Jun 17

A hiatus

I knew it would happen at some time, in fact I thought it would earlier than now, but work and life and general laziness has caught up with me.  I genuinely admire those who blog regularly.  These days, even to write a 600 word review, I need a massive run-up before my fingers touch the keyboard.

I do love discussing literature which is why I devote nearly three hours a month chatting about it on the Writer and the Critic and the Coode Street Roundtable podcasts.  But I’m not sure, just at the moment, whether I can translate that passion for genre and non genre fiction to a weekly, or even monthly blog post.

It’s possible (probable) that I’ll find a burst of energy at some point – maybe later in the year, maybe next year – but for the moment, if I do say anything about what I’m reading it will probably be on Facebook or Goodreads and it will involve allocating a bunch of stars to the book.  There might be the odd pithy remark.

I’m still hoping to republish my Thomas Disch reviews, but that might also be delayed.  For the time being.  Keep reading.  I certainly will.

Jun 06

Week 22: Some of the nicest Spiders you’re ever likely to meet

Books Read

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Currently Reading 

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

(1)

When the Clarke Award nominees were announced Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was described on my Facebook and Twitter feeds as the generation ship book with the spiders. This evoked images – Aliens style – of a small, embattled crew protecting their cargo of human popsicles from mutant, two metre long spiders.  While the Children of Time does feature some spider on human action, it’s the philosophical ponderings and sense of wonder and discovery that make the book such a delight to read.

The plot goes something like this: The last survivors of a dead Earth are searching for a terraformed world they believe exists based on the cobbled together records of the previous Earth Empire. The Gilgamesh – a generation ship – is lucky to find one such world only to discover that it is protected by the egotistical and mad ravings of an uploaded personality, Doctor Avrana Kern, who headed the terraforming project two thousand years previously. Kern intends to safeguard her legacy, not just the sanctity of her planet but also its residents: a colony of what she believes to be uplifted primates.  Except Kern has forgotten that the primates never reached the planet. Her project was sabotaged, a first act in a war that led to the end of the Old Empire. What was dispatched to the planet before everything went tits up was a flask containing the nano-virus intended to rewrite the neural networks of these primates. But when the primates didn’t make it, the nano-virus found another subject. Spiders. Portia Labiata to be exact. Also known as the jumping spider.

Because the generation ship narrative takes hundreds of years to unfold and because spiders have short lifespans, Tchaikovsky takes his time developing spider society. In each generation there is a Portia, a Bianca and a Fabian and through their multiplicity of eyes and limbs we watch as spider society grows outward and inwards. This includes great wars against the ants (also infected by the nano-virus), a religious schism brought about by the messages spilling from Doctor Avrana Kern’s satellite and the struggles of dealing with a worldwide pandemic. And in among all this social issues emerge, especially around the roles of gender in a society where the males only purpose is to provide sperm and then be consumed as an after coitus snack. Tchaikovsky handles all this beautifully. He instills a sense of wonder, while never betraying the genetic antecedent of his sapient spiders. At the same time he argues that intelligence and imagination and the desire to progress does bring societal change, whether you have eight legs or two.

To Tchaikovsky’s credit, the parts of the novel dealing with the humans on the generation ship are only marginally less interesting. He makes the smart move of telling that story through the one perspective – Holsten Mason, a classicist who has spent his life translating the texts left by the Old Empire. Mason plays a critical role in interpreting the ravings of Doctor Kern when the Gilgamesh reaches her satellite and the bountiful world it orbits. The novel is divided into eight sections and one of the running gags is having Mason wake up to discover that a generation or two have whizzed by and the ship is either facing a mutiny, been taken over by a group of religious zealots or is under threat from the megalomaniacal desires of the Gilgamesh’s captain. The bits involving the mutiny and the religious zealots seem par for the course for a generation ship novel. But because it’s told through Holsten’s sympathetic eyes these sections aren’t as predictable or dull as might otherwise be the case.

More than that, Holsten’s story (or adventure) on the generation ship brings home the key theme of the book, the idea of imitatio dei – the desire to imitate God. In the case of the spiders, God is the satellite that orbits their planet and this almost heretical urge to communicate with that object. For the humans, that imitation is chasing after the technology and ideologies left by the Old Empire. The way both societies deal with this journey not only provides the book with plenty of drama and tension but a deep and nuanced philosophy.

I might be insulting Tchaikovsky, whose work I’ve never read before, that I was caught by surprise by how smart and profound Children of Time was.   As Peter Hamilton says on the less than inspiring front cover, this truly is very smart science fiction.

May 28

Week 21: Can you be ambitious and uninspiring?

Books Read

Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Currently Reading 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

(1)

Arcadia by Iain Pears was structured (designed) to be read via an interactive app. According to Pears in an article he wrote for The Guardian he wanted to:

write something even more complex, I began to think about how to make my readers’ lives as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure… to put it another way, it becomes fairly straightforward (in theory) to create a narrative that was vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book, at the same time as making it far more simple to read.

There’s something wrong-headed in the idea of using technology to dumb down the reading experience.  Still, I can appreciate the attraction that technology provides, the ability to tell stories that play with form and structure and deliberately eschew a linear narrative.  And the e-book or app certainly seems like the perfect delivery mechanism, whether it’s inserting video or music into the narrative or in the case of Arcadia providing the reader with the opportunity to choose their own path through the story.  I did download the app, and while I found it easy to navigate and could imagine myself getting lost in the branches of the narrative, I ended up reading the novel the old-fashioned way. (I should note that the need to pay a further $6 for a book I’d already purchased was major disincentive).

In spite of what Pears’ says there’s nothing particularly complex about Arcadia. The overall plot, for all of Pears’ attempts to muddy the waters by having ten point of view characters, is straightforward and familiar.  It’s essentially an overblown time travel story masquerading as a spy thriller, a secondary world fantasy and a far future technocratic dystopia.  But what’s striking about the book isn’t the way Pears juggles the varied strands of the plot, but how polite and mannered the novel is.  No-one swears, there’s only a modicum of violence and even with reality under threat of total collapse it all feels a little too dignified.  Twee you might say.

The three main settings are also lackluster and uninspiring.  The technocratic future is pure cliché, cut and pasted from any number of young adult dystopian novels.  It even features a multi-billionaire megalomaniac, old as creation, who no one has laid eyes upon for years but who controls every aspect of society.  The plot strand set in Oxford during the 60s provides us with a half-baked espionage plot, an afterthought rather than a key aspect of the novel (the identity of the Russian sleeper spy is also obvious if you’ve ever read or watched a Cold War thriller).   Finally Anterworld, the fantasy environment, feels like it’s been cobbled together on a shoestring budget.  This is partly deliberate, Anterworld is based on the sketchy musings of an Oxford Professor.  But by the end of the novel we, the reader, are meant to view Anterworld as a place that’s grown beyond the bare bone notes of its original author / creator.  And yet I never felt that Anterworld was anything more than a dull, poorly conceived secondary world.

I didn’t hate Arcadia.  Like a half-decent popcorn movie it was, more or less, an entertaining reading experience.  It’s also possible that if I’d read the book as intended the problems I note above might not have been as evident.  Still, I can’t help but think that Arcadia’s ambition was all in the technology and sadly not in the characters, settings or plot.

(2)

I’ll be discussing Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky on the next episode of the Coode Street Roundtable.  All going well it will be recorded next  weekend.

May 18

Week 19 / 20: The Nebulas are awarded, a fluid identity and the greatest anthropologists of the American People

Books Read

In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Currently Reading 

Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

(1)

I skipped a week.  That’s going to happen from time to time as life – work, family, general laziness – gets in the way.  It’s not that this blog isn’t important to me, it’s just that sometimes I’d rather fall asleep on the couch halfway through the latest James Bond film with my iPad lying precariously on my chest rather than sit in front of a hot computer banging out another vaguely coherent review.  But I’ll always come back to this blog.  Maybe.

(2)

The winners of the Nebula’s were announced, a full list of which can be found here.  The winner for best novel went to Uprooted by Naomi Novik, a book loved by many of my friends and one that I wanted to love more.  As I’ve said previously, I believe the best novel on the list by quite a fair margin was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (The Grace of Kings would have been my second choice if I could vote for the Nebulas, which I can’t).  Having said that, congratulations to Naomi Novik and to all the winners.

(3)

In his review for The Guardian John Self describes Hugo Wilcken’s The Reflection as a “roller coaster, a helter skelter a whole literary fairground” where the “truth is just out of reach”.  It’s a perfect summation of the novel and if I was smart and not prone to rambling I’d leave things there and suggest you read the rest of John Self’s review or better yet the novel he’s talking about.  Because The Reflection is precisely that a roller coaster ride, a literary fairground, filled with sly winks and literary allusions, many which I’m sure went over my head.  With its noir tone and Kafkaesque plot with a hint of M. C. Escher, Wilcken brilliantly deconstructs one of the mainstays of literary fiction, the question of identity.

Describing the plot of The Reflection is a fool’s errand.  Not because it’s so opaque or twisty and turny that it defies elucidation but because there’s this need to constantly contextualize why Doctor David Manne (psychiatrist) might be suffering from a mental breakdown – assuming that our point of view character is, in fact, Doctor Manne.  What I will say (Self does this far better in his review) is the novel opens with Manne discovering that his ex-wife, Abby, has died unexpectedly from an aggressive form of throat cancer.  Soon after being told this news, Manne is asked by the police to consult on a possible domestic abuse case where the husband, a Mr Esterhazy, is denying that (a) he hit his wife (b) that he’s married and (c) that his name is Mr Esterharzy – he refers to himself as Smith.  Manne agrees to have Esterhazy committed, but this experience coupled with the death of his ex-wife tugs on Manne’s fragile sense of self.

This is more than just a novel about a man who is mistaken for being someone else or who in the final pages, via a massive twist that no-one, including the author, saw coming, discovers that he was Jack The Ripper all along.  Yes, Manne / Esterhazy / Smith is the most unreliable of narrators, but that’s clear a third of the way through the novel.  Manne’s inability to piece together who he is, while almost seamlessly swapping between identities and origin stories is both confounding, but also clearly laid out by Wilcken.  There’s no trickery here.  And yet this pervasive sense of dislocation that Manne / Smith / Esterhazy experience means, as Self aptly points out, that the truth is always out of reach.

This novel will frustrate some readers because it is a puzzle box without a clear solution.  But that’s part of the enjoyment.  While it might not have been Wilcken’s intent the novel did make me question how fiction frames the question of identity.  Whether it’s the hero’s journey or an epiphany during a moment of high drama, there’s a general sense that a character’s arc, their journey through the narrative, is about shoring up that person’s sense of who they are.  Wilcken says: fuck that for a game of cards.  Identity has never been that simple, it’s far more fluid than that.  And for Doctor David Manne – if that’s his real name – this fluidity makes for a fantastic and dark and surreal reading experience.

(4)

Last year (2015) was the fortieth anniversary of the Fall or Liberation of Saigon, an event that effectively ended the Vietnam War.  In the opening chapters of his début and Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Sympathizer (it also won an Edgar for best first novel), Viet Thanh Nguyen provides a visceral account of the American evacuation of the city through the eyes of a South Vietnamese army captain who also happens to be a sleeper agent for the communist North.  In a scene that’s tragic and horrifying for those who are left behind but also perversely thrilling as planes and helicopters come under fire from the North Vietnamese military our narrator and a select group of army officials and their families escape to America.  For our nameless, referred throughout as the Captain, his task is to report back to the Vietcong the intentions of “the General” a top ranking soldier in the south Vietnamese Army who dreams of taking back Saigon from the communists.

Thematically and in terms of plot, there’s a great deal going on in the novel.  For our narrator he has to juggle the coded demands of the newly established communist Government while also proving to the General that he’s still loyal to the South Vietnamese.  This requires him to kill innocent men who threaten the General’s plans and enduring the associated guilt that comes with these acts of violence.  But in among these moments of tension and violence and the gut churning fear that any moment he will be found out as a spy, both the Captain and Nguyen comment on issues that go beyond Saigon, the Vietnam War and the evils of communism.  In particular the book deals with issues of immigration, assimilation, representation of the “other” and the bonds of friendship.

In the case of immigration the Captain provides some hilarious insights into American culture, especially in the context of those in power, such as a Californian Congressman who support the General and his plan to retake Vietnam.  At one point the Captain opines that the immigrant, whether Vietnamese or otherwise, “were the greatest anthropologists of the American people.” something Americans never realised because the field notes “were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin.”  There’s something poignant and profound about this observation given all the talk today of how immigrants refuse to assimilate.

While the Vietnamese might be cognizant of their hosts, Nguyen also explores the unwillingness on the part of American’s – especially in terms of the mainstream media – to understand other cultures.  Again Nguyen’s dry sense of humour and sharp observations come to the fore as the Captain is asked to join a film set in the Philippines to consult on a movie about the Vietnam War directed by “the Auteur” a man who may, or may not, be based on Francis Ford Coppola.  The Captain’s initial attempts to convince the Auteur to more accurately represent his people, both South and North, results in a film that treats the Vietnamese as villain and victim while presenting the American soldier as a noble, tragic figure making the best of a horrible situation.

However, the theme that takes primacy above all else is that of friendship.  The Captain’s childhood bond with Man – a major figure in the Communist party – and Bon – a man who fought for the South and lost his wife and son during the evacuation of Saigon – reverberates throughout the novel.  Every choice the Captain makes is directly linked to this friendship, whether it’s protecting Bon from his self-destructive desire to destroy those who murdered the people he loved or following the coded orders sent to him by Man on behalf of the communist regime.  The last third of the novel is especially an expression of that friendship as the Captain, against his better judgement, decides to follow Bon to Vietnam as part of crazy plan cooked up by the General to retake the country.  The Captain’s intent is to keep his mate alive, but their inevitable capture by the communists leads to a confronting, powerful interrogation scene between the Captain and Man.  Interrogation scene aside, if I was less than invested in the last third of the novel it’s because I missed the Captain’s and Nguyen’s wry observations of American culture and the migrant experience.

(5)

If you’d like to know what I thought of Aurealis award-winning novels In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker and A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay you’ll need to listen to the latest episode of The Writer and The Critic (which will be out shortly… )

May 12

Disch Republish #5: Camp Concentration

I think I would have adored Camp Concentration if I’d read it at University.  With all the literary allusions and themes about death and religion and science, it’s the sort of vaguely pretentious book that someone struggling through a Masters of Philosophy would identify with.  Of the many SF and Horror and Doctor Who books I read in my early 20s, this is probably one of the few that I could have shared with my Philosophy mates without feeling embarrassed.

And while I probably didn’t adore Camp Concentration, reading it as a thirty something, I did enjoy it.  It’s because the book wears its anger on its sleeves.  It’s about a poet, Louis Sacchetti, who ends up in prison for being a draft dodger.  Although it’s never explicitly mentioned in the book, the US seems to be at War with everyone, using biological weapons rather than nukes.  Louis is moved out of his prison cell and into a secret facility where the Army is testing their ‘smart’ drugs on other prisoners.  The main drug, Pallidine, is derived from syphilis (of all things) and while it makes the user extremely smart it also has the unfortunate side effect of rotting a person’s brain.

It’s a very interesting set-up and one where Thomas Disch can go crazy, not only with literary invention but also with quotes from Goethe to Hegel to Bunyan to… well too many to mention.  This is a book populated by polymaths, and as a result has an air of pretension about it.  And yet the book is very readable.  There’s the odd moment, where Disch experiments with style and goes a bit bonkers, but mostly with all the quotes and all the philosophy, Camp Concentration is a very accessible novel.

While published in ’68, the book was written in ’66 and ’67.  Lyndon Johnson had ordered an escalation of the Vietnam War, which resulted in a number of student protests at the time.  And it’s clear that Disch, who was living in Europe when writing the book, was voicing his own protest through Camp Concentration.  The book takes a very dim view of war, but also the abuse of science to keep the war machine running.  Disch isn’t playing the anti-science card here.  In fact, faith – whether it be faith in God or faith in alchemy – is ridiculed as well,  But the book does take the position that science, if used improperly will lead to our destruction.

It’s no surprise then that Faust – both the Goethe and Marlowe version – play a role in the book.  Because, in Disch’s eyes, the focus on science is very much a case of the US selling it’s soul to the devil to get an advantage.  Whether that’s by maximising the intelligence of the populace so that they can invent bigger and better bombs, or coming up with bacterial and biological weapons that can wipe out a whole society.  And throughout this attack on science gone bad and selling its soul, there’s the lurking presence of death just around the corner.  Palladine provides intelligence by rotting the brain – a brilliant and nasty concept – which results in a horrible death.  Death and human creativity are married together, the feeling that without the inevitability death, there’d be no reason to create anything.

Camp Concentration remains a unique reading experience, both experimental in structure and political in tone.  And for Disch it starts a trend of novels that are loud and angry and in your face, that don’t bathe in the nostalgia of yesteryear but critique and react against the politics of the day.

May 08

Week 18: More effing awards – but seriously I love them – and two books I liked but didn’t love

Books Read

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Night Clocks by Paul Meloy

The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

Currently Reading 

In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

(1)

This week my review of Tade Thompson’s award-winning and fantastic début novel, Making Wolf, was published on the Strange Horizons’ website.  Here’s a quote from my piece just to give you a sense of the novel:

If it isn’t already clear, Making Wolf is a crime novel hyped up on performance-enhancing drugs sourced either from Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah. For a great deal of the book Thompson follows the conventions of noir, introducing both a love interest whose life is threatened and a femme fatale whose astonishing looks ultimately seduce our hero:

It was as if she was so slight that reality parted to let her exist, but only barely [ . . . ] Her skin shone, glowed with an inner light that was attractive. Given a strong wind, she might take off.

And then there’s the over-the-top violence, in sudden moments of brutality that are genuinely shocking. In particular, there’s a rape scene (I’ll skip the details) that does feel like a gratuitous step too far. And yet I don’t want to leave the impression that Making Wolf is just another ultraviolent crime novel where the hero’s hands are steeped in blood and women are just objects of lust to be dispensed with in the most awful ways possible. There’s a great deal of smarts driving this book, especially in the way Thompson uses the conventions of the genre to comment on sexist and violent attitudes toward women.

I’m proud of the review, but feel free to skip it and read Making Wolf instead.

(2)

It’s hard to still give a crap about the Hugo nominees when we’re being swamped by finalists and nominees from other awards.  This week saw the announcement of the Shirley Jackson and Locus Award nominees.

First up – the Shirley Jackson Award, but more specifically the nominees for best novel:

  • Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press)
  • Experimental Film, Gemma Files (ChiZine Publications)
  • The Glittering World, Robert Levy (Gallery)
  • Lord Byron’s Prophecy, Sean Eads (Lethe Press)
  • When We Were Animals, Joshua Gaylord (Mulholland Books)

Observations

  1. It’s fantastic to see Eileen nominated, a novel with a dark, moody and dangerous quality that I think Jackson would have admired. Go read it!
  2. Experimental Film by Gemma Files has been on my TBR list since I read Nina Allan’s great review of the book.
  3. And while the other three nominees are writers I’m not familiar with, that’s what makes their presence so exciting. The wonderful thing about the Shirley Jackson award is that whether intentionally or not the nominees often bridge that divide between literary and genre, much like Jackson did herself, what with “The Lottery” first being published in The New Yorker.  It’s why out of all the genre awards, it’s the SJA that I look forward to the most.  It speaks to my interests and my reading habits.

Next we have the Locus Awards.  Here are the nominees of the four novel categories:

SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL

  • The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi (Borzoi; Orbit UK)
  • Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Seveneves, Neal Stephenson (Morrow)
  • A Borrowed Man, Gene Wolfe (Tor)

FANTASY NOVEL

  • Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear (Tor)
  • The House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard (Roc; Gollancz)
  • Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS; Open Road)
  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

YOUNG ADULT BOOK

  • Half a War, Joe Abercrombie (Del Rey; Harper Voyager UK)
  • Half the World, Joe Abercrombie (Del Rey)
  • Harrison Squared, Daryl Gregory (Tor)
  • Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older (Levine)
  • The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett (Harper; Doubleday UK)

FIRST NOVEL

  • Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (Ace; Macmillan UK)
  • The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (Saga)
  • Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury US; Bloomsbury UK)
  • The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com)

Observations

  1. I’ve read six of the 20 books nominated, most of those in the Fantasy category
  2. Nice to see Aurora get a nod after being ignored / forgotten by the major genre awards this year.  On the other hand it would have been nice to have seen Adam Roberts, Dave Hutchinson and Ian McDonald nominated for their respective novels.  Yes, I’m aware they’re UK writers who either do not, or may not have US distribution.  I’m also aware that I’m suggesting the addition of men to a list that’s already 80% male.  I could blame gender bias on my part or more accurately the fact that I haven’t read many science fiction novels published by woman in 2015.  That’s not to say they weren’t published, I’m aware of novels like Planetfall by Emma Newman and Genevieve Valentine’s Persona and Radiance by Cat Valente.  I just haven’t read them, though I very much intend to.
  3. Anyway, of the 14 books I haven’t read I intend to look at 8. They would be… actually I’m not going to list them.  You’ll find out in the coming weeks… assuming I read all eight.  Feel free to guess though.
  4. Gender issues aside (specifically in the Best SF and Best YA category), it’s nice to see a decent representation of POC’s – mostly (and possibly more importantly) in Best First Novel.

(3)

Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers is set on a world (I assume Earth) affected by climate change.  Most people – referred to as “damplings” – live and die on the sea.  Only a select few enjoy the privilege of living on what land still exists.  North is a dampling, part of a circus troupe that tour a nearby archipelago, surviving off the hand-outs of the land dwellers.  North’s particular brand of entertainment involves a bear whom only she can totally control.  Separate from North and her circus adventures is the story of Callanish, a girl who administers shore side burials for those who die at sea.  She tends the birds, or graces, that form part of this culture’s burial rituals.  Callanish connection to North – at least initially – is that she remembers, as a girl, watching a circus performance that ended horribly after two of the performers died at the hands of a raging bear.  These performers were North’s parents.  Callanish’s enduring memory of the tragedy is the small girl – North – still dancing with her own bear.

While a number of secondary characters are given chapters of their own, including the circus master Jarrow and his scheming wife Avalon, the focus is very much on North and Callanish.  They don’t actually meet until a third of the way through the novel, but the immediate acceptance they have for each other sees them share deep secrets – North explains how she became pregnant, Callanish shows North the webbing on her hands, a “disfigurement” that would see her buried alive if she lived on land.  While their meeting is fleeting their obsession with each other – thoughts regularly gravitating to what it would be like if they could be together – feels natural and organic.  It’s the strongest part of the novel.

Unfortunately the Gracekeepers is let down by the two plot strands that occupy the book’s narrative, that is the survival of the circus and Callanish’s decision to head back home and reunite with her mother.  Starting with the circus, Jarrow’s commitment to provide North and his son with a home over the wishes of his wife, Avalon, does result in a level of tension – especially since North doesn’t have any wish to live on land.  But even after Avalon discovers that North is pregnant and not with Jarrow’s son, she does very little with the secret.  North herself is never really placed in the uncomfortable position of betraying Jarrow’s trust.  In fact the decision of what she and her bear would do if Jarrow evicted them is taken out of her hands when Avalon decides, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, to burn the circus down (or the boats that form it).  This one act does increase the stakes but it happens so late in the novel that it feels like a throwaway moment of drama then something the novel has led up to.

The same goes for Callanish’s story.  Her sudden decision to return home to seek her mother’s forgiveness for leaving seems a bit out of character.  Given how seriously she takes her responsibility out on the water, I couldn’t get my head around her dropping everything, even if it was a decision mostly inspired and motivated by her brief meeting with North.  It’s not helped that she puts her life in the hands of a man who she barely knows and who sees her as a sex object.  But even with all that, not much of note happens to Callanish, I never felt that her life or her mission were under threat.

While I did like the prose and some of the world building – in particular the Revivalists who travel from island to island looking to convert people to the one true God – the lack of drama or tension meant I never truly engaged with North or Callanish’s story.

(4)

With his début novel The Night Clocks Paul Meloy isn’t frightened to go full batshit cosmological as he introduces concepts such as Dark Time and Autoscopes and Firmament Surgeons and the Night Clock itself, a group of 12 men and women who stand against the darkness probing at our dreams.  While the neologisms come thick and fast and there’s a hand wavy haziness to some of the concepts (it was never entirely clear to me why one of the characters was carrying around a fetus in a jar called Doctor Natus) overall the mythology on display is exciting and vibrant.  We have locked off pocket Universes (called Quays) and an unborn baby named Chloë learning about the mysteries of the Universe and insectoid like horrors ripping their way through the fabric of our nightmares into reality.

I have a soft spot for this sort of cosmological craziness, even when it seems like the author is flinging insanity at the wall.  I liked the fact that the novel never stood still, that the focus was always moving providing the narrative with a sense of urgency and foreboding and danger.  Unfortunately, that frenetic aspect also proved to be the book’s major weakness.  While the main character is ostensibly Phil Trevana, a psychologist whose patients have this tragic knack of committing suicide, he constantly gets pushed into the background as the stories of Daniel, a Firmament Surgeon, or Chloë, an unborn child living in pocket universe, or Alex a young man discovering the wonders and horror of Dark Time, take precedence depending on the needs of the plot.  It meant that I didn’t really care much about anyone, or for that matter the growing threat posed by the Autoscopes.  Or more to the point, once the novelty of Meloy’s mythology wore off, there’s not much – at least character wise – holding the book together.

I’m also uncomfortable with books that link mental illness with the supernatural.  While Meloy isn’t so crass to blame depression and mental illness on the machinations of the Autoscopes, these creatures do take advantage of those who are ill.  Meloy isn’t the first genre writer to make this link between cosmological horror and mental illness (hello Lovecraft) but like that eponymous monster who feeds on OUR FEAR, it’s a trope I could do without.

Yet I do like the ambition on display here.  I like that The Night Clock does neat things with structure, like opening with a bizarre scene that only makes sense once you’ve read to the end and how its seamlessly transitions from balls to the wall horror to a storybook moment between a talking dog and an unborn child.  And I know that critiquing the book for not being more focussed is contradictory.   But I suppose I want to be excited by the ideas and still care about the characters.

(5)

I’ll publish my thoughts about Hugo Wilcken’s The Reflection next week.

Apr 30

Week 17: Don’t Look Away – it’s the HUGOOOOOS, oh and the Clarke Awards and a truly fantastic book

Books Read

Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley

The Shore by Sara Taylor

Currently Reading 

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

(1)

This week saw the announcement of the Hugo Award and Clarke Award nominees – one rinsing the taste of shit left by the other.

As with 2015, Vox Day successfully took a massive crap all over the Hugo Awards, smearing his poo-stained fingers over 64 of the 81 nominees.  If you have no idea who or what a Vox Day is then GIYF because I honestly can’t be bothered explaining it.  The point is that depending on what side of the cultural wars you sit on, this year’s Hugo’s is either a compromised list of nominees peddled by a racist, anti-semite douche-bag or it’s another nail in the Social Justice Warrior coffin.  Whatever your thoughts here are the nominees for best novel:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

Observations

  1. The good news is that Vox Day’s impact aside the Best Novel category isn’t so bad.
  2. I’ve read three of the five novels on the ballot. This includes the exceptional The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, the very good Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie and the OK-but-found-one-of-the-central-characters-fucking-annoying Uprooted by Naomi Novik.
  3. I won’t be reading the Jim Butcher. The Dresden novel that was nominated last year cured me of all things Butcher.
  4. I also won’t be reading Seveneves, not because it appeared on Vox Day’s “this is not a slate” but because it’s close to 300,000 words and just at the moment I don’t have 10 days to spare.

(2)

The nominees for the Clarke Award are as follows:

Observations

  1. I’ve read two of the nominated novels. People clearly liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet more than I did because while I can applaud the book for its treatment of diversity in terms of sexuality and gender and race the actual prose was clunk-tastic in its overuse of exposition.  Still this is the book’s second nomination.  Last year it garnered a Kitschie.
  2. I liked Europe of Midnight a shitload more. A genuine sequel to Europe in Autumn but also so very different in tone and approach.
  3. And I’m genuinely interested in reading the other four contenders. I’ve heard that this set of nominees lacks ambition, that it’s drawing from the genre ghetto rather than looking further afield.  While not specific to this set of nominees, Nina Allan discusses the current state of the Clarke Award in this fantastic post.   I am sympathetic to the argument that the Clarke should look further afield, but I’m personally not going to prejudge this set of books.
  4. Having said that I am sad that neither Ian McDonald’s Luna or Adam Robert’s The Thing Itself made the list. Especially the Robert’s which is a superb, astonishing, ambitious book.

(4)

About four hours ago I babbled on about Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley for an upcoming episode of the Coode Street Roundtable.  The episode should be dropping any moment now.

(5)

 

The Shore is a début novel from Sara Taylor but you wouldn’t know it because the writing is so assured in tone and structure.  The book is set on a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia and covers a three hundred year period that focuses on two lines of descendants stemming from Medora – half white, half Native American who was born on the islands in the mid 19th Century.  The novel bounces around in time, between the mid 1990s, to the late 1800s, to the early 20th Century, to a point 120 years from now.  As a result, there’s a strong mosaic flavour to the structure as we are introduced to a number of Medora’s descendants.

The opening chapter sets the tone of the novel, and it’s anything but twee or bucolic.  13-year-old Chloë – Medora’s great, great, great grand-daughter – is forced to protect her younger sister Chloe from their drug abusing and violent father after their mother disappeared to parts unknown.  It’s a gut wrenching piece of writing, with an ending that’s both powerful and upsetting and yet with a great deal of sensitivity.  And it’s only the beginning.  Starting with Medora’s awful treatment at the hand of her father and first husband, this is a book that takes a frank look at the pain men inflict on women.  And while some of the women in this book are able to stand strong against the sexual abuse and violence – Chloe and Medora are cases in point – this isn’t always the case and it’s all the more tragic as a result.

The book also explores a family’s connection to the land – especially with regard to the environment and a respect for the natural order.  The speculative element is that Medora’s second husband (or at least that side of the family) have the ability to manipulate weather.  Bring rain, deflect hurricanes, control storms.  But they use that power carefully, with great respect, and as a consequence gain insight into what’s coming for humanity.  And it ain’t good.  In the 2030s a sexual disease emerges that kills off most of the planet and leads to mutations for a number of the babies that are born afterwards.  The Lumsden’s – the side of Medora’s descendants that have power over weather – plan for the plague, and occupy a small island not connected to the mainland.  The upshot is that 100 years after the plague hits, the descendants live a relative peaceful, simple life.  In fact the last story of the collection is in complete contrast to the opening, not just because it’s set in 22nd Century, but because it’s about hope and love, rather than violence and pain.

The novel’s one minor stutter is the introduction of the plague.  While I understand that out of control plagues are simply reflective of the author’s concern for the environment and our general mistreatment of the natural world, as a plot device it’s lazy.  It’s not to say that a plague won’t come around and wipe us out, but that it’s now being used as science fiction short hand to get around the need for a more nuanced and thought out future.  However, considering everyone does it, and given the chapter that deals with the plague would make for a magnificent piece of horror short fiction, I can forgive Taylor this stumble.

Confronting and powerful and sensitive and assured – the way Taylor’s handle so many voices is wow-tastic  – The Shore is a truly fantastic novel.

Apr 27

Disch Republish #4: The House That Fear Built

Did you know that this was John Sladek’s first novel?  (That would be the same John Sladek who wrote The Roderick books).  According to this very good biography of Disch, Sladek and Disch had similar senses of humour and became close buddies.  So much so that they travelled through Europe together.  In 1965, while sailing to Casablanca, they both wrote The House That Fear Built, which was published under the pen name Cassandra Knye (a favourite pseudonym of Disch’s) in 1966.

Now, The House That Fear Built isn’t a novel that you’re going find during your weekly stroll through the local bookshop.  The book was re-published, but that was in 1969… and since then it’s slowly faded out of existence, with only the most ardent Sladek and Disch fans tracking it down and purchasing it.  Fortunately, and due to the marvels of the interweb, it took me all of seven minutes to find a copy on abe.com and buy it.  (Cost me about $12 as well, with postage).

However, as great as the interweb is, it is lacking in reviews of the book.  In fact I couldn’t actually find one – other than a couple of people mentioning, after Disch had died, that the book was written by him (and Sladek).  But the lack of reviews should be no surprise.  Putting aside the fact that the book has been out of print for fourty years, the book isn’t science fiction.  Or fantasy.  Or crime.  Or Western.  It’s Gothic Romance.  And prior to this, the only Gothic Romance I’d ever read (and not finished) was Wuthering Heights.  (And no I haven’t read Dracula either… I know, I know, where’s the cred?).  Gothic Romance, according to Wikipedia, hit its peak around the turn of the last century (around the 1890s) and since then had been dying out.  In fact the genre was going through its last gasps when this book was published.

I know I’ve rambled without saying much about the actual book.  That’s because it’s a bit rubbish.  Disch – as we will come to see – was a fan of Victoriana, and so I suppose it would have tickled his fancy to have a crack at producing some Gothic romance.  I have no idea if Sladek was a fan, but hey they were sailing to Casablanca together and other than get drunk… why not write a novel about a forbidding Gothic castle in Mexico.

Yep, a forbidding Gothic castle in Mexico.  Built by Nazis.  Called Ixta Parque.  And in the shadow of Ixtaccihuatl and Popocatapetl.  In among all the Mexicans and Nazi’s there’s Nan Richmond, an innocent girl from Disch’s hometown of Minnesota, whose fallen in love with Hans.  Hans is half Mexican, half German and it’s his grandma (whom they go to visit) who owns and lives in Ixta Parque.  The grandma is a tough German woman with very strict ideals who takes an instant dislike to Nan.  She’s also hiding a secret and forbids Nan to visit the lower levels of the castle where someone or something is lurking.

I know, I know, it sounds awesome.  Not the case the though.  The writing style is very… um… melodramatic.  That said, the descriptions of life in the town of Amecameca are vibrant and lively, which should be no surprise as Disch had spent quite some time there before writing the book.  But other than that there’s not really much more to say about the novel.  It’s very po-faced.  Very clichéd.  And after the halfway mark becomes a bit of a slog to finish.  It’s very hard to find any of Disch in the book, other than some gorgeous descriptions of the setting itself and the odd joke (Jorge Luis Borges is referred to as famous Matador).  I doubt there’s much of Sladek in here either, but I haven’t read the Roderick books, so I can’t be sure.

In the end, it’s a curio.  A novel knocked out in between the cocktails and the sightseeing in Casablanca.

Apr 22

Week 16: Pulitzers, Brilliant Kelly Link and not being in on the joke

Books Read

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Currently Reading 

Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley

(1)

This year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction was awarded to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s début novel The Sympathizer which I look forward to reading at some point in the coming months.

For genre fans Nguyen’s win was of less significance when compared to the news that Kelly Link’s collection, Get in Trouble: Stories, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  If my Facebook page was any indication, Kelly’s appearance on the Pulitzer honor role was recognition (finally) by the literary élite that genre fiction deserves to be taken seriously.  Personally I think it’s evidence of Kelly Link’s brilliance as a writer of fiction – genre or otherwise – than a first step toward genre / literary reconciliation.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be proud of what Kelly has achieved by writing unashamed genre fiction.  But I also think that a writer of Kelly’s talents are rare and that she will prove to be the exception rather than the beginning of a trend.

(2)

Your enjoyment of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is going to entirely depend on whether her brand of satire resonates with your sense of humor.  I’ll say straight out that while I enjoyed the writing, there’s some deliciously good prose on display here, I found nothing remotely funny or insightful in Atwood’s satiric take on America’s twin obsession with capitalism and sex.

The opening of the novel is promising.  We’re introduced to married couple Charmaine and Stan, two victims of a horrendous financial collapse – imagine if the 2008 crisis just got worse – that’s seen them unemployed and living out of their car.  Stan is miserable and cynical and prone to bouts of anger.  Charmaine, inspite of everything, has a cheery disposition and a belief – inspired by her dead Grandma Win who always had sage advice for every situation – that things will improve.  So when they both see an ad for a gated community called Consilience, offering the poor and dispossessed a chance for stable employment and a house of their own, Stan can’t help but wonder what the catch is while Charmaine sees it as the answer to their current predicament and a fix for their marriage.  In a sense they’re both right, living in Consilience is an escape from the gloom and doom of the outside world and it does fix their marriage – sort of – and as they will both discover to their horror there is most definitely a catch.  And it’s a biggie.

The satire – if that’s’ what it is – truly kicks in when Charmaine and Stan enter Consilience.  It’s also the point where the novel, tonally and in terms of plot and character begins to falter.  Consilience was built around a prison and the contract that every residents agrees to on arrival is that each month they will alternate between working in the prison – as  a prisoner – and living as a civilian in the peaceful and idyllic community that makes up the rest of Consilience.  This is the Positron Project, the notion that people will give up their liberty for six months every year for the guarantee of safety and security.  It’s an interesting thought experiment, though sadly it’s not really the point of the novel.  It’s just a façade.  What funds Consilience is the sale of body parts and the manufacture of sex bots.  Charmaine is instrumental in the former – unbeknownst to Stan she’s extremely good at putting people to sleep – and Stan ends up dealing with the latter – as a reluctant hero, Stan’s attempt to escape Consilience and tell the truth of what happens there involves him seeing how the sexbots are built.

And throughout all this what becomes clear is that everyone in the novel is obsessed with fucking.  Whether it’s Charmaine enjoying the rough stuff with a mysterious stranger behind Stan’s back or Stan fantasting about a woman named Jasmine after he found a secret note from her under the fridge or Ed, the CEO of the Positron Project, who has the hots for Charmaine to the point that he has a robot copy made of her or Veronica, a once barmaid / prostitute who has had her neurons fiddled with and has now imprinted on a teddy bear that she constantly wants to fuck, sexual desire and the associated power dynamic seeps through every page.  The problem is that it’s handled in such a farcical and silly way that I stopped believing in Stan and Charmaine (or any character for that matter) as real people but rather the punchline to a very long and not particularly funny joke.  There was a point where I wondered whether all the sexual antics was Atwood’s way of commenting on the male gaze – Stan in particular spends most of his time lusting after women he can’t have – but that all went by the wayside when the action moves to Las Vegas, becomes a caper novel and features a multitude of Elvis and Marilyn impersonators and Atwood’s parody of the Blue Man Group.  The last nail in the coffin is when Charmaine goes through the same surgery as Veronica – she of the teddy bear fetish – and imprints on Stan, only to discover that she never actually had the operation and that her love for Stan must be true and pure after all.  At this point any sense of subtlety, commentary, critique, whatever has, to quote the great man, truly left the building.

I’m certain there will be people who will find this novel as both a wicked takedown of American culture – and possibly a glimpse of what the US would be like under a Trump Presidency – and hilarious to boot.  This year’s Kitschie judges certainly thought so, awarding The Heart Goes Last the Red tentacle for best novel.  But for me the broad comedy, the sexual shenanigans and the caricatures masquerading as people fell flat.  Sometimes, you’re just not in on the joke.

Apr 17

Week 15: Lots of Nominees, Exposition Sucks and Great World Building but Shame about the Story…

Books Read

Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

Updraft by Fran Wilde

Currently Reading 

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

(1)

The nominees for two major awards were announced this week.  The first was the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction:

  • Cynthia Bond: Ruby
  • Anne Enright: The Green Road
  • Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies
  • Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen
  • Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love
  • Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

Brief Observations

  1. I’ve read both the Yanagihara and the Enright.
  2. The Yanagihara has stuck with me months after finishing it (not literally, the book isn’t stapled to my clothing or anything) and yet I still wouldn’t describe it as a good book. I’m not upset though to see it nominated.  Even at it’s most frustrating, it’s always interesting.
  3. The Enright is fantastic novel. It’s about a Christmas family reunion and explores the deep marks and impressions that parents and upbringing leave on children.  Highly recommended.
  4. I’m looking forward to reading the McKenzie which I’ve heard many good things about. The McInerney has also piqued my interest.

The second set of nominees announced this week were the finalists for the Man Booker International Award:

  • A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker), José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola), Daniel Hahn (UK)
  • The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), Elena Ferrante (Italy), Ann Goldstein (USA)
  • The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith (UK)
  • A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), Ekin Oklap (Turkey)
  • A Whole Life (Picador), Robert Seethaler (Austria), Charlotte Collins (UK)
  • The Four Books (Chatto & Windus), Yan Lianke (China), Carlos Rojas (USA)

Brief Observations

  1. As I might have mentioned in a previous post, this is the first year that the Man Booker have treated translated works in the same way they treat novels written in English.  It’s a fantastic decision and will hopefully provide greater exposure to translated works.
  1. I don’t have much to say about the nominees because of ignorance on my part, but I was aware of the Han Kang and had it lined up to read. It’s also hard to avoid Elena Ferrante who has already made a significant impact in the English speaking market.  I won’t be reading The Story of the Lost Child, but rather the first book in the Neapolitan series – My Brilliant Friend.

(2)

We trap ourselves in habit.  And when I say “ourselves” I mean me.  Unless a novel is outright unreadable, so awful that the prose is one step above gibberish, I’ll keep churning through the book until I’ve turned the last page.  Intellectually I know the pressure to finish every novel I start is an obligation I’ve placed on myself.  But the habit is now baked into my DNA and feels impossible to break.

This compulsion to persevere with a work well after the novelty has worn off is the reason I finished Lawrence Schoen’s novel Barsk: The Elephant Graveyard.  It’s by no means an awful book.  The prose is serviceable and effort has clearly been spent on creating a detailed and somewhat layered empire of planets administered by sentient (or uplifted) animals.  There’s also potential in the novel’s big idea – nefshons, a particle attached to all living things that captures a person’s memories, attributes and identity.  An individual (or talking animal) with access to the right drug and some innate talent can gather together these nefshons and turn them into constructs of the people they were linked to.  It especially comes in handy if the person is dead, because nefshons just like energy can’t be totally destroyed (though they do fade over time).

Unfortunately the novel’s spark of invention is submerged in scads and scads of exposition.  Whether it’s characters explaining the plot to each other or whether it’s Schoen spelling out how nefshons work for what feels like the hundredth time, narrative progression and character development is stifled until it becomes impossible to give a shit about the oppressed talking elephants and an ambiguous prophecy that might lead to their salvation.  It’s not that all exposition is bad, or that authors should avoid it at all costs.  I’m one of those guys who loves it when Stephen King drifts into a tangent about a feature of Castle Rock that has fuck all to do with the overall plot.  But when the prose struggles to rise beyond that meat and potatoes style that Analog has made famous over the last 50 years, than exposition, especially the type that describes character motivation and then repeats that motivation in dialogue, is an antidote to entertainment.  I blame myself of course.  I should have been strong enough to break the pattern and realise that while Barsk isn’t a disaster of a novel, it’s simply not worth my time.

(3)

What made N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season such a great read is how Jemisin beautifully marries together both world building and plot.  Not only is their depth to the environment she depicts but the story that goes with it is surprising and wonderfully structured.  With Updraft Fran Wilde gets one of these things right and the other less so.

Updraft is set on an unnamed world where the populace live in towers made from bone that rise high above the clouds.  Unsurprisingly there’s really only two ways to travel, either via bridges strung between a selection of the towers or by strapping on a pair of wings and flying.  Kirit, a denizen of tower Densira, is desperately looking forward to passing her wingtest so she can work side by side with her famous mother and trade goods between the towers and other bone cities that make up this world.  And that’s how it might have worked out if Kirit’s unique ability to control the dreaded, vicious sky mouths with just her voice hadn’t drawn the attention of the ruling élite – the Singers who live in The Spire and who administer the city with a heavy – one might say totalitarian – hand.

As that description might suggest the highlight of Updraft is the world building.  Wilde beautifully captures the splendour, exhilaration and fear that comes from flying unprotected, prey to the ever-changing wind and the lurking threat of the sky mouths.  More importantly though, she considers how a society that has no access to dirt, to fertile land, might survive.  And it’s this idea of scarcity that proves to be a constant presence throughout the novel, not only in the way it gives the world depth but also how it motivates Kirit as she uncovers some disturbing truths behind the Singers and The Spire.

However, as original and breathtaking as the world is, the actual story – the emergence of Kirit’s vocal talent, her reluctance to join the Singers, her training at the Spire, her eventual attempt to overthrow a corrupt regime – is a series of plot beats we’ve seen a thousands time before.  The first third of the novel is frustratingly devoted to Kirit doing everything in her limited power to avoid being sent to The Spire.  This is inspite of the fact that it will be clear to the reader 10 pages in that no matter what she does, the Spire is exactly where she’s headed.  The middle of the novel deals with Kirit’s training as a Singer.  As we’ve come to expect when an individual with a unique, but raw, ability is sent elsewhere to hone their power, Kirit’s tutelage involves the usual amount of borderline abuse, bullying and jealousy.  Finally, in the tradition of so many other young adult dystopian novels, Kirit almost single-handedly overthrows the current regime.  OK, she does have help but there’s something predictable and ordinary in how quickly she becomes the rallying cry for a revolution.

As much as I liked the unique world on display in Updraft, the by the numbers plot has soured me from picking up the sequel.

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