Saturday, April 23, 2016


By way of introduction: Matthew De Abaitua is a lecturer in creative writing and science fiction at the University of Essex. I recall that Matthew did a major project on the history of science fiction for, I believe, the Channel 4's Film Four website. 

For a period of a couple of years, he and his family lived in Lewes (my home town), during which time we often spent long evenings discussing austerity measures and shooting the breeze on a wide variety of topics, which was always a great pleasure. During this period, MD wrote an excellent book on 'The Art of Camping: The History & Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars'. It's not something I've done since Glastonbury 1982 but the book is great. See Previous Post here. 

These are two of the three science fiction novels, written by Matthew, the first one being 'The Red Men' [Gollancz]. We are informed by the author that each one can be read as a stand-alone book. One character is common to all. 'If Then' was published in 2015; 'The Destructives' in 2016 - both by the delightfully named Angry Robot imprint. I read them both in the course of three days, during which time the Queen turned 90 and Prince died. Reading these books did not help my feelings of reality.

To my surprise, 'If Then' is set in and around Lewes. Everything has fallen apart, including the internet and all things digital - a process known as The Seizure - and society is being run by artificial intelligences known collectively as the Process who are using Lewes and other communities as a test bed. The inhabitants are required to have some kind of brain operation that links them into the network and their psychological and biological data is constantly monitored by sophisticated algorithms which assesses each person's value. Those surplus to requirements are annually removed from the community by a bailiff named James, the story's main character, who achieves this by donning a vast set of armour that turns him into an unstoppable beast. Right at the beginning, he meets a World War 1 soldier named Hector who turns out to artificially manufactured. This links later in the story to a replay of that period - but with strange twists.

It's a remarkable read even if you don't live in Lewes - but if you do live in Lewes it's a very strange experience indeed as it takes you down streets you walk on every day and across familiar landscapes. Matthew has successfully plugged into the deeper levels of this ancient town and the primeval downland that surrounds it - a green and white chalk world that has a spirit all of its own.

The book is also embedded in a deep knowledge of British science fiction and the historic period that it so cleverly re-imagines. The ghosts of Kipling and Wells are here but one is also reminded of the sf readings of one's youth - John Wyndham in particular. Its a work that also chimes in with the New Worlds  writers especially the great Mike Moorcock and Keith Roberts, whose book 'Pavane' I loved so much -  a fable of an alternative England of traction engine masters 

'If Then' is by any measure an extremely fine work s which stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best for several reasons. The overall concept is complex and original and is handled with complete confidence. The characters are fully formed and the sheer quality of both the vivid descriptive passages and the believable dialogue makes the book a complete cerebral and visceral three-dimensional experience.

MD also brings these skills sets to bear in 'The Destructives'. This is also set in a period after the Seizure and part of it is set on the Sussex Coast at Newhaven - except that the whole area has been devastated and is now dominated by a vast city-sized abomination called Novio Magus. As for the rest we're out in the universe - on the far side of the moon and on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. All the artificial intelligence on earth, known in the book as the 'emergence' has left the mess that is human Earth behind and decamped to a ring of bases near to the sun. They travel through space in sailships. There's a robot called Dr Easy whose job it is to monitor every single action, thought and incident of  Theodore's life, the main character.

Again the story contains the DNA references of past writers in the genre - strains of William Gibson, J.G. Ballard and Samuel R. Delaney. I don't mean that it's derivative rather that it draws strength and lineage from these other works but stands out on it's own, a distinctive and grand work of the imagination. You don't need a VR headset to appreciate this work of art, just eyes and a brain.

See MDA's website:

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