May 26

Book Review – Rupetta by Nike Sulway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four hundred years ago, in a small town in rural France, a young woman creates the future in the shape of Rupetta. Part mechanical, part human, Rupetta’s consciousness is tied to the women who wind her. In the years that follow she is bought and sold, borrowed, forgotten and revered. By the twentieth century, the Rupettan four-fold law rules everyone’s lives, but Rupetta—the immortal being on whose existence and history those laws are based—is the keeper of a secret that will tear apart the world her followers have built in her name. 

This stunning new novel by award-winning Australian writer Nike Sulway invokes the great tradition of European fantasy/horror fiction and moves it forward in a superbly imaginative, highly original fashion.

Rupetta won the 2013 Tiptree award and was nominated for an Aurealis in the science fiction category.  You only need to read the first few pages of the book to understand why it gained critical attention.  Beginning with the Foreword, Rupetta – who shares the book’s narrative with the historian Henri – tells us that:

I have known loss for centuries.  I have borne the deaths of each of my companions, both dear and tolerated.  I have lost families, loves, houses, villages.  Whole cities, whole nations, have grown and decayed while I persisted.  I have seen rivers change their course, mountains beaten down into hills, oceans swell and subside, seeds grow into great trees only to fall and die and rot.  And yet this loss – the loss of one child – this loss I cannot bear.

If I were human I would weep.

It’s epic and it’s personal and it sets the scene of what’s to come – both in terms of the story and the quality of the writing.  Echoing the intricate cogs and wheels that make up Rupetta’s heart, there’s something both beautiful and meticulous about the prose.  As if each word has been carefully checked and polished to ensure it fits with the word that comes before it and the one that comes after.

But while it’s a delight to read, I never truly engaged with Rupetta’s or Henri’s story.  The writing is evocative but also very earnest, lacking a sense of humour.  The subject matter – twisted faith and historical truth, power and subjugation –  doesn’t lend itself to a slap and a laugh.  But that means that Rupetta and Henri feel one note, always serious even when they’re falling in love.

I also didn’t entirely believe in the world that Sulway has created.  Its antecedents are clearly in steampunk, Rupetta is a clockwork automaton who becomes sentient.  The added wrinkle is that her clockwork heart needs to be wound by someone who has an intimate and psychic bond with her.  Neither Rupetta’s sentience nor the psychic link is adequately explained, we’re asked to take them on face value.  And yet it’s a process that can be replicated to some degree as the privileged few are granted the possible gift of immortality with the replacement of their organic heart with a clockwork facsimile.  Given that people don’t drop dead after the operation, and they seem to live longer lives, I can only assume that whatever magic brought Rupetta into being also plays a role in the Transformation.  I just wish this had been better explained.

But maybe I’m being pedantic and anal.  This isn’t really a book about the science of Rupetta.  Rather it’s an exploration and critique of the religion and culture that has formed since her re-discovery.  The books strength – especially in the first half – is understanding the role a reluctant Rupetta played in the radical development of her society.  What’s interesting here is how Rupetta’s story is at odds with the ‘historical’ truth that’s been built around her – something that Henri becomes aware of.  It’s this conflict between truth and faith that drives the themes and plot of the story.

What I also found refreshing – and what I’m sure caught the eye of the Tiptree judges – is the central role that strong, empowered women of different ideologies and backgrounds play in the formation of their society.  It’s a woman, Eloise, that builds Rupetta.  It’s a woman that re-discovers Rupetta after she’s been left unwound and forgotten.  That same woman, Kamila, introduces the Fourfold Rupettan Law.  And its courageous women, forced to live in the nooks and crannies of their society, who fight against those who slavishly uphold the Fourfold Law.

However, while I can acknowledge the books strengths and appreciate why it’s won and been nominated for awards, at the end of it all, the novel never entirely worked for me.  I should have been more engaged with Rupetta’s tale and Henri’s search for the truth.  And yet more often than not I found my attention drifting.

May 13

Book Review – The Martian by Andy Weir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit–he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Originally self published in 2012, Andy Weir’s The Martian took the Amazon world by storm when it sold 35,000 copies in three months.  Not surprisingly it caught the interest of the big publishers, with Random House releasing the novel earlier this year.  A film option soon followed. And, going by the lavish praise afforded to the book on the interwebs, it’s likely to hit a number of best of lists at the end of the year.

I can absolutely see why.  Not only does it have real science, but it’s also a story about survival, about human ingenuity, about refusing to give up against all odds.  It’s uplifting, it’s positive, it’s thrilling and it’s an antidote to all that ‘message fic’ published by left wing New York publishers. And then there’s good old Mark Watney, our affable hero whose machismo and engineering skills and distrust of authority makes him the perfect example of Heinlein’s competent man.  It’s Mark Watney who gives us such classic observation as:

The lunatics at NASA have me doing all kinds of rape to the MAV…

or

If Commander Lewis were here, I’d do whatever she said, no problem. But a committee of faceless bureaucrats back on Earth? Sorry, I’m just having a tough time with it

or

NASA: By the way, the name of the probe we’re sending is “Iris”. Named after the Greek goddess who traveled the heavens with the speed of wind. She’s also the goddess of rainbows.                                                                                     WATNEY: Gay probe coming to save me. Got it.

What a top bloke!  And we get to spend a good chunk of the novel with him.

Interestingly Weir is unable to sustain the entire book through Watney’s diary entries.  About a quarter of the way through we’re introduced to the NASA officials and technicians trying to save Watney.  It has the effect of killing the tension because rather than experience Watney’s uncertainty – do NASA know I’m still alive?  Are they coming to help me? – the reader is spoon fed what’s going on.  It was a much more interesting novel – though not necessarily a good one – when we were restricted to Watney’s world view.

The Martian is not a terrible novel.  As a piece of storytelling, it’s definitely engaging.  You might think Mark Watney is a dicksplash and you might get bored with all the American exceptionalism or the fact that NASA seems populated by clichéd aspergery geeks who make constant references to Lord of The Rings and other geekery, but to Weir’s credit this is a book that you can zip through.  Ultimately though it’s forgettable fluff.  A nice idea let down by clichéd characters and inability to follow through with the central idea of the novel.

May 01

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a difficult book to review.

It’s a sentiment I’ve seen echoed by a number of critics caught between the rock of wanting to tease and unpack the novel’s thematic layers and the hard place of not wanting to give away the book’s major revelation.  I appreciate the conundrum.  This is a novel that’s been manufactured and molded around its twist.  Not in a O’Henry, thriller sort of way – OH MY GOD THE KID WAS TALKING TO A DEAD GUY ALL ALONG!!!! – but in how the themes come together once this important puzzle piece is revealed.

That said, a reluctance to spoil Fern’s identity is not the reason why I found it so tough to organise my thoughts about the book.  Conflicting emotions kept getting in the way of the criticism.  I certainly loved the novel.  If I’d read it in 2013, it’s year of publication, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves would have been my favorite book of the year.  But it’s also a book that made me so very angry; especially once it’s revealed that Fern is a chimpanzee, and that her parents decided to bring up their infant daughter, Rosemary, and Fern together as part of an animal human behavior experiment.  Who the fuck does that?!  Was the question I kept asking.  What sort of arrogant selfish parents think it’s a good idea to raise their child with a chimpanzee?!

As a newish father (four years and counting) I know that parenthood is a tough gig.  And that’s when you have a reasonably healthy, normal (whatever that means) child.  You know that every decision you make, ranging from what you feed them to whether you go back to work and send them to daycare, is going to affect their burgeoning personalities and minds.  Because as they’re soaking it in, they can’t helped but be influenced by your decisions.

And fuck me if that isn’t the scariest thing about being a parent.  Destroying your child’s potential because of a stupid decision you made.

As I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I grew increasingly angry because it never seems to occur to the Cooke’s that this decision to bring Fern into their family was going to have lifelong consequences for both their children.  Infant Rosemary and their young, idealistic son Lowell.  Even if Rosemary’s recollection of events isn’t entirely clear, and even if she’s spending a good chunk of the novel trying to come to terms with the truth and her own identity, it seems evident that the Cooke’s sacrificed her potential and the health and well being of Fern for what might be gained from a psychological experiment.

And then… then Fowler does something to gut me completely.  The book, I should say, never feels like a polemic against animal experimentation.  Obviously Fowler. through Rosemary, is not supportive of the practice, but there’s a sense that those who experimented with primates, who did psychological experiments like the Cooke’s, loved the animals as much as their own children, and never wanted either to come to harm.  Yes, the lasting message of the book is that animal experimentation is something that as a society we should avoid at all costs.  But Fowler’s novel isn’t in the mood to point fingers and rant.  It’s much smarter than that.

And it’s with that context that I return back to the bit that gutted me.  Toward the end of the novel we hear from Rosemary’s mother, a person who is slowly making amends with her daughter.  And this is what she says:

We’d been talking about raising a chimpanzee for several years.  All very theoretical. I’d always said I wouldn’t have a chimp taken from its mother. I’d always said it had to be a chimp with nowhere else to go. I kind of thought that would be the end of that. I got pregnant with you and we stopped talking about it.

And then we heard about Fern. Some friends of some friends bought her from poachers at a market in Cameroon, because they hoped we’d want her. They said she was all but dead at the time, just as limp as a rag, and filthy, streaked with diarrhea and covered in fleas. They didn’t expect her to live, but they couldn’t bear to walk away and leave her.  She was listless and uninterested in things. Whenever I saw that she was awake, I’d talk to her, but she hardly seemed to notice. I worried that she wasn’t healthy, after all. Or not very bright. Or so traumatized that she’d never recover.

Still, that was the week she took hold of my heart. She was so little and so alone in the world. So frightened and sad. And so much like a baby. So much like you, only with a lot of suffering added. I told your dad I didn’t see how the two of you could be compared when your world had been so gentle and hers so cruel. But there was no turning back by then. I was deeply in love with you both.

It’s not just that the Cooke’s had thought of the possible consequences of what they were doing, it’s that they saw Fern, and they saw how damaged she was and they wanted to help.  They wanted to make her better.  And they genuinely thought they could.  Maybe a naive belief on their part, and yet a decision made completely from love.  Yes, I cried.  But then it’s that sort of book, one that triggers profound, slightly frightening emotions, the sort that are never easy to confront.  Complicated and conflicted but so beautifully written, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel that might be difficult to review but is well worth reading.

Apr 20

I’ve been nominated for a bleeping Hugo Award and other thoughts

At about 5:30 this morning Melbourne, while I slumbered innocently, the Hugo Award nominations for 2014 were announced.  The full list is here.  I could sleep because, as Jonathan Strahan pointed out on an episode of Coode Street a few weeks back, Hugo nominees are made aware of their nomination (so they can confirm and approve) a week before.  So I’ve been yaaaaaying and giggling for a good seven days.  The only thing that has tempered my excitement is the fact that Joshi, Sophie and Jules have all been sick.  And I’m sure I’m next on the list.

Anywho, as I said on Facebook I’m extremely proud about the nomination.  Well, of course I am.  Since I became aware of fandom and the Hugos more than twenty years ago I’ve wanted to be on the ballot.  In those dreams I saw myself winning Best Novel for a multi-book series about the Victorian public service.  And magic.  The fact that I’ve come to be nominated with my BFF Kirstyn for a project that we both dearly love puts those wild, impossible fantasies to shame.  (Though I’m still convinced that stories about an enchanted Victorian public service are a winner!)

So yeah.  I know have a Hugo PIN.  I’ll be wearing the shit out that little rocket.  Even if my co-workers do think it looks like a penis.

As for the rest of the ballot.  Some thoughts:

  1. The Best Fan Writer category shines a bright piercing light on the rest of the ballot.  After so many years of complaining and grizzling about the lack of representation of women and online fan writers, the day has finally arrived.  Four women on the ballot and all five are online writers.  I personally nominated Foz and Abigail, but also love Liz and Kameron’s work.  I’m not as aware of Oshiro’s output, but I hear good things.  It’s a shame that only one person can win this category.  Unless they all tie!  Yes!  Let’s engineer that!
  2. Talking about engineering results, while I don’t believe that Correia or Day cheated the system by getting their dead granny to nominate them, they certainly engineered their fanbase to by whipping up their support in a pre Hugo frenzy.  But as Nick Mamatas foreshadowed, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Correia and Day are not the only writers who’ve spent months mobilising their fanbase to nominate them.  And they won’t be the last.
  3. I am genuinely shocked that Neil Gaiman did not appear on the Best Novel ballot.  I thought he was a monty to feature and win.  Could this be a residual effect from the Jonathan Ross debacle?
  4. Of the best novel category – I’m with those who think it’s ridiculous to have The Wheel of Time on the ballot.  Yes, I know it’s within the rules.  But come on!  If the rules can be perverted in this way, where a category has four apples compared to one massive pear, then there’s something fundamentally broken with those rules.  That said, I still think that Ancillary Justice will win the Hugo.  Or maybe that’s just hope on my part – because it’s not the most inspiring Best Novel ballot.
  5. On Fancast, lovely to see that Australian rule!  Coode Street and Galactic Suburbia continue to produce top quality work.  Coode Street’s recent interviews have been marvelous (the one with Nnedi is a highlight) and the recent Galactic Suburbia podcast on Veronica Mars is an example of the passion and love those guys bring to their podcast.  Also very happy to see Verity and the Skiffy and Fanty show make an appearance on the ballot.  I was on an episode of S/F and I can say that Shaun, Jen and Julia are a blast to podcast with.  I’ve never heard of Tea and Jeopardy (more shame me) but I shall check it out.
  6. Best Fanzine is also an example of Hugo’s finally reflecting the transition from old skool fanzines to the online variety.  The Book Smugglers, A Dribble of Ink and Pornokitsch are must read sites.
  7. If I don’t read Larry Correia’s Best Novel nomination it’s not because of what I think of his online presence.  It’s because it’s the third book in a series.
  8. I do intend to read Day’s novelette (if it’s in the Hugo pack).  Assuming I read any of the short fiction categories.  It will depend on time.
  9. On short fiction, congrats to Cat Valente who is simply brilliant.  And to Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages who also very much deserve their nom.
  10. I’ll be cheering on Jonathan Strahan for best editor short form.  The same goes for Sofia Samatar who I’m so happy to see get a John W Campbell nom.  (I should read Max Gladstone though.  And I’ll be reading Wesley Chu in the next couple of months).
  11. Oh and Strange Horizons for best Semi-Prozine.  Coz it’s an indispensable resource.
  12. Also, Fiona Staples.  YAY!

I’ve run out of puff.  It’s only 9:30 in the morning and I have to dress the kids and wipe my daughter’s snotty nose (where does that stuff come from?).  But I am so very happy. THANK YOU to everyone who nominated Kirstyn and I.

Apr 08

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.

The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

At first glance, there’s something refreshing and a little bit exciting about Helene Wecker’s debut novel.  Partly it’s the innovative move of having a female Golem, something I’ve never seen done before.  And partly it’s having the Golem meet a Jinni in early 20th Century New York, both of them well and truly outside their comfort zones.  And finally it’s Wecker’s beguiling writing style, almost fairytale in quality, that pulls you through the narrative.

Dig a bit deeper though and you discover the novel lacks substance.  While I loved the idea of Wecker exploring two very different cultures through the eyes of the Golem and the Jinni, the actual representation of those cultures rang false.  Wecker may have been drawing on her own Jewish background and her husband’s Arab / American heritage, but in the service of a rip roaring, page turning read, she falls back on caricature and stereotype.  Whether it’s the kindly old Rabbi with a heart of gold, or the earnest, hard working tinsmith, or the owner of the local coffee shop who knows everyone and is in everyone’s business, or the socialist who tries so hard to do the right thing, these characters feel like they’ve been cut and pasted from the latest Disney animation.

Wecker’s take on Jewish mysticism also feels like it’s been given the Disney treatment.  Although there’s much debate in orthodox Jewish circles as to whether the Maharal of Prague actually created a Golem in the 16th Century (to ostensibly stop pogroms and blood libels), in the world of the Golem and the Jinni, animating clay is something any rabbinical student can do with a little bit of knowledge.  Added to that is the laughable idea that Rabbi’s have hidden texts – for all intents and purposes spell books – that they keep away from prying eyes.  Yes, the Kabbalah (which is only referenced twice in the novel) and books like the Sefer Yetzirah talk about the manipulation of reality and the notion of sod, secret and esoteric knowledge hidden from all but the most learned, but the role of mysticism in Jewish culture is far more complex than the magic spell and formula treatment that Wecker provides.

I’m in no position to question whether Wecker’s take on the Jinni and Arabic folklore is accurate.  There’s obviously a push back against the popular culture view of the Genie that grants wishes, and making the Jinni a “fiery” character seems logical given its environment.  But for all I know the same problem of simplification exists.

That said, if you’re willing to forgive the book its Disneyfication of Jewish and Arabic culture, you can admire Wecker’s handling of both the Golem and the Jinni.  There is something genuine and real in how both Chava and Ahmad approach and explore their new environment and their burgeoning friendship.  In particular their sense of loneliness, even when they find each other, gives the novel its emotional core.

It’s also interesting that while the other characters refer to them as Chava and Ahmad, Wecker always labels them as the Golem and the Jinni.  It’s a reminder that they will always be outsiders; and while it’s a little depressing, I credit Wecker for not falling into the trap of trying to humanize either character.  This is not the story of Pinocchio.  Being human – at least in the context of this story – is not something the Golem and the Jinni aspire to.

Unfortunately, once the plot kicks into gear about two thirds of the way through, much of the nuance around the Golem and Jinni’s relationship, including where they fit in the great scheme of things, gets lost in a battle of good and evil, wizards and magic spells, evil laughter and evil schemes.  In other words all a bit Disney.  Which is a shame because in amongst the caricatures and the broad cultural strokes, we have a quirky and unique love story about a Golem and a Jinni.

Apr 01

Book Review – The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata

Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for. To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)

There’s a point, just before the halfway mark of The Red: First Light, where it looks like Nagata is about to pull the rug out from underneath the reader.  What starts off as your average military SF novel, with a side order of cynicism, suddenly shifts gear.  Our hero, Lieutenant Shelley, is ordered to meet with defence contractor, power broker and arms dealer Thelma Sheridan.  She says to him:

You are being used, Lieutenant.  For what purpose remains unclear, but there is a force at large in the world interfering in the affairs of Man.  We built its house, when we built the Cloud.  Now it moves among us, bleeding through every conflict, every transaction, watching, manipulating – and it does not have our best interests in mind.

Soon after this meeting with Sheridan, there’s speculation that this same force – an emerging AI – may be using a reality TV show about Shelley and his Unit to influence the thoughts of the millions watching the series.

For a just a moment it seems that Nagata is going to dispense with the ‘Military’ and focus on the SF as she narrows in on the idea of an emergent AI using the media and the narrative of reality TV to influence the population.

But that thread never really goes anywhere.  Yes, the Red – as the AI is referred to – is a constant presence throughout the rest of the novel, a sort of dues ex machina that pops in and out of the plot when required, but the philosophical crunchiness of an accidental AI manipulating the populace through the press and reality TV shows, is lost in all the shooting and righteousness and nuclear explosions.  In other words, after a brief hiatus the Military SF switch is flicked back to ‘on’ and what could have been a brave shift in focus becomes a hum drum shoot em up, damsels in distress included.

If you enjoy MilSF – and there’s a certainly an audience out there if Baen’s publication history is anything to go by – then I’m sure you’ll find The Red: First Light entertaining.  Nagata’s clean, almost transparent prose, means the novel is a quick read.  But for me this Nebula nominated novel is a disappointment.  There’s the enticing hint of another, more interesting, book just under the surface that sadly never breaks past the trappings of the sub genre.  I wanted more.  But maybe I was always the wrong audience.

Mar 25

Book Review – In the Mouth of Whale by Paul McAuley

Fomalhaut was first colonised by the posthuman Quick, who established an archipelago of thistledown cities and edenic worldlets within the star’s vast dust belt. Their peaceful, decadent civilisation was swiftly conquered by a band of ruthless, aggressive, unreconstructed humans who call themselves the True, then, a century before, the True beat back an advance party of Ghosts, a posthuman cult which colonised the nearby system of Beta Hydri after being driven from the Solar System a thousand years ago. Now the Ghosts have returned to Fomalhaut, to begin their end game: the conquest of its single gas giant planet, a captured interstellar wanderer far older than the rest of Fomalhaut’s system. At its core is a sphere of hot metallic hydrogen with strange and powerful properties based on exotic quantum physics. The Quick believe it is inhabited by an ancient alien Mind; the True believe it can be developed into a weapon, and the Ghosts believe it can be transformed into a computational system so powerful it can reach into their past, collapse timelines, and fulfil the ancient prophecies of their founder.

There’s no doubt that In The Mouth of The Whale is more engaging and entertaining read then it’s two predecessors, but it’s also a lot less satisfying.  Given my problems with both The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun – at times they read more like technical manuals then novels – I could be accused of hypocrisy.

But while The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun drove me crazy with their endless descriptions of space plants and space engineering, the imagination on display was, at times, breathtaking.  McAuley’s idea of how humanity might shape itself to deal with environmental and social change both at home and in the outer reaches of the solar system not only had a ring of truth about it but also evoked a genuine sense of wonder, even if my eyes did glaze over at times.

Set more than a thousand years after the events of the previous two novels I was genuinely excited by what McAuley might imagine as the future for post-humanity.  And while the first chapter is intriguing, with lines like: So the Child, our dear mother, twice dead, twice reborn, dreams herself towards her destiny, when we move to Fomalhaut (a star 25 light years from Earth) it all becomes a bit humdrum.  There’s nothing abjectly wrong with the separate tales of Ori and the Librarian, they just lack the spark of imagination that made reading The Quiet War and The Gardens of the Sun a worthwhile experience.

For example, while Ori’s people, The Quick, have been enslaved by The True she has dreams and ambitions that go well beyond her station.  When her desires become clear to her fellow compatriots they feel the need to put Ori in her place leading to the sort of earnest and unsubtle pontification you’d expect to hear from Mr Carson on Downton Abbey:

We were made to serve the Trues, and that’s what we do,” Inas said.  “And we do it gladly.  And because the Trues made us, Ori, they don’t think of us as people.  We are their tools, with no more rights to independence than any of their machines.  They can send any one of us on the crew anywhere, without explanation or warning. And we obey them because that’s what we must do.  Not because the only alternative is the long drop, but because it is our duty, and nothing else matters.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the depressing point McAuley is making – that conquering and enslavement of those weaker than us is in our nature, that no matter how advanced we become we will fall back on the well worn grooves of our past actions.  This is further reinforced by the feudal society that the Trues have developed, almost medieval in nature, with certain families holding sway and power.  But it’s not a very interesting argument.  Not because it’s pessimistic, but because in terms of world building and imagining a future society, it seems like the obvious choice, to argue that humans will be humans.  I expected something crunchier from the guy who wrote The Quiet War.

The second story involving The Librarian, Isak, has an epic fantasy / cyberpunk vibe that wouldn’t feel out of place in the 1980s.  There’s a quest for something vague and mysterious and a battle against demons in numerous virtual realities.  It’s, at times, genuinely exciting and engaging but only because it all feels so familiar.

If there’s any originality to be found in In The Mouth of The Whale it’s with the third narrative, a story of a child living in Brazil at a time three or so decades before the events of The Quiet War.  This section gives us an insight into the upbringing of Sri Hong Owen – a major player in the first two novels.  We soon discover that these historical interludes are not entirely accurate, that they’re being cobbled together by a mysterious third party with an agenda of its own.  Here McAuley critiques the way we all revise history, how we manipulate and change it for our needs, to justify our actions of the present and future.

 

In the end, though, I couldn’t help but feel disappointing by In The Mouth of The Whale.  There were times that I found myself wanting just a bit more space engineering if it meant evoking a sense of wonder.

Mar 19

Initial Thoughts on the Clarke Shortlist

On reflection (also known as thinking about these things on the bus on my way to work) I’ve decided that the recently announced Clarke Award shortlist is an excellent example Science Fiction’s diversity – both in who writes SF (gender, cultural) and the type of stories that are told.  As Nina Allan notes:

If there’s a unifying theme to this year’s shortlist, it’s that the six shortlisted works are all genre SF – no Ozeki, Atwood, Crumey, Theroux or Eggers this time around. But these are far from conventional choices, and they’re all quite different from each other, too. We have a techno-thriller, a far-future space opera, a near-future psychodrama, a work of philosophical eco-SF, an almost-New-Weird war story, and a many-worlds quantum love story.

As for the nominees, I’m stoked to see The Machine and The Adjacent on the ballot (the links take you to my reviews of both novels).  I’m also very happy to see Ancillary Justice – a book that’s likely to feature on a few more ballots before the year is out.  My conversation with Kirstyn about the novel in the latest episode of Writer and The Critic has given me a deeper appreciation of the book.

I’m especially looking forward to reading God’s War by Kameron Hurley.  In spite or maybe because of all the hype, it slipped by me back in 2011.  Another book that registered on my radar but which I never got around to reading was Nexus by Ramez Naam. The only book I’m a little suspicious of is The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann simply because people whose taste I respect don’t seem to like it much.

By the end of next month I’ll have a clearer picture of the six books chosen by the Clarke judges.  Personally I’d love to have seen books by Ozeki and Crumey on the ballot but as it stands I can vouch for the high quality of 3 out of the 6 books.  And that’s not a bad beginning at all.

Mar 18

Book Review – Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

If FSG Originals had approached me for a front or back cover quote for Annihilation I would have provided them with something like this:

Annihilation is a wonderful paradox of a novel, something that feels familiar but is totally unique.

OK, maybe not the sort of sentiment that would sell the book but it does sum up my feelings toward this the first in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.  Annihilation is a novel that provokes comparison with other similar work.  At different stages I was reminded of Lovecraft, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and the freakier episodes of Lost (I’d also note Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers but I haven’t read it).  At the same time, though, Annihilation never felt like a grab bag of other people’s ideas

You only have to look at VanderMeer’s publishing history – the novel’s he’s written and the anthologies he’s co-edited with his wife Anne – to know that he has a deep, academic appreciation of all things Weird fiction.  He’s also one of the major proponents of the New Weird.  Annihilation probably falls outside the New Weird paradigm – although you could argue that Area X is as much a secondary world as Ambergris, just less populated – though it’s very much steeped in the Weird tradition, especially cosmic horror.

What makes it feel so new and fresh – even if the antecedents are as clear as day – is how VanderMeer plays around with and subverts traditional tropes.  Yes, structurally Annihilation feels Lovecraftian – a first person point of view, the tale transcribed in a journal – but instead of the genteel American going slowly insane, VanderMeer’s protagonist is a woman who never really loses her sanity, even if she is infected by Area X.

While the Biologist is never named, as if to elevate her functionality over her humanity, VanderMeer goes to great lengths to humanize her.  A good example, ironically  is the story of why she became a biologist:

My lodestone, the place I always thought of when people ask me why I became a biologist, was the overgrown swimming pool in the backyard of the rented house where I grew up…

[My parents] did not have the will or inclination to clean the kidney-shaped pool, even though it was fairly small.  Soon after we moved in, the grass around its edges grew long.  Sedge weeds and other towering plants became prevalent.  The short buses lining the fence around the pool lunged up to obscure the chain link… Dragonflies continually scouted the area.  Bullfrogs moved in, the wriggling malformed dots of their tadpoles always present.  Water gliders and aquatic beetles began to make the place their own.  Rather than get rid of my thirty gallon freshwater aquarium as my parents wanted, I dumped the fish into the pool, and some survived the shock of that.  Local bird, like herons and egrets began to appear, drawn by the frogs and the fish and insects.  By some miracle too, small turtles began to live in the pool, although I had no idea how they had gotten there.

It’s a long quote, I know, but it’s beautiful and bittersweet – you can’t help but smile wistfully at the line about the turtles – and most of all it grounds the character, explains to us that her function is also her passion.

The novel is full of character moments like this, culminating in the Biologists reason for coming to Area X in the first place.  Her husband was on the previous expedition, and when he came back home – under mysterious circumstances – there was something different about him.  In one of the more chilling passages we’re told:

I found my husband next to the refrigerator, still dressed in his expedition clothes, drinking milk until it flowed down his chin and neck.  Eating leftovers furiously.

Shortly after this the husband is taken away and eventually dies from a cancer that he contracted, presumably, during the expedition.  But it’s not only a search for answers that motivates the Biologist to join the next expedition.  In spite of a strained relationship with her husband – it “had been thready for a while” – she goes searching for him believing that somehow he is still out there.  It’s this sense of love and hope (realistic or otherwise) that propels the story.

Don’t get me wrong, the traditional elements, the bits that remind you of Lovecraft and the Strugatsky brothers, are very well handled.  While not as scary as House of Leaves, Annihilation does have its creepy moments; the discovery of the journals is one particular revelation that got under my skin.  And VanderMeer has nailed that sense of cosmic wrongness with Area X and its fungus and its underground tower, its walls scrawled with text, and its lighthouse, the site of a pitched battle against unknown forces.

But the mystery of Area X is never the focus of the novel.  Foremost, Annihilation is a journey of discovery, of love and hope and destiny, for a woman known only by her function but who we realise is so much more.

Mar 12

Book Review – Wolves by Simon Ings

Augmented Reality uses computing power to overlay a digital imagined reality over the real world. Whether it be adverts or imagined buildings and imagined people with Augmented Reality the world is no longer as it appears to you, it is as it is imagined by someone else. Ings takes the satire and mordant satirical view of J.G. Ballard and propels it into the 21st century.

Two friends are working at the cutting edge of this technology and when they are offered backing to take the idea and make it into the next global entertainment they realise that wolves hunt in this imagined world. And the wolves might be them.

A story about technology becomes a personal quest into a changed world and the pursuit of a secret from the past. A secret about a missing mother, a secret that could hide a murder. This is no dry analysis of how a technology might change us, it is a terrifying thriller, a picture of a dark tomorrow that is just around the corner

I’m going to cheat this time around and point you to two excellent reviews of Wolves.  Together they sum up my feelings toward the novel which, in short, I found difficult to engage with, pointlessly misogynistic, poorly paced and structured and yet featuring some of the best writing I’ve read in some time.  Those reviews are by Martin Lewis on the Strange Horizon website and one that featured on the Bookmunch website (it’s not clear who wrote it).

Lewis’ exploration of the books misogyny clarified an uneasiness I had with the main protagonist, Conrad:

This uncertain phasing between artist and text is most troubling when it comes to the representation of women. For the most part they are entirely absent but, when they do manage to press through onto the page, they are always seen through the filter of Conrad’s misogyny. This is first signaled when, amongst the beauty and power of the prose of the establishing scenes, we are confronted by a weird and unflattering parody of the Greenham Common protests. When Conrad goes to visit his mum at an anti-war camp, he discovers a pack of sub-human earth mothers:

There were women all around me, hidden, hissing at me. They were squatting in benders made from old tent canvas. They were crouching in teepees and yurts and behind screens of dead branches. They were hiding in nettle patches, hunkered down there like animals. (p. 55)

A decade later, after fucking Michel’s girlfriend the first time he meets her, he reflects: “She is the most beautiful thing I have taken to bed in my life” (p. 87). It is as concise a distillation of objectification and ownership as you are going to get. The only other time we see him have sex with a woman, she is a prostitute who uses Augmented Reality technology to render herself literally faceless. The scene ends with her banging on the toilet door, demanding that Conrad lets her in so she can have a shit. These encounters are all seen from Conrad’s perspective but they are all situations that Ings has engineered. They are also all too on the nose to be anything less than intentional but I can’t fathom what the intention is beyond the obvious.

While I think Bookmuch provides a perfect summary of the books overall strengths –

 There are exhilarating set pieces - when Conrad is attempting to dispose of his mother’s body, for instance – and moments that feel true, that reveal Ings’ persuasive instinct for human behaviour – I’m thinking of the stormy night on which Conrad and Hanna come together, betrayal offset by the pleasures of sex; it is at these times when Ings is like no-one so much as Rupert Thomson.

– and faults:

In many ways, Wolves feels like a novel that is deafened on its own feedback. In some respects, it is just about the busiest novel I’ve ever read; in others, it seems stitched together from gaps and patches. There are too many words on some things and nowhere near enough on others. It feels like a book in which crucial chapters have been omitted and extended early drafts in need of pruning have been inserted.

I doubt I’d recommend Wolves.  I think the novels problems outweigh the flashes of brilliance.  But I’d certainly read another book by Ings.

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