Reading through a backlist during the Covid-19 outbreak, I had mixed reactions to these three stories from 1978, 1989 and 1991…

First up was a re-read of “Sigmet Active” by Thomas Page (1978). I had read this around 1982 and it stayed lodged in my imagination ever since — but would it be as good now? The answer was “yes and no”.

‘Sigmet’ is a pilot’s notification of significant meteorological activity. Sigmet conditions make flying very risky and inadvisable. Page blends a fictional US Cold War secret weapons project with the McGuffin of a living plasma in the ionosphere to create a so-so sci-fi thriller. His idea for ‘Project Windowpane’ is plausible enough. The Navy fire an experimental high-power laser at the ozone layer which ‘burns’ a 2-mile wide hole above a test ship called the Knoxville. Windowpane seems to be a success when heat and radiation from the ‘window’ that the laser has opened kills test animals on the Knoxville.

Windowpane unbalances electrical charges in the ionosphere. The ‘plasma creature’ usually maintains the charge balance with lightning. It somehow becomes imprinted with the electrical signatures of every living creature on the surface below the window. A science crew were watching the test from a hardened bunker on an island called Itrek. The plasma creature first kills the easy lower organisms on the island with lightning before attacking the bunker. They survive but their ship, the missile destroyer Adair, is also destroyed by lightning attacks. The main protagonist, Itrek survivor Jeffrey Holden, is then chased around the world by storms created by the plasma creature. Other minor characters are killed off and there is an almost unnecessary love-child side-story.

“Sigmet Active” does still echo with some of the Cold War sentiments that I remembered. Yet, it is also diminished by the prominent homophobic sentiments of ‘Chief Petty Officer Mason’. It is a quick read (218 pages) and yet somehow Page seems to miss the mark. This time around it was neither deep enough on the science elements nor thrilling enough in the chase sequences to keep a strong hold on my interest.

Next up is “Grass” by Sheri S. Tepper (1989). This a rock-solid, classy and engaging story that I have not hesitation in recommending. A plague is sweeping across the inhabited galaxy and only the people on the planet Grass seem to be immune. In a diplomatic mission, the Westridings are sent from Earth to learn their secret.

Decadent aristocratic families known as ‘bons’ (like the bon Damfels or bon Haunsers) call themselves the rulers of Grass. They lack education and the ability to support or maintain themselves. As the story progresses it becomes clear that the people in the Commoner Town are experts in technical fields and the real powers on Grass. 

The Westridings spend a lot of time interacting with the bons, who hold themselves aloof. Eventually, Lady Westriding builds more productive relationships with the commoners.

Tall, multi-coloured grass prairies cover almost the entire surface of the planet. Ferocious ‘foxen’ and nightmare horse-like ‘hippae’ live on the prairies are the dominant macro-animals. There is a very dark secret to discover about the circle of life between bats, hippae, foxen and humans, and the ultimate cure for the plague.

The bons behave very strangely during “hunts” when they ride hippae to chase down foxen, which opens a way to reveal the immunity secret. The book never feels slow and Tepper uses several sub-plots to keep us interested as the story unfurls.  Grass has a soft mysticism a bit like Dune with such a strong sense of place that you feel like you’ve been there. Recommended.

Last up is “Synners” by Pat Cadigan (1991), riding the cyberpunk wave from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” (1984). I found Cadigan’s tale interesting, but also slow and at times held back with poorly positioned street slang. Her future society is a grimy blend of computer hacking, virtual realities, implanted technology, drugs, streetwise punks, sex and amoral corporations.

The global internet is full of viruses, some helpful, some fun, others dangerous. It now hosts a dataline that beams more information into households and businesses than they could ever consume. This internet controls everything and society would struggle if it was damaged. Many of the main characters create films for the entertainment dataline. They have a strong sub-culture that feels like “sex, drugs and rock & roll”, and the best videos get elevated to a kind of celebrity status. One such creator is a genius known as ‘Visual Mark’, whose atrophied brain has become hyper-focussed on producing images.

Cadigan invents a technology called “sockets” which enables people to connect their brains to the internet for entertainment. The ‘Diversifications’ corporation gets control of that technology and fits sockets to Visual Mark. They don’t know that sockets don’t have anti-virus protections and he is about to have a stroke (‘the big one’). Visual Mark achieves a transference of his consciousness onto the internet via his sockets, barely regretting leaving behind ‘the meat’ that he has outgrown. Unfortunately when he does have the ‘big one’ it also unleashed as the most destructive virus possible on the internet. Other protagonists must then work together to stop this virtual manifestation of the ‘big one’.

There are other sub-plots within the book, but that is part of the problem with ‘Synners’. The ideas are huge but the story crawled through a combination of too many main characters, abrupt scene shifts, confusing slang and an overdone music industry culture that I wasn’t excited about. 

Hacking attempts continue on my old, mothballed website…

Before I finally close my old “russellweb” domain I thought I’d take a look at where the ongoing hacking attempts are coming from. Given that I don’t advertise this old domain (having moved here) and haven’t posted anything new there for months, activity comes from either bots/indexers or hackers… and hacking attempts are very obvious based on the (non-existent) files they are trying to access.

<= I noticed an immediate increase in hacking once the wave-1 Covid lockdowns started to ease across the globe. This is what the story looked like in yesterday’s log files.

I hope everyone is now using ultra-secure, non-repeated passwords with 2-factor authentication wherever possible. The criminality behind these hacking attempts is obvious – if they’re trying to do this on a small mothballed ‘hobby’ site, what are they doing to sites with full e-commerce capabilities and all of our personal details?

I’m writing again after a nice long break…

I started writing sci-fi short stories around 2009, and by 2017 had self-published two novels and an anthology. That had been enjoyable but hadn’t sold very well, so by 2019 I had decided to switch to writing Thrillers. Having reached the mid-point of a first draft for book 2 in my new ‘Lissa Blackwood’ series I decided to take a short break, to recharge and reconnect with my muse.

The rest was superb – I read a lot of books, watched a lot of films and generally relaxed.

And in that relaxation I discovered that my true muse is the experience of living during the closing years of the Cold War. Memories of cruise missile launchers prowling the English countryside, CND protests, posturing by Reagan, and films like Threads, all combined to leave me with a significant fear of nuclear war. That theme came out a little in my first two novels, but I can now see how to really focus on it through my Lissa Blackwood stories.

I’m now working on four projects that will help me to dig deeply into my Cold War memories and emotions:

  • A series of circa 35 non-fiction articles about the Cold War,
  • 12 short stories set within or around Cold War nuclear bunkers,
  • 7 short stories based around the fiction ‘Special Investigations Group’ (SIG) that I created for my series of ‘Lissa Blackwood’ thrillers, and
  • The first 3 novels in my ‘Lissa Blackwood’ series.

It feels great to be writing again, and I’m enjoying exploring both the creative fiction and historical exploration of the Cold War era!

======
image: Titan Missile by Mike McBey on flickr.com – CC BY 2.0 license.

Book review: “Diving into the Wreck” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I’ve been reading a lot more fiction since my Covid-19 lockdown began on 13th March. My interests are quite varied but I often return to my first love, science fiction – and I’m pleased to say that this 2013 tale from Kristine Kathryn Rusch did not disappoint!

I’ve had a soft spot for stories like this ever since I read a book about potholing accidents at school. Rather gruesome, I know, but what it kindled was a fascination about the exploration of confined spaces. A few years later I spent a miserable afternoon on an out-of-bounds course crawling around part of an abandoned coal mine – it was cold, wet, physically demanding and very painful… and not something I wanted to take up as a hobby!

Fast forward a couple more years and my interest in geology combined with trips to the famous limestone cave systems in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, UK. The Darkness Beckons~FarrReading about cave diving convinced me that I didn’t want to do that either (I value my life far too much), but I did enjoy reading Martyn Farr’s seminal book on the topic, ‘The Darkness Beckons’.

Like an armchair quarterback, I can’t do it myself but I feel educated enough to have an opinion. And my opinion is that with ‘Diving into the Wreck’, Rusch has created a very authentic tale about how, in the future, people might explore (or pillage) abandoned spacecraft wrecks. These wrecks are full of dangers like sharp edges that could cut into a spacesuit, or desperate survivors of deep space accidents, malfunctioning technology or marauding pirates.

Like cave divers, once inside a wreck her explorers take care to be tethered and map their routes, use caution near constricting tunnels or entrances, and pay close attention to their suit’s environmental systems, especially their oxygen supplies. The way they move around sounds a bit like swimming in the darkness of a cave, with their lights showing the way ahead while the areas behind fall into darkness.

The story comes to life in the relationships between a wreck explorer called ‘Boss’ and the team she hires to help her explore her latest find, an old ship called a Dignity Vessel. This ship could be extremely valuable. Unfortunately, it carries a piece of very dangerous technology, called a stealth field, that killed her mother and will now both tempt and scare her crew in different ways. Throw in a back-story about her father and contemporary military tech research and you have an excellent three-part book.

The only strange thing was that, despite my personal interests and Rusch having created a series of books in this setting, I don’t feel any need to read any more stories from her ‘Diving’ series. This one seemed pretty complete and the characters weren’t so compelling that I’d want to read any more about their lives. Still, a good story, well told –  this one scores a solid 9/10 on the O2-tank scale.

Choosing how to format your author name…

Every author has to decide on how to present their name when publishing work…

  • Do you go for the straight first name followed by last name format?
  • Or first initial followed by last name?
  • How do you present any middle names?
  • Should you reverse your names for impact as a pen name, or even discard your own identifiers and use something completely different?

The choice about whether to use a pen name will be driven by many factors, including a desire to maintain anonymity or wanting to match the prevailing style in your chosen genre. But whether we’re using a pen name or not, the same question arises – how should I format my author name?

I decided to let some research inform my choice.

I looked at the top-50 ranked science fiction authors in a large online survey and broke their names down into 2 categories:

  1. initials followed by last name, or
  2. first name(s) followed by last name.

I then counted the syllables in the individual parts of their names (initials counted as 1 syllable each), and expressed them in this ratio:

Count of all syllables before the last name vs Count of syllables in last name

 – here are three examples:

AuthorNameExamples~190420

The conclusion was that using initials is not usual (just 5 from 45 authors had chosen that style), and a 2:2 balance in the names was most common.

I found this very helpful when revising my author name to match available .com domain names – I settled on:

  • Author name – Lee J. Russell
  • Domain name – leejrussell.com

Here are the full results – do they help you to choose how to format your own author name?

AuthorNameExamples2~190420

I was determined to finish reading “The Best of Isaac Asimov” before Christmas…

From my earlier blog on 24/12/19:

… and I really enoyed it!

I have a huge soft spot for early, post-WW2 SF, and this collection, chosen by Asimov, did not disappoint.

The book collects 12 stories from 1939 to 1972 that he considered to be good stories spanning three decades of writing: “… two early examples, two late samples, and eight from the gold decade (for me) of the Fifties.”

I loved his suggestion of an alternative title for the collection as “The Pretty Good and Pretty Representative Stories of Isaac Asimov” – he was a humble man, it seems.

The twelve stories are:

Marooned Off Vesta (1939),
Nightfall (1941) – his masterpiece,
C-Chute (1951),
The Martian Way (1952),
The Deep (1952),
The Fun They Had (1954),
The Last Question (1956),
The Dead Past (1956),
The Dying Night (1956),
Anniversary (1959),
The Billiard Ball (1967), and
Mirror-Image (1972)

‘Nightfall’ needs no introduction from me – it is one of the most singularly imaginative SF stories ever written. This story was read by Steve Ely for the One Hundredth edition of the ‘Escape Pod’ podcast – Steve (now Serah) gave it a respectful and energetic reading, which I recommend listening to.

I loved ‘The Billiard Ball’, which I am not going to spoiler zone here – it features a well thought out revenge-murder.

Mr Asimov’s personal favourite was ‘The Last Question’, but it seemed no better than the rest of the collection to me.

My personal favourite was ‘C-Chute’ – I loved the idea of a desperately homesick man going to extraordinary lengths in order to avoid becoming a prisoner of war. There is a also a pretty good audio performance of this story available from the “X-Minus One” radio shows.

One confusion I have is why Sphere decided to publish this 1973 UK version of the book with that terrible cover? It says nothing about the genre or overall themes of the stories – why would anyone have chosen that for an SF book?

I enjoyed re-reading Nigel Kneale’s 1979 novel “Quatermass”.

from my original blog on 12/12/19:

I first encountered this story as the TV serial that is advertised on the front cover. To my childhood eyes it seemed quite possible for Britain in the late ’70s and early ’80s to collapse into the anarchic state being shown. Quatermass Five years of Labour Party governance (Harold Wilson in ’74 – ’76, James Callaghan in ’76 – ’79) had brought the country to its knees. Callaghan had a tiny majority in Parliament and faced rampant Trade Union strikes that came to a head in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (Winter ’78-’79) – I still remember eating cold food by candle light because of power cuts. Public employees were walking out leaving food and fuel undelivered, rubbish uncollected, and bodies unburied. No government that can’t feed its people or bury the dead can survive, and Callaghan was ousted by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives on 3rd May 1979.

Thatcher was a completely different kind of political animal. Out went Keynesian economics, massive Public Services and a huge State apparatus. In came Monetarism, a priority on controlling inflation over unemployment, social conservatism over liberalism. There was a belief that through entrepreneurialism people could quiet ably look after themselves, and success came to those who worked for it. Thatcherite economics may have been a necessary readjustment to the UK economy but the means by which that was achieved were egregiously exclusive: London, the financial sector and certain parts of the South-East were favoured. The industrial Midlands and North were abruptly deemphasised, downsized and essentially scrapper. Strikes by the coal miners represented just the tip of resentment Thatcher’s government created with ‘ordinary people’ (i.e., anyone not loaded with cash or privilege). Whole families and communities were devastated by these changes being forced on them without a proper compensating programme of investment in their futures. On the council estate where I grew up things felt electrified, ready to explode at the wrong word. Violence and Vandalism went hand-in-hand, and only ‘getting a [rare] good job’ was going to save you from the unemployment line (I was very lucky in that regard).

These kinds of feelings are the foundation that Kneale built his novel on. He had previously written three stories for television starring Professor Bernard Quatermass (1953, 1955 and 1958) and some film versions were subsequently produced. Quatermass is a quintessential British scientist of the post-war era, smart but somewhat dour, somewhat ‘Establishment’ but out on the edge. In this final tale in the Quatermass quadrilogy, the Professor is searching for his grand-daughter, Hettie, across the ruins of the country. The UK, and the wider world at large, have slumped into social and economic collapse, and he sums it all up in a few sharp sentences during a TV interview at the start of the book:

“. Two super-powers, full of diseases – political diseases, social diseases, economic diseases – they’ve got them all – and their infections are too strong for us, the small countries! When we catch them we die! …”

All the young people are either being drawn into a hippie cult called the Planet People, or into violent gangs who fight to the death and celebrate killing with sex. quatermass_header The Planet People gather at historically symbolic meeting sites (mostly stone circles) in the belief that they are going to be ‘taken to the Planet’. Quatermass witnesses a group of Planet People being destroyed by a beam of light that turns them into a crystalline ash. He investigates what has happened with the help of other scientists and eventually discovers that the young people are being harvested by an alien force.

The final conclusion to the story was unsatisfying for me, and the use of a 35-kiloton nuclear weapon with a focussed charge felt like too much of a McGuffin. Those closing scenes did not spoil the story overall, but I did feel that Kneale missed the mark there.

== The TV version (starring John Mills) was broadcast in four parts in October-November 1979 and is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

I have just re-read Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” (1969) and totally enjoyed it…

from my original blog on 1/12/19:

TheAndromedaStrain I first became aware of Michael Crichton’s story “The Andromeda Strain” through the 1971 film starring Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olsen and Kate Reid. Having seen the film, I wanted to read the book, and was not disappopinted with it! I’ve just read it again about thirty years later – it was still as engaging as I remembered.

The story revolves around the recovery of a crashed satellite from ‘Project Scoop’. Scoop was designed to recover novel (bio warfare?) organisms from low-Earth orbit. When the Scoop VII satellite suffers a malfunction it has to be brought back prematurely. The military track it to a small, isolated town in Arizona called Piedmont. They find that everyone there is dead except for an old man and baby. The team they send in to recover the satellite are quickly killed as well – Scoop VII has brought a nasty organism back to Earth and the ‘Wildfire Team’ are activated.

Wildfire’s job is to examine the satellite in a secure bio-lab facility, classify how the deadly organism functions, and then find a cure for it. The facility reminded me of an underground Titan missile base. Once the team have travelled down to Level V, being increasingly decontaminated as they descend, they are essentially cut off from the surface with only computers and machines linking them to the outside world. Wildfire is clinical, clean, cold and dispassionate. The opinions of the computer programs come faster than the humans could form them and are unchallenged. The message is clear: technology can fix anything if the smartest people are using it.

Wildfire has been fitted with the ultimate fail-safe of a nuclear bomb that will automatically vaporise the facility if the computers detect that the bio-containment seals have failed. Only one unmarried man is given the key that could deactivate that bomb: if the alarm sounds he will have three minutes to decide whether he should stop it.

“The Andromeda Strain” is definitely a product of its time, blending Cold War secrecy and militarism with all the technological capability that America’s military-industrial complex could develop in the 1960s. Both the book and 1971 film feel claustrophobic and dispassionate; the survival of the team, the general population of the USA and even the world, will be determined by the unsmiling efforts of science. The scientists are compartmentalised both by their specialisms and their security ratings. They are progressively isolated as they descend through layers of decontamination, most of the Wildfire’s infrastructure is automated and communication is electronic, impersonal.

Using a vast array of computer-driven tests, the team eventually discover the Andromeda organism. Andromeda seems to be able to directly convert energy into matter without the need for digestion or respiration. It has a crystal structure and grows without DNA, RNA or any amino acids. It has also evolved into a form that can destroy (digest?) plastic-rubber. Although not lethal in that form, it escapes from confinement and the nuclear fail-safe is activated. The team realise that if the bomb detonates the energy released will probably result in Andromeda taking over the Earth – the story ends with them trying to avert that crisis. which I am not going to spoil here!

I really enjoyed re-reading The Andromeda Strain. It is a bit slow and by today’s standards the technology is over-explained… we’re all used to the ideas of computers and electron microscopes now. Some of the technology like the use of tele-printers has dated the book, but this took nothing away from the story.

Whilst I have enjoyed both the original book and 1971 film, unfortunately I must add that I did not like the 2008 mini-series – it felt much too slow and ponderous, which is saying something for this story!

Alien 3 – The Unproduced Screenplay…

From my earlier blog on 23/11/19:

I thought I had missed getting a first edition copy of this but found one by chance in a local bookstore today – fantastic!

I like the filmed version of Alien 3 – it felt rather British, which appealed to me. I also enjoyed reading Gibson’s script and now I’m looking forward to tucking into this comic-book version… hope it lives up to expectations!

Picking this up reminded me of the fun I had watching Alien and Aliens back-to-back at the cinema in 2014 – my blog post from that wonderful night out (‘Halloween Horror’) is below…