Soviet Aces of World War 2 by Hugh Morgan

This book gives a short account of Soviet air aces on the Eastern Front in what is known in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’. The text rather tends to plunge the reader directly into the world of Soviet aviation and air forces fairly quickly, but equally quickly you are onto events and personalities. Some of the bigger names – Kozhedub, Pokryshskin and Rechkalov – come over as real personalities, though how much of that is based on contemporary propaganda sources is hard to tell. There are accounts of operations and a potted history of the main fighter aircraft types. Some reference is made to the pre-war history of Soviet military aviation, especially in the Spanish Civil War, but this is neither detailed nor in context. Proofreading is pretty poor, but overall this is a useful introduction to the subject for the reader not specifically looking for huge amounts of detail, though some familiarity with Soviet state organisations is helpful.

Guts: A Comedy of Manners by David Langford and John Grant

“Warning: offensive content!” shrieks the cover. Well, that’s true; but sadly it’s more in terms of quality than gratuitousness. Having scored a considerable hit with their spoof of the disaster novel, Earthdoom!, Dave Langford and John Grant set out to do the same for the horror novel with Guts. Sadly, they went rather too far over the top. They threw everything into the mix; the prose channels the literary excesses of Lionel Fanthorpe, the jokes are way too knowing and the fourth wall is breached with excessive regularity. The funniest thing in it was a translation of the first two verses of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky into German, and I had to wait until page 165 out of 173 for it. You’ve heard of bad books that are so bad, they’re good; well, this is so good at what it does, it’s bad.

All Good Things: The Last SFX Visions by David Langford

More of Dave Langford’s columns on the world of science fiction from a writer’s viewpoint from the popular magazine SFX. This volume covers the final years of his column, up to the point where the magazine cancelled his column and other guest contributors’ contributions in 2016. (They managed to make it look as though Dave was leaving of his own accord, though the Truth is Out There.) Dave himself says that he never expected to spend 21 years writing a column for SFX, but hey, a paying gig is a paying gig. And magazine editors and proprietors are notoriously fickle about these things, especially where money is concerned. (It’s very much the story of the only regular paying gig I ever had from a magazine, and that finished some 15 years ago on the same grounds.)
Those who have been following Dave Langford’s writing will know what to expect, and they will not be disappointed.

Locomotives that never were; some 20th Century British projects by Robin Barnes

In all human enterprises, there are plans that never come to fruition – the Board chose Plan A over Plan B, circumstances changed, what seemed like a good idea at the time turns out not to have been in the cold light of day, and so on. And it is so in the development of railway locomotives. A change in the Board may mean that some plans suddenly are favoured and others pass out of favour; a change in personnel in the Chief Mechanical Engineer’s department may result in some approaches being dropped in favour of a new idea; or a new proposal might be seen as just too radical. This book looks at some of the options for railway traction on Britain’s railways in the twentieth century that represent the path not taken.

Some forty or so plans are examined by Robin Barnes and illustrated by his own paintings. He had the assistance of E.S. Cox, who was chief assistant to R.A. Riddles, the last steam locomotive designer for British Railways. Designs range from articulated freight locomotives for the Midland Railway, a company seemingly wedded to the idea of small engines and looking to get the maximum amount of power from the work of one engine crew, through various exotic traction sources such as steam turbines and electric locomotives, to big express engines that never made it off the drawing board. In particular, some of the designs by William Raven for the North Eastern Railway as well as a number of Midland designs represent changes in direction following the “Grouping”, the consolidation of Britain’s 120 railway companies into four undertakings in 1923, resulting in a number of designers being demoted or discharged when their services were suddenly no longer required. In a number of cases, there were situations where larger express locomotives were not taken forward for a number of commercial reasons; so, for example, Fowler’s 4-6-2 express LMS Pacific which did not meet the approval of the “Midland small-engine brigade” in the new company, leading to Fowler being overruled on the creation of the ‘Royal Scot’ 4-6-0s and the letting of the contract for their building entirely out to the North British Locomotive Co., or Hawksworth’s class of 4-6-2 Pacific express locomotives for the Great Western, continuing and expanding upon the designs of the earlier “Castle” and “King” class 4-6-0 are covered. Also, the proposed British Railways Standard 8F 2-8-2 locomotive – the only one of the BR Standards not to be built – is covered.

Perhaps the most interesting proposal that was seriously considered by the LMS, and is covered here, was the proposal for the electrification of the former LNWR main line (today’s West Coast main line) between Lancaster and Carlisle over the Cumbrian fells at Shap. This was suggested in the early days of the new company, using Swiss technology, and is illustrated by Barnes in the form of the depiction of a Swiss Ae 4/7 – an early electric locomotive with a profusion of bonnets, bus-bars and ventilating grilles – in fully lined LMS crimson livery, leaving Lancaster with the Royal Train for the north.

Barnes has a great fascination with “might-have-beens” of the railway world; this book is a fascinating source of speculation and pipe-dreams.

The Third Millennium; a history of the world, AD 2000-3000 by Brian Stableford and David Langford

The authors of this book came up with what looked like a sure-fire proposition for the publisher – in the early 1980s, they pitched the book along the lines of “In ten years’ time, there’ll be lots of books forecasting the next millennium – so here’s your chance to get in early and steal a march on the competition!”

It was a persuasive pitch – the book sold. Sadly, like most prediction/futurology, real life has a habit of biting you on the bottom. Just four years after publication, the Berlin Wall came down and suddenly, everything was different. Given that the book describes policies coming out of the Soviet Union into the 2800s, it rather throws the rest of the futurological stuff out of kilter.

Other speculations go just as wide of the mark, especially when talking about the 21st century. The growth of the Internet and communications technology generally isn’t foreseen anywhere near as soon as it actually happened. It’s only as the story moves into the further future that the fall of events becomes more likely-sounding. More generally, the style of writing comes over as rather dry; the parts written by David Langford and dropping the occasional in-joke into the text are welcome for being a little less arid.

Science fiction is not the same as prediction (sf authors keep saying). But perhaps this would have been better if it really had been written and marketed as science fiction, say as an episodic future-historical novel in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson. Names of future political leaders, scientists or opinion formers are dropped into the text, and they could have been selected and inserted at random for all the sense one gets of these names representing real people. Far better, perhaps, to focus on a few of these individuals and to actually write a story about them. (Indeed, Brian Stableford did use this book as a framework for his Architects of Emortality series.)

This is probably worth acquiring if you see a cheap second-hand copy and have an interest in one or both of the authors. The hologram on the cover was very much a marketing gimmick of the time; another publisher beat this book to market with a holographic cover by a few weeks, much to the chagrin of Sidgwick & Jackson.

Halting State by Charles Stross

This book was written in 2007-08 and is set in 2018. Having come to it late, I was staggered from the very first page as to how close Charlie Stross has come to accurately depicting the IT industry of my present day. The introduction takes the form of a speculative approach from an IT recruitment agency. I spent six months of 2016 looking for work in IT, so I was hooked from the outset.

I’m not a techie person (I test software for a living, and I approach the job from the user’s p.o.v.), but all the techno-babble that Stross uses was actually fairly comprehensible to me – that is, it made about as much sense to me in the novel as it does when I hear almost exactly the same terms used in the office. In the interview appended to the Orbit UK pb edition, Stross comments that there was little in the novel that didn’t already exist; and what doesn’t is very close to our present tech horizon. He did, in truth, work in the industry, and it shows, both in terms of the techie-speak and in the characters, personalities and settings. He has corporate management and office conspiracies right down to the smallest detail.

The politics is like ours, only slightly different. The novel takes place in an independent Scotland, still negotiating the terms of its divorce from a Remnant UK which is still in the EU; and even though our current political situation is (sort of) opposite, it still feels very relevant and understandable.

The plot concerns a (real) robbery from a (virtual) bank in an online role-playing game. I’m not a gamer, but I know sufficient people who are for this to have relevance. Teams from the police and from a firm of forensic accountants try to find out what was stolen, from whom, why, and how. Things quickly move into a much more serious space. The cover blurbs mention William Gibson, and certainly a lot of this had the feel of Gibson’s exploration of new angles to our online world that no-one’s thought of yet (or at least not gone public with yet).

Stross is a Scot by adoptive choice, so his affection for Edinburgh comes out strongly. As to the accents – well, if you watch a few episodes of the Eighties/Nineties/Noughties cop show ‘Taggart’, you’ll get the gist of what’s being said.

I bought this book on the first day of the UK Science Fiction Easter convention and started reading it that evening. I felt compelled to finish it as soon as I could, so much did the story and setting grab me. Oh, and the cover of the Orbit UK paperback, with graphics showing in-game avatars, includes one of Charlie Stross himself.

Highly recommended.

Vinland the dream; and other stories by Kim Stanley Robinson

The first thing to note about this collection is that it is definitely for completists only. Although this is an original publication for the UK, it collects together eight stories previously published in The Planet on the Table (1986 USA, 1987 UK) and five stories from Remaking History (1991, USA only). It adds one new story, Discovering Life.

Although KSR is known for his intelligent and rigorous blockbuster novels, he does have a track record on short fiction, and sometimes displays as much erudition in the shorter format as in his longer works. This collection is a mix of differently-themed stories; there are alternate history stories (The Lucky Strike, and A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions, which is a sort of mix of story and essay, using alternate history situations as examples) and some stories on historical themes (Vinland the dream, and ‘A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations’, both of which are more about history); the latter story only turns out to be science fiction because it was written in 1991 about the distant year of futurity 2000, and even then it is about a very near-future historian writing a book on the Twentieth Century, and finding inspiration to start – and then inspiration not to finish – the book in contemporary Britain. Though by 2000, the Ford Sierra had been replaced as a fleet hire car by the Mondeo, and the British Museum Reading Room had closed (in 1997), its functions being transferred to the purpose-built British Library on the Euston Road next to St. Pancras station…

There are stories which relate to KSR’s love of the outdoors, such as Ridge Running and Muir on Shasta; there are a couple of stories – Mercurial and Coming back to Dixieland – set in his future Solar System as shown in novels such as The Memory of Whiteness. And there is a fascinating murder mystery, The Disguise set against a background of a future where actors no longer learn lines but get memory implants that enable them to act out a play as of they were living it for real, but with their words pre-ordained by the script implant.

Throughout, the level if invention never really flags, although some of the stories – Discovering Life, Remaking History and Ridge Running – are ordinary stories of ordinary folk who just happen to live in a future very close to our present, and some might consider that nothing much actually happens in them. Rather like ordinary life today, then.

And then, just to show that KSR has depths where weirdness lurks, there is Black Air, an out-and-out fantasy about the Spanish Armada.

A worthwhile collection, then, if you don’t have these stories collected in other anthologies.