Book Review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Losing my steampunk virginity continues with the other seminal work of the subgenre written by two of the biggest names in sci fi. I had no expectations having read only Neuromancer by Gibson a few years ago and nothing by Bruce Sterling. I went in with an open mind but having a fair idea of what to expect from the sub-genre.

This is a simple tale set in a sort of alternate reality Victorian London. The Industrialists run things as the British Empire rules the waves of the global market through great (and as far as the reader is concerned) anachronistic technologies that in reality were imagined but never realised.

As a result, the Luddite movement is far more organised, far more successful and has some pretty powerful allies amongst the socialist movement. The Industrial Radical Party has seen a meteoric rise in the period, similarly to how Labour really came to prominence slightly later on. People with an interest in the Victorian period will get all the name checks: Babbage, Disraeli, Darwin, Brunel, Byron, Wellington, various poets and a whole host of others. There are also references to the major issues of the time: smog, gas lighting, the industrial revolution, trade unions, Marx and Engels etc.

It is written in a simplistic and straight-to-the-point style that does not always appeal to me. I settled in quite easily and allowed the story to take me in. The plot, though largely interesting, rambles at times. It is not always clear what is going on and in which direction the story is heading. The climax, when it arrives, almost feels like a non-ending with a “is that it?” moment followed by a few personal letters and newspaper clippings to bring it to a close.

Of the two recommended reads in the early era of the sub-genre, I most certainly preferred The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers but I love neither book; they were good but not great. I appreciate that my reading in the sub-genre is very limited and I look forward to exploring this quirky world of steampunk a lot more in future.

Site of the Week: Rare Book Room

If you know of any useful websites or perhaps run one yourself, feel free to recommend it. If I find your site suitable for my weekly feature then I will do my utmost to accommodate it. In return I might merely ask that you link to my blog. But please (and I mean this in the politest possible terms) do not ask me to advertise your commercial service.

This is perhaps one of the most amazing sites ever invented. A company called “Octavo” have over the course of a decade taken vhq images of first edition books by the likes of Shakespeare, Galileo, Copernicus, Aesop, Chaucer and many more… the sort of books you would need to go to the Bodleian Library to see and would only get to see by appointment and special permission… and put them on a website.

Rare Book Room is the current result of their efforts. With over 400 works currently online, you can view them at your own leisure without having to travel, book an appointment. And what’s more, they are available at no cost and without having to sign up for a membership.


On holiday

I’m on holiday as of today; I’m going to Malta and will be back in two weeks. I have scheduled two “site of the week” posts to keep the audience coming back during my absence so watch this space.

After much deliberation, I have chosen the following five books to take with me:
The Portable Door – Tom Holt
Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch
The Difference Engine – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Zombie Apocalypse! – Stephen Jones
The Witches of Chiswick – Robert Rankin

A bit of everything there: some urban fantasy, steampunk, horror and surreal fantasy comedy (two of). I resisted the urge to take something heavier this year. I did quibble over whether I ought to take The Passage by Justin Cronin but inevitably I’m rarely in the mood for heavy reading when on holiday. I’ll most likely read that when I get back; I like gloomy reads at the start of autumn.

Expect book reviews upon my return unless the hotel has free wifi then you will get them while I’m on the beach or by the pool. I may even post photographs to make you jealous.

When I get back I have to knuckle straight down to a University course. Posting here might slow down (a little) but expect more of the same sort of content.

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by James Bradley

Gabriel Swift arrives in London in the early 19th century to become the protege of one of the city’s most celebrated anatomists. An innocent in a dark world, Swift soon becomes intoxicated with the anatomist’s nemesis, the body snatcher Mister Lucan. When Swift loses his job, he finds himself sucked deeper and deeper into the dark world of the trade of dead bodies. By this time, it wasn’t difficult to see it coming.

Undeniably, this book is well written and it is harrowing to watch Swift go from wide-eyed innocent to killer. The prose flows very well and you feel your eyes skimming over the words as the plot moves along. Unfortunately, there is very little substance. Swift is the only character here who receives any sort of development (and that isn’t great). Most of the others are flat affairs and because of this it is difficult to develop any sense of emotional attachment to them, the plot or the situation. This is odd, because clearly the writer has a flair for the written word and has carefully crafted the narrative. Why the novel was left undeveloped in a book that was crying out for it smacks of (perhaps) too much editorial input? I cannot see any other reason for it. The constant hopping around can also sometimes confuse the reader.

At just over 300 pages, it is a little short (with those irritating short chapters that take up about a single side of a book but start halfway down one page and end halfway down the other – a trick used to make a book look longer than it actually is). It wouldn’t have suffered for being an extra 100-150 pages long. I have always been highly critical of books that are over-written but I feel it is just as bad to cut short a story, especially one as well-written as this and especially when the content suffers for it…. and suffer it does. A missed opportunity with this one.

Site of the Week: BookCrossing

If you know of any useful websites or perhaps run one yourself, feel free to recommend it. If I find your site suitable for my weekly feature then I will do my utmost to accommodate it. In return I might merely ask that you link to my blog. But please (and I mean this in the politest possible terms) do not ask me to advertise your commercial service.

This is a sweet idea – connecting people in a global social network of books travelling around the world. I am about to go on my summer holiday (update tomorrow) so this site is very appropriate.

Basically, you request a unique id code, put a sticky label into your book of choice and then pass it on how you please. You can trade it with another member, pass it to a charity shop or sell it on a trade site such as Amazon marketplace.

Once it has been picked up, hopefully the new owner will notice the label, visit the website and enter the code in to register where your book is now.

Reclaiming the vampire in Fright Night

I went to the cinema to see the new Fright Night film this week. In a fiction world that is flooded with simpering emo vampires that don’t drink blood, sparkle in the sunlight and become stalker-ish over equally simpering teenage girls, it may be too easy to forget that vampires are menacing blood-sucking creatures, dangerous, calculating, manipulative predators and sometimes just plain evil.

The original Fright Night is a horror-comedy cult classic, arguably the best example of the bizarre fusing of two genres that shouldn’t work together. This reboot does the original proud. Colin Farrell is surprisingly menacing as Jerry in a role that is quite unlike anything he has done before. David Tennant, looking like Russell Brand but thankfully not playing camp, is amusing as Peter Vincent. Anton Yelchin, best known as Chekhov in the rebooted Star Trek is a good lead but suffers for being outplayed by everybody else. Even the typical fang-fodder bleach blond stripper is sympathetic. You feel for her when Charley discovers her locked away in Jerry’s house.

The cast gel well and the characters refreshingly normal for horror films, particularly the women. Imogen Poots is sweet and very likeable as Amy, Toni Collette is solid as Charlie’s mother and Sandra Vergara as Ginger (Peter’s girlfriend) has a small part but gets some of the best one-liners in the script. For a remake of a film that was arguably the first horror-comedy, it is surprisingly short of clichés and that is to the credit of the production staff, particularly the script writers.

What are you waiting for?! Go and see it!

Torchwood: Miracle Day – Final thoughts

I’m not going to go over old ground here, I think I’ve already made it clear how amazing I thought the series was so I’m just going to sign off with my final thoughts.

I think it was a success overall though it could easily have gone horribly wrong. I’m glad that Esther was killed off; I think her character had come to a natural end and it wouldn’t be Torchwood without one of the team dying ;)

I can’t say I was surprised that Rex is now immortal; Mekhi Phiffer has been superb and I hope he is now a permanent member of the team.

But what next for the team? Jack and Gwen are still on the run; Torchwood is a rogue organisation. Rex is still with the CIA. Going forward, they have a lot to think about. Will Torchwood become an international organisation? Will HM Government pardon them and return their official status? Will they be a joint UK-US (official) organisation to deal with extraterrestrial threats? Will they become a UN organisation? Independent consultants to world governments?


Torchwood so far has lacked the straight man. Ianto was drippy. Owen was sleazy. Rex fitted into that role perfectly and his no-nonsense style contrasted Jack’s moody yet sometimes playful style.

Bill Pullman. That’s all I need to say.

Conceptual sci fi and a lack of fear in celebrating it. We may never find out what that thing running through the Earth actually was and it doesn’t matter. But it was very much in the vain of something Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov might have written.

Phi-Corp are not finished and of course we are all intrigued to know what “Plan B” is. Kitzinger is still with them and I hope there’s a few more layers to her character to reveal before her story is through.


Too much focus on Gwen’s dad. Yes it was very sad that he was so ill, constantly suffering heart attacks and not dying but it was too much. RTD never could do emotional stories with subtlety and this was laid on as thick as a nuclear reactor’s concrete shell.

I also wish that the view of the camps hadn’t been so one-sided. If I was a category 1 and suffering daily agony, unable to die I would want the release from my suffering and if spending 10 seconds in an incinerator was my only way out then so be it. Nobody asked these dead people what they wanted, we just kept having it bludgeoned how evil the camps were. In such a situation, everything we ever believed about ethics goes out of the window and we rewrite the rule book.

Sermons about gay rights *yawn*. RTD needs to realise that Jan Moir and Melanie Phillips do not watch it. Most other people do not care either way; there is no need to bludgeon people who are not homophobic about how difficult you’ve had it. I know you have, now please get on with the story?

I hope it isn’t too long before the next series is released.

Flash fiction challenge starting with this sentence – Post a Day #252

Another fiction challenge from The Daily Post. As with the last one I’ve set myself an arbitrary word limit of 300. Let’s see how this goes…

I told him where I was going, and he hurried me out, pointing to the door with the gun, but what he didn’t know was I couldn’t go that way. I shook my head.

‘You said…’

‘Not that way.’

‘Why not?’

‘Didn’t you hear the screams?’

He shrugged, exasperated. ‘Then which way?’

I gestured at the front door. ‘I saw a car. I can drive it.’

‘There’s lots of them that way.’

‘There’s more out the back.’ I insisted.

He sighed in defeat, shoved the dresser out of the way and finally opened the door.

It was very dark and I could see a dozen of them at the end of the street. I ignored the car and crept into the alley.

At the end I climbed an escape ladder attached to a block of flats. Every footstep clunked on the metal, loud against the urban silence.

When I reached the top I breathed in the cold winter air and waited.

I was there about a minute when I heard a flutter and the soft landing of claws on concrete.

I couldn’t go out the back because the moonlight of this world interfered with our shapeshifting ability. It would have revealed my true form to him. At the front, the building was tall enough to shield me. Now bathed in sunlight our true images were clear. We looked like Earth bats, true, but we were not from this planet though the comparison added to the fear.

‘Have you discovered why he is immune?’ asked my leader.

‘Not yet.’

‘We need to find out. We are too few-’

I nodded. ‘So long as he thinks I’m his sister, we’re safe.’ I flipped open my phone and typed a quick text: At the exchange. Calling for help. Hold on my brother x.

Not a bad little horror story there if I do say so myself!

Book Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

This is the least typical of Wyndham’s novels in that it is set in the far future and not in middle England.

This is a tale of a small agricultural community on the island of Labrador in a far future post-apocalyptic world. Their historical documents refer to the people of old who were destroyed by “tribulation”, punishment from God for their sins.

Based on small-town America of the old west and religious values that we might identify today as fundamentalist, these people are fiercely insular and intolerant of difference. This rigid adherence to purity leads them every year to destroy a good proportion of their food crop. People who are different are killed or sterilised and banished into the wilderness.

When young David starts to have vivid dreams of big cities and horseless carriages and a group of his friends realise they are telepathic, they conspire to keep their abilities secret. Eventually they are discovered and flee to the fringes where they make contact with a far off civilisation.

It is not made explicitly clear what the Tribulation was but tales of blackened glass in affected areas, illness that sounds like radiation poisoning amongst those who go there and the presence of mutation suggests nuclear holocaust (a theme present in several other Wyndam novels).

The message about humanity is mixed. Throughout the community of Waknuk is portrayed negatively: ignorant, barbaric and by destroying their food supply, self-destructing. Yet at the end the new arrival from Sealand who comes to Labrador in what sounds like a helicopter, states in no uncertain terms that the people of Labrador would never tolerate her people and that her people could never tolerate the intolerance of the people of Labrador. A poignant message for our time.

If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them – Karl Popper

Tweet for Victory!

In July this year, BBC Radio 4 announced that they would reduce their output of short stories from three per week to one per week from Spring 2012. Protests led to a compromise to two stories (in 2009 it was six).

Aside from the ongoing petition, various authors are today starting a most unusual protest or click the (mobile link here).

I don’t use Twitter and don’t intend to but if you have an account then I ask you to get involved. You never know, some of you non-writers might find you have a natural talent!

I will keep an eye on those involved and maybe make some of my own suggestions. I’ll post them here under flash fiction.