Mar 05

The Kitschies announce their winners

Before I’ve had time to read the finalists, the winners of the Kitschies have been announced.  This is an award that doesn’t muck around given that the shortlist was published less than a month ago.  Not that I’m complaining (well. not much anyway) as the year wears on I’m expecting that this will occur more often.  In anycase, the full list of winners can be found here.  Specifically, the winners of the categories I’ll be reading are below:

The Red Tentacle (Novel), judged by Kate Griffin, Adam Roberts, Frances Hardinge, Kim Curran, and Glen Mehn:

The Golden Tentacle (Debut), also judged by the above panel:

Congratulations to both Andrew Smith and Hermione Eyre.

Mar 03

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

What’s It About

Five scouts and their scoutmaster are spending a weekend on a deserted island enjoying scout-related shenanigans when a strange man collapses outside their cabin all sick and wasted away.  Things go quickly from weird, to upsetting, to get me off this fucking island right the FUCK now! as the scouts discover that the man has been infected with a vicious strain of evil, mutated tapeworm.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely not!

But come on, I hear you say, its Lord of the Flies meets the Invasion of the Evil Tapeworm and that’s gotta be gory, intestinal fun!  And maybe it would have been if Cutter had played up the B-Movie aspect of the plot.  Instead we get a straight down the line horror novel, that takes the issue of intestinal tapeworms and genetic experimentation very seriously.  And, again, even this might have worked if the fives boys were anything more than just characters that ticked boxes – the jock, the nerd, the sociopath, the misunderstood rebel, the quiet one.

The book is readable – a mix of short narrative chapters, court transcripts, newspaper articles and police interviews – but there’s no fun or scares to be had here.

Representative Paragraph

Crabs a la goo:

There! Skittering along, its exoskeleton glossed in the moonlight. A sand crab. His hand closed over it—its ocean-coldness wept into his flesh—and stuffed it between his lips. He felt it dancing along his tongue with its hairy little legs. He bit down. A gout of salty goo squirted in his mouth. Its pincer snipped the tip of his tongue in a death spasm, bringing the penny-bright taste of blood; he swallowed the twitching bits convulsively, the spiny exoskeleton tearing into the soft tissues of his throat—which felt so thin now, nothing but a fleshy drainpipe, the skin stretched tight as crepe paper over his esophageal tube.

Commentary

The Troop is the second mutated intestinal tapeworm novel I’ve read in 12 months.  The first was Mira Grant’s Hugo nominated Parasite.  If I happen to read a third (and please God may this not occur) I’ll be calling tapeworms the new zombies.

Both Grant and Cutter have taken the issue of mutated intestinal tapeworms very seriously, the sort of serious that ranks right up there with global warming, inflation vs deflation and peak oil.  Personally, the threat of being possessed or sucked dry by a tapeworm has never pricked my consciousness, but then again I wasn’t that worried about Pay Day loans until Jon Oliver gave the whole industry a shellacking.  In all seriousness though, Cutter had this great opportunity of taking the piss out of his own concept.  And yet what we get is a whole lot of goo and gore, paper-thin characters and some on the nose finger-pointing at unregulated genetic experimentation.

Cutter tries to fool us into thinking his novel has depth by employing the collage technique made famous by Dos Passos (though according to Cutter he borrowed the idea from Stephen King).  So short chapters are mixed together with court transcripts, police interviews and newspaper articles.  It makes for a quick read but it can’t hide the novel’s major deficiency, the caricatures pretending to be characters.

The main stars of The Troop fit neatly into five character-types.  We have the jock, the nerd, the sociopath, the quiet one and the angry rebel.  As a starting point I don’t have a particular problem with this.  But if the intent of the novel is to be inspired by or have a dialogue with Lord of the Flies, then these boys needs to change significantly as they face their own mortality.  Other than the nerd growing a pair of balls toward the novel’s conclusion, the boys experience fear but very little growth or development.  The worst case is Shelley the sociopath who becomes a fully fledged psychopath by the end of the book.  But that’s a change I hear you say.  Well, yes, but only in the sense that he was headed in that direction anyway.  How much more interesting would this have been if the psychopath had been one of the other boys – a character who wasn’t already ear-marked for that role.

Like the novel by M J Carey, The Troop is readable and some of the early scenes with the tapeworm – especially what it does to the scoutmaster – are genuinely icky,  but for the most part this a disposable novel with forgettable characters about a subject matter that I hope never gets legs.  Geddit!!!  Tapeworm!!!  Legs!!!

Mar 01

Book Review: The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

What’s It About

Melanie might be your average teenager except for the fact that she lives in a small, metal cell.  Every morning a soldier comes to take her and more than a dozen teenagers to class.  This involves strapping Melanie and the others to wheelchairs and pointing guns to their heads.  Why are they being treated this way?  Why has she and her friends been cut off from the outside world?  Why are the soldiers and most of the teachers – except for Miss Justineau – frightened of Melanie and her friends?

The answers, unfortunately, aren’t very interesting (but I won’t spoil them here….

Should I Read It?

… or reveal them here.  What I will say is that for something that’s been billed as the “most original thriller you will read this year” this is a book that quickly runs out of ideas once Melanie’s situation is revealed.  It’s not helped that the book is populated by lazy stereotypes that have been cut and pasted from hundreds of other novels.

The book is readable and I did finish it – though that might have something to do with my inability to put down a novel once I’ve started.  However, unless you’re a complete newbie to horror fiction there’s nothing new to see here.

Representative Paragraph

Melanie experiences a rare moment of intimacy:

[Miss Justineau] strokes Melanie’s hair with her hand, like it was just the most natural and normal thing in the world. And lights are dancing behind Melanie’s eyes, and she can’t get her breath, and she can’t speak or hear or think about anything because apart from Sergeant’s people, maybe two or three times and always by accident, nobody has ever touched her before and this is Miss Justineau touching her and it’s almost too nice to be in the world at all.

Commentary

Spoilers!

It turns out that Melanie – and her friends – are intelligent zombies. On the surface they look and act like normal teenagers, if a bit wide-eyed and innocent, but take those straps off and give them a whiff of unprotected human flesh, and they go rabid with hunger.

It’s a neat idea, one that I don’t remember coming across, that lends itself to providing a different insight into the whole zombie phenomena.

The problem is that Carey has taken this one interesting idea and packaged it into a traditional zombie novel. Oh, the book fools you at first, the cover has a coming of age vibe about it, bright yellow with the silhouette of a girl, her hands outstretched.  The book also never uses the “z” word, instead they’re referred to as hungries. And the actual zombie contagion isn’t an act of the supernatural but rather the result of a mutated fungus that has the power to take over its host. However, once you scrape that veneer away, this is the same old post zombie apocalypse world that you’ve read a million times before.

About a third of the way into the novel the base, where Melanie and her friends are being kept, is overrun by a marauding horde of the undead (or fungus infected). Melanie escapes with her favourite teacher Ms Justineau, the local mad scientist, the hard as nuts army sergeant and the green “aw shucks” private. Like the rest of the novel, these characters follow a well trodden and familiar arc. The mad scientist grows increasingly madder. The hard as nuts sergeant turns out to have soft, chewy centre, the do-gooder teacher becomes all bitter and embattled (you’d be correct if you guessed that those two end up getting it on) and the young private who is barely competent and doesn’t want to die… ends up giving the novel its heroic sacrifice. Even Melanie, the one bright note in a book filled with tired old concepts and stereotypes, never grows much beyond the monster with a soul routine.

Toward the last third there is a brief glimpse of what the novel could have been. As our band of cut and paste characters walk through London they see evidence that the fungus is spreading as it mutates. They also come a cross a mobile laboratory that our mad scientist believes will better explain the make-up of the fungus and why Melanie has retained her intelligence. This leads to the late novel revelation that the fungus is waiting for a trigger (heat / fire) to spore, sending its seed through the atmosphere and infecting the remaining humans. It’s an interesting development, however it comes so late in the novel that we never get beyond the predictable sporing, which acts as the books dénouement.  All I could think about was how much more interesting The Girl With All The Gifts would have been if it had started with the fungus sporing, if the novel, through flashbacks and present day action, had explored the terraforming and re-building of Earth by a bunch of intelligent zombie teenagers.

I know, I know it’s not fair to judge a book on what it might have been. But I hate seeing a good idea go to waste, and unfortunately that’s what Carey does. Unless you’re a complete newbie to zombie novels, or post apocalyptic books in general, there’s nothing new to see here.

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Feb 24

Book Review: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

What’s It About

It’s 1920s England (Ellchester to be exact) and Triss has woken up after an accident to discover that (a) she has significant holes in her memory (b) her parents are acting strangely around her and (c) her little sister Pen utterly hates her.  But that’s just the beginning.  When dolls start coming alive in her hands, and birds start speaking to her, Triss realises that she’s either going mad or something other-worldly is simmering under the surface.  Something connected to a mysterious figure known only as The Architect.

Should I Read It?

YES!  I’m reluctant to say much more about the novel as it’s one of those books where part of the pleasure comes from uncovering the truth along with the main character.  What I can say is that Hardinge’s handling of narrative, of style, of plot beats, of characters, of atmosphere and of theme is first rate.  For those who have read Hardinge’s previous novels, this will come as no surprise.

Representative Paragraph

You want a brilliant turn of phrase?!  Well I’ll give you two – Hardinge’s pitch perfect descriptions of jazz

This was a record that had been places and come back scratched, and somehow the roughness made it seem all the more itself. This jazz had not wiped its feet; it crunched right into the room with gravel on its shoes.

and

Triss had heard jazz with neatly wiped shoes and jazz with gritty soles and a grin. And this too was jazz, but barefoot on the grass and blank-eyed with bliss, its musical strands irregular as wind gusts and unending as ivy vines. It was not human music; she could tell that in an instant. This was truer, purer and more chaotic, but also . . . colder. Human jazz was a clumsy imitation of this music, but it had blood, breath and warmth to it.

Commentary

One of the disadvantages of setting myself the goal of reading between 15 and 20 genre and literary award shortlists is that when I come across a novel I adore I don’t have the time or luxury to explore the author’s backlist.  Because that’s what I’d be doing now, gobbling up Hardinge’s five other books rather than exposing myself to a bunch of mediocre horror novels.  It’s entirely my fault.  I’ve been aware of Hardinge’s work for years, regularly coming across reviews from people whose tastes I respect, gushing and squeeing at her work.  I’ve had ample time to read one of the novels.  But it’s taken this silly project of mine for me to realise what I’ve been missing out on.

What immediately struck me about Cuckoo Song  was the quality of the writing.  Nearly every page features a considered metaphor or simile that perfectly renders and crystallizes the moment Hardinge is describing.  You only have to read the above descriptions of jazz to see what I mean.  But even in moments of action and horror, Hardinge settles on exactly the right word or phrase creating an effect that’s both chilling and cinematic:

The Besider man split like a cloud before the moon, and light spilled out, wet light that screamed as it came. His mouth opened wide and ghostly ribbons spiralled out into the air, chittering forgotten tales. As they pulled away from him and vanished, he seemed to unravel, twitching. Soon there was nothing left but a grey-brown coat slumping to the cobbles.

What’s astounding is that the novelty never wears off, your constantly surprised and delighted by the way Hardinge describes her characters and her world.

I also appreciated how Hardinge did something innovative with familiar ideas.  Whether that be taking inspiration from the Golem or Faust or drawing on the battle between chaos and order, in her hands these concepts and tropes feel new and exciting.  It all culminates in the introduction of the Besiders, a beautifully imaginative community of amoral beings that thrive on uncertainty.  Straight lines and order and cartography are an anathema to them.  So are scissors – they snip things in two… they divide by force – and church bells – the sharing of faith makes the Besiders sick.

This idea of uncertainty versus certainty informs the mental states and motivations of the main players in the novel.  Triss faces constant uncertainty in relation to her identity, which only deepens once she realises what she is.  Interestingly, this uncertainty fuels her need to act, to find answers, to save the day if she can, even if it means her destruction.  Her parents face the uncertainty and confusion of a son that may or may not have died during the First World War.  Their reaction is to place cotton-wool around their surviving children, providing a stultifying  and unbearable environment.  And the Besiders, ironically face an uncertain future as the world around them solidifies  It’s this inevitability that motivates The Architect’s nefarious, evil plan which wonderfully has all the hallmarks of a traditional alien invasion.

I just loved this book.  I loved the writing, the ideas, the complexity of the themes and – though I haven’t really discussed them in the review – the characters, specifically Triss and Pen.  Their sisterly relationship is a highlight in  novel that’s filled with highlights.

Feb 21

Nebula Award Novel Shortlist

The Nebula Award nominees have been announced (click on the link for the full list).  For the novel category, this is what the SFWA members chose:

I’m less than excited by this years group of nominees.  It might have something to do with the appearance of the Gannon and the McDevitt, two books I wouldn’t normally bother with if I wasn’t partaking in the madness of reading award shortlists.  The Gannon is a sequel to last years Nebula nominated novel and clocks in at over 200,000 words.  While long novels generally don’t intimidate me – in 2014 I read both The Goldfinch and The Luminaries – 200,000 words of MilSF by a Baen author is piss your pants scary.  The McDevitt is nowhere near as long but it’s the seventh book in a series.  Though given how many times McDevitt has been nominated for a Nebula, anyone who’s been keeping up with the award has probably read the other six books.

I’m pleased to see Annihilation on the ballot because it’s a damn fine book (click the link above for my review).  And I’m genuinely looking forward to reading Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, partly because of the praise it’s received, but also because of how intelligently Ken Liu spoke about the translation process on the Coode Street podcast.  Talking of praise, The Goblin Emperor generated its fair share as well, and so it’s no surprise to see it nominated.  I’m thinking it’s a certainty to appear on the Locus Award list for Fantasy and the World Fantasy Award.

And the Leckie, well it’s already been nominated for a BSFA.  Except it to receive a Hugo nomination.  While the sequel to Ancillary Justice has been, for the most part, critically well received, I can sense increasing resentment toward Ancillary Sword.  If it does bag a Hugo nomination I expect that resentment to spill over (though it might have to contend with some Sad Puppy action).

And finally Larry Nolen has also shared his thoughts on the nominations (with focus on the novels).  He’s less than impressed.

Feb 21

Who Should Win the National Book Critics Circle Award?

These were the novels nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.   Click on the links to read my entertaining but always insightful reviews.

With no hesitation or doubt I’d be handing the award to Marlon James.  As I said in my review of A Brief History of Seven Killings, this is a book that grabs you by the neck and forces you to watch.  Which, now that I think about it, sounds awfully abusive and violent.  The point is you can’t help but be engaged and part of the world (Jamaica) that James is depicting.  He does this through a masterclass of language and tone.

Given how fantastic the book is I’m surprised (and annoyed) that it hasn’t appeared on other shortlists – not even the longlist for the National Book Award or the Folio Prize.

One book that did appear on the National Book Award shortlist is Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman.  Like James’ novel it’s a book that compels you to engage with the setting (Lebanon) and the character’s state of mind.  It’s a wonderful novel which I’d be happy to see called out as the winner on March 12.

However, if I had to pick who was going to win the NBCC, my money would be on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila.  It’s not a book that I particularly liked, but it continues to generate much praise and love.  I’m surprised it hasn’t been showered with prizes.

Overall, this was a decent shortlist.  Yes, I had major issues with on On Such a Full Sea and the last few pages of Euphoria tainted my enjoyment of the novel, but any shortlist that introduces me to a writer as fantastic as Marlon James has to get a tick of approval.

Feb 18

Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King

What’s It About

Set for the most part in 1930s New Guinea, American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen meet Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist, who introduces them to the Tam, an artistic, spiritual and female dominated tribe.  As the three anthropologists become absorbed in their investigation of the Tam, their relationship grows increasingly complicated, fueled by love, guilt and violence.

Should I Read It?

Yes – but with reservations.  The characters of Nell, Fen and Andrew Bankson are based on Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson.  (So in this alternate history it’s William Bankson, not Bateson, who coins the term “genetics”).  These changes gives King the freedom and opportunity to tell her own story, one that still cleaves to historical events – Mead and Bateson did fall in love with each other in New Guinea – but takes a very different and darker turn (which I won’t spoil here).

While the love-triangle between the three anthropologists is the main driver of the novel, the best scenes beautifully mix together the intimate and intellectual discoveries made by Nell and Andrew. However, I did have issues with the ending which I thought was unwarranted and tasteless (more in the Commentary).

Representative Paragraph

Bankson observes Nell:

Though she was looking at me, she hadn’t heard. She was still with her work. She was wearing a tulip bark ribbon, too, just above her elbow. I wondered what they made of this woman who bossed them around and wrote down their reactions. It was funny how it all seemed more vulgar watching someone else do it. I felt like my mother, with this sudden distaste for it. And yet she was good at it. Better than I was. Systematic, organized, ambitious. She was a chameleon, with a way of not imitating them but reflecting them. There seemed to be nothing conscious or calculated about it. It was simply the way she worked. I feared I’d never shake my Englishman Among the Savages pose, despite the real respect I had come to feel for the Kiona. But she with only seven weeks under her belt was more of the Tam than I ever would be of any tribe, no matter how long I stayed. No wonder Fen had grown discouraged.

Commentary

Not surprisingly, most of the questions Lily King has been asked about Euphoria deal with Margaret Mead, her relationships, her sexuality, and the fact that she was a trailblazer in the field of anthropology.  When Nell Stone is mentioned, she feels more like a placeholder than the main character of a novel.  And yet when you read Euphoria, it’s easy to forget that Nell is based on a historical figure.  While Mead might be front and centre in the mind of interviewers and reviewers, Nell Stone’s vibrant, passionate, sometimes overwhelming personality takes centre stage in the novel.

Don’t get me wrong, when I finished Euphoria I was compelled to learn more about Margaret Mead.  In particular I was interested to pick out the points of divergence, where King had followed the course of history and where she’d allowed her characters to take a different path.  It’s fitting that in a novel about an anthropologist who experienced tribal life without prejudice or pre-conceived notions, that King would adopt the same attitude in writing her novel.  There’s nothing preconceived about Nell, Fen or Andrew.  They are their own people, no matter who they might be based on.

Until the final pages, Euphoria is a wonderful novel about exploration, both intellectual and intimate.  This is best evidenced by Nell and Andrew’s development of The Grid, a schematic that would allow them to categorise not only tribes but other cultures and people.  King infuses a level of physicality and emotional intensity to the discovery:

We kept at it.  The sun came up and went down again.  We believed we were in the throes of a big theory.  We could see our chalk on university blackboards.  It felt like we were putting a messy disorganized unlabeled world in order.  It felt like decoding.  It felt like liberation… For long stretches of time it felt like we were crawling around in each other’s brain.

Then there’s the inclusion of the fictitious Tam.  As a metaphor for empowerment, the Tam might feel like an authorial cheat in that they are a female dominant tribe that conveniently and neatly aligns with Nell’s sense of independence.  However, whereas the woman of the Tam have carved out a level of freedom in their own society, Nell’s empowerment is entirely contingent on her location. In New Guinea she can be free and passionate and wild with her opinions and the men in her life.  But when she comes back to “civilisation” the norms of her own society constrain her.  This culminates in her death at the hands of a jealous Fen who (as heavily implied by Bankson though not proven) throws Nell overboard on their way back to New York.

While I acknowledge that Nell is more than just a thin copy of Margaret Mead, her death is the one point of the novel where I wish King had aligned Nell’s life with history. There is some evidence that Reo Fortune abused Mead, however history (and Wikipedia) tells us that she survived her journey back to civilisation, married to Gregory Bateson. For the rest of her life Mead continued to trailblaze, publishing significant work on tribal cultures.  In light of this, vibrant, passionate, breathless Nell Stone deserved more than a cheap, unwarranted and tasteless death.

Still, the ending aside, for most of its length, Euphoria is a wonderful novel that mixes together the exhilaration of discovery with the intensity of intimacy and love.

Feb 14

Shortlists — SHORTlists — SHORTLISTS!!!!!

So here you are eagerly awaiting the BSFA and Kitschies shortlists and the buggers go and announce them on the same day!  You can find them here for the BSFA and here for the KItschies.

The BSFA shortlist for best novel is as follows:

  • Nina Allan, for The Race, published by Newcon Press
  • Frances Hardinge, for Cuckoo Song, published by Macmillan
  • Dave Hutchinson, for Europe in Autumn, published by Solaris
  • Simon Ings, for Wolves, published by Gollancz
  • Anne Leckie, for Ancilliary Sword, published by Orbit
  • Claire North, for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, published by Orbit
  • Nnedi Okorafor,  for Lagoon, published by Hodder
  • Neil Williamson, for The Moon King, published by Newcon Press

Because of a tie for fourth place, there’s more books nominated then normally would be.  I’ve read the Ings which, unlike most everyone else, I wasn’t that keen on and, as part of my Herbert reading, I’ve just finished the lovely Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge.  So I’m glad to see that on the shortlist.  Of the rest, I’m excited to see the Allan, Hutchinson, Okorafor and North.  These are novels I’ve been wanting to read but, due to my insanity of only reading shortlists, was relying on the kindness and good taste of judges and fans.  Finally, a little surprised not to see Adam Roberts’ Bete which recently appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List and I thought was a monty for the BSFA.  Overall though a diverse and interesting list of novels.

And now the best novel and best first novel categories for The Kitschies:

The Red Tentacle (Novel)

  • Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith (Egmont)
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (Viking)
  • The Way Inn, by Will Wiles (4th Estate)
  • The Race, by Nina Allen (NewCon Press)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut)

  • Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
  • Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins)
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (Self-Published)
  • The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

I’ve read and loved Memory of Water (nominated for the PKD) so I’m happy to see Emmi feature on the The Golden Tentacle shortlist.

It also looks like Nnedi Okorafor is going to have a big year as I expect Lagoon to feature on the Nebula, Locus and Clarke Award shortlists.  (I’d say Hugos, but I have a feeling that the sad puppies might knock it down a few pegs).  Nina Allan (mis-spelling of her surname aside) is also having a big year.  Both Allan and Okorafor are magnificent writers – based on past work – and so I’m pleased to see them feature on both shortlists (and the Locus Recommended Reading List).  The Kitschies is becoming known as an award that recognises “genre” novels from left field, and this year seems no different.  There’s also plenty of diversity on display with all five of The Golden Tentacle nominees written by woman.  I know, I know. what about the blokes?!

I’m excited to read all these books.  Expect reviews… well… sometime in March?

Feb 10

The Shortlist for the Folio Prize has been announced

And here it is:

  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner (Granta)
  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber)
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Granta)
  • Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta)
  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma (Faber)
  • How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) – read, not reviewed… yet.
  • Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (Viking)
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber)

Anyone who’s been keeping up with literary award lists over the last 12 months should be familiar with most of these novels.  I’ve read three of them, including the brilliant How To Be Both which Kirstyn and I recently discussed on the Writer And The Critic podcast (episode to appear in your feed shortly).  And while I enjoyed the Cusk, I was less enamored by Toibin’s offering.

I’m excited to read the Sharma, Lerner and Offill which I’ve heard plenty about.  A quick squizz of the internet tells me that both Owour and Toews have received praise far and wide.  It’s also nice to see five women recognised out of the eight nominees.

Overall then it looks like a very strong shortlist.  One of these books might even give How To Be Both a run for its money.  Except to see reviews later this month.

Feb 09

Book Review: On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

What’s It About

Set on a dystopian Earth where class is strictly defined, a girl – Fan – leaves the relative safety of her home to look for her boyfriend who has mysteriously disappeared.  Fan’s search exposes her to the poverty that exists beyond her walled city of B-Mor (once known as Baltimore) to the excesses of the paranoid and indulgent rich.

Should I Read It?

No.  While the writing is gorgeous, even if it did lull me to sleep at times, Lee’s take on dystopia isn’t anything you probably haven’t read before.  The rich are indulgent and cruel and perverse.  The poor are desperate and frightened and ignored.  And the laborers, who live in their walled cities and feed those in power, are essentially sheep who do what they’re told.

The biggest problem of the novel though, something I’ll cover in more detail in the Commentary, is that we never really get an insight into Fan’s interior life.  This is done on purpose by Lee, but coupled together with some thing world building, it’s difficult to care about anyone or anything in the novel.

Representative Paragraph

An insight into the “beliefs” of the people who live in B-Mor:

Fan didn’t ask what those beliefs were, as she would have no real idea what the cost of transgressing any specific doctrine would be, religious or philosophical, as we in B-Mor pretty much practice none; other than an undying habit of pragmatic attention and action, there is no overarching system we subscribe to anymore, no devotion to a deity or origin story, no antique Eastern or Western assertions of goodness and badness to guide us. We abide by directorate regulations, yes, but are mostly ruled by one another as to what is optimal, which is debatable but in fact no more so in B-Mor than anywhere else, even as amoral as we may be considered by others. At least we are not wholly ruled by the pursuit of wealth like Charters, or by the specter of ill chance like open counties people, which endows us, we will say, with a certain equable stance that does not tip us either too far forward or back.

Commentary

It’s an odd experience reading On Such A Full Sea right after finishing A Brief History of Seven Killings.  Plot aside, tonally these novels couldn’t be any different.  Where Brief History forces the reader to engage with the characters and the narrative, On Such A Full Sea actively keeps its distance.  This seem to be Lee’s intent.  In describing Fan, the main character of his novel, for an interview with The Guardian, he states:

I meant her [Fan] to be the focus of our attention, the central character… but not necessarily the central consciousness. She’s not that sort of hero: she’s not loquacious, she’s not philosophical; she is more elemental. She’s there, she persists. And that’s the sort of person I wanted her to be.

Lee realises this elemental effect by relating Fan’s story through a first person plural – “we” – a sort of group-think formed out of the citizens of B-Mor, her home city.  It seems that Fan’s decision to drop everything and look for Reg, her boyfriend, results in the people of B-Mor, who have never questioned or debated the decision of their Masters, to suddenly reflect on their daily lives.  This results in the appearance of graffiti on once pristine walls and people standing up in cinema and saying Fan’s final words, “Where you are,” before she departs.

The problem with this strategy is that we never really get to know or care about Fan.  We’re told that she loves Reg, just like we’re told that she’s carrying his child.  But we never get past that surface reading.  Does she ever doubt her decision to leave home?  Is she frightened for the life of her unborn child?  When she meets her long lost brother for the first time (yes, spoiler) how does that make her feel?  I don’t necessarily need to be told these things, but Fan’s response to everything is so measured and detached that as a character – even one that’s grown into a legend – she lacks substance.  Or in other words, there’s too much elemental and not enough person.

What also lacks substance is Lee’s world building.  Gary Wolfe has noted several times in the Coode Street podcast that drawing a line between our present and the future envisioned in a dystopian novel is nearly impossible.  On Such A Full Sea suffers from that problem.  I found it difficult to imagine a future where class has become so stratified that it’s more a thought experiment than an economic reality.  More than that, given this is a world that has suffered major environmental damage and social upheaval, it’s not clear how society pulled itself up to the stage where technology and food production and media is not something that’s questioned, but simply accepted.

And while I get that it wasn’t Lee’s intent to spend most of his novel filling in the world-building gaps, that the world Lee has created is more a commentary on our present than a genuine future, it still needs to feel somewhat believable and internally consistent for the messages and themes to have resonance.  As Ursula K Le Guin says far better than I have in her review of the novel,

Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre [social science fiction] irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

The writing is very beautiful.  It’s both precise and yet lyrical.  Each word has obviously been chosen carefully.  But I never was engaged in Fan’s search for Reg and never believed the world she inhabited.  It’s a shame because I’m always fascinated to see what non-genre writers do with old SF tropes.  In this instance, the answer is not very much at all.

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