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Descent by Ken MacLeod

DescentIt is fairly unusual to come across UFO/abduction themed genre fiction in the modern era. It was a big deal in the 1980s, but not so much now. However, the opening chapter hints that there’s much more than meets the eye in Ken MacLeod’s Descent. Indeed, we appear to have landed in the middle of a story with a somewhat objectionable character and there’s little hint to what’s going on.

Ryan – Sinky to his friends, of which he has few – understands what people are really seeing when they report UFO sightings – weather balloons, experimental craft and such like. He even justifies what happens to Calum and himself when walking in the hills in Scotland; a mysterious light descends and they wake up in a circle of ash several hours later. But when the dream comes, the potential missing memory, his cynicism is tested. Ryan’s world is a very possible extrapolation of today’s society – nothing is secret, everything is tracked, recorded, reported by cameras, drones, CCTV, phones and everything that exists, does so online. As Ryan grows older, passing through college and into the world of employment, he can’t figure out what happened and who to trust.
During his adolescent years, his education and his path into adulthood, Ryan has a number of relationships from friends, parents, women and the mysterious Mr Baxter (Ryan thinks he might be a Man-in-Black). The events and relationships that surround him and shape him throughout these years result from what happened that day on that hill. Sometimes you feel like Ryan is getting a handle on the situation or getting to grips with living a normal existence, then MacLeod pulls the rug from beneath you and makes you doubt the reality of what is going on. This isn’t a story about a UFO abductee loosing his mind, but a story about how a single event can inform a life-time of choices. Some choices are forced upon him, others are so subtle that you start to believe that Ryan is being played, and has been from the start. He starts the story as a decent enough kid with ambitions but ends up unambitious, sleazy, self-absorbed, jealous and manipulative. However, the opening section of the book (I wouldn’t call it a prologue as such) gives the reader the uneasy feeling that MacLeod is messing with you and that not everything is as clear as the words on the page. A book about paranoia and conspiracy making the reader unsure about its intentions is a clever book. It is also a book about how the advancement of technology and how society reacts to those changes. A new invention might change a career path or end up with you meeting the love of your life. Outside influences nudge and cajole people.

In the background to all this, MacLeod also introduces the idea of human speciation, and it fits so well into the plot, you don’t get distracted. There’s a further sub-text about revolutionaries and how they might work in the future. This is MacLeod’s skill as a writer. There are so many ideas and carefully drawn characters that you are soon lost in the story, and going with it. Garbrielle – Ryan’s fiancé who has a pivotal role to fulfil in his descent into paranoia and obsession – acts in a seemingly out of character way when the plot requires, but thinking back to when they met, you can see hints being displayed. All the plot strands; the evolution, the UFOs, the revolutionaries, the freedom and privacy issues of everything been recorded and shared, all weave together perfectly, and this despite MacLeod’s tendency to tell, not show (although it becomes evident that this is Ryan’s confessional).

It’s refreshing to read a novel where the lead protagonist is flawed and makes some bad, albeit understandable, choices. You might not like Ryan, but you can empathise with him. You might even think that the path he took might be the path you would take too, given his circumstances. There’s a lightness of touch about the writing, which might surprise the SF fan, but it fits within this work well, especially as above all, it is about the relationships in Ryan’s life.
- First published at: http://www.nudgemenow.com/article/descent-ken-macleod/#sthash.oIfpMkc8.dpuf

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The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Erewhon by Samuel Butler (1872)

ErewhonThe interesting aspect about the development of science fiction is that not all key texts are actually science fiction. However, they are worth an investigation. Samuel Butler was a bit of a polymath, being a commentator on Christian orthodoxy, Italian art, evolution, and literary history and criticism. He also made prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. So it is appropriate that he wrote a cultural satire which nods towards Utopia by Thomas More.

Erewhon: or, Over the Range was first published in 1872. Erewhon is of course an anagram of ‘nowhere’. The fictional country is meant to based on Butler’s experiences in New Zealand, although the inhabitants of the mysterious land are described as European in appearance. The copy I read is 1985 Penguin Classic edition, based upon their first publication of their reprint in 1935. As is usual, I did not read the introduction or notes on the text. This was my first reading of the text.

Erewhon begins with a narrator and his guide (Chowbok) visiting the forbidden country which lies beyond the mountains. They find a pass through, but Chowbok runs off in fear. Our hero continues until he finds a mysterious collection of statues. He loses consciousness and is discovered by some Erewhonians. He is taken to a village, and locked up because he owns a watch. Yram (Mary), befriends him and teaches him the language.  He discovers that these people treat illness and misery as crimes. Grief is a sign of misfortune and an individual is held responsible for actions that made them unfortunate. Machines, such as the watch, are also seen as criminal. The narrator’s reputation spreads and he his soon summoned to the capital to meet the king and queen. He is told he is to stay with Mr Nosnibor (Robinson) who is a recovering embezzler. Actual crime is seen to be something to be pitied and treated. The protagonist soon falls in love with the youngest daughter, Arowhena (which doesn’t appear to be an anagram of anything at all). However, the oldest is to be wed first, and it must be the narrator’s responsibility to marry her.

It is at this point that the narrative halts and the philosophical treatise begins. While visiting the University of Unreason, where students study anything that has absolutely no practical purpose, he learns the truth of the society – the Musical Banks, the worship of Ydgrun, the Book of Machines and more. It is this that section that is the true satire of Victorian culture. Butler talks about religion and science. He writes to comment on his almost Lamarckian view of evolution, in opposition to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Lamarckian evolution is based on the idea of inherited traits: the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring (so a giraffe that stretches its neck longer to reach the highest leaves will give birth to offspring with a longer neck). Butler’s writing suggests that cells have a will and a capacity to shape their environment. He is well versed in the science of the day and even quotes Paley’s theory on the divine watchmaker. Butler also satirises his perceived injustices of Victorian England by means of this utopia in which everything in Erewhon is the exact opposite of what they were in England. These are broad attacks however, and it is never really clear who Butler is riling against, with the possible exception of Darwin. The philosophical chapters cover the Musical Banks, the Ydgrunites, the Colleges of Unreason, the Book of the Machines (the idea that machines may evolve and come to dominate humanity), and the myth of the world of the unborn (where the unborn choose their parents). There is a sense of the nonsensical about this book, which must be deliberate. While a satire on Utopia is probably seen as a dystopia, this world that Butler creates has more in common with the surrealists and the literary nonsense of Lear.

In the last couple of chapters, the narrative returns, and our hero escapes in a balloon with Arowhena. They find a ship and are married before returning to England. The book concludes with them planning to return to Erewhon in order to change their culture, as akin to Christian missionaries. So does this mean that Butler actually thinks Victorian society is correct and should dominate and even replace that of Erewhon?

Firstly, I should point out that this is less of a novel, or a story, and more of rant. For the majority of the book, not a lot happens. As with Gulliver’sSamuel_Butler_by_Charles_Gogin Travels a narrator goes to a place and then simply describes their society. ­The main character, our narrator, is a fairly dull and objectionable personality. He is rescued and taught by the kindly Yram and develops emotions for her, and yet abandons her without a care at the drop of a hat. He basically assumes he knows better than everyone else.

Secondly, I think that it is quite strange that despite the likes of Shelly and Verne creating hugely influential and popular works of fiction, and this being published 350ish years after Utopia (1516), the novel doesn’t appear to have evolved much. There is little difference in style and construction in all this time. The idea of incorporating world-building into plot has not yet occurred to authors.

I should have loved this. The writing is technically fine. It is the typical diary-style of the fantastic voyage format and the author knows that his words are meant to be read and reacted upon by future generations. There are moments of wit and there are some interesting passages and novel ideas. It is, as I’ve said, the work of a knowledgeable author. This is however, by 1872, a tired conceit, especially when the plot stops and the rant starts. The book is quite peculiar, distinctively imaginative and satirising a subject I know about and was educated in, but it is so very dull. There are hints of the warnings common in science fiction during the Book of the Machines section, but there is nothing about Erewhon that is actual science fiction. It is not even fantasy, just a misplaced tirade. Nothing more than a mildly interesting diversion from more actual science fiction from the late 1800s.

 

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Science fiction novel shortlists. Sigh.

There was a time when I enjoyed shortlist season. It was a time when I was young and innocent (and worked in a public library and therefore had first dips on many a new book before it hit the shelves – shocking but hey, everyone needs a perk). It was a time when I discovered new authors and new books (Lauren Beukes, Sarah Hall, Jan Morris and others, for example). As soon as the shortlists were announced I’d rush around the shelves gathering up those books I’d not yet read and ordering others from other libraries if they weren’t available.

I think Twitter has killed my enthusiasm for shortlisted science fiction books. Firstly, there’s the constant bickering and intense evaluation of the value or worthiness of each entry. Is it sexist? Is it modern? Is it safe? Does it represent fandom? What is fandom anyway? I’ve also been introduced to a whole bunch of new authors and books via Twitter, Goodreads and elsewhere that I’m less excited about discovering new books on the shortlists.

The big three in my eyes are the Kitchies, the BSFAs and the Clarke Award. I’m discounting the Hugos for reasons too boring to elaborate on. But blame Twitter on that too. So here are the 2014 short-lists:

The Kitchies:

The Red Tentacle (Novel) – selected by Kate Griffin, Nick Harkaway, Will Hill, Anab Jain and Annabel Wright:

  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth OzekiThe Machine
  • Red Doc> by Anne Carson
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness
  • The Machine by James Smythe

The Golden Tentacle (Debut) – selected by the above panel:

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Stray by Monica Hesse
  • A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam
  • Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

BSFA Best Novel:

  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley
  • Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

Arthur C Clarke Award:

  • Nexus by Ramez Naam
  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley
  • The Machine by James Smythe
  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie
  • The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

Not many books have been agreed on by the panels but the main titles that jump out are:

  • The Machine by James Smythe (2 appearances)
  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (3)
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (2, and the only one I’ve read)
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (2)
  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley (2)

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is about the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, which suggests some level of quality. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, but I’m not sure why. I will read it at some point soon. The Machine looks interesting, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is on my to read list and there’s been a lot of positive noise made about Leckie’s debut, so while it’s not my usual bag (usually find space opera dull), I might give it a go. As for the rest? Meh. Nothing about most of them excites me.

Red Doc> – mythic boy-hero into the twenty-first century to tell a story all its own of love, loss, and the power of memory.

Bleeding Edge – crime and the internet from set in 2001.

More Than This – an afterlife mystery?

Stray – an artificial intelligence thriller.

A Calculated Life – genetic engineering, data and crime

Nexus – near-future nano-technothriller

God’s War – far future thriller on a war-torn planet (1st of a series *groans*)

Evening’s Empires – a far future tale of revenge, of murder and morality and a semi-intelligent space suit (I read about half a McAuley once, found it tedious at best)

Ack-Ack Macaque – is a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey hero from WW2 who doubts his own existance

The Disestablishment of Paradise – problems on the planet of Paradise with man vs nature

Maybe the Powell stands out too as being different to raise an eye, but the rest, well, sighing, I wonder if I either don’t have any interest in SF any more, or that they shortlists are terribly uninspiring. The evidence suggests the latter, however, because while I really liked The Adjacent if you look at some of the books I’ve read in the last few months (going back into last year), I’ve read some terrific books that might make next year’s shortlists and others that should have made this year’s, maybe.

  • The Shining Girls by Lauren BeukesDog Stars
  • Lexicon by Max Barry
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • Red Rising by Pierce Brown
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh

So, I’m not rushing out to read the books on these lists before the winners of the Clarke Award and BSFA winners are announced (the Kitschie winners are already known). I would have added my opinion to those voices who picked their best novels in years gone by. Now, I’m more interested in picking up something different and new.

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Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea, by Adam Roberts

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the SeaCan a book be more than just a book? Can a story be more than just a story. With Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea, Adam Roberts poses that question, and many others. The title alone signifies that this isn’t a science fiction novel, but a tribute and a response to the Jules Verne classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). Verne’s book introduces the iconic Captain Nemo and his secret submarine, the Nautilus. It features mysterious sea monsters, a French marine biologist and a visit to Atlantis. Robert’s novel similarly features a secret submarine, but with a French crew and Indian scientists. It also features 33 full page pen and ink drawings from Mahendra Singh, which increase the sense of history that comes with the book.

It is 1958. The cold war is in full bloom. The French are testing a secret nuclear submarine, the Plongeur (French for ‘diver’ – also the name of the first mechanical submarine launched in 1863, a model of which was seen by Verne at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris). The small crew are joined by the aforementioned scientists and an observer from the French Ministry of National Defence (the Minister being Charles De Gaulle) as sea trials begin. On her first drive, she goes down, and just doesn’t stop. Impossibly so. She goes beyond the point when the ocean’s pressure should crush her. She goes beyond the point when the laws of physics appear to have lost control. She goes miles, days, trillions of leagues under the sea. All the while, the crew, led by Captain Cloche fear for, and prepare for death, and then try to solve the mystery of what has happened to them. But they can’t do anything to stop their descent into the abyss and into madness. As their journey continues they encounter mysterious sea monsters, strange underwater lights and the final, mind-boggling mystery as fiction becomes meta-fiction and the universe reveals itself to be stranger than the imagination.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea is a hard book to classify. [Spoiler alert] As the journey downwards progress, the story almost forces several changes in genre and focus. It begins as this homage to Verne and the fantastic voyages that were prevalent at that time. The writing style matches that too. However, once the craft and crew survive what they believe is their inevitable death, it becomes a mystery before touching on supernatural fantasy, spy thriller, physics-based science fiction, alien invasion, religious treatise and meta-fiction mind boggler. Elements from all these styles take centre stage at some point or other. And yet none feel forced; they are the natural consequences of the crew’s actions.

The illustrations are a seamless part of the book, and add a little extra. They appear as gorgeous chapter endings, and have the feel of woodcuttings. It is wonderful that Orion Books have added these sketches into a book.

Roberts has tackled the fantasy literary classics before, with Swiftly, which was a follow-up of Gulliver’s Travels. He has also produced an academic overview of science fiction and regularly parodies books and films. He is an author who is so well versed in these genres that you have confidence in his writing. Some of the science made no sense to me at all, and it is irrelevant whether or not it is accurate or not. Technically, then, this is a superbly written novel. Despite the fact that Roberts is deliberately and expertly harping back to a bygone era of writing – a more innocent age of proto-science fiction if you will – it does still have a modern sensibility, which is inevitably brought to the book by the reader. This makes the complete lack of female characters jar somewhat, although for the most part, it is understandable. The characters, however, while well drawn, are generally unsympathetic to the reader. Before various shades of madness, murder and religious mania take hold, they are fairly indistinguishable. Events force personalities to emerge. As a result, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea feels more like an exercise in science fiction history rather than a story to care about.

That is not to say, however, that this tale isn’t fun and shouldn’t be read, because it is and it should be.

First published at: http://www.nudgemenow.com/article/twenty-trillion-leagues-under-the-sea-by-adam-roberts/#sthash.D7AmQoZj.dpuf

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There will never be a great super-hero novel: Considerations after reading The Violent Century

There is a scene in The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar towards the end of the novel, which describes a conflict between what Tidhar calls Ubermensch. There is the English Fogg, three Americans (Tigerman, Whirlwind and The Green Gunman), the Soviet Red Sickle and the German Schneesturm (Snow Storm). This is Berlin, 1946. Tidhar describes, amongst other things, the transformation that Tigerman undergoes as he morphs from man to tiger and the power unleashed by Whirlwind. It is expertly written in a very decent book. It is vivid, imaginative and clear. You can picture what it is happening. You can see the man become tiger. You can see the woman whirling around. It is your version of Tidhar’s superheroes.

The Violent Century as described by the publisher:The Violent Century

They’d never meant to be heroes. For seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart. But there must always be an account… and the past has a habit of catching up to the present.

I’ve also read Vicious by V.E. Schwab in 2014. As described by the publisher:

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in one another. A shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death-experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility:Vicious that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. They become EOs, ExtraOrdinaries, leaving a body in their wake and turning on each other.

These books are both attempts to write fictional superhero novels, although they aren’t ever called that. Tidhar calls them Ubermensch or Overmen. Schwab calls them EOs: ExtraOrdinaries. In both cases, these super-people are given credible origin stories. In The Violent Century they are a result of a quantum device that was being worked on by a German scientist, a fictional contemporary of Von Braun and the likes. In Vicious they are the consequences of specific near death experiences and what the characters were thinking at the time.

Both these books nod knowingly to the comic book superheroes. Indeed, Tidhar has characters called Stanley Martin Lieber (Stan Lee), Joseph Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Of course, superheroes were born on the pages of comic books. Masked and costumed heroes such as Zorro and Phantom could be said to be the pre-cursors, swiftly followed by Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. And then of course the floodgates opened.

The thing about comic book superheroes (and supervillains, and anti-heroes and all the other iterations) is that they are intensely visual creations. Why else would Superman wear the red and blue? Surely Spider-man would be black or brown? The Flash doesn’t need a costume? A Batman invented in prose fiction would not have looked as striking. This is because they are creations of both writers and artists, and that is their power; they are a precise and distinct vision. When Tidhar created Fogg and the rest of the characters in The Violent Century he probably had a vision of how they Tygralooked. He describes them and yet they are still filled in as complete by the reader. Which isn’t always a bad thing. All fictional characters are drawn by the reader in their heads, no matter how they are described by the author (unless there is an TV or film adaptation and then the actor usually replaces the author’s description). Despite all efforts to prevent it, I kept picturing a version of the Thundercats character, Tygra, even though Tidhar describes Tigerman as having a mane.

In years gone by I’ve also read Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman and Superpowers by David J. Schwartz. Both of these are more explicit takes on the superhero. The former is mainly the point-of-view of a supervillain (Dr. Impossible) and a cyborg (Fatale) while the latter is about a group of college students who suddenly find themselves with super-powers. Both enjoyable if unspectacular books.

One of the first prose fictional attempts at superhero fiction was The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther (1942), which I haven’t read. I wonder how many comic books and superheroes have been published in the last 70-odd years. Yet there has never really been a successful prose-fiction superhero book. I maintain that this is because super-heroes are specific products of writer and artist (which is sometimes the same person, clearly) and not the unspoken collaboration between author and reader. Everyone who reads The Violent Century will see Fogg, Oblivion, Tigerman and the others based on not only the words crafted by the author, but the readers’ own experiences. If you’ve never seen Thundercats, it is unlikely you’d see Tigerman as Tygra. However, if this book had been drawn as a comic book, all the readers have a shared common vision. The cast of characters in these four books I’ve read is a long one, each with a distinct look and a variety of powers (some new and original, others just versions of their comic-book cousins). Yet none of them will ever leap to from the pages to the public’s imagination (or even science fiction and fantasy and/or comic book fandom). I can’t see people Cosplaying as Oblivion, Snow Storm, Eli or Dr. Impossible. Only the occasional fan artist might draw their version of these characters; but it will be their own interpretation, not mine, and not Tidhar’s, Grossman’s or Schwab’s.

LAZ Superheroes of Victoria by geoectomy  Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

LAZ Superheroes of Victoria by geoectomy Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Not that these books aren’t worthwhile reads in their own right. Of the four mentioned, the Grossman was probably the most fun to read, while the Tidhar is the most technically well-crafted. Of this latter, I enjoyed the writing and the plotting, although I found the characters all too distant, despite explicit emotional journeys and believable motivations. In this case, this is a successful story about war (and politics) and consequences that features super-human characters, as opposed to Superpowers, Soon I Will Be Invincible and Vicious which were all more about the characters, rather than the bigger picture.

I would like an author to prove me wrong, but I predict that there will not be a great or classic piece of unambiguous superhero prose fiction anytime soon. Or even not so soon. The genre needs the visual. The superhero and superheroine needs to be drawn for us before it becomes something greater than an idea on a page.

Author’s note: throughout I’ve referred to superheroes which I know is wrong and probably sexist, but it would be tedious to read superhero and superheroine at every mention, and most of the characters created by these authors and discussed are male. Not that this is a good excuse. Superhero is the universal term for super-humans in comic books and I have simply repeated convention, correctly or not. It is interesting that Word allows the spelling of superhero but flags superheroine and I acknowledge my poor form in reinforcing the masculine when the noun should be neutral.

 

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The Joy of Reading The Golem and The Djinni

The Golem and the DjinniThis is not a review. This is not a critical analysis. This won’t have a plot outline or a critique of the writing; either its style, content or factual accuracy. It isn’t an examination of the themes or a plea for anyone else to read this book. There are dozens of great reviews of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Djinni out there. Go find some.

This is a celebration of reading really good book, one that speaks to its reader in a multitude of ways. I remember reading a few reviews and recommendations late last year and my curiosity was piqued. I like a bit of mythological fantasy and I enjoy simple but effective story-telling. So I put my reservation in at the library and waited. Or rather I didn’t. I simply ploughed on through the other books in my reading pile. In the last few months I’ve really got my reading mojo back thanks to Adam Roberts, Pierce Brown, Adam Christopher, Graham Joyce, Lauren Beukes, Neil Gaiman and others. The Golem and The Djinni crept to the front of the pile and I picked it up on 8 February. My edition was 486 pages long. I usually read between 200 and 300 pages of fiction a week. I also read comics and I’ve also got a non-fiction on the go at all times (in this case Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright). I finished The Golem and The Djinni on 17 February, reading all 486 pages in 9 days, not picking up Going Clear at all during this time, and only reading one comic.

Which is odd. Because The Golem and The Djinni is definitely a book to take your time over and savour. It is a book that you want to consume and digest. But also a book you want to keep reading -– all the time. Cliché’s are thus because they are true. For me, this was unputdownable (except when I was asleep). I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. I couldn’t wait until my lunch hour to get some reading in. I was annoyed when I had other things to do which blocked my path to the book.

Why did The Golem and The Djinni work for me? There are several reasons. First, the elegant writing. Then there are the interesting characters. No card-board cut-outs but well rounded characters, each with traits you can sympathise with, and all with many shades of grey. There are important texts and subtexts within the story. It is proper character driven narrative; simple but effective storytelling. Wecker doesn’t over-complicate things, despite a wealth of protagonists, each with a back-story and a fitting climax (except one, which I won’t spoil). The narrative takes its time. As it should. What you take from it is that she not only understands how it feels to be certain ways, to react to certain stimuli, and she understands how to put that understanding into a novel. Into a meaningful story. She has taken rivers of silk and weaved them into wonder; the ocean of a climax when they all come together in the end.

The Golem and The Djinni is about immigration and mythology, cultural clashes and acceptance. But it is also about conformity and choice within society. About fulfilling roles, especially those gender-specific ones. It is about fitting in when you don’t, about personal freedoms shackled by responsibility. Loneliness. Finding the other misfit and connecting because of your differences. Yet still feeling alone. The Golem is better in most ways than all those around her, yet must act less so. I feel many of these things that Wecker writes about and it is a joy to read them told with such thought-provoking characters and in an interesting universe, without laboured world-building. It is a book about what it means to live, to exist, to be a human. In some ways, this is a science fiction novel without the science fiction; they have themes in common – understanding humanity and its place in the world. The Golem and The Djinni is a book, a novel, a story that felt like it was written just for me (and I’m confident that others who have enjoyed it felt a similar personal connection), and that is the sign of a really good book.

The fantasy elements are neither here nor there in terms of the enjoyment. They are part of the narrative and they are devices that I particularly enjoy. That’s just a thing. But it’s the little touches that enhance my enjoyment – such as the fairy-tale animals The Djinni creates, or the imagery of the desert palace brought to the imagination with Wecker’s deft touch.

“A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction; the feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted; exultation of spirit; gladness, delight.” OED, 2014

Pleasure – to be gained in immersing yourself in Wecker’s world, and journeying along with the protagonists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Satisfaction – Wecker doesn’t let you down in terms of narrative, prose or character. The mythology fits with the story of immigration in America at the end of the 19th Century. The story satisfies with almost every aspect of its construction.

Delighted – to read such a well-written and entertaining book that also spoke to me personally.

Exultation of spirit – sometimes, and especially when I’ve read a boring or badly written or un-engaging book, I feel flat. What’s the point of all this fiction and storytelling malarkey? What’s the point of wasting hours on someone else’s poorly thought attempts at creativity? On the other-hand, when reading something like this, feelings of inspiration and positivity abound (even though the subtexts within the story generally reflect my negative view of society).

Glad – that I read The Golem and The Djinni and that it was written.

I wouldn’t say, however, that it was a brilliant book. It is not the book I expected. I thought it would be more of a straight forward urban fantasy. However… [Spoiler alert]. Now. I enjoyed the coda, and it made sense in terms of the story. However, it remained a fiction and produced the ending that the characters perhaps deserved. It wasn’t the one I wanted, me being me. I would have preferred an emotional wallop in the climax. I was hoping for something along the lines of the climax of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, when Will and Lyra realise that they must separate. But maybe that wasn’t what was required to conclude the story? What I took from this book is a great story minus the heart-wrench of reality (although it does mean that the main protagonist’s stories continue, either written or not). A personal shame, because The Golem and The Djinni is ‘only’ a really great book and a great read. But what a joy to read. And this is why I read. To enjoy a story and to take a deeper understanding of myself from it.

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The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)

Journey_to_the_Centre_of_the_EarthIn 1830, Henry De la Beche drew his famous Duria antiquior, which featured a pre-history scene based on the findings of now rightly acclaimed fossil hunter and first woman of palaeontology, Mary Anning. It features great beasts on land, fantastic flying monsters and a wondrous collection of sea-creatures, including a terrific central battle, just breaking the water. It is without doubt that Jules Verne witnessed, and perhaps admired, this famous picture before he started writing Voyage au centre de la Terre.

The short novel was first published in 1864, although not published in English until 1871. It is the 3rd in Verne’s series called Voyages Extraordinaires, although the first that could be called science fiction. Although there is a contention in my eyes with that label. I read the Wordsworth Classic edition from 1996, complete and unabridged – although it does contain editorial notes and corrections from the translator, who is unnamed in this book.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, despite being only just over 180 pages long, is in approximately 3 sections. The first introduces us to German professor Otto Lidenbrock, and his narrator nephew, Axel. They are mineralogists – score one for the science bit. Lidenbrock returns to his Hamburg home with a new book, an Icelandic saga. In it, he finds a coded message, which he becomes obsessed upon cracking. Axel does crack it, but we don’t find out what it says, as he dreads the consiquences. During this early part of the story, we also find out that Axel is engaged. All he wants is a quiet life. But of course, the Professor must crack the code in order for the story to progress. As soon as he realises that its author has found a way into the centre of the Earth, he must follow in his footsteps.

And so part two is the preparation and journey to the volcano in Iceland, Snaefell. In this, we learn a little about life in Germany and Iceland, as Lidenbrock drags his reluctant nephew on an adventure, which the latter believes will end in doom. The coded message suggests that there is only a specific week when the entrance can be revealed, and so they make haste to Snaefell’s summit, with Hans, a hired guide. If they fail, they would need to wait another year and the Professor is an impatient man. They wait a few cloudy days with no reveal, and Axel’s hopes that the mission might fail increase. But then there’d be no book.

The plot, then, happily reveals the entrance to the path, as we begin the final and largest segment of the book. The Professor, Axel and Hans decend into the crator and explore the tunnels and passages. They eventually find themselves in a subterranean world with a light source, forests, lightning storms, giant mushrooms, and prehistoric animals. They struggle in their descent. There are trials of thirst and of wrong turnings. They study the crust as they go down. There is odd combustable gas in one cavern and perculiar acoustic properties in a passageway. They even find a sea, which might just be the size of the Mediterranean, and build a raft so they can cross. It is at this point they witness a battle between a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur; a literary description of De la Beche’s art. Disaster strikes, however, and after a series of unfortunate events, they find themselves ejected out of Stromboli, a volcanic island in southern Italy. They eventually return home so Axel can marry his entended and return to a quiet life.

This is a proper story, unlike some of the previous attemts at the fantastic voyage genre that made up potential proto-science fiction. In those, such as Utopia or Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator simply goes to a fantastical place and describes the society, which is a satire on their current way of life. What Verne does, however, is to present an adventure and a mystery. Clues need cracking, obsticals need overcoming, pitfalls need recovering from and characters need to grow. In the end, although Hans is still the same (although he smiles for the first time in the conclusion), both Lindenbrock and Axel learn about themselves; the Professor is impatent and arrogant – and quickly flees at the first sign of danger, while Axel isn’t the coward he’s portrayed early on. Character development also moves the plot forward, which is the sign of a good narrative. When Axel becomes separated from his uncle and Hans, his personal realisations, and the rescue are required to move the plot forward.

Verne’s tale is about science; but while it gentle criticises, it is not a satire. In the early stages of the book, we learn facts about minerals. We learn about the scientific method of collecting, identifying and cataloguing (which isn’t as dry as it sounds). Verne wrote this at a time when gentleman geologists where very fasionable. Zoologist Georges Cuvier had been one of the most famous men in France, while Charles Darwin had not long published On the Origin of Species. Charles Lyell, the most famous geologist of his day, came from a very prosperous background. Geology, palaeontology and evolution were all big news. The characters in Journey… debate science and scientific theory. They discuss them as part of their adventure – as plot points, and show that these theories are in their infancy and there is room for experiementation and proof. They debate, for example, Davy’s theories about temperature within the Earth’s crust, and Lindenbrock wants to prove the theory. There is a great line from Axel when his uncle is teaching him some vulcanology: “My uncle had beaten me with the weapons of science”. This is because he explains his ideas with rationality, and “exact observations”.

How many great works of fiction have a chapter called “Geological Studies in Situ”? And yet I maintain that Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not really science fiction. Even though he seems to predict the discovery (or at least the naming) of Pluto, and despite much of the science being wrong (errors in science of the time always creep into fiction, and shouldn’t be judged harsly – it is the theories and intentions that matter, not the thoughts of the day), this is an adventure using science and not science fiction. There are few science fiction themes. Science is held in high regard but there are little comments every now and then that care must be taken. Frankenstein addresses the fear of scientific progress. Journey… does not. Both the pre-history and palaeontology are messed up in order to tell a story, and not to reflect thinking at the time. No-one believed that giant mushrooms lived alongside Mastadons, ichthyosaurs and others. And then there are the humanoids! Man-like apes or ape-like men? Twelve feet tall! Shakes head. Of course, science fiction doesn’t need to be in the future, or to have aliens or AI or ray guns, but it needs to have an undercurrent, a sub-text. This doesn’t have enough of one.

Duria_AntiquiorWhat Journey to the Centre of the Earth is can be argued with no real right or wrong. Science fantasy. Fantastic voyage. Science romance. Of course, the term science fiction wasn’t used until the twentieth century, but that doesn’t mean you can apply it to Frankenstein. Verne wrote a decent book with interesting characters who describe the scientific method and the thinking of the era in which it was conceived. Maybe he was too much into the adventure to consider the consiquences?

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Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red RisingThere was a survey a few years back that business leaders are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the general population[1]. Generally speaking, people in charge get to positions of power by having a callous streak, which gets rewarded, and by disregarding others’ feelings. Are these people born or are they made?

What of dystopic science fiction? Surely if psychopaths continue to rise to the top in society, a dystopia shall surely be inevitable? The rich and powerful will only become more rich and more powerful. And what of the under classes in today’s society. What will become of them? I wonder if these thoughts were bubbling away at Pierce Brown before he formulated the plot for Red Rising.

Set on Mars quite some time in the future, we meet Darrow, who is a Helldiver in deep caves, below the surface of the red planet. He believes he is working to get Mars ready for when the people of Earth come to colonise it. He’s been mining helium-3, as have his ancestors, for a few hundred years, in preparation for terraforming. His community are poor and only have contact with the outside world with a holoCan, the future of TV.

When you open the book, there is a map, similar to ones you might find in swords and sorcery fantasy novels. And so as the story progresses, I was a tad confused as to what it related to. This was sub-surface Mars, not a hidden corner of Middle Earth. Instead of elves and wizards, we learn about Darrow, his life and his relationships in the opening chapters. He is young (16), but married to Eo, who tries to teach him about slavery. Then tragedy strikes. And we learn a bit about the type of person Darrow is. We learn more about the type of society that has developed. But then we learn that everything has been an illusion, a lie. Darrow is taken out of his environment and discovers the truths about Mars and the solar system. He also becomes a tool, a weapon, which some would use to infiltrate and overthrow the masters. You see, Darrow is a Red, who it turns out are not just the workers and the miners, but the bottom of the rung. And there are many other classes – the Pinks who pleasure, the scientist Yellows, the Blue navigators and the Golds who lead. There are Silvers and Coppers and Obsidians and more – all a bit Brave New World. Now Darrow must become a Gold, because that is the only way revolution can happen and the only way his people can rise. Reds against Golds, socialists against the rich.

Darrow is changed to fit in with the Golds, passes some tests and then taken to the Institute, which is where the map comes in. He is built by those who would seek to overthrow their masters. Now he has to forge allegiances, battle enemies, discover truths and win. Nothing else matters other than the win.

When reading Red Rising I felt almost like I was reading different books. The first third was proper dystopic science fiction. We see the struggles of the under classes against the psychopathic leaders. We see warnings about the path we currently tread. Darrow is taken from his familiar environment and told some hard truths about his place in society. I really enjoyed finding out about how humanity had moved into the solar system.

In the middle third, it felt like a standard historical fantasy. The Golds base their society on ancient Greece. So I guess this is a deliberate diversion. It does, for a while, feel like the science fiction has gone. It is a struggle for survival. Battling the elements, hunger and the wolves. A quest for fire. Allies become enemies. Tactics work and then fail. Houses rise and fall. Death. And the violence! There is no shirking of that by Brown. He loves a whipping, or a dismemberment or a swordfight.

The third section returns more to science fiction. We’re still in the Institute, but the duplicities are revealed, which while not obvious, are expected. Clearly a society this fragile, built upon a House of Cards, has many weak points and many lies. And Darrow starts to rise.

The question is, of course, all about Darrow. Is he the person he was in the mines? He’s been the victim of tragedy, driven by injustice, constructed by rebels, forged by battle. He learns, adjusts, fails, rises, falls and rises again. Is he a psychopath? Surely he must be in order to lead? And was it already within him? After all, he started out as a thrill-seeking Helldriver!

Brown’s book is as frustrating as it is enjoyable. I understand that Darrow and the other characters had to be put through their ordeals, trials, failuresMars_atmosphere and more during the battles in the Institute, but I found the middle third simply less interesting. The other comment is that while this section was full of these trials, you knew Darrow would get through them, as the book is announced as a trilogy. He faced no real peril. Indeed, during the phase when he is transformed from a Red to a Gold, it seemed very easy. He sailed through school with only a minor glitch. I would have liked more of a struggle in the first section – as the miner beats privileged and educated Golds – and a quicker, less violent middle section, before back onto the genuinely interesting and exciting climatic third.

All that said, Brown has created an interesting, if not overly original science fiction world on Mars, with some great, complex, protagonists. Brown’s female characters are equal to the males, which is good to see in science fiction, too. He writes very well with an interesting voice, and when Darrow expresses his pain – especially when referring to Eo  – you do go with it. I think that’s why this is such a good book. You believe the emotion and you believe the oppression and you believe the rage and violence in equal measure, and that shows the quality of the writing. Red Rising tells us about the rich getting the richer and the slavery of the under classes which affect our lives today. But it is also a book about family and also has a touch of romance. It is a book about the violence of adolescence, gangs and friendships. It is book not only about tough choices, but occasionally about wrong choices. Although we have yet to see how Darrow’s final choice pans out. It is a flawed but highly enjoyable read.


[1] See the work of Dr Paul Babiak and Dr Robert Hare

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Awards season stuff… in which I sit back and watch the squabbling over 2014’s awards season

Well, science fiction and fantasy awards season is almost upon us for 2014 and Twitter is already abuzz with gossip and backbiting. Some people Winners?claim that the awards are irrelevant and bias towards to old-school, unoriginal and predominantly white male traditional science fiction. As always, there is some hoo-haa about eligibility, authors pimping their books, withdrawing their books and other such goings on. Some people are claiming a whole lot of stuff in relation to eligible books and short-lists. To be honest, I’m not interested. In the age of Twitter, the loudest voices tend have the most extreme opinions, which they dress up as fact. They are mostly self-serving and wrong. I am, and always have been, about the quality of a story. Is it good, interesting and well written? And does it say something to me. In the past, the Arthur C Clarke award has always been a standard of quality and I have endeavoured to read all the shortlisted novels before the winner was announced. This didn’t happen last year. I think I was a bit peeved at the fuss surrounding Christopher Priest and awards in general.

As a recap, these are the shortlisted books from some of the awards in 2013 (in other words, books published in 2012)…

BSFA best novel: Winner – Jack Glass by Adam Roberts; Nominated – Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, Empty Space by M. John Harrison, Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Arthur C Clarke best novel: Winner – Dark Eden by Chris Beckett; Nominated – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, Nod by Adrian Barnes.

The Kitchies best novel: Winner – Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway; Nominated – Jack Glass by Adam Roberts, The Method by Juli Zeh, The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington, A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge.

The Kitchies best debut: Winner – Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord; Nominated – vN by Madeline Ashby, Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, The City’s Son by Tom Pollock.

Hugos best novel: Winner – Red Shirts by John Scalzi; Nominated – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Blackout my Mira Grant, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

To be fair to the critics who have read them all and have commented, it’s not a particularly diverse and representative list of speculation fiction. Karen Lord and Saladin Ahmed stand out a bit. But as I said, I’m less interested in the authors and the opinions of other critics, and more interested in the actual books. So, these are the books I’ve read from these shortlisted and winning novels, in order:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter HellerDog Stars
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket
  • The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
  • Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
  • The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington

(I still hope to read Vn, Redemption in Indigo and Nod, but not the others.)

Ok, from the bottom upwards then. I am gobsmacked the Bullington’s effort made any shortlist. It was just so dull and pointless. Not even sure what it was in terms of genre, sub-text, or anything else really. The only good thing about it was the quality of the writing and some interesting characters. Angelmaker has pretty much the same criticism. Not sure what it is. Ok, so it’s a golden-age fantasy spy thing and a fun-ish romp. But not particularly inspiring other than again the quality of the writing. Very surprised it won the Kitchies although it does fit their brief rather well in terms of having that indefinable quality to it. Even more surprised it made the Clarke shortlist. It is definitely not science fiction. Meanwhile, there is nothing special at all to be said of Pollock’s debut. More of the same in terms of Urban Fantasy, but nothing better than anything done by Kate Griffin or Ben Aaronovitch and the like. It was a fun but forgettable read.

Now time for some proper quality. I’ve enjoyed the writing of Chris Becket before and Dark Eden shows the potential coming to fruition. The idea of Dark Eden is something I’ve not come across before – an abandoned colony who almost deify its founders. While I enjoyed the message of Beckett’s The Holy Machine more, this effort is more wholly satisfying. Despite roots in traditional science fiction, I always enjoy Ken MacLeod’s fiction. And it’s interesting that in Intrusion he tackles similar themes to Juli Zeh’s entry. They are both, essentially, medical-based dystopias examining the individuals rights, especially over their own bodies. Great subject matter, great ideas and great writing from both (with a nod to the translator of The Method too).

I probably can’t separate Jack Glass and The Dog Stars in terms of the best read from the shortlisted books. I would say I enjoyed two-thirds of the former more than all of the latter, but I struggled to get into the first third. It was only once we were into part two, that part one came into focus for me. I think it iJack Glasss Roberts most enjoyable yet, and probably the best story he’s written too (although I think New Model Army resonated more). Meanwhile, Heller’s effort is probably one of the best new post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read in long while. It was everything you’d hope for in a story of survival and the demise of humanity. Interestingly, like the previous two books mentioned, they climax with a similar theme – motivation by love and not by hate or politics or anything else.

So, my award last year would have probably gone to Jack Glass from this list, followed by The Dog Stars, and then third would have been a novel not even short-listed; Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson. I thought it was a lovely combination of near-future science fiction and ancient mythology, with great characters, an interesting story and really good writing. I think maybe the fact it is almost genre-defying may be the reason it’s not represented in the science fiction or speculative fiction shortlists. But it is more science fiction than Angelmaker!

And thusly, it is time to sit back and watch the squabbling over this year’s awards season. No doubt shortlists will be decried, juries bemoaned, entrants bitched about and all the other nonsense will capture the headlines and the quality – or lack thereof – the actual books will all but be forgotten about. This year, for the first time in years, I won’t be trying to read all of the Clarke shortlisted books before the winner is announced, because this year, thanks to the internet, I no longer care.

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Apocalyptic or post?

Post-apocalyptic is a term that gets thrown about casually in science fiction, especially in films. Anything that sees a disaster or an invasion, or a war or disease is usually called post-apocalyptic. Films from The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to I am Legend (2007), from War of the Worlds (2005) to World War Z (2013) all come with the p-a tag.800px-IvyMike2

apocalypse, n.

1. The ‘revelation’ of the future granted to St. John in the isle of Patmos. The book of the New Testament in which this is recorded.

Draft additions March 2008

b. More generally: a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale; a cataclysm.

OED, 2014

So what this suggests to me at least is that apocalyptic fiction (and films) should deal with the disaster – the one that changes everything for humans – as it is occurring. Post means ‘after’ and therefore post-apocalyptic means after the event. Only fiction that deals with the aftermath of the disaster can be described as post-apocalyptic.

And let’s not even talk about where dystopia fits in! A dystopia might result from an apocalyptic event but equally, it might not. So, for example, 2013’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is set in the dystopian nation of Panem. This is described as being established in North America after the destruction of the continent’s civilization by some unknown apocalyptic event. However, the events in the film are concerned with the dystopia and not the apocalypse. Margaret Atwood’s 2013 MaddAddam is about the bio-engineered species which were a direct result from the man-made apocalypse described in Atwood’s trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood 2003, 2009). MaddAddam might be described as dystopian, but in my eyes, it is a p-a novel.

With that all in mind, I present my top 10 apocalyptic and top 10 post-apocalyptic novels.

Apocalyptic: each of these describes a disastrous event, either on a local or a global scale.

  1. The Midwich Cuckoos by John WyndhamTheMidwichCuckoos
  2. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  3. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
  4. Blood Music by Greg Bear
  5. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  6. Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear
  7. The Death of Grass by John Christopher
  8. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  9. Blindness by José Saramago
  10. Feed by Mira Grant

What is interesting about all of these is that they are contemporaneous. They are all set in the time (roughly) that they were written in, and thus reflecting the fears of the authors at the time.

Post-apocalyptic: each of these describes life in some way after a disastrous event.

  1. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  3. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
  4. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  5. Far North by Marcel Theroux
  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  8. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
  9. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  10. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

By default, these are all set at some point in the future from when they were written. Even I Am Legend is set a little ways ahead of 1954.

Go on then. Prove me wrong.

Oh, an honourable mention goes to Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, which might be described as a ‘nice apocalypse’ novel.