Top critical review
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on 22 January 2009
It would give me much greater pleasure to award this book a more favourable notice than I honestly can. For one thing the book is beautifully produced, but far more importantly the theme it tackles is simply tremendous. We are to imagine sub-atomic pico-particles possessed of individual identities and individual intelligence, and we are introduced to a scenario in which they make contact with our own human race. Such a theme would have taxed the highest powers of the dark visionary Olaf Stapledon himself. Stapledon started at the other end, the big end so to speak, with his universe of intelligent stars and nebulae. Who else might have been able to do justice to the proposition envisaged here I don't know, but it would have taken someone with genuine vision, and at random the names of H G Wells, Arthur C Clarke and Doris Lessing occur to me as being at least possibilities. However it is not Stapledon, nor Wells, nor Clarke, nor Lessing whom we find here, but Mr David Jackson `Born in Ilkley, and having a keen interest in history...A great fan of the Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov'.
What strikes me most about the story is how culture-bound it is. It takes place in towns that Mr Jackson has been to - Cambridge, Geneva, Venice - and to that extent I was comfortable with it, being familiar with these places myself. However when these beings of unimaginable alienness fight out their decisive Armageddon in Cambridge of all places, what it put me in mind of was nothing so much as Dr Who back in Tom Baker's day, with the Time Lord ensuring the future of the cosmos wherever it suited the show's limited budget to do so. Another aspect that surely must strike any reader forcibly is that the Bugz think and act much like intelligent insects in some pulp science fiction. Theoretically such entities should be indefinable except by arithmetical or algebraic expressions, but here we find them with shapes, colours, sexes and even modes of conveyance. They have been in existence since the Big Bang itself, but their motivations are awfully like the motivations of a race that is barely a couple of million years old . What has happened to their cultural intellectual and emotional development in all that time? Above all, considering they have the entire cosmos at their disposal why on earth (forgive the phrase) are they getting so excited about the inhabitants of one minor planet? What makes us so important? - other than because this author is one of us, of course, and he thinks like this so they have to think like this as well.
The prose style may betray the influence of Asimov, and that would be a pity as prose style was not one of Asimov's greater talents. The characterisation is flat and the story-line is frankly boring. It was a real struggle to make it to the end of the book. A certain amount of cod-science is only to be expected, and I am used to it from, say, even so gifted a writer as Iain M Banks. Come to that, neither Stapledon nor Wells knew a fat lot about physics, and it does not bother me in the least. However Mr Jackson should have taken elementary care over what he says, for instance how can a constant be reduced to anything whatsoever, as on p 246? A constant is what it says it is - constant. The proof-reading is generally good, and I may have to give up the rearguard resistance against the solecism `wreaked'. However `it's' for `its' will not do: among them the author and proof-readers should have made up their mind whether they want `artefact' or `artifact'; and when I behold `irridescent' I suspect that among them they don't even know how to spell it. Strangest of all is an inexplicable, and plain ridiculous, fixation with the letter z. This symbol is confined to languages using the Roman and Greek alphabets, and in most of them it is nothing special - not in German, not in Italian, not in Spanish, and in French often so unimportant that it is silent and not even pronounced. However in English it could be perhaps thought of as slightly exotic, and that, in keeping with the generally culture-bound tone of the narrative is presumably why the Bugz seek to indicate their approach by beaming a letter z on to the nocturnal waters of aqueous Cambridge. I don't really know why Mr Jackson strains his inventiveness to call his subatomic personae Ziel, Zein and such like. He might as well have called them Zmith Jonez and Robinzon and gone on his way rejoicing.
This is not the sort of assessment I would have liked to offer, but I do not have the option of not reviewing the book, so this is what the assessment has to be. My heart sinks when I see the suffix `zero' to the book's title, but while wishing Mr Jackson well I have to echo Mr Punch's advice for those about to marry, just in case he has a sequel or sequels in mind - `Don't.'