang hazing and revenge in the harsh environment of Titan, one of Saturn’s satellites.

Amid all the darkness, humour can be a saving grace, and Anywhere But Earth features plenty. Angela Ambroz’s “Pyaar Kiya”, is a delightfully tragic tale of ageing being relative due to space travel. Penelope Love’s “SIBO” is wry and ramshackle despite the high stakes its characters face. “Poor Man’s Travel” by Patty Jansen features light-toned approach to moral and philosophical dilemmas.

To me, however, “SPACEBOOK” by Sean McMullen is a clear winner, as it explores opportunities lost for humanity with humour. It’s set in a virtual reality where you disappear if you use the word ‘lawyer’; its protagonist must discover a purpose for being there, but the journey is an irreverent social commentary with an undercurrent of seriousness. Surely this is the crux of sci-fi, as what is a book if not analogue VR?

Back to Back to the Future

backtofuture390_0Back to the Future
directed by Robert Zemeckis, Universal Pictures, 1985
This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

Most likely, it’s a good thing that time travel hasn’t moved from science fiction to science fact. Any number of things could go wrong, and in Back to the Future they almost do.

Street-smart teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels from 1985 to 1955 when his scientist friend ‘Doc’ Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is interrupted by terrorists (yes, really) just before his planned jump forward in time.

Marty is still finding his bearings when he accidentally disrupts his parents’ meeting, threatening his own existence. Fortunately, he locates the younger Doc and together they plan to reunite Marty’s parents and send him back to his own time.

After 27 years, Back to the Future is a double nostalgia fest – the ’80s music, slang and pop culture are as much of a treat as their ‘50s equivalents. The humour’s still fresh – I especially loved the UFO riffs and theStar Wars and Star Trek mashup.

The improbable relationship between Doc, the stereotypical mad professor, and Marty, the feckless adolescent, is as endearing as ever. And the souped-up DeLorean time machine and its flux capacitor are entrenched pop-culture symbols – because even if time travel might have disastrous consequences, as Doc says, why not do it with some style?