This box set consists of 2 adventures, ‘The Foe from the Future,’ and ‘The Valley of Death.’ Both follow the format of the show as it was in this Baker era, usually 4 or 6 episodes of 25 minutes each, complete with cliffhangers and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s theme music. For more on Big Finish, see here.
This was brought to my attention by the excellent ‘BookBub’ which is a service that notifies of time limited free and bargain priced e-books, or I doubt I would have come across it.
I’m glad I did as it’s good, cheering, unpretentious escapist fun. The writing is clear and delivers on a briskly paced, character driven space opera that sets us up for a wider saga, but is nevertheless a cracking self contained adventure in and of itself.
As the blurb says, it’s reminiscent of the ‘Firefly’ template of disparate characters bonded by camaraderie and adventure crewing a distinctive ship that itself has a strong identity.
It neatly sets up our heroes first meeting as pilot Alice Marchenko, surviving soldier from a recent Alliance / Empire War (guess which are the nominal ‘bad’ guts), salvages her Mother’s freight ship from an intergalactic junkyard only to find a veteran from the Empire, a Cyborg, stowed on the ship. Compelled to keep him as a passenger, she builds a crew willing to pay passage off the planet to her home world of Perun where she hopes to be re-united with her daughter. So enter a soldier fleeing from mafia entanglements, a priest-caste figure with ties to the Empire, a kooky female farmer joining Marhcenko and her already trusted, cynical mechanic, as they take to the skies en route to an asteroid that the Cyborg has ‘requested’ they detour to. There begins an adventure with pirates, more cyborgs, a mysterious orb, chases and cinematic action set-pieces. The crew appears to bond, but some may be harbouring agendas of their own..
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. But no matter. If the writing is good these well worn tropes can be wrapped around you like a duvet on a cold Winter’s night, reassuring when all around is unfamiliar, threatening and uncertain, which has been this week, basically.
So I recommend this, it does what it should, and should you want to spend longer in world of Alice Marchenko and friends a further five instalments await
My feelings are indeed mixed. On one level it thoroughly gripped and engaged me in places, and even the most problematic sections are full of powerful and rich imagery. In the end I was left reeling and troubled, challenged and entertained, and definitely left with a book I won’t forget.
Mark and Jane Struddock are a young married couple recently ensconced in their first married home in the fictional University town of Bracton, part of the equally fictional area of Edgecombe. In his Preface Lewis says that if these places are based on anywhere, then they are based on Durham. Mark has a teaching post there, and has recently been initiated into the in-crowd there, the smart set ostensibly bringing about progress. Through the influence of the Charimanship of Lord Feverstone, aka “Devine” from the previous novels, Mark is then introduced to the organisation of N.I.C.E at their headquarters “Belbury” on virtue of his work as part of that University smart-set in helping NICE to buy a piece of the Bracton University grounds that it has a strong interest in. N.I.C.E is ostensibly set up to propagate the values of science in advancing the progress and welfare of mankind through eliminating troubling “red-tape” on areas such as vivisection and the “curing” of criminal behaviour. It is gaining national political and media support by the day. Mark begins to advance through the organisation and become embroiled in an Orwellian world of fear and double talk, where he is torn between advancing his career and influence there, and the terror of losing his soul…
Jane meanwhile has been troubled by dreams including the decapitation of a well known scientist / criminal Alascan, and the unearthing of a mysterious sleeping figure beneath Bracton wood. Jane learns from her involvement in a Christian community at the nearby village of St Annes that she is in fact a seer, and her dreams have a direct bearing on reality, including the machinations of N.I.C.E and their interest in Bracton wood. Jane meets the Director of St Annes, a spiritually and physically powerful man who we learn as interplanetary traveller Ransom from the previous novels. The St Anne’s community must stop the evil of N.I.C.E which turns out in fact to be under direct control from the forces of Hell and their “principalities and powers.” And the figure under the Bracton woods turns out to be none other than Merlin of Arthurian legends, whose old powers will decide this titanic struggle once and for all.
So as you can see from the above, this really is a heady brew. What I loved were the descriptions of political intrigue first at the University then at N.I.C.E. Lewis nails the insidious nature of organisational corruption, and the slow, corrosive drip by drip effects of evil talk and decisions on advancing poisonous agendas. He’s good at describing evil, and how it feeds on itself, always ravenous for new souls, always pitiless in its elimination of weakness, and how this can be justified by facile agendas in the name of progress. Keen readers of Lewis’s wider works including his essays will recognise many of his recurring themes: the seduction of the smart set as a gateway into evil society; why vivisection is not justified; the hidden horrors of a “curative” as opposed to a penal approach to punishment; the romance and hidden realities of myth; how “myth” is misunderstood and is in fact a valid expression of reality; his views on the primacy of masculine roles in religion and marriage and the misunderstandings of equality; and more.
The baddies are hugely entertaining too. Like “Paradise Lost” and various works of Shakespeare, this is a work where we get impatient for those on the wrong side to take the stage. There is the vague and vacuous Deputy Director Wither, who behind the facile reassurances of his conversations and political double talk is a mind of terror and horror. There’s the clinical nihilism of Frost, the bonhomie masking the sexual sadism of Police chief “Fairy Hardcastle,” and more. Seeing this lot ensnare Mark Struddock, and their battles with each other, is vastly entertaining. At the same time, they remain an utterly ruthless and frightening foe, a massive fascist regime no less, capable of taking over a whole town with its own Police Force and instituting a reign of terror where all manner of evil is sanctioned.
What I found problematic are found in the following strands:
Mark and Jane both undergo a slow conversion to Christianity through the pages of the book. Their marriage was almost dead as it was not earthed in sustainable values. Mark is converting through disillusionment, horror and terror. Jane through the influence of the Christian community she is driven to and what she sees there. This includes a Bear and Jackdaw both under Ransom’s healing spell.
This turns out to be a decisive battle between the cosmic powers of good and evil on Earth, and when Merlin joins the fray, much rich imagery abounds from the mythic heritage of Arthurian Britain and “Logres.”
In the past instalments and especially “Perelandra” Lewis really nailed a magical and nourishing marriage of theology between imaginative fiction and theology. The conflict between Ransom and the “Un-man” in preventing another Fall of creation on Venus is gripping and powerful stuff. The integration of some theological themes and the fiction of “That Hideous Strength” was to me not as successful. His views on marriage and equality are hard to reconcile with our lives now, and I found them immensely challenging. And the introduction of the Arthurian themes, and the “tame” animals threaten a kind of imaginative confusion and incoherence. It’s nothing if not audacious.
Definitely a not good jumping on point for those new to Lewis and although he says the book can be read as a standalone in his Preface as well as the culmination of a trilogy, I would only recommend the latter, because it can be bewildering already and if you are not familiar with Ransom and some of the background on the cosmic powers, it will for many I fear be too much.
To sum up, a flawed but powerful culmination of the Space trilogy of C.S. Lewis.
‘Nod’ is one of those rare books that, on closing, you think, and may even say “Wow.” You may even feel a little tearful and moved, and want to immediately spread the word about what the novel has made you feel, or what you’ve learnt. This is what this novel did for me.
Nod is an apocalyptic thriller featuring a disease that ravages the human mind and turns the sufferer into a zombified maniac. At this point you would be right in pointing to a book mountain of similar works. But what sets Nod apart is what makes it so brilliant.
First, it’s the originality of the premise. It’s lack of sleep, and a consequent slow disintegration of the mind, that’s the plague in question here. Set in Vancouver, it’s protagonist, a writer named Paul, is working on his latest treatise on the vagaries of words and the history of words that is also named ‘Nod.’ He’s living with his partner, Tanya, the breadwinner in the householder, and enjoying a comfortable existence, when he has a dream of a golden light. It’s a dream he shares with everyone else. At least those who slept. And most people, it would seem, didn’t sleep, in a new plague of insomnia that is not slow to change the world into a crazed reflection of its former state, the benchmarks being, 6 days of mental and physical deterioration leading to psychosis, and 4 weeks, death. All of this shot through with mother-lodes of rage and panic.
In this strange new world, those who can sleep, of which Paul is one, are termed “Sleepers,” those who can’t, the “Awakened.” And those who society formerly pushed to its margins, the homeless wanderers, the already mentally ill, the dispossessed, now rise to an awful ascendancy. Typical of this class is Charles, a “quick he’s coming, don’t catch his eye” type who would, if he cornered you, bury you in an avalanche of conspiracy theories. The new world of ‘Nod’ allows him to rise in leadership status. You see, Charles has found a draft manuscript of Paul’s ‘Nod’ and he is using this, Scripture style, to form a new Church of the Awakened where words take on savage new meanings, freighted with unholy power. And he’s chosen Paul to be his first Prophet.
Paul meanwhile must watch the world and Tanya disintegrate before his eyes. Ever had no sleep or very little, and felt your mood take on a heightened new pitch of depression, anger and anxiety? Or a weird euphoria? Well this is what happens to most of the world’s population now, with exponential acceleration, as they act increasingly like the rage filled undead your more typical zombie fare. Strangely the Sleepers are disproportionately represented by children, who become silent and watchful and band together in new communities in urban parks. They become demonised and hunted by the Awakened, or subjects of lab-rat experiments in an equally chilling group called ‘Cat-sleepers,’ those who pretend to sleep (through make up to cover dark circles, and a pretence of normality) to trap unwary sleepers to try and medically dissect from them what makes them sleep.
Throw into the mix a rogue nuclear warship piloted by a horrifically burnt morphine addicted Captain, and Hell has indeed come to town.
Paul is a compelling narrator of events, and his love of words and appreciation of their power to shape meaning and worlds, and their most eccentric forms, historical and present, is the prism through which he views events. His book within he book ‘Nod’ is not dissimilar to “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” and each chapter begins with something like an entry from that work.
It’s this strange marriage of the cruciverbalist (lover of crosswords) and the apocalypse survivor that makes this such a smart and original read. I’m a fan of cryptic crosswords and other word games myself, and often reading Nod I was reminded of the hours I’ve spent in this world.
The book finishes with an essay by the writer on his brain tumour, of which he was diagnosed slowly after sending Nod out for publication. It’s a powerful essay on the ending of worlds and the attendant re-calibration of values and meaning. It is powerful and I urge you to look it up here, and read ‘Nod.’ Don’t worry if you are not a genre fan of apocalyptic thriller, this novel truly transcends genre.
“Perelandra” is the second novel in C.S>Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. In the first, “Out of the Silent Planet, ” Dr Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, travelled to Mars kidnapped by a Dr Weston for his own nefarious and mistaken purposes, to colonise Mars and use Dr Ransom as a propitiatory sacrifice. Weston is humbled and defeated and Ransom returns to Earth literally on the side of the angels, an important part in Maledil’s (God’s) cosmic project.
In this second book, the narrator, called “Lewis” in a pleasing conceit, travels to his friend Ransom’s house as summoned, encounters an angelic “Eldil,”, and on Ransom’s further instruction seals Ransom up in a coffin like object which whisks its’ occupant to the titular planet (which is in fact Venus).
So straight-away you have to forget what we now know about Venus as super-hot uninhabitable Hell, and enter Lewis’s imaginative conception of an unspoilt sea-world paradise, with floating islands and one forbidden ‘fixed’ land. It’s not hard to do as this book is so good, the writing so rich and involving, and it’s all held together by the integrity of Lewis’s world-view.
Ransom arrives on Perelandra adrift on its’ sea, under a golden sky, and grabs hold of a floating island, an organic entity that sustain a diverse and bountiful eco-system, full of lush plant, animal and bird life. Because, in Lewis’s story, it is un-fallen, untainted by evil, it is not characterised by a red in tooth and claw predatory fight for survival, but mutual, peaceful, dependence and co-operation. On one of these islands Ransom meets “the Lady,” a figure of love, intelligence and enquiry, who is bewildered by Ransom’s thought processes and eager to know more about him. The Lady is obviously very close to Maledil. She has been looking for her companion, a man, from whom she has been separated. But then something falls from the sky, and it’s Weston’s spaceship. Weston himself is not sure why he is there, but is propounding a new philosophy, a vague belief tin some kind of God, a vacuous belief in which anything can fit. And unfortunately for Weston it does. Weston is possessed by a demonic entity, here called the “Un-man, ” and from that point forward is damned and no more. The Un-man strives to seduce the Lady away from the ways of Maledil through arguments that seek to put her above God, through the choice of going to the fixed land, forbidden to her and the man. It’s an attempt at another Fall of mankind on another world, again using arguments of pride and the need to separate from God to grow. Ransom must stop this attempt through any means necessary, be it argument or physical force. The conflict is the central drama of the book. Will the world fall to darkness, or will, with Ransom’s help, Maledil’s work drive forwards on its best path to fulfilment without a catastrophe of death and ruin?
The book succeeds on different levels, as a science fiction thriller and a work of propitious imagination, of world-building, of an epic fantasy clash between good and evil, and of theological and philosophical argument, on such huge topics as the conflict between good and evil, spiritual warfare, separation from God, the nature of evil, how other intelligent life on alien worlds does not negate the Christian world-view of the centrality of humanity on this one, and a lot more. It is intensely readable and enriching. Some may be frustrated by character’s breaking off from what they are doing to engage in deep philosophical debate, but what they discuss is so wrapped up in what is going on, it wasn’t a problem for this reader.
In tone this is a darker work than the previous one, as it confronts more head on the reality of evil. And in its depiction of demonic possession, it can be frightening and horrifying. The Un-man is a creature as frightening as anything contemporary horror has given us. It has the almost casual obscenity of Pazuzu from the film “The Exorcist,” more sadistic playground bully than Milton’s tragic-heroic figure from “Paradise Lost.” It can seem frightening plausible and seductive in its arguments, before wandering off to torture small animals! The book’s depiction of damnation of Weston also raises a shiver of horror, as the ghost of Weston, a pitiable scrap occasionally allowed to re-occupy his shell of a body, describes the torments of being disembodied and melted down into the infernal presence.
Ransom must fight the Un-Man physically, and Ransom’s dread before the combat, the spiritual resources he finds to bear it after a torturous internal dialogue with his own doubt and fear, is also compelling reading. The fight itself is a prolonged violent struggle that is also stronger stuff than anything in the previous book (and in any other of Lewis’s fiction that I can remember) and is a page turning tour-de-force.
Ransom and his foe are literally cast into the depths before the denouement, which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say it is an intense read, conjuring up massive imaginative conceits and visions with epic cosmological, philosophical and theological argument.
An amazing read, one I won’t forget, with much that I found helpful.