With regards the reviews I write, I feel it is necessary to provide this caveat.
The initial section right up to the button that opens the full synopsis is the teaser where I try to give a look into the book without revealing too much.

The section within the button is a full synopsis. No detail will be hidden at all.

Be warned!
The final section (Food for thought) is a series of thoughts on the book. This is a personal take on the book and does mention important parts of the books. It should be considered as much of a spoiler as the previous section!

Monday 5 January 2015

Update 2

Well, I hope you all have a delightful festive season and a happy new year. I have returned and updates will resume on a bi-weekly basis. 

Wednesday 17 December 2014


Hi folks,
I'm going to be away over Christmas and New Year day and so updates to the blog will be on hold until I return.

Stay safe readers and have a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

Sunday 14 December 2014

Book Review: Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky - 4thwallfly

This week's science fiction book takes place deep underground in a world with little hope. Actually, in all honesty, the book's world has no hope. It is a story of the dying struggles of mankind as it turns slowly away from the world above and spins its own myths and legends in the world below.
It's Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky.

Cover Art copyright of respective owner.

'The year is 2033. The world has been reduced to rubble. Humanity is nearly extinct. A few thousand live on, not knowing if they are the only survivors on the planet.
They live in the Moscow Metro - the biggest air-raid shelter ever build. It is humanity's last refuge. It is a world without a tomorrow, with no room for dreams, plans, hopes. Feelings have given way to instinct - the most important of which is survival. Survival at any price. 

VDNKh is the nothernmost inhabited station on its line and still remains secure. But now a new and terrible threat has appeared. Artyom, a young man living in VDNKh, is given the task of penetrating to the heart of the Metro, to the legendary Polis, to alert everyone to the awful danger and to get help. He holds the future of his native station in his hands, the future of the Metro - and maybe the whole of humanity.' Metro 2033 - Dmitry Glukhovsky [2007], Translation - Natasha Randall [2009]

Metro 2033 is set in a world of dingy darkness. The world has been ravaged by nuclear war (during a Cold War that had not remained cold but had ended up getting rather hot). The surface is an uninhabitable wasteland that belongs to the mutated creatures that now thrive in the light of the radioactive cities. Artyom is a young man whose home station is under terrible threat. He is directed by a Stalker called Hunter (Stalker is the title of near-mythic heroes who run salvage missions on the surface) to tell the heart of the metro, Polis, of the threat that faces VDNKh. This threat, coming from the next station along, the abandoned botanical gardens, is a threat that might bring ruin to the entire metro.

The story is episodic in style, each station and each step of the journey is almost an entirely separate world from the previous. Artyom's travels allow him to realise that his station is not some far-flung outpost that protects the metro alone, but merely one of many struggling for survival and within the metro itself, stations vie with each other over resources, ideology and creed.

The Moscow Metro is a classic tourist destination for visitors to Moscow thanks to the beautiful architecture within the stations, however, Metro 2033 turns away from its beauty and presents a world alone and in the dark. Mankind has become so used to the flare of emergency lighting that they are blinded by the light of the sun. Stalkers only dare operate at night.

This is not the story of a bright future, or of mankind banding together to face the threat of the ruined world. This is not the story of progressive mankind. This is the story of man's descent into smaller and smaller communities as they turn their back on the world they had once known and embrace the darkness below with their own myths and legends. Such is the darkness of the world that each station lives in that these myths and legends have taken life as facts.

Food for thought:

Frankly, this is a lovely setting. Not entirely original (though in this day and age that's a hard mantle to assume). It is a bleak tale certainly, and a bleaker setting, but this story nevertheless conjures some fantastic differences between stations and there is great detail in the world setting throughout the book in the form of the people Artyom meets and the stories they share.
However, that does lead directly to the first problem. The setting of Metro 2033 is strongly developed but mostly told to the reader by characters, rather than shown (which is always the more subtle and more interesting way to develop 'lore' around a setting). The other issue is that, despite this deep and dark (pun intended on the Metro there) setting, there is actually very little drama for Artyom. His story is less about his journey through the metro and becomes more a vehicle for the author to use to display the metro. It is only near the last quarter (or so) of the book that Artyom's tale rises to the forefront, but the majority of the book revolves more around the various stations that Artyom finds himself at.

In its own way, the author has written charicatures of ideologies and creeds in each of Artyom's encounters, one dimensional belief systems that control stations. Artyom meets with Communist stations that war with the fascist Fourth Reich, he is captured by cannibals, talks with traders of the capitalist Hansa and listens to stories from born-again Christians, Trotskyists and more. Sadly, each of these examples are rendered without much depth which results in the feeling that Metro 2033's universe is deep and intriguing but without much impact.

On the interesting side, the author frequently visits the concept of humanity and what exactly that means in this dark age. The world is grim, highlighted by small realities (the currency for example is ammunition, to have weapons and bullets is to have both physical power and spending capability). The threat to VDNKh and the rest of the metro is not at all physical but psychological. There is little humour in this book to relieve the reader of the story's tone.

However, in the midst of all this, we are treated to Artyom's education of the world he inhabits. Raised in one of the metro's far-flung outposts he is the equivalent of an unworldly, untravelled person. He is essentially himself an innocent to the metro, though this is true in its own way of each station's inhabitants. There are endless myths that Artyom cannot separate from fact because his world differs so vastly from ours. There is no ability to merely 'check' the truth, no ability to merely be sceptical as the world is dark enough to believe near anything. As an example, Artyom is told that there is a station that takes people and forces them to dig downwards. The station is run by satanists who believe that the metro and life there is merely just a layer of hell itself and that to connect the metro with the hell that ran deeper would be to bring about the end of days. He is told rumours about the Kremlin, that he should never look too closely at it, for should the light catch those domes he might be drawn in like a moth to the flames. He even encounters a society of luddites who worship a 'Great Worm' that they attribute as the creator of the metro's tunnels, arguing that mankind had arrived after it had passed to build in its wake. There's no real way that Artyom can prove or disprove anything he is told and it boils down to a simple fact for the young man. He is free to choose how he should think on his world. The world of metro is shaped mostly by belief and almost regressive 'caveman-like' behaviour of wild stories around campfires, though Artyom does not ever commit to any one of the beliefs around him.

In our world it is easy to scoff at say, the satanists for example, but in Artyom's world, a world were strange beasts roam the surface and stranger creatures threaten the metro, a world where some stations are so badly affected by horrific creations of science and a by-gone war that the tunnels must be collapsed, it would be hard to tell where truth ended and fiction started. There are stories of the souls of the dead caught in the pipes of the metro, strange anomalies that incite fear and terror, rumours of a Soviet missile base still functioning. 

It is ironic that despite the setting and the slow pace of the narrative that we are treated to fairly blunt intimations that Artyom possesses an unique destiny with even Artyom himself coming to believe that he has an allotted path, and should he continue on it he would remain unharmed. It is rare that the character of a book acknowledges his own plot-given right to survive no matter the odds.

In summary, the book has an interesting setting but fails to deliver a plot to match with it. Artyom's tale results in the feeling that even Artyom is merely along for the ride as he is taken from station to station and shown the glory (and horror) of the metro world.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Book Review: Compile Quest by Ronel van Tonder - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the Fourth Wall. This week's book is an interesting tale of dystopia on Earth.
It's Compile Quest by Ronel van Tonder.

Cover art copyright of Ronel van Tonder

'In the year 2036, solar storms batter Earth crippling electrical infrastructures across the globe. Night falls and the ensuing pandemonium claims millions of lives, catapulting the world into chaos.

In the midst of this global turmoil a hero emerges. The altruistic SUN Council intercedes, constructing enormous domes on each continent to protect the world’s population from the radioactive CME’s of the incessant solar storms.

But not everyone makes it to the domes. In an attempt to survive the deadly radiation, hundreds of thousands of people dig into the earth, living in squalor under an oppressive military dictatorship.

Now centuries later, the final stage of the SUN Council’s plan to decimate the world’s population approaches. But as victory glimmers on the horizon, two women from discordant halves of this new world start to unravel the conspiracy.
' Compile:Quest - Ronel van Tonder [2014]

Compile Quest is a story that revolves around two women and a male, Jinx, Peppermint and Ray respectively, who live lives that are so far apart they may as well be anathema to each other. Their story is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by solar flares and centres around South Africa. Switching back and forth between the two, the reader is gradually brought into the world of the SUN Council's domes. Peppermint is a survivor of the disaster that struck the Earth and lucky enough to be a resident of the Africa Dome, enjoying a life of luxury such as our world has never seen. She has a soft life and lives out of touch of the reality of her situation, only coming to realise that her world is highly regimented when she is personally impacted by the Africa Dome's policies. Jinx is a soldier of the Rooivalk Digger Colony which occasionally struggles with the Wildebeest Colony while Ray is a farmer and later recruit for the Wildebeest Digger Colony. Their lives seem far apart (though Ray and Jinx are perhaps closer together than they both are to Peppermint) but they are intrinsically linked.

Food For Thought:

A couple of things caught my eye with this story and I had a mix of reactions towards it. My first delight was the technology present in the book. The SUN Council has gone well out of its way to develop a closed world that is kept content and placid. We see this throughout Peppermint's experiences as she lives (without quite realising it until later) under the thumb of the SUN Council's requirement. At her disposal is a level of technology that brings about a level of hedonism unheard of in today's world. Peppermint's world features robots and virtual reality, recreational drugs and wild parties (and polygamous relationships). The word robot derives from robota which itself derives from a word referring to a form of slavery or forced labour. In this bright new world, mankind appears to enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle on account of the SUN Council's magnanimous organisation of their upkeep. Even clothes are provided from dispensers called weDress (which is probably a subtle dig at the Apple I- product lines). A concept to consider is how likely this is to occur to a human population. Are we, as humans, content to remain catered and cared for at the expense of our curiousity? Alot of human technological progress has managed to make life easier for mankind (admittedly resulting in larger workloads to compensate for the time saved). It bears thinking that in a closed society that didn't seek to progress but rather sustain itself indefinitely it would be possible for technology to entire replace the requirement for people to work themselves. This is sometimes thought to lead to a hypothetical death by boredom. That without struggle and given the resources to do whatever one pleases, one would eventually find every aspect of life boring and without purpose. Which begs the question: Can mankind truly be 'human' without driving goals and struggles to fight?

The book also details the SUN Council as a form of benevolent corporate entity (if we assume benevolent to mean protective and constrictive). Provided a dome citizen follow the SUN Council's mandatory requirements, then that citizen is provided with a luxurious lifestyle. I've talked about this issue before, how society and our environment controls how we interact with the world around us. Currently, it is harder and harder to avoid a homogenous culture thanks to the Internet, but in the world of the Africa Dome, it is all too easy to dictate how every citizen should think and behave. Every citizen must wear a Cerberus Unit that effectively monitors them and must receive regular check ups to determine their physical and mental health (here referring to their compatibility with acceptance of their situation). In a closed society without external influence then, it is too easy to see how one can be controlled. However, people within that closed society would be unable to recognise their situation, seeing it more as 'the way things are.' It is simply impossible to shed those subjective influences on our views (i.e. true bias is impossible). The SUN Council presents a warning to the reader, reminding us that we choose to limit our choice of information sources at our own peril.

Outside of this, I have only a few observations to add. Some of which might be interesting to note. Events that impact our individual culture's history tend to lend great weight to how we create our villains. For example, Harry Potter's Deatheaters are influenced by the Nazi SS Deathheads (same motif, similar goals of racial purity, a fascination in their innate superiority as the world's master race, rule by fear and violence). In much the same way, I would theorize (can't be proven, too few sources to back it up), that a South African book might be influenced by the Soweto (South Western Townships) that edge around Johannesburg, much like the parallels drawn in real life by the Soweto and the city of Jo-burg proper, Compile Quest highlights the differences between the rich and poor, those who live in Domes and those who live in Colonies. Ray's viewpoint provides the greatest comparison between the struggle for life that every day in the Wildebeest Digger Colony requires compared to Peppermint's near idyll lifestyle. The natural tensions caused by friction between have and have-nots is a very powerful thing and in the world described by Compile Quest, it would be enhanced by the sheer size of the contrast between the rich and poor. The Domes of Compile Quest are probably analogous with the compounds that formed in South Africa.

I was quite endeared to the use of Afrikaans in the book (despite having no actual knowledge of the language at all). I found that the dialogue and interactions are written well enough that it is easy to parse meaning when Afrikaans is being spoken. There are admittedly some issues with the terminology used by the Africa Dome denizens (whose language has quite understandibly evolved to reflect their high-tech society), I think that was well thought out (though I disagree with the idea that 'data' should be an epithet as data is neither a positive nor negative term on its own).

Overall though, I believe this book to be an enjoyable read. It gives some interesting insights, it has a fantastic setting and is young (but not in the young-adult sense). I look forward to seeing what else van Tonder decides to put to pen.

Thank you and have a sunny day.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Book Review: Outpost by Adam Baker - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the Fourth Wall. This week's book review is a both a horror and a science fiction that deals with a group of isolated people, far away from the rest of the world as the world quite simply ends around them. 
It's Outpost by Adam Baker.
Cover photographs copyright of Getty Images, Corbis (cityscape).
'They took the job to escape the world.
They didn't expect the world to end. 

Kasker Rampart: A derelict refinery platform moored in the Arctic Ocean. A skeleton crew of fifteen fight boredom and despair as they wait for a relief ship to take them home. 

But the world beyond their frozen wasteland has gone to hell. Cities lie ravaged by a global pandemic. One by one TV channels die, replaced by silent wavebands. 

The Rampart crew are marooned. They must survive the long Arctic winter, then make their way home alone. They battle starvation and hypothermia, unaware that the deadly contagion that has devastated the world is heading their way...' Outpost - Adam Baker [2011]

Outpost is a horror story set on the Kasker Rampart refinery in what is effectively the middle of nowhere. There is just a skeleton crew that can't wait to be sent home until they find that there is no home to go to anymore. They are isolated, alone and the very last to know what is happening to the world they knew. Worse, the trouble comes their way, ensuring that even in the middle of nowhere there is no escape.

The story follows the trials of the Rampart's crew as these misfits struggle to survive off the coast of Franz Josef Land, a mere fifteen people occupying a structure designed for thousands, maintaining the refinery until such time as the company decides to restart the pumps.

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food for thought:

On the face of it, Outpost is your typical zombie horror story. There's a disease of unknown proportions that causes its virulent victims to attack the non-infected and the disease is so dangerous that it results in the destruction of mankind's way of life. That right there is practically most zombie horror stories in a nutshell. However, a great many of these type of stories start off with a happy paradise that turns into hell. This is more a story of a rough and tough place to live being made worse. It's also unusual because most stories of this calibre tend to run on the assumption that 'escape' is the good ending, that there is no doubt some safe haven where the survivors are safe and where society (with all its trappings) continues. Outpost delivers a harder tale, becoming a story of not triumph over adversity but rather a story about stubbornness over adversity. Even without the threat of the infected, Kasker Rampart is not a place where mankind can thrive or even survive without specialist equipment.

It does raise a question as to what sort of people we are underneath. We all have hidden reserves and are capable of feats we might not normally imagine ourselves doing (both of courage and cowardice, of selfishness and selflessness). This story is about people coming out of their shells, adapting to the change in their circumstances as they are rudely separated from the life that they had been quite content with. Jane is a key example of this, starting off as a priest who had wanted to matter, who wanted to be important and have her place recognised. By the end of the story she is someone who has cast away her role as a priest and become a colder person for it. She may still love Ghost but it takes the arrival of the infection to really bring about a metamorphosis. From a suicidally-inclined fat woman to one so vibrant and covetous of life that she would quite happily take 'cold-blooded' decisions. When the trappings and social net that dictates our behaviour is gone, the person that remains may be a very different creature indeed. By social net I simply refer to the established concept of 'society' and 'community' that control 'accepted' behaviour. As an example for this, there are numerous 'survivor' stories where the survivors that are rescued have had to make some very tough calls in order to live. It's a form of behaviour that cannot be reconciled with the life they return to. They made their decisions in order to live. The survival instinct is extremely strong and in dark times it clashes with our understanding of civilised behaviour. Just so in Outpost. When the chips are down and times turn from bad to worse, it is then that we discover what we as individuals are capable of doing. And we are capable of such acts of necessity.

I did like the unusual take on zombies. It isn't necessary nor required (the technological infection does not really alter the flow of the tale from that of the same story with zombies), but it adds a new element to an otherwise standard affair. Like many horror stories though, the focus is on the horror itself, on the struggle to survive at the detriment to the plot's devices. There are no grand revelations, no great understanding that makes itself felt. Even Nikki fails to provide much insight to the infection. However, one can't help but wonder if the Geth from Mass Effect were chosen as inspiration for the zombies here. There are too many questions left unanswered by the book, but this is to be expected. We see things from their perspectives and they have no reason to really care or look deeply into the reasons of the calamity that has befallen them and mankind.

There's one final note to make here. It's rather cliche but a common theme to zombie stories. There is this assumption that we (mankind) exist rather than live. Society requires conformity and jams square pegs into round holes because they must fit. In its own way, the arrival of the infection brings with it a terrible freedom. There is no one else out there to judge them, to tell them what they are or where they belong. At the cost of the world, the crew of Kasker Rampart are liberated from a mundane existence and thrust headlong into a horrifying, bloody but ultimately very vital life. They aren't just wiling away days in boredom waiting for rescue, they are living with every fibre of their being, fighting to ensure that they have that much more life.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Book Review: Inverted World by Christopher Priest - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall. This week's book review will skirt the edges of science fiction to a story about a city that cannot stop. No, I'm not talking about New York City.
Presenting the city in:
Inverted World by Christopher Priest:
Cover art copyright of Chris Moore/Artist Partners

'The city is winched along its tracks through a devastated world. Rails must be laid ahead of it and removed in its wake. If the city does not move, it will fall behind the 'optimum' and into a crushing gravitational field. The alternative to progress is death.

The rulers of the city make sure its inhabitants know nothing of this. But the dwindling population is growing restive. And the rulers know that the city is falling further and further behind.' - Inverted World, Christopher Priest [1974]

Inverted World delivers on its promise, presenting the story of Helward Mann (a fitting name if ever there was one) as he grows up in the city of Earth, coming to terms with the world around him in Earth's desperate struggle for survival. The people of Earth haul their city ever northwards, aiming for the ever elusive 'optimum' ahead of them, navigating a hostile landscape to do so. Helward Mann, thanks to his father's prestigious position, joins the guild of Future Surveyors and embarks on a journey that takes him away from Earth, learning about the world outside the city, the truth behind Earth's constant struggle north and the fate that awaits the city in the south.

The story is set in a universe that is the inverse of our own. We live in what is effectively (though not actually) an infinite universe on a finite planet. However, Inverted World is set in a finite universe upon an infinite planet. There's a rather impressive and enjoyable twist at the end, so not much more will be said on this beyond an explanation of the Inverted World premise.

Inverted World is told primarily from Helward Mann's point of view with only a few parts told from Elizabeth Khan's point of view, though nothing will be revealed of her either for much the same reason as above. Despite being entirely cryptic about book, I recommend reading it as it delivers a fascinating world setting and a twist that leaves you feeling delighted at the end.

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food for thought:

Naturally, there is one immediate problem with the book's premise. The concept of a world that has an infinite plane in two perpendicular directions is topographically impossible (the two planes would intersect each other after all as they rotate into infinity). However, that said, the concept and twist in this book is lovely. It is a complete reversal of the world we know, a world where the struggle to survive is paramount to all other things. 

One of the major themes in the book is the power of perception over our reality. We have no real way of knowing if what we perceive is actually 'real' in a factual sense, only that what we understand of the world can be verified by what we perceive. In fact, in our daily lives we take alot of things for granted which in theory are impossible, things which are verified by our perception but not by our scientific knowledge. The world around us is very different from what we perceive without the help of specialised equipment. Quantum physics proves that things exist because we detect it existing, even if we can't necessarily explain what they really appear as. For example, the electron is characterised as a physical sphere of negative charge within an atom, and there are experiments that can prove its nature as a particle. However, there are also experiments that prove the electron is not a particle but instead a wave. Quantum physics accepts that the electron displays the characteristics of a particle and a wave (despite the mutual contradictions) at the same time. It is comforting to think of electrons as a particle as this makes it easier to imagine the atom and we're all made of atoms. But even the concept of an atom is at odds with the day to day reality we observe. Atoms are proven to be 99.99% (recurring) emptiness. Given that we are made entirely of atoms then in theory we too are 99.99% emptiness and yet we perceive and interact with physical objects all the time. Likewise in Inverted World, while we accept Elizabeth Khan's perception as 'truth' (as we live in her perception of reality) we cannot necessarily say that Helward's perception of the reality around him is wrong. Reality and its perception is entirely subjective and quantum physics points out that we change the world by observing it. 

Likewise with one final example of the complexity of perception, there is no guarantee that any of use experience the same reality at all. When I look at the sky I can say 'the sky is blue.' You may be inclined to agree with me if you were to stand beside me. However, you and I could not prove that the colour we saw in the sky was the same, only that we had a mutually agreed term for what we perceived as 'blue.' As a quote, I would leave you with:
'All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.' - Friedrich Nietzsche
There are no truths, only agreed upon interpretations that are endorsed by the majority.

The book is also a fantastic celebration of human determination. The power to survive and prosper despite the odds arraigned against us is an uplifting tale. The world of the ironically named Helward Mann is grim, founded upon a need to survive at any cost and sustained by a weak hope and yet despite this, their civilisation has existed, triumphed against the odds for two hundred years. Two hundred years of stubbornness and refusal to simply give in. In a way, it is an analogy for our own personal lives, of our own personal struggles against the world around us for our own measures of survival. 
The alternative to progress is death.