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Biased and superficial Science Fiction reviews


Tentacles The SF Reviews newsletter, 29th February 2004

Mission to Mars (1)

The Japanese NOZOMI ("Hope") mission has been partially successful. It was sadly unable to achieve orbit around Mars, but it is pretty astounding it got there at all, shooting past just a 1000km away on its closest approach.

NOZOMI was launched in July 1998. It was originally due to arrive in October 1999. However, on a sling-shot loop around Earth in 1998, there was a critical fuel loss. NOZOMI was able to adopt an alternate, but longer, trajectory. Furthermore, in 2002 the craft encountered a violent solar storm that damaged a variety of electrical systems. These electrical problems and the shortage of fuel made it impossible to achieve orbit.

Mission to Mars (2)

All Rights Reserved Beagle 2

The Beagle 2 appears to be snuffling around in a crater, ignorant of the Earth’s attempts to contact it. Heartbreaking and perhaps we should spend a little more money on Beagle 3. Still Mars Express successfully inserted itself into polar orbit, and good research is being done.

For more information, check Beagle 2 and ESA Mars Express.

Mission to Mars (3)

The Yanks are there. Might have known it. It’s the 4th of January, "Spirit" has just landed, and "Opportunity" will land in some twenty days time. Perhaps they’ll find Beagle 2. Probably landed directly on top of it, stifling its last vain attempt to signal home.

It’s now February, and the Spirit rover has been lost and recovered, Opportunity has arrived and is active.

I am looking forward with cautious optimism to some surprising discoveries. Keep track of what's happening on Mars Rovers.

Beagle 2 is, alas, still missing without trace.

Mission to Mars (4)

President Bush is going to take America back to the Moon and then onto Mars, with a manned mission this time.

Much like the war in Iraq, it is being done for the wrong reasons, but this has my complete support. I hope it stimulates some other countries into getting out into space. I want some competitive excitement out there. Space exploitation must become the new Wild West, the anarchic and uncontrolled frontier, fortunes to be made or lost, empires to rise and fall on far-off events. I guess we’re thirty years away from seeing that happen.

Return To Earth

I’ve left the exotic climes of Asia-Pacific

and relocated to lower London. I can tell you, it is not the same. On one the hand it is easier to talk to people. On the other hand, what is there to talk about? Except for the appalling weather. And the loss of Beagle 2.

Full Circle

Apropos returning from Asia Pac, you know you’ve come full circle when you start liking "Hotel California" again.

One does to tend to rather have one’s fill of it in dubious Asia Pac dives, but back here in the smoke, it’s almost fresh and exciting.

For almost thirty years, wherever one has been lounging, ligging or loitering in Asia Pacific, one of the local bars will have been playing "Hotel California". Even hotel bars play "Hotel California". I could tell which country I was in when I surfaced from an extended daze by (a) whether the music was "Hotel California", (b) whether it was being covered by a live band, (c) whether girls were singing along, and (d) whether I was dancing. At least I could pin it down to within a couple of thousand Ks.

Coming back to the UK and finding myself actually enjoying a radio replay of "Hotel California" has been a bit of a shock. I clearly need to exit as soon as possible,

It took a chunk of time to transport my gear across the oceans hence the lack of a newsletter for the past few months. Now all I have to do is work out which books to review, since I read many while in transit, but have read only one since my arrival. I’m spending most of my time meandering around the streets of Mother London reading advertising. It is astonishing how different it feels when you can actually read the text and understand what it is about.

The UK feels like a foreign country – I’ve been away for a while – and I think (self-dramatising here) I understand "Stranger in a Strange Land" more than before. Well not the effeminate parts of course, nor the odd language.

There are many annoyances with returning here. Not least is that in some countries electricity runs at a nice round 100V whereas the UK is a massive 240V. The problem with 240V is that apart from being several times more dangerous (potentially lethal in fact), it requires giant plugs and sockets, armoured and fused to some well-meaning British Standard more suited to hardened military appliances than for one’s stereo.. If you want to get more out of your Japanese-purchased Bang & Olafson Hifi than a subdued explosion, it is necessary to use a step-down transformer.


On the subject of transformers, let me recommend Newmarket Transformers, a most obliging company. I’ll also throw in a mention of Lou Reed’s classic, but otherwise irrelevant, "Transformer" album. Well, not entirely irrelevant: the BBC, clearly a covert glam-rock fan, used "Perfect Day" from this very album as part of their live music promotion a few years ago. And there's more on the BBC further down this page.

That’s all on transformers. If you were expecting more, you probably want to go to Bigbot.

But I wouldn’t. I’d stay here and read the latest reviews.

Explosions In The Sky

On the subject of explosions, other countries use fireworks, and they can be very grand indeed, but believe me being in London for Guy Fawkes Night was astounding.

There was a continuous roll of explosions throughout the evening. My first thought was that Bush and Blair had seriously miscalculated and that the Iraqi counterattack had started, My second thought – some hours later, and markedly less lucidly - and after several (significantly more expensive over here) Tequila shots, was that Saddam, WMD-less, probably was not to blame, and that it had to be, finally, the alien invasion.

So I’d packed my rucksack with "Lord Of Light", portable MD player and panicky handful of MDs, spanner, Digestives, hair gel, nail clippers, toothbrush and almost-empty toothpaste, broken torch, bottle of Tequila, three shot glasses in bubblewrap, two packs of Marlboro Lights and classic Geronimo's Bar lighter, can-opener and of course, my executive portable hammock. A long time was spent choosing my clothes (one wants to look presentable, even in flight) but such details are unnecessary here. It was hours before I was dressed and ready and a good thing too, really, since in the bright light of day, and with the Tequila wearing off, I decided that absolute flight was perhaps unnecessary, at this stage.

Although the possibility of alien invasion seems more remote now, I do still find it suspicious that Beagle 2 has simply vanished without trace.

[Clearly this piece should have been in the November issue, which didn’t appear. Or the December issue, or even the January issue. I may, however, reuse it in the next November issue. Be warned.]

If course, you want to know more about what to do in the event of an alien invasion you could do worse than read Larry Niven’s "Footfall".

Obituary: Hal Clement

Hal Clement wrote the classic, and possibly first, hard-science novel "Mission Of Gravity". It was published in 1953. I read it as a bratlet and thought it tremendously powerful. I believed it, I felt I was there. Recently I had the pleasure of reading "Half-Life", published in 1999, a very moving novel. Read his books.

He was a master of SF and will be missed.

The BBC Big Read

I was surprised at some of the books that made it into the in the BBC Big Read Top 21. However, I was smugly pleased that SF&F featured so prominently. Six of the top 10 were SF&F and two of them were pure SF: "1984" and "The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy".

According to the Independent On Sunday newspaper, agent Ed Victor has been trying since 1983 to get a film deal for the Hitchhiker's Guide. The news is that he has finally secured one with Disney. By the way, thanks to Mark for introducing myself and many others to the joys of the original BBC Radio 4 programme. That was a delight indeed, superior to the album, TV series and even, in some ways, the book.

Here are the final BBC Big Read Top Ten:

  1. "The Lord of the Rings" by JRR Tolkien
  2. "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen
  3. "His Dark Materials" by Philip Pullman
  4. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
  5. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" by JK Rowling
  6. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee
  7. "Winnie the Pooh" by AA Milne
  8. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" by George Orwell
  9. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by CS Lewis
  10. "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë

Science Note: Epson's Mini Flying Robot

Seiko Epson has used its micromechatronics skills to develop a cute little micro flying robot. I am considering using one to carry my cocktail tray for me, so the vodka martini is always floating somewhere nearby.

Forget webcams! If these ever become cheap and ubiquitous, and equipped with wireless video camera, we’ll spend our time tuned to the TV and the micro flying robot remote control and peering at other people’s lives. Probably skulking around the SF Reviews bunker trying to find out what the latest reviews will be. Well, I would. I’d certainly like to know.

For more information see the news release.

Best Book Of 2003

The Top Ten best books that I reviewed in 2003 were, in order:

However, many of these books predate 2003. Of the books that were actually copyright 2003 and that I reviewed that year, the absolute best, and way ahead of the rest, is:

So the SF Reviews Best Book Of 2003 award goes to Robert Reed for this excellent book.

Best Books This Month

The best books this month were, in my order of preference:

John Wyndham wrote some excellent novels. "The Day Of The Triffids" is one of them. I am inspired to reread "The Midwich Cuckoos" and "The Chrysalids", and may be read some of the others such as "Trouble With Lichen" which has to be one of the most uninspiring book titles ever and deserves to be read for that alone.

Elizabeth Moon’s "Speed Of Dark" is superb. She has created an engrossing novel that may (if she’s got it right) give its readers a significant insight into autism.

Worst Books This Month

These two were disappointing sequels to quite reasonable novels. I’ll try to forget about them immediately, and I suggest you do too.

"Humans" was a trite followup to the surprisingly good "Hominids". I was enthralled by "Hominids" but "Humans" just irritated me with its triviality and predictability. I, although normally without fear of course, am actually nervous about reading the final book, "Hybrids", of this trilogy.

"Heirs Of Earth" was the appallingly bad finale to what began with the pretty reasonable "Echoes Of Earth". The authors just stretched an initially interesting scenario several notches too far.

This Month’s Reviews

    Next Month’s Reviews

    There will be a review of Philip K. Dick’s fabulous "The Man In The High Castle". I may be able to throw in a review of "Deus Irae" written by P. K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, an odd combination indeed. I am also hoping to complete the review of Gwyneth Jones’ exhilarating "Bold As Love", but every time I try to finish it off I get sidetracked into the creation of appropriate play lists in Musicmatch.

    The Big 3 - Another birthday at SF Reviews

    January saw the third birthday of SF Reviews. It was celebrated quietly, as befits a mature publication, unlike its first birthday and with fewer dancing girls.

    Several days later, after detoxification, resolutions were settled upon and it was decided that SF Reviews, although still young, should skip kindergarten and start learning. Learning how to write. Or at least should read “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss.

    That’s all for now. As always, tell me what you think about the books, the reviews and the site. Do let me know if there are books you think I should review.

    Take care




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