Monday 23 April 2018

Scouring Manchester’s darkest underbelly

It’s all about Manchester, this week. Ah yes, football, chip butties and Boddington’s bitter, right? 

Well ... sometimes maybe. But not today. Today, we’re looking at the darker side of the Northern English capital, its murder, its mayhem, its lurid criminal underbelly … or at least, we’ll be pondering it.

Because not only will I today review and discuss SIRENS, Joseph Knox’s enjoyable slice of Manchester Noir, I’ll be talking about my next Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH (Heck being a Manchester man displaced to London, of course), I’ll be previewing NOIR AT THE BAR, MANCHESTER, a literary event I’m honoured to be participating in, which is scheduled for this Thursday (April 26), and focussing a little bit on four lady crime-writers of my acquaintance, who, while they don’t necessarily live in Manchester any more, or even always write about it, were all born and/or raised there, and, as you’d realise within moments of chatting to them, are still Manchester lasses through and through. 

They’ve all got new books out too, or will have in the next month or so – so a little showcase here ought to be timely.

Before we get into all that, if you’re only here for the SIRENS review, that’s fine. You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blog. Feel free to scoot on down there right now. Otherwise, let’s get on with the rest of the business.

Firstly, a little bit about NOIR AT THE BAR, MANCHESTER.

For the uninitiated, Noir at the Bar is a literary tradition that first began in the States – in the four great cities of Philadelphia, St Louis, Los Angeles and New York, to be specific – and it involves crime fiction readers and fans gathering in specified public bars, where, needless to say, a damn good drink will be had by all, and where several noted crime writers (along with one wildcard entry, i.e. an amateur who wins a draw) will read out five-minute extracts from their next or latest novels.

Hugely popular in North America, the phenomenon spread to the UK a couple of years ago, and Noir in the Bar events are now springing up all over the country. I’ve been honoured to be invited to participate in three so far – Noir at the Bar, Carlisle a couple of years ago, Noir at the Bar, Wigan last year, and now Noir at the Bar, Manchester (which you can attend as a punter completely free of charge this Thursday, 7pm at Lock 91, 9 Century Street, Manchester (M3 4QL).

The full line-up consists of: Paul Finch, Cath Staincliffe (right), Chris Simms, Danielle Ramsay, Heather Burnside, Marnie Riches, Robert Parker, Roger A Price and, of course, the Wildcard. For my own part, I’ll be reading an extract from the new Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH (due for publication on August 9).

On that subject, I was hoping to have a cover to show you today, but apparently it isn’t quite ready yet. I’m reliably informed that it will be available for your perusal on or around May 10, so keep watching this space for that. The official blurb is now up, however, and I’ll run it in a second.

Ironically, given that we’re talking so much about Manchester today, KISS OF DEATH is probably the first Heck novel in ages wherein he doesn’t visit the city. In fact, he seems to go everywhere but, from Humberside to the East End of London to Cornwall. But I venture to suggest that it’s still relevant to today’s chit-chat, because Heck, or DS Mark Heckenburg, as regular readers will know him, is a Manchester native who originally joined the Greater Manchester Police and only later on, in order to escape a family trauma, transferred south to the Metropolitan Police, where he was assigned to the National Crime Group and became a mainstay of the Serial Crimes Unit.

As an ex-GMP cop myself, who ended up relocating to London, it was reasonably easy to get into the mindset of the guy, though even if I hadn’t been, there are precedents I could have followed. You may remember the character Jack Regan (right), from the pacy TV series of the 1970s, The Sweeney (one of my all-time favourite cop shows). Regan was also a Manchester man who found himself displaced to London, joined the Met and became a typical two-fisted DI of the old school.

In an affectionate nod to all that, Heck himself is courted by the Flying Squad in KISS OF DEATH, which sequence includes this passage:

     And it wasn’t as if the Flying Squad itself wasn’t appealing. Heck had worked Tower Hamlets Robbery once, though that had been a smaller role – mainly he’d found himself going after muggers and other street bandits. The Sweeney pursued the big boys. For that reason, there’d always been a certain glamour about it – they were regularly in the press and on TV. Their reputation for being wideboys, just a bit too close in spirit to the East End villains they often investigated, had always put him off in the past.
     But again, things changed.
     ‘Not that Squad DIs don’t do a bit of soldiering themselves from time to time,’ Hunter added. ‘Just think, Heck, you can make your ultimate fantasy real … you’ll be Regan Mark II, a displaced Manchester lad working over the blaggers of London ...’

 Anyway, I won’t go on about it too much because it’s still a couple of months off. As I said, I wanted to reveal the cover this week, but it’s not there yet. In the meantime, here is the official blurb:

A Deadly Hunt - DS ‘Heck’ Heckenberg has been tasked with retrieving one of the UK’s most wanted men. But the trail runs cold when Heck discovers a video tape showing the fugitive in a fight for his life. A fight he has no chance of winning.

A Dangerous Game - Heck realises that there’s another player in this game of cat and mouse, and this time, they’ve not just caught the prize: they’ve made sure no one else ever does.

A Man Who Plays With Fire - How far will Heck and his team go to protect some of the UK’s most brutal killers? And what price is he willing to pay? 

I’m also, as promised, intending to chat at least a little bit today about four Manchester-born female crime writers, whose work I’ve become enamoured with. And all four, as I said, have got new books out, either now or very soon, so it seems timely to give them a bit of a plug.

First up, Amanda Robson may have been born in Manchester, but graduated towards crime-writing after working in medical research at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and in the Poisons Unit at Guy’s Hospital, where she co-authored a book on cyanide poisoning. Her new novel, GUILT, was published one week ago, and concerns Zara and Miranda, twin sisters who always support each other … until Zara meets Seb. Handsome, charismatic and dangerous, Seb threatens to tear the sisters’ lives apart – but is he really the one to blame? Or are deeper resentments simmering beneath the surface? As the sisters’ relationship stretches to the brink, a traumatic incident in Seb’s own past then rears its head and all three find themselves locked in a psychological battle that will leave someone dead. The question is, who?

Next up, we have Caroline England, a Mancunian by adoption as she attended university there (having been born - and whisper this bit - in Yorkshire!!!) and never moved away again after. A lawyer by origin, Caroline’s new book, MY HUSBAND’S LIES, hits the shelves next month, and tells the tale of a wedding gone sour when a close friend of both the bride and groom winds up on on a hotel window ledge, ready to jump. The happy couple, Nick and Lisa, are stunned by this development, soon realising that neither they nor their closest friends have been as honest with each other as they perhaps should. But is that the whole of it? Could it be there are secrets lurking here that might destroy everything and everyone.

Third on the list, Sam Stone has worn a number of different hats during her writing career, dabbling successfully in vampire erotica, the supernatural and steampunk, but moving increasingly now into the world of noir. She’s a Prestwich girl by origin though currently living in Lincolnshire, and a former teacher. Her latest novel, POSING FOR PICASSO, recently published, strongly hints at her horror/fantasy roots, telling the tale of a Russian artist in New York, who becomes unjustly implicated in the mutilation/murders of his various models.

Last but by no means least – because this one is a force of nature - Marnie Riches, by her own admission grew up in a rough part of Manchester but ‘learned her way out of the ghetto’, earning a place at Cambridge University, where she gained a Masters degree in German & Dutch. Previously a children's author, she now writes very hard-hitting crime – the Guardian described her as ‘a leading light in Mancunian Noir’. Her latest novel, THE GIRL WHO GOT REVENGE (published one week ago), throws her regular character, criminologist Georgina McKenzie, into a complex double-murder case in Amsterdam.

As I say, not all these ladies write about Manchester these days, or even live there, but they are Manchester girls to the core, and if you’re a native yourself and/or of a mind to actively support some of the city’s finest daughter, well … you now what you’ve gotta do.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

SIRENS by Joseph Knox (2017)

Detective Constable Aidan Waits is facing dismissal from the Greater Manchester Police. The product of a horrendous upbringing in care, he was probably unsuited for policework from the start, not least because it has brought him into contact with all kinds of irresistible temptations. You see, Waits may be a cop, but he is also an alcoholic and an amphetamines freak, who has increasingly let down his colleagues and got into more and more trouble with his supervisors.

However, a chance to redeem himself comes along unexpectedly when the hard-bitten Detective Superintendent Parrs of the Drug Squad decides that he’s the ideal person – a permanently semi-inebriated wreck! – to infiltrate the Franchise, the Manchester crime syndicate headed by London-born drugs kingpin, Zain Carver.

The purpose of this is twofold: firstly, to gather vital intelligence on a cartel who, now that their main rivals, the ultra-violent Burnside gang, have fallen apart, are completely dominating the city’s narcotics trade (and in the process flush out whichever corrupt copper is supplying the intel that’s keeping Carver ahead of the game), and secondly, to locate Isabelle Rossiter, the wayward 17-year-old daughter of bigwig politician, David Rossiter, who has run away from home and has been seen hanging around Fairview, the palatial residence where Carver hosts most of his drugs and prostitute parties.

This would be a dangerous mission by any standards, but Waits manages to ingratiate himself with the Manchester mob – mainly by letting Carver know that he’s an out-of-favour copper who may be useful! – only to be tempted again by the drink and the drugs, and this time by the women too. Carver’s world is only a pseudo-glamorous one, superficially glitzy on the outside while on the inside it’s rotten and abusive, but he has in his employ a bunch of beautiful young women, his so-called Sirens – Catherine and Sarah Jane, for example – who dress as party girls in order to traverse Manchester’s pubs and clubs, collecting his illicit earnings, and where necessary, supplying yet more illegal substances to the various dealers. In truth, these are sad, forlorn creatures – who knows what kinds of lives they were escaping to come and work here? – who Waits, in his few lucid moments, feels pity for as well as lust.

All these girls think they’re in love with Carver, though his attitude to them is more ambiguous; he cares about them to a degree, and is apparently keen to know what happened to Joanna Greenlaw – a former siren who vanished a decade earlier – but ultimately, though they affect the air of femmes fatales, they are nothing more to the callous gang-boss than mules.

Less attractive fixtures in Carver’s domain are Danny ‘Grip’ Gripe, his deformed enforcer, and brutal, bullying barman/dealer, Glen Smithson. In addition, as Waits is on the lookout for bent coppers, several shady lawmen also catch his attention: Special Branch’s Alan Kernick hangs around a lot, ostensibly to look after David Rossiter’s interests, but Waits soon starts to suspect that he has a deeper involvement in these nefarious activities, while DS Jim Laskey, though a refined sort on the surface, is another one making regular, unexplained appearances (and whose police methods when you get on the wrong side of him have more in common with the 19th century than the 21st).

I don’t want to say too much more about the synopsis of Sirens, because it’s a twisting, turning path that Waits takes as he works his way deeper and deeper into the city’s slimy underbelly.

Suffice to say that his judgement is not always the best. An ill-advised affair with Catherine leaves him vulnerable in many ways, not least because it means he takes his eye off the ball, infuriating his superiors at police headquarters, whose response is virtually to abandon him. As such, when Isabelle Rossiter, now a siren-in-waiting is found dead, the victim of a tainted batch of heroin, which claims other victims too – in a particularly graphic and horrible scene! – he can only press on with his enquiry by joining forces with Carver, who finally suspects that some mysterious third party is stalking his operation, looking to do a lot more damage than simply closing him down …

I’m sure Joseph Knox will forgive me if I confess that my initial reaction on hearing that he’s the new Raymond Chandler was that I’d believe it when I saw it. Time and again in noir fiction, we’re advised that a new master or mistress has come onto the scene who’s going to take it by storm. We’re confidently told that London, Liverpool, Birmingham – or in this case, Manchester – will be the next LA, as a new, downtrodden but street-savvy investigator wends his or her way through a world turned dark with corruption and vice.

All these things, and more, have been said about Joseph Knox and his new character, DC Aidan Waits. But the proof is always in the eating, to quote a cliché, and having now eaten, I think I can safely say – as a former Manchester cop and journalist, and as a crime writer who’s also set some of his novels in the northern capital – that a lot of those comments are non-too-wide of the mark.

Sirens is indeed an impressive slice of Manchester Noir.

All the boxes are ticked: it’s a neon-lit and yet gloom-ridden scene, filled with litter-strewn passageways, burned-out warehouses and seedy clubs, the backdoors to which are always lit by lurid red light, and peopled by hookers, addicts, bent cops, corrupt politicians and of course gangsters – lots and lots of gangsters. What’s more impressive is that this sleazy atmosphere doesn’t come at us in dollops of grandiose info-dump, but is threaded throughout Knox’s narrative. Quite simply, it’s always there; this is the world that Aidan Waits moves through constantly, barely noticing it let alone passing judgement. It’s a cynical ploy by the author, really – a frank depiction of a ghastly environment, which, because he totally immerses us in it, we have no option but to accept, but it doesn’t half work.

Some reviewers, rather indignantly, have said that this isn’t Manchester. Others meanwhile have said that it absolutely is. Personally, I’m not sure it matters. It may be accurate in its portrayal of landmark and location, but Sirens is a work of fiction, not a street-guide. In this book, Manchester is as much a character as Waits, and represents a real effort by the author to recreate the kind of urban jungle backdrop that Chandler did so effectively with Los Angeles, and Mickey Spillane with New York.

And of course, at the very heart of it there lies this hugely complex mystery. Ultimately, by crime novel standards, it’s almost something of nothing – no-one’s attempting to unleash a chemical weapon here, or to massacre a record number of the city’s prostitutes. As fictional criminality goes, it’s relatively low-key. But it’s fascinatingly done, and again, very Chandleresque, numerous puzzling threads dangling on every page, the reader haplessly trying to tie them all together as he/she progresses, and yet there’s never a moment when you think ‘this just doesn’t make sense!’, especially as, when you get to the end, it all comes together in the neatest way.

I freely admit to having started Sirens uneasily, wondering how deep and bewildering the case was going to get, and yet pressing on effortlessly because it’s excellently written, and its short-chapter format makes it very readable.

However, there is one way that Knox’s writing does differ significantly from the original masters of noir, and that’s in terms of his characters.

Okay, as I’ve already said, we’ve got every aspect of the city’s lowlife – not all of which is to be found in low places – though I think there are more extremes here than you’d find back in the golden age. The Bug, for example, is a total horror; a bipolar transsexual addict and whore, who salivates at the prospect of corrupting young people and is more than happy to suckle at the injection wounds of diseased heroin-users. I’m not sure that Chandler, Hammett or any of the other guys ever hit us with anything quite as OTT as that, while Sheldon White and the Burnsiders, the most brutish members of the Manchester gang scene, are more like a tribe of orcs: hideous, uncouth dolts, good only for violence, and happy to inhabit a part of town that lies in darkened, Mordor-like ruins.

Don’t get me wrong; it all makes for a terrific read, but personalities like these represent moments of bleakness so intense that it might put off those readers unequipped with strong stomachs and nerves of steel.

(One other brickbat, while we’re on the subject of such: I could have done without the regular quotes from Joy Division; I guess we all went through a time when we had gurus in the rock world, and a doomy, post-punk Manchester outfit probably seemed very appropriate in these circumstances, but I always worry that this kind of thing borders on pretentiousness. However, that’s a personal gripe, and doesn’t really detract from the overall book).

Now back to the characters: Waits himself, the star of the show, makes for an interesting if very flawed hero.

An alcoholic cop, who is also a chronic pill-head (even though he’s still only young) is, on the face of it, not the most attractive lead. He’s also a bit weedy; though Waits is capable of violence, there is no human brickwork here. He’s no Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. He’s cunning for sure, and he bides his time cleverly, but he’s more a fox than a wolf. Give him a good smack and he’ll definitely go down. And this frailty persists throughout the book; there are several occasions when you feel like telling the guy to get his act together. But highly likely this is exactly what Knox intended. A hero who isn’t a square-jawed cliché might be a big change from the norm, but it’s a refreshing change too (and hell, don’t worry too much if you don’t like Waits; no-one in the book does, either!).

Some of the other characters, and there is a literal plethora to pick from, are sketched more thinly, but they are all clear enough to me; at no stage was I confused about who and what they were, and every single one makes his or her own vital contribution to the story. I’d strongly refute the criticism that there are too many people in this novel, because none of them are extraneous.

I’ve also read some reviews complaining that most of the females in this book are victims, and I think that’s probably true (though several of them are willingly involved in crime), but my considered response to that must be, and it’s a sad observation to make, that even in our modern world most prostitutes are female, most victims of sexual harassment are female, and most of those suffering violence at the hands of wild, dangerous men are also female. In this regard, Joseph Knox is only showing us a hard slice of reality (not that it doesn’t sometimes make you embarrassed to be male).

To round up, Knox is without doubt an exciting new voice in the genre, and Sirens – a genuine piece of Manchester noir, fizzing with tension and menace. It’s as good a debut as I’ve seen in many a year. If you like gritty cop stuff, read it or weep.

And now, as ever, I’m going to try and cast it, in case it at some point gets the green light for film or TV development. Just a bit of fun, of course. No casting-director is likely to listen to me, sadly. Here though, are my picks:

DC Aidan Waits – Warren Brown
Catherine – Talulah Riley
Isabelle Rossiter – Katie Jarvis
Sarah Jane – Romola Garai
Zain Carver – Daniel Kaluuya
DSU Parrs – Angus Macfadyen
Detective Alan Kernick – Geoff Bell
David Rossiter, MP – Vincent Regan
Glen Smithson – Joe Gilgun
DS Jim Laskey – Philip Bulcock

Thursday 5 April 2018

A quick trek into the cosmos of the mind

It may be perverse of me, but in a week when I’m proofing my next thriller, have a glut of crime novels to read and a whole raft of new horror movies to watch, I’m going to be talking about science fiction.

Yes, this is one of those relaxing blogposts, which is more designed to occupy readers during mid-morning tea breaks than impart crucial information to them. 

To start with, I’m going to be reviewing and discussing – in what I hope is my usual forensic detail – Alfred Bester’s sci-fi masterwork, THE STARS MY DESTINATION (as always, you’ll find that review towards the bottom end of today’s column). 

On a not dissimilar subject, I’ll also be presenting a gallery of what I consider to be the 25 best ever science fiction book covers. It’ll be an entirely personal choice, of course; browsers and readers must feel free to disagree, or add suggestions of their own.

Reaching for the stars

That’s not something I’ve ever done, basically.

Well, in purely metaphorical terms, I’ve tried to reach for the stars … but when it comes to writing about journeys to the stars, in other words penning sci-fi, that’s not something I’ve done a whole lot of.

Okay, I’ve done it a little. Students of my career (assuming any such creature exists) will probably be familiar with my DR WHO output: LEVIATHAN and HEXAGORA, two full-cast audio dramas, and SENTINELS OF THE NEW DAWN, a Companion Chronicle, all courtesy of Big Finish Productions, which came out in 2010 and 2011; SPOILSPORT, a short story of 2008; HUNTER’S MOON and TALES OF TRENZALORE, published by BBC Books in 2012 and 2014; and THRESHOLD, the pilot episode of the Dr Who spin-off series, COUNTERMEASURES (Big Finish again) in 2012.

Before any of that, way back in 1996, there was also A GLITCH IN TIME, a short story I wrote for the non-Dr Who spoken-word (these days it would be called ‘audible’) anthology, OUT OF THIS WORLD; this one has a really special place in my heart as, despite it existing in our universe rather than the Whoniverse, my particular contribution to this excellent anthology was narrated by the late, great Jon Pertwee.

But the majority of this lot, as I’ve already said, is Dr Who-related, and therefore occupies a little world of its own, sitting slightly apart from the sci-fi mainstream. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not a big fan or eager reader of all those other wondrous tales. 

My father, Brian Finch (right), another late, great character, and an author in his own right, was a huge science fiction buff, and helped turn me onto it as a genre when I was very young.

Perhaps that is why I’m slightly biased to the older school, as you’ll see when I present my 25 Best Covers. I hasten to add that I read the modern stuff too. But to put a gallery together like this, you really have to look for those cover-images that made the biggest impact on you, and in my case certainly, such a task took me back to my earliest days.

As with previous galleries – I did horror and crime on Oct 22 and Sept 10 respectively – I’m sticking to English language editions, as it would be too complex and time-consuming to go beyond that. Anyway, without further ado, here are what I consider to be …


John Wyndham (Penguin, 1970)

Not the first vision in sci-fi of a hellish post-apocalyptic world, but certainly one of the most intelligent, John Wyndhams 1955 classic (originally published by Michael Joseph), takes us to a UK decades after the bombs have dropped, where a form of fundamentalist feudalism has reformed what remains of society, and as this marvellous cover amply illustrates, mutation is a source of open war.

Harry Harrison (Orb, 2008)

Probably best remembered for the 1973 movie version, Soylent Green (which considerably changed the plot), Harry Harrison’s 1966 masterpiece (first published by Penguin) envisions a world where overpopulation has collapsed all infrastructure, leading to societal chaos, and follows the fortunes of several hapless individuals. This Orb cover is clean, simple, and almost tells the story on its own.

Ursula K. LeGuin (Ace Books, 1985)


The novel that made Ursula LeGuin’s name (and surely the best book title ever). First published in 1969 by Ace Books, the author’s career-long fascination with anthropology hits new heights of what if', when, in a different universe to ours, a male ambassador makes contact with an ambisexual race, and fails to understand it - to a near fatal degree. Described as the first foray into feminist sci-fi 

Michael Moorcock (Mayflower, 1973)

The embodiment of new wave science fiction, as tough businessman, Ryan, takes a select band of friends on a stolen spaceship to escape an impending nuclear war. The trouble is that, while they lie in stasis, he must remain awake to steer the ship on its seven-year journey. First published by Ace in 1969, this later cover perfectly encapsulates his terrifying descent into solitude-induced madness.

Philip K. Dick (Doubleday, 1968)

One of the most famous sci-fi novels of all time, though mainly because of the movie, Blade Runner, which differs in many ways, this deeply moving piece of visionary writing - and this is the original wonderful cover, as produced by Doubleday back in 1968! - sees a conscience-stricken bounty hunter pursuing a rogue band of human-like androids through a world dying from radiation poisoning.

Isaac Asimov (New English Library, 1974)

The final installment in the Lucky Starr series, a collection of sci-fi novels written for younger readers (despite this scary later cover). First published by Doubleday in 1958, it tells an adventurous spy story set in the Saturnian system, but, Asimov being Asimov, is nevertheless filled with advanced scientific thinking, and was viewed by many as a thought-provoking commentary on the Cold War.

Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 1953)

The ultimate Dystopia, as a young fireman becomes disillusioned with his job - which is not putting out fires, but starting them, using mountains of forbidden literature as fuel! What better cover could illustrate the anguish the author felt, not just about book-burning, but about book abolition in general? Written as a stinging response to McCarthyism, and viewed by many as Bradbury’s greatest work.

Frank Herbert (Gollancz, 2011)

For once, not the original Doubleday cover, as first published in 1973, but an infinitely superior later one. Inspired by the speculative sci-fi/horror documentary of 1972, The Hellstrom Chronicle, this exceptional and chilling novel tells the tale of an undercover agent and his discovery of a secret society modelled along the lines of social insect communities, and the devastating events that follow.

J.G. Ballard (Penguin, 1965)

Another post-apocalyptic saga, though this time it isn’t Mans fault, solar flares having returned much of the Earth to a topical Triassic paradise, where even a hard-headed scientific research team find themselves regressing mentally into a dreamlike, tribal state. First published in 1962 by Berkley, this later, postmodern cover hints at the darker, grosser elements that lie beneath Edens genial facade.  

Olaf Stapledon (Gollancz, 1999)

First published by Methuen in 1937 - pretty incredibly, given how long that was before space exploration became a real thing! - this remarkable odyssey of a sci-fi novel charts an Englishmans journey through the universe in a disembodied state, at the same time telling us the story of all things and hitting us with a deluge of philosophy. How to illustrate such other than with a cover like this?

Alfred Bester (Gollancz, 2010)

In some ways, this 2010 cover to a novel written in 1956 (first published by Signet) almost softens the ferocious character of tiger-faced Gully Foyle, who ruthlessly pursues vengeance across a solar system wracked by interplanetary war, but it remains one of the most iconic in modern sci-fi, putting the man first and foremost above the futuristic setting, and perfectly capturing the authors intention.

12. I, ROBOT
Isaac Asimov (Gnome Press, 1950)

The wonderfully basic cover to the original publication, which, though it only partly provided the story for the recent Hollywood epic (that movie also owes quite a bit to Eander Binders same-titled short story of 1939), saw Asimov break phenomenal ground with a collection of interlinked stories and essays concerning the development and gradual humanisation of an imaginary android species.

S.J. Morden (Gollancz, 2018)

The most recent entry in the gallery, and in some ways more a space-thriller than pure science fiction, but with a planetary geologist at the writing helm you know you’re in for an ultra-realistic assessment of just what it would mean for a party of condemned men sent to build a colony in the frozen wastes of Mars, who have no way back, and who, one by one, are then systematically murdered.

H.G. Wells (New American Library, 1986)

An appropriately horrific cover for what in truth was a horror story. Everyone is familiar with Wellss masterly 1897 tale (first pub. by William Heinemann) of a late-Victorian era Earth at the mercy of an amoral and super-powered alien species prepared to wreak a total holocaust, but the transformation of our conquered world into a blood-soaked parody of Mars (as per this cover!) still has chilling impact.

Robert Heinlein (Ace Books, 1987)

A human raised by Martians returns to Earth as a kind of pseudo-messiah, and promotes libertarian concepts like free love and communal living, as this provocative cover illustrates. First published by GP Putnam in 1961, it was ahead of its time, but not by much, and is often seen as a prelude to the counter-culture - the very last thing those who knew Robert Heinlein would have expected of him.

Aldous Huxley (Chatto & Windus, 1932)

The original, unforgettable cover to what is probably the most famous sci-fi novel ever written, though its as much a philosophical text in its study of a future world where hard scientific theory rules, human beings are produced in test-tubes, and though society is harmonious and productive, this comes at the cost of a cruel caste-system, psychological manipulation and extreme social control.

Guy Garcia (Morphic Books, 2017)

A sci-fi novel you genuinely believe could happen - and in the not-to-distant future. The horror-esque cover nicely imagines the central antagonist, Swarm, an expert hacker and cyber warrior, who comes into possession of illegal experimental software, the resulting transformative effect of which goads him into seeking to change society without considering the potential catastrophic consequences.

Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A Knopf, 2006)

Surely the last word on the apocalypse, though the author maintains that he never considered it sci-fi, penning it as a simple study of a father and son, this chilling epic still tells the story of an odyssey through a North America ruined by some unspecified disaster, leaving no stone unturned in its quest for misery and pain, and yet remains a lyrical masterpiece. This bleak, spare image sells it perfectly.

Frederik Pohl (Penguin, 2008)

A suitably mind-blowing cover for the multi award-winning novel that kicked off an entire series of award-winners. First published by St Martins in 1977, its another of these incredible imagine if sagas, in this case the human response to the discovery of a derelict alien space station, where all kinds of abandoned craft, with pre-set coordinates, promise immediate voyages to distant stars.

Robert Silverberg (HarperCollins, 1975)

First published by Doubleday in 1971, this timeless tale of repression and revolution comes to us in the form of an intense autobiography as a young telepath seeks to overthrow a culture so down on individuality that the use of words like I and me are classified as a cultural crimes, and show his people exactly what it means to be human. As the ghoulish cover above illustrates, that won’t be easy.

Bob Shaw (Pan, 1972)

Originally published by Ace in 1969, this legendary sci-fi thriller never really needed an iconic cover to sell itself, but it got one eventually, as illustrated above. Master of his craft, Bob Shaw spins the action-packed but thought-provoking tale of an exhausted war veteran seeking redemption and refuge on the tranquil Poets World, only for the war to catch up with him again in the shape of his one-time comrades.

22. DUNE
Frank Herbert (New English Library, 1968)

Everyones favourite space epic, and the cover that most genre fans remember best, mainly because it comes so close to encapsulating James Herberts colossal, multi-sequel-spinning 1965 saga (Chilton) of two noble houses fighting each other to the death across an interstellar empire. Yes, that’s correct; Herbert re-set the War of the Roses in Outer Space and created the best-selling sci-fi novel in history.

Frederik Pohl (Ballantine, 1970)

The original cover to a seminal collection of short stories, in which the author gives full vent to his imagination, taking his readers through the many realms of science fiction, but at the same time addressing serious issues like trans-sexuality, racism, medical and technological advance - both the benefits and drawbacks of such, etc. Still regarded as a masterly work by a true genius of the genre.

Ray Bradbury (Bantam Spectra, 2003)

First published by Doubleday in 1950, this episodic but poetic vision of Mans attempted colonisation of Mars and his inevitable clashes with its indigenous inhabitants commenced life as a series of short stories originally published in the 1940s. But this latter-day cover is still the best, perfectly imagining the barren red world, along with its mythical canals, as envisaged throughout the early days of astonomy.

Frank Herbert (New English Library, 1973)

One of Herberts lesser-known works, but a classic of its time, originally published by Ace in 1966 (as Greenslaves), and dipping into the expanding eco-consciousness in its tale of a human race at war with Earth’s flora and fauna, and the retaliation from the insect world, as experienced by a scientific expedition to the Brazilian jungle. This later cover says all you need to know about the ensuing terror.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing. 

THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester (1956)

In the 25th century, humanity has developed the power to jaunt, most individuals now able to transport themselves up to 1,000 miles simply by the power of thought. However, life has not improved greatly. Earth society is going through constant social and economic flux as a result, and though the solar system is fully colonised, the Inner Planets (Earth, Mars, and Venus) are in ongoing conflict with the Outer Satellites (the moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune).

One casualty of this is the deep space cargo vessel, Nomad, which belongs to the influential Presteign corporation. Damaged by rocket fire, Nomad is now a drifting, incommunicado wreck with only one survivor on board, crewman Gulliver ‘Gully’ Foyle, an ignorant, uneducated man, who nevertheless stays alive against all the odds. He even manages to signal for help to passing sister-ship, Vorga, also a Presteign vessel, but is astonished when it deliberately ignores him, abandoning him to a terrible fate.

Infuriated beyond reason, Foyle manages to steer the floating scrapheap into the Asteroid Belt, where a little-known tribe called the Scientific People, a cargo cult who have long cut their ties with Earth, imprison him and tattoo his face with tiger stripes.

Still bent on revenge – and now looking the part as well – Foyle steals a ship to escape, and makes it back to Earth, where, in a barbaric state, he rapes a gentle, telepathic woman called Robin Wednesbury, and launches a one-man terrorist attack on Vorga, which fails and puts him in the grasp of the company’s all-powerful CEO, a man simply called ‘the Presteign’, someone who suddenly wants to know all about this errant crewman. It seems that Nomad was carrying a newly-discovered mineral, PyrE, which could change the course of the war – but Nomad is now lost, and only Foyle knows its coordinates.

Foyle is interrogated by a fearsome private security officer, the radioactive Saul Dagenham, but even Dagenham cannot break him, so he is condemned to life imprisonment in the hellish subterranean jail, Gouffre Martel. Here he befriends another convict, the resourceful Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen, who educates him, advises him that it isn’t Nomad he should seek to destroy, but whoever gave the order to ignore him, and finally helps him escape.

Through Jiz’s criminal contacts, Foyle manages to remove the tiger-stripes from his face – though in times of anger they show again – educates himself further and augments his body so that he becomes a lethal fighting-machine. He then treacherously cuts Jiz loose and reappears as the dapper dandy, Geoffrey Fourmyle, bullying the unwilling Robin into helping him penetrate Presteign high society.

Everything is going to plan, but there are still problems. Those Vorga officers he tracks down involuntarily self-destruct before they can tell him anything, while his determination to ruin Presteign is hampered by his growing affection for the CEO’s beautiful daughter, the blind but infrared-sensitive Olivia. Meanwhile, Robin hates and fears him, Jiz is plotting something, and Foyle is troubled by an apparition he sees increasingly often: himself wrapped in flames. At the same time, the Outer Satellites are planning a massive attack, which they hope will win the war for them in one overwhelming blow.

If things have been difficult for Foyle so far, vastly more terrible days lie ahead …  

On first reading The Stars My Destination, it would be quite simple to write it off as straightforward space opera. The incredible adventures of Gully Foyle and the personal changes he undergoes as, through endless stress and suffering, he transcends the status of brute underling, becoming first a wealthy, scheming sophisticate, and finally a godlike intellectual, is more than a little bit reminiscent of Alexander Dumas’ classic adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo. But if, after some protracted pondering, that remains your sole assessment of this visionary sci-fi novel, you need to read it again.

Comparisons between The Stars My Destination and The Count of Monte Cristo are not wrong, and there’s a specific reason for that, Alfred Bester, by his own admission, seeking to snare his audience with what initially seems like a simple, exciting plot-line over which he can lay some complex but wondrous notions.

Though initially an editor and script-writer for comics, by the mid-1950s Bester was regarded as one of the world’s leading science fiction writers (he ‘invented’ it, according to Harry Harrison), and if you need further proof of that, just consider when reading The Stars My Destination that he penned this astonishing story when the vast bulk of the public drew their knowledge of the genre from movies concerned with insects grown to giant size through atom bomb testing and threats posed to Earth by bulb-headed men who spoke in senatorial US voices. That any serious sci-fi prophesying was done by authors writing in that era is quite remarkable, but plenty of them did, and yet Alfred Bester was ahead of the game even by those standards.

The concepts he presents us with in The Stars My Destination were mind-boggling in their day, and in many ways still are, and yet the book is also threaded with mindfulness of what these developments for mankind would actually mean.

For example, in the 25th century (or the 24th, depending on which edition you are reading), Man’s reach might stretch across the solar system, but it isn’t as though Pluto is suddenly in our back yard. The vast distances remain, especially as jaunting between planets is impossible. And so, Earth has lost cultural contact with its colonies. They have become advanced societies in their own right, and barely understand Earthlings, let alone see them as friends, and when war breaks out, there is no empathy between the two sides. Earth and the inner planets aren’t even aware of the outer satellites’ military strength, while the cargo cult that abducts Foyle early in the book is a completely isolated tribe, whose whole world is now the wreckage of ours.

The jaunt itself (named after scientist Charles Fort Jaunte), was an amazing concept to 1950s audiences. Long before Star Trek ever thought of it, the inhabitants of The Stars My Destination jump from A to B via teleportation. But again, Bester ponders the upheavals that stem from this: for instance, valuable high-class women must be kept in jaunt-proof isolation to ‘protect their honour’, while convicts can only be held in jaunt-proof solitary confinement (resulting in hellhole prisons like Gouffre Martel).

More familiar concerns among sci-fi writers of Bester’s era are also on show. Chemically and mechanically enhanced human beings don’t remain human for long. Telepaths are in such demand that they must conceal their talents from almost everyone. The author was also worried about the rise of ultra-powerful corporations, and how in the future they might become empires in their own right. The Presteign, though maintaining an urbane exterior, is utterly ruthless, and has the full cooperation of the government’s own intelligence agency, as represented by Peter Yang-Yeovil.

And yet, despite all this fascination with psi-power and speculative science, the main driving force in the book is that most basic of all human instincts, a yearning for revenge.

It is perhaps a nihilistic concept that the route to godliness may lie with Man’s desire to get even with other men … but you certainly can’t argue with it in The Stars My Destination as it’s given to us so full-bloodedly. It’s illustrated visually in the form of Foyle’s tiger mask, which even after he’s had it superficially removed, blazes to life whenever he’s angry (surely one of the most impressive devices of its sort that I’ve ever encountered in fiction). This vengeful nature is the single thing that constantly drives Foyle, and lies at the heart of his thrilling escapes: from the floating wreckage of Nomad, from the clutches of the asteroid tribe, and even from the jaunt-proof subterranean prison. It is this same motivation which, in due course pushes him to better himself – mainly so that he can infiltrate high society, though unknowingly of course, it also pitches him towards the realm of perfection.

Foyle makes an intriguing anti-hero. Appalling in his behavior at some points – the attack on Robin Wednesbury, for example (which would need to be excised out if ever the book were to make it to film) – but also later on, when he plays the likeable but untrustworthy Fourmyle. But from the outset, he is never intended to be an ordinary person, much less a person of noble character. If anything, he is a metaphor for mankind’s own evolution (and the path that Alfred Bester clearly hoped we would at some point take).

I don’t want to say anything more about The Stars My Destination for fear of giving too much away, except to add that it’s well worth its classic status, and that if some of the concepts seem standard in sci-fi these days, that’s only because forward-gazing writers like Alfred Bester made them so.

Optioned for movie development many times, but never yet made and in fact described more than once as ‘unfilmable’, The Stars My Destination is nevertheless another of those novels I would dearly love to see on celluloid – either the big screen or TV – and so once again, I’m going to pitch in with my own thoughts on a possible cast. (One quick note; it’s currently in the hands of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who gave us Kong: Skull Island, so you never know – anything is possible). In the meantime, though, here are my picks for the leads:

Gulliver Foyle – Paul Bettany
Robin Wednesbury – Tessa Thompson
The Presteign – Ben Kingsley
Olivia Presteign – Lea Seydoux
Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen – Rhona Mitra
Saul Dagenham – Rufus Sewell
Captain Peter Yang-Yeovil – Mathieu Amalric