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Scifi and fantasy round-up: From an AI investigator to a Pratchettian satire set in colour-mad England

Reviews: Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis; The Universe Delivers the Enemy You Need by Adam Marek; City of Stardust by Georgia Summers; In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan; and Red Side Story by Jasper Fforde

If you’ve ever wondered what The Grand Budapest Hotel in Space might read like, wonder no longer: Grace Curtis’s Floating Hotel (Hodderscape, £16.99) is a “ritzy hotel” that slowly navigates the galaxy, “a divine visitation from the inner system” run by its general manager, Carl, a former stowaway who now oversees a staff that is variously on the run from “debt, desertion, grand larceny, piracy, political malfeasance, screenings of illegal art ...”

Sounds idyllic, but the hotel, which is hosting the galaxy’s Annual Problem-Solver’s Conference, has been infiltrated by a Lamplighter, an agent provocateur determined to bring down the authoritarian Empire of the Never-Setting Sun. Can Carl protect his beloved hotel and staff from imperial vengeance?

Curtis’s second novel is a cosy scifi that thrives on its teeming cast of offbeat characters (“Of his wife he said she was like a Seurat: the closer you looked, the less you saw”), each of whom would make for a fascinating main protagonist in his, her or their own right. It’s utterly delightful.

Adam Marek’s The Universe Delivers the Enemy You Need (Comma Press, £12.99) is a collection of stories that doesn’t confine itself to any particular scifi/fantasy subgenre. And so we get bio-skyscrapers (Growing Skyscrapers); a poignant troll who lives alone under a bridge (Shouting at Cars); glasses that allow access to magic reality (It’s a Dinosauromorph, Dumdum); robots so compliant they bring the worst out of their human owners (Companions); and the prospect of living doubt-free as a perfect digital copy of yourself (Pale Blue Dots). Not all of the 21 stories deliver on their promise but Marek’s restlessly fertile imagination ensures that the collection, if occasionally flawed, is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.


This is territory long since mapped out by Philip K Dick, of course, but Jo Callaghan’s novel succeeds on the strength of its emotional and psychological nuance

Teenager Violet Everly is the latest of her family to suffer the infamous Everly curse in Georgia Summers’s City of Stardust (Hodderscape, £20), the “fairytale-esque details” of which involve Violet being pursued by Penelope, a wicked goddess from a parallel dimension, who requires Violet’s sacrifice to prolong her immortality. Happily, Violet has always had a hankering for adventure; armed with her treasured “green silk-bound book of fairytales”, Violet sets out to find the fabled city of Fidelis, only to discover that “she’s no knight errant” and her foe “is no fairytale dragon”. Summers repeats the word “fairy tale” like an incantation that will magically transform her story into something fabulous, but the wearying insistence only undermines what is otherwise a pleasantly agreeable escapist yarn.

Set in leafy Warwickshire in the very near future, Jo Callaghan’s In the Blink of an Eye (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) teams DCS Kat Frank with AIDE Lock, an Artificially Intelligent Detecting Entity designed to assist in police investigations by removing the possibility of bias, prejudice and social conditioning. A sceptic who believes in hunches and human judgment, the hard-boiled Kat dismisses AIDE Lock as “a glorified Alexa” when she reluctantly agrees to head up a pilot programme uniting the investigative abilities human and AI – until, that is, her teenage son Cam goes missing and a desperate Kat finds herself willing to take help wherever she can get it.

A novel that works equally well as scifi and a police procedural, Callaghan’s debut raises fascinating questions about the future of human-AI collaboration, and not least when AIDE Lock’s creator, Professor Okonedo, insists that “the policing of humans is too important to be left to humans”. This is territory long since mapped out by Philip K Dick, of course, but Callaghan’s novel succeeds on the strength of its emotional and psychological nuance.

Red Side Story is not only a superb satire, but also a novel to soothe that Pratchett-shaped ache in your soul

Jasper Fforde’s Red Side Story (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), a somewhat belated sequel to 2009′s Shades of Grey, takes place far in the future (long after the Something That Happened) in an England now called Chromatica, where humans are socially segregated according to their ability to see certain colours.

Out in the boondocks of Red Sector West, star-crossed lovers Eddie Russet and Jane Grey have an inkling that their world is not all that it seems, and resolve to embark on ambitious quest that involves no less than “the dismantling of the entire apparatus of Chromatica”.

The wryly absurdist tone Fforde established with the first Thursday Next novel, The Eyre Affair (2001), is present and correct as Eddie and Jane navigate the labyrinthine protocols of their ridiculously regulated society – Chromatica seems to operate as a kind of stoned communism, paranoid but mellow – with the novel’s chief pleasure being the stoical equanimity with which the Chromaticans seem to accept the Collective’s occasional outburst of homicidal lunacy.

Funny and smart as it skewers the pretensions of the haves and the quiet desperation of the have-nots, Red Side Story is not only a superb satire, but also a novel to soothe that Pratchett-shaped ache in your soul.

Declan Burke’s current novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Declan Burke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic