Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Dark EdenDark Eden by Chris Beckett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 500+ member Family is stuck on a permanently dark planet, amusingly named Eden. Descended from two – Angela and Tommy – members of the original crew of the ship Defiant this is a strange collective. Split into a number of sub-groups, the society of both strongly matriarchal and gerontocratic in-bred family units is a hunter-gatherer society operating in an environment of decreasing resource availability while waiting for Earth to come and rescue them. Into this stagnant collective is thrown a couple of teenagers – led by John Redlantern – who start to think for themselves and question the group’s assumptions.

The world building going on here is the key to the novel, and it’s both amazing and frustrating in not quite equal measures. The mythology of Angela and Tommy is well structured and provides a clear set of controls over the behaviours of the Family members. The regular meetings and their fascination with the mementos not only provides a way for the reader to access the wider Family, but also for us to quickly (well, mostly quickly) be caught up on the history of the Family on Eden. The need for casual promiscuity between groups is also built into the story as a natural way of attempting to break the genetic flaws that are rampant throughout the Family – batfaces and clawfeet are a high percentage of the population suffering from hare-lips and club feet. Secondly, the complete darkness feels initially like an interesting choice and allows Beckett to provide an entire ecosystem of phosphorescent flora and fauna. But, it becomes apparent while reading that the actual purpose of the darkness is just as a device to keep the Family localised – too terrified to spread out into areas that they cannot easily see – and it starts to feel a little too convenient for the narrative. And, finally, the language of Family is another major part of the world building. As you would expect in 160 years, language has degenerated somewhat and words such as anniversary and electricity are simplified down to alternative spellings based on the phonetics of a mostly aural tradition, some words are repeated instead of using intensifiers (‘dark dark’ rather than very dark). But it seemed as if he was too nervous of making the text ‘difficult’ to really follow through on this fully. Too many words – like computer – were left totally unchanged, and yet left alongside ‘Any Virsay’ instead of anniversary – the annual meeting of all family to remind themselves of their history and group identity. Comparing this with the, admittedly challenging but, thorough approach of Will Self in The Book of Dave, where I regularly had to refer to the glossary, it feels like a cop out.

Many of the characters lack much dimension – Tina for example – and far too many interesting ideas are woven repeatedly into the story and then left unsatisfying unexplored by the end. But the world building is fascinating, the story is reasonably well paced and the ending – if not perfect – does feel better than it could have been (I was so worried it was all going to be a Truman show). I wavered throughout between a 3 and a 4-star rating, but ultimately the good stuff is good enough to outweigh the niggles and I’m going to be generous.

View all my reviews

Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

The Caves of Steel (Robot, #1)The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each City became a semiautonomous unit, economically all but self-sufficient. It could roof itself in, gird itself about, burrow itself under. It became a steel cave, a tremendous, self-contained cave of steel and concrete.

This is a book about robots and humans, about racism, about overpopulation, about the differences between the law and justice, about high-density city living, about subsisting in a workfare state, and about overcoming your prejudices to work towards a goal that is bigger and better than yourself.

Nah, it’s really just about robots and the future and stuff. Like a good Star Trek episode it kinda touches on all those other issues, but that’s not really what the book is about (except maybe the racism and robots thing). Instead it’s a science-fiction crime novel in the style of any one of those ’80s cop buddy movies where the two unlikely characters are teamed up and have to solve the case. Only to discover that the case is way bigger than anybody realised – and they’re both actually better cops than anybody realised. As we expect in these stories there’s a few false reveals, but they’re generally well done. Dialogue is never really Asimov’s strong suite but, all in all, kinda fun. Another book club success.

View all my reviews

Chase the Sun 5K in Hyde Park

A cheeky mid-week race for a change: Louise, Suzanne and I lined up for a 7pm start where the aim is to complete the 5K (or 10K course) before the sun sets. Tonight it sets at 7:48, and with the 10K runners setting off 5 mins after the 5K runners that seemed like to challenging a way to start my Chase the Sun experience. So, the 5K it was.

My warm-up was a little longer than expected, with a 6km run from the office to the start-line (plus the same back again afterwards as a cool-down). Luckily, I also got there a little early, so plenty of time to recover from my warm-up before the race.

Very pleased with the result though. Not a PB by 40 seconds, but I didn’t go that hard out the gate (I certainly wasn’t planning to PB) and having started near the back with Louise and Suzanne I had to weave round a few of the slower runners before I could settle in to a rhythm. Overtaking so many people does feel good though – until the moment when the fast 10K runners catch you up anyway…

Finally, 35th over the line (and I think 34th by chip time), and my 3rd fastest 5K time. Not a completely flat course, with two laps up a small drag incline, but nowhere near as technically demanding as Wimbledon parkrun.

Finishers! And we beat the sun!

A photo posted by James Spinks (@realjimbob) on

Chase the Sun 5k Hyde Park – 35th in 22:59

A photo posted by James Spinks (@realjimbob) on

Iron Council by China Miéville

Iron Council (Bas-Lag, #3)Iron Council by China Miéville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book and I never quite clicked. I feel like I aught to have liked it more, that the book should have deserved more stars than it got, that I’ve missed something that would have made me love the book (or even want to keep reading it sometimes). Probably that’s my fault for reading the book in quite small chunks on train journeys and before falling asleep at night. But it could quite easily be China’s fault for creating what seemed like a big hot mess of absolutely mind-blowing ideas.

Obviously, it’s fantastic (in the literal sense of the word): It’s China Miéville. So, even with large chunks of it set in New Crobuzon – a city we’ve already met in the previous books – we’re still bombarded with new ideas, new things, new places, new people, new creatures, new politics and new powers. And while I really did appreciate the incredible creative effort that had obviously gone in all this, I just never quite felt like I was connecting with the story or the characters…

View all my reviews


The Tales of Alvin Maker, books 4 and 5

Alvin Journeyman (Tales of Alvin Maker, #4)Alvin Journeyman by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With book four the series starts to slow again and characters are made to retread old paths. Alvin returns home and attempts to train more Makers. While it starts to feel as if the first three books peaked with Prentice Alvin, then we’re now on the other side of that hill and Card is trying to restart the story somewhat. To an extent this is borne out just from the publishing schedule – books 1 through 3 were published a year apart, this one took a six year jump for him to get back to world of Alvin Maker.

It’s an enjoyable read though – if a little slow – and we do get some new characters and some older characters that step up from supporting cast to regular.

Heartfire (Tales of Alvin Maker, #5)Heartfire by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two stories in one, that end up coming together. On the one hand Alvin has formed a little gang with Mike, Verily and Arthur Stuart. Wandering around trying to work out how Alvin is going to build his Crystal City – or even what the Crystal City really is. In the process, Alvin gets accused of being a witch and Verily suddenly decides to take on the whole principle of witch trials and fight them through the courts.

The other story is of Peggy, now Alvin’s wife, who is trying to get an audience with the exiled King in order to avert the coming war. Mixing her story up a little is the appearance of Calvin, Alvin’s brother, who is still jealous of Alvin’s powers. Add into this story a more detailed explanation of the magical powers of the black slaves and we now have three distinct magic systems – the knacks of the white people, the nature affinity of the native Americans and now the knots and dolls of the African slaves. Think useful functional magic for white folks, noble savage tree hugging for the red folks, and voodoo for the black folks and you won’t be far off. Obviously, not a hint of any implied racism here…

Peggy and Calvin’s story is arguably the more interesting here – although both stories feature way too much talking (therefore telling) rather than action and plot development (showing). As a whole it does feel bit too much like a filling story. An attempt to build a journey for Alvin rather than having him just rush off and build his city. And, Card does get a little bogged down in the side stories again. But, while they’re fun and well told, we’re still no closer to having a crystal city than we were all those books ago… Hopefully the final book – helpfully titled The Crystal City – will actually finish the story out.

View all my reviews

Global Bike to Work Day 2016

Finally. Back to the commuting now that the half-marathon training is out of the way. (Confession: it’s been out of the way for a while now, and I should have gotten back to this already). Strava chose to make 10 May 2016, the first ever Global Bike to Work day and encouraged people to cycle-commute to work and tag their rides appropriately.

It felt good to be back to it, although it did piss down all the way in…

… and then, of course, home again.