As you may have gathered, science fiction is my favourite genre for films and books. I have a bit of a backlog of stuff to read in that genre and so I recently decided to have a three-book binge.

I picked up Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke for the same price it originally sold for in 1981 – £1.50 – at a charity shop earlier this year, I paid for and downloaded Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut on my Kindle around the same time where it had been languishing until now (my Kindle really isn’t getting much action) and Artemis by Andy Weir was the last book I bought (only a couple of weeks ago from Tesco for around £4.00) based on a recommendation from a work colleague, and the fact I’d already enjoyed reading The Martian.

Please bear in mind that this post contains various spoilers for all these books. I’ll put them in order of publication, rather than the order in which I read them.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End was first published in 1954 and is the type of world-encompassing future-looking hard science fiction that typifies Clarke’s work. As such it doesn’t really follow one particular character through the story unless you perceive the planet and its human inhabitants as a character. Rather Clarke uses at least three characters to develop his story of how mankind is visited by a powerful race of aliens who foster the development of the planet to the point where it is ready for its next mysterious step – a step which means the end of mankind and indeed the planet.

The book is touted by many as one of Clarke’s best works but I found it rather patchy, a little naive and conceited in places. For instance the appearance of the alien Overlords and their control of everything that goes on in the world leads to a utopian golden age where there is no more war, no religion and people work for the fun of it. There’s various levels of bullshit going on in Clarke’s philosophy of what makes a desirous society and anything he can’t plot properly he just avoids by saying that the ways of the Overlords are a mystery to the puny humans – much like that old chestnut that ‘the Lord works in mysterious ways’ – the same excuse used by the organised religion he has wiped out in his book. Oh apart from a type of Buddhism – that’s okay apparently.

The most interesting part of the story for me was the bit about the character Jan who breaches the Overlord command that space is off-limits to humans and stows away on a near-light-speed starship and travels 40 light years from Earth. He has a look around the Overlords’ home world and then comes back to Earth on the next flight back. Because of the way Einstein’s theory of relativity works, when Jan gets back it’s been decades since he left (although to him it’s only been a matter of weeks), everyone he knew is dead and indeed the fate of the planet has taken a turn for the worst while he’s been away with the children of the planet all now hooked up to some hive mind called the Overmind, even more powerful that the Overlords.

I’ve read at least five other Arthur C. Clarke books over the years and I was rather disappointed with this one, and indeed it’s put me off reading any more.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Breakfast of Champions was first published in 1973 and is the story of Dwayne Hoover, a well-off but mentally ill Pontiac dealer who believes a sci-fi story written by Kilgore Trout to be completely true. Trout is a widely published author in adult magazines, and in his story everyone but Hoover is a machine created to test his character. The story says that only Hoover has free will, although he knows that the bad chemicals in his head are making him mad. Hoover goes on a violent rampage in and around the convention centre where he met the author.

As is the case with all the Vonnegut books I have read so far, the easy to read story-telling can be described as meta-fiction since the author talks directly to the reader and explains how he is making up the story and creating character predicaments as he goes. The story shifts back and forth from Hoover to Trout and other secondary characters such as Hoover’s girlfriend who works at his car dealership, a recently released black ex-convict Wayne Hoobler whose history is connected to the Hoover family, and Bunny, Hoover’s gay son who plays piano at the convention centre.

The premise that humans are just chemically controlled meat machines is central to the story as well as Trout’s indifference to his audience and in turn Vonnegut’s claim (albeit writing as another fictional author Philboyd Studge) that at the age of fifty he needs to stop writing. A critique of American society and themes of free-will, individualism and fatalism are threaded cleverly through the largely humorous story which also showcases a few bizarre ideas for sci-fi stories. Vonnegut provides intimate measurements of the characters (e.g. bra size and penis length and girth), hand-drawn illustrations, and appears as himself in the story, letting Trout meet his maker at the end of the book. It’s a tour-de-force by a playful narrative jigsaw maker which I thoroughly enjoyed and unlike the books of Arthur C. Clarke, I will be keeping an eye out for more by Vonnegut.

Artemis by Andy Weir
Published last year, Artemis doesn’t really come close to Weir’s other sci-fi novel The Martian, but is still very entertaining. It tells the story of Jazz who works in Artemis, a base on the moon holding two-thousand tourists, engineers and service workers. She is a porter who also has a more lucrative role as the base’s primary smuggler. Jazz is short for Jasmine and yet again I had to chuckle at the coincidence given my character Jazz in Bad Blood (who will also appear in the sequel should I ever knuckle down and get it written).

Jazz agrees to do a sabotage job for wealthy businessman Trond Landvik. The job is part of wider plot of Landvik’s to take over the smelting business of Sanchez Aluminium. The job involves suiting up and walking on the moon and some engineering jiggery-pokery which seems to be Weir’s signature style. Suffice to say Landvik failed to factor in the violent reaction of the company’s owners which leaves Jazz wanted for murder and in hiding within the base.

With the help of her friends and family Jazz manages to think of a way of putting Sanchez Aluminium out of business for good and therefore protecting the city of Artemis from falling under the control of a criminal cartel. This plan is not without its hiccups and results in the whole population of the base almost dying from breathing poison gas accidentally vented into the habitats. Again good old improvised practical science comes to the rescue and they all live happily ever after, kind of.

I liked Jazz as a character and the style of writing was very much along the same lines as the way I write. It’s encouraging to see that writers like this can be successful and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Artemis has been optioned for a film – due out in 2020 which is probably when my next book might be finished.